Tag Archives: Katherine Webb

My Top Ten Literary Heroines

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Thanks to Sara Letourneau’s list here, I decided to have a bash at this fun exercise. I was initially all set to include the likes of Jane Eyre, Emma Woodhouse and Jo March – all solid favourites of mine, but then recalled that every one of them were married off to drearily bossy, opinionated men. I suspect that twenty-something years down the line, after giving birth to a large brood of children, they would have been reduced to slightly more intelligent versions of Mrs Bennet, suffering from a number of debilitating ailments brought on by too many babies in too short a time, and used as a verbal punchbag by their sarcastic husbands.

So in no particular order – here is my list, shorn of my classic choices…

1. Mendoza, the main protagonist in The Company novels by Kage Baker. She is a highly augmented, partinthegardenofiden cyborg immortal slave, rescued by the Company and trained up as a botanist as part of their workforce. Her story starts in the first book In the Garden of Iden where she is imprisoned by the Inquisition as a small child. The series is remarkable – I have never encountered anything else quite like it, a marvellous mash-up of science fiction and fantasy. Kage Baker is a scandalously neglected writer who died tragically early of cancer, while the last two books do slightly lose the plot, the earlier books in this series are wonderful. Mendoza increasingly realises the Company is not the force for good she initially assumed it was – and takes steps to try and fight back…

 

2. Alma Whittaker, protagonist in The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. Alma is a wealthy signatureofallthingsVictorian heiress, but not particularly blessed with looks or social graces. Disappointed in love, she doesn’t lapse into bitterness, or tuck herself away to rot in spinsterly misery – she throws herself into her scientific investigations into the nature of lichens. Gilbert has written a wonderful heroine, full of courage and energy, but still believably vulnerable.

 

3. Mori, protagonist in Among Others by Jo Walton. At the start of this book,15 yr old Mori has been sent to among othersan English boarding school after magically fighting her mother, who is trying to take control of the fairies. Her twin sister is killed in the battle, and Mori sustains major injuries to her leg, leaving her lame and in constant pain. She turns to science fiction books for consolation as she struggles to cope with her grief and pain. It is a wonderful book and swept me up, as well as winning a hatful of awards.

 

4. Sirantha Jax from the series by Ann Aguirre. I read the first three of these books, starting with Grimspace,grimspace featuring the female jump pilot, who is plunged into a series of adventures and scrapes – some of them of her own making. I love her edgy, reckless nature and first person voice that bounces off the page. In looking up the series, I notice with delight that the series is now complete – so I must track down the last three books…

 

5. Mitzy Hatcher from A Half-Forgotten Song by Katherine Webb. Another favourite author of mine, this half forgotten songbook struck so many chords with me, I was humming with pleasure and pain most of the way through… Poor little loveless Mitzy should be an absolute victim – and she just isn’t, though sheer guts and determination to pursue the love of her life… It takes her to some very dark places and an unexpected ending.

 

6. Mary Smith from The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart. This children’s book is a gem that has always littlebroomstickentranced classes I’ve read it to throughout my teaching career – and while the likes of Madam Mumblechook of Endor College and the sheer delight of the narrative pulls the story along, it is small, shy Mary Smith that quietly dominates… It’s a very neat trick to pull off and I’m really sorry that more people don’t know this wonderful book, with its echoes of the far more famous Hogwarts.

 

7. Granny Weatherwax from the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett. I loved her from the moment I first equalritesread the books, more years ago than I care to think. And now, as a granny who regularly practises headology to defuse any confrontations with the grandchildren – she is my absolute heroine. All I now need are the boots and rocking chair…

 

 

8. Oree the protagonist from The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin. Oree Shoth is a blind street artist thebrokenkingdomswho lives in the city of Sky, with the ability to see magic. When she finds a beggar blazing with magical potential left for dead in the alley behind her house, she takes him in. This is the second book in the remarkable Inheritance Trilogy and for my money, is the best. I wept at the end of this book – something that hardly ever happens these days. Oree could have so easily been depicted as a victim, but is far too sharp to fall into that category. I think it’s fair to say that she annoys her guest into recovering from his terrible injuries…

9. Alice Dare from Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall. This is a children’s book this adult found absolutely mars evacueesenthralling and shared it with an equally enthralled granddaughter this year, who also loved it. Alice is evacuated to Mars along with several hundred other children destined to continue the desperate fight with the aliens trying to take over Earth. It is poignant, funny, frightening, funny and thrilling by turns. The main protagonist is wonderfully amusing, which goes to some way to leaven the desperate situation they are in – but not by as much as you might think. And Alice’s superpower is that she simply refuses to give up… a wonderful role model for girls of all ages who feel a tad overwhelmed by Life.

10. Sharon Li of the Magicals Anonymous series by Kate Griffin. This series is an offshoot of the very straysoulssuccessful Midnight Mayor series featuring Matthew Swift. Sharon Li is everything Matthew isn’t – for starters, she’s human. And at pains to be as inclusive as possible, as well as celebrating every variation of magical manifestation who turn up to her self-help group. Sharon is marvellous – I love her dogged determination to do the right thing, and the bonus is the laugh-out-loud moments scattered through these books.

 

And that’s my current list. Chances are, you ask me for an update in a couple of years, there will be quite a different selection – though I can’t conceive of a list without Mendoza, Mary Smith or Granny Weatherwax…
What about you? Who are your favourite literary heroines, and why?

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Review of The Misbegotten by Katherine Webb

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Any regular visitors to this blog will know that I am a real Katherine Webb fan – read my review of The Legacy here and my review of the hauntingly beautiful A Half-Forgotten Song here.

Bath 1821. Rachel Crofton escapes her unhappy employment as a governess by marrying a self-made businessman. But her new lifethe misbegotten soon takes an unexpected turn. Reclusive Jonathan Alleyn is a man tormented by the disappearance of his childhood sweetheart, Alice. Starling, foundling child and now servant, is convinced that Alice, the woman she loved as a sister, was stolen from her. Did Alice run away? Or did something altogether more sinister occur?

As with the other two books, this is a dual narrative. Rachel, through the autumn and winter of 1821, is coping with being newly married and being back in Bath, though in far reduced circumstances from when she was there as a child and young woman. Starling’s account starts in 1803, when she is taken in by kind-hearted Alice, whose sudden disappearance not only wrecks her own life – but tips Jonathan Alleyn, teetering on the edge of post-traumatic stress after his horrific experiences during the Peninsula War into a complete mental breakdown.

There are four main characters – Rachel and Starling, who are the protagonists and we see the story unfold through their viewpoints, in addition there is also Alice, the missing girl. Many believe she absconded with a secret lover, but Starling is grimly convinced that something else happened to her – and has been battling to get to the bottom of her fate, working as a servant in the household where she believes Alice’s murderer lives. And the other character who largely features, is Jonathan, a half-mad invalid, who has been shut up in his mother’s house since his return from the War.

As ever, Webb’s attention to detail and her recreation of the historical backdrop to this mystery is pin-sharp and perfect. We can smell and taste 19th century Bath, particularly the walk Rachel is forced to take from her own humble dwelling through the streets to the place of her new employment, or to the shabby tenement where her father-in-law resides… Again, as we’ve come to expect from Webb, the story is layered with secrets and mystery so that almost from the moment I picked it up, it was difficult to put down again.

Rachel and Starling both make strong protagonists – both clever, determined and courageous. I liked them both, although Starling steadily grew on me as the book progressed and I increasingly understood her bitterness. In addition to the main characters, there are also a number of other memorable, well drawn individuals whose story is drawn into the mystery. But the one who sings off the page for me, is Alice, the missing girl. I felt I knew what had happened to her by two-thirds through the book – until I discovered that I didn’t… Webb certainly knows how to create twists.

One of the issues that comes very clearly through the book, is what a grim time it is to be a woman. Once married, all your property belonged to your husband and if you were wronged in any way, justice was chancy and often too late. It isn’t a great time to be poor or elderly and infirm, either. The ending is completely satisfactory and once more, Webb has taken me on a rich, action-packed journey which I am profoundly glad to have taken. While this book doesn’t quite have the magical feel of A Half-Forgotten Song, which for me is one of the most memorable and outstanding reads, ever, this doesn’t mean it is anything other than a really good book and one I highly recommend.
9/10

My Outstanding Reads of 2013

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These are the books that have stuck in my memory as the most enjoyable or thought- provoking reads of the year. For those who don’t already know – I don’t bother to review books I dislike. In 2013 I read 115 books, didn’t complete 4 others and posted 69 reviews.

The Bloody Angel – Book 4 in the Eddie LaCrosse series by Alex Bledsoe
Having in a former life owned a yacht, I have very limited tolerance for tales that get the sailing wrong… So when my husband kept onwake of recommending this book, I rather grumpily decided that I’d better read a couple of chapters to shut him up before returning to the next cool space opera beckoning. And then became hooked…

Twenty years ago, a barmaid in a harbour town fell for a young sailor who turned pirate to make his fortune. But what truly became of Black Edward Tew remains a mystery – one that has just fallen into the lap of freelance sword jockey Eddie LaCrosse. For years, Eddie has kept his office above Angelina’s tavern, so when Angelina herself asks him to find out what happened to the dashing pirate who stole her heart, he can hardly say no – even though the trail is two decades old.

If that sounds like a really cracking plot with plenty of opportunity for swashbuckling characters, a hatful of exciting adventures, plenty of humour and more than a slice of real heartbreak and horror – you’d be right.

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
doomsdayI picked up this copy of the book as an SF Masterworks because as a solid fan of many women fantasy and science fiction writers, I had never read her work and I discovered it was a Hugo Award winner. I’m so glad I did…

When Kivrin Engle travels back through time to complete her doctoral thesis, due to an accident she lands in the middle of a major crisis her Faculty were struggling to avoid. Meanwhile the Oxford she left behind is laid low by a mysterious strain of influenza and, with no one willing to risk arranging her rescue, time is running out…

This book, indeed, deserves to be part of the SF Masterworks series – from the moment I opened the first page I knew I was in the hands of a great writer at the top of her game. Willis sets the scene in Oxford’s near future with deft dexterity, her characters crackle with humanity and there is a bone-dry humour running through the whole story that helps to make the grim adventure Kivrin endures bearable.

The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined by Salman Khan
As an ex-teacher, the failure of our state education system is a subject that haunts me – and when I read this book, I was excited about 1worldits potential for helping fix our broken system. A free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere: this is the goal of the Khan Academy; a passion project that grew from an ex-engineer and hedge funder’s online tutoring sessions with his niece, who was struggling with algebra, into a worldwide phenomenon. Today millions of students, parents and teachers use the Khan Academy’s free videos and software, which have expanded to encompass nearly every conceivable subject, and Academy techniques are being employed with exciting results in a growing number of classrooms around the globe.

Khan suggests that instead of having a teacher deliver a lesson to a group of children in a totally arbitrary manner, they learn individually at their own pace using modern technology with the teacher acting as enabler. He also suggests that a far more creative, wide-ranging curriculum should be in place, where children undertake complex self-directed tasks in groups. A revolutionary approach to state-funded education? Absolutely. Read Salman Khan’s solutions to our educational problems – and then could someone point the Minister of Education in the direction of this book? Please?? We cannot continue to squander our most precious resource – our children.

The Clockwork Rocket – Book 1 of The Orthogonal by Greg Egan
clockworkEgan, as a physicist, has always been on the harder side of science fiction, but the important difference – for me – is that he is also able to write convincing characters into the bargain.

However, this time around he has produced a truly different world – one where the laws of physics as we know them no longer work. As he explains on his website – along with a series of diagrams – this fictional world he’s invented where light travels at differing speeds is due to changing a minus sign to a plus sign in a mathematical formula that governs the geometry of space-time. He calls this a Riemannian universe as opposed to the Lorentzian version we inhabit. In Egan’s world, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity simply doesn’t make sense. Further, the basic humanoid template, so prevalent in most space opera adventures, is also off the table. Egan demonstrates a head-swivelling leap of imagination by producing a race of beings who don’t look like us, or breed like us… It’s an awesome achievement. And highly readable into the bargain.

The Glass God – Book 2 of The Magicals Anonymous by Kate Griffin
Sharon Li: apprentice shaman and community support officer for the magically inclined. It wasn’t the career Sharon had in mind, butglassgod she’s getting used to running Magicals Anonymous and learning how to Be One With The City. When the Midnight Mayor goes missing, leaving only a suspiciously innocent-looking umbrella behind him, Sharon finds herself promoted. Her first task: find the Midnight Mayor. The only clues she has are a city dryad’s cryptic warning and several pairs of abandoned shoes…

Sharon’s determinedly fair-minded stance is given a major workout as she comes up against a number of unpleasant nasties in her pursuit of the Midnight Mayor. Griffin hasn’t eased up one jot on some of the more revolting corners of London, as the story rolls forward with all the energy and slickness we’ve come to expect from one of the foremost fantasy Brit writers.

A Half-Forgotten Song by Katherine Webb
half forgotten song1937. 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.

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, the book’s denouement was completely unexpected and shocking.

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
You live in Eden. You are a member of the Family, one of 532 descendants of Angela and Tommy. You shelter beneath the Forest’s darkedenlantern trees. Beyond the forest lie mountains so forbidding that no one has ever crossed them. The Oldest recount legends of a time when men and women made boats that could travel between worlds. One day, they will come back for you. You live in Eden. You are member of the Family, one of 532 descendants of two marooned explorers. You huddle, slowly starving, in the warmth of geothermal trees, confined to one barely habitable valley of an alien, sunless world. You are John Redlantern, a teenager and agent of change for life in Eden.

This book has a 1970’s feel about it – but with modern nuances with the story being told through a number of the most prominent characters in first person viewpoint. And if you only ever pick up a handful of science fiction books a year, make this one of that handful – this memorable and disturbing read is worth it.

The Red Knight – Book 1 of The Traitor’s Son Cycle by Miles Cameron
redknightTwenty-eight florins a month is a huge price to pay, for a man to stand between you and the Wild. Twenty-eight florins a month is nowhere near enough when a wyvern’s jaws snaps shut on your helmet in the hot stink of battle, and the beast starts to rip your head from your shoulders. But if standing and fighting is hard, leading a company of men – or worse, a company of mercenaries – against the smart, deadly creatures of the Wild is even harder.

It requires the advantages of birth, training, and the luck of the devil to do it. The Red Knight has all three, he has youth on his side, and he’s determined to turn a profit. So when he hires his company out to protect an Abbess and her nunnery it’s just another job. The abbey is rich, the nuns are pretty and the monster preying on them is nothing he can’t deal with. Only it’s not just a job. It’s going to be war…

Military medieval fantasy generally doesn’t do it for me. I’ve read plenty in my time, and until my husband nagged me to try this book, I’d more or less decided I wouldn’t shed any tears if I didn’t ever read any more. But this is different. For starters, Cameron knows what he’s talking about. He’s been involved in role-playing, martial arts – he’s actually jousted in tournaments… And it shows in the writing, which gripped me from the first page until the last – and gave me an insight into just how very different that world was, compared with our modern version.

Sister by Rosamund Lipton
When Beatrice gets a frantic call in the middle of Sunday lunch to say that her younger sister, Tess, is missing, she boards the first sisterflight home to London. But as she learns about the circumstances surrounding her sister’s disappearance, she is stunned to discover how little she actually knows of her sister’s life – and unprepared for the terrifying truths she must now face. The police, Beatrice’s fiancé and even their mother accept they have lost Tess but Beatrice refuses to give up on her. So she embarks on a dangerous journey to discover the truth, no matter the cost.

The strong first person viewpoint and constant tension, coupled with the fine writing had me utterly engrossed, so that I gorged on the book in two hefty sittings. Though I did have to break off at one stage to find some tissues because I was weeping… The protagonist is beautifully handled as we follow her desperate search for her sister, which entails finding out a series of very uncomfortable truths about herself. Lupton is adept at braiding the surroundings, weather and cast of well depicted, vivid characters through Beatrice’s consciousness, so that she is one of the strongest and most interesting protagonists I’ve read for a while.

Advent – Book 1 of The Advent Trilogy by James Treadwell
adventFor centuries it has been locked away. Locked away. Lost beneath the sea. Warded from earth, air, water, fire, scrying thought and sigh. Now magic is rising to the world once more. And a boy called Gavin, who thinks only that he is a city kid with parents who hate him, and knows only that he sees things no one else will believe, is boarding a train alone, to Cornwall. Where he steps into a different world…

I’ve seen this book compared favourably to Susan Cooper, and while such hyped comparisons are often absurd, this time, I was reminded of Cooper’s threat-ridden landscape and sense of tension. Treadwell is a superb writer – the description of the ancient house, Pendurra, is outstanding. It is a hefty read and at no time does Treadwell throw his young readers any sort of ‘you’re only teenagers, so I’ve made it easier for you’ lifebelt, I’m delighted to report. This non-teenager was engrossed with the quality of the storytelling and this shifting, frightening world has stayed with me since I read it.

A Kind of Vanishing by Lesley Thompson
Summer 1968: the day Senator Robert Kennedy is shot, two nine-year-old girls are playing hide and seek in the ruins of a deserted kindofvanishingvillage. When it is Eleanor’s turn to hide, Alice disappears.

Thomson immediately plunges into the world of young girls, depicting first Eleanor’s rich interior landscape and then allowing us to access to Alice’s carefully modulated world, where her doting parents watch her every move. Thomson paints an exquisite picture of each girls’ fragilities, their aspirations and pin-sharp awareness of adult expectations. She beautifully inhabits the terrible, wonderful world of childhood – and the girls’ growing antipathy towards each other. One a noisy, rebellious tomboy living in a household where the adults only occasionally pay attention to their three children, while the other is the heart of her parents’ aspirations and already knows she needs to be neat and pretty to succeed. Neither girl trusts or like the other as they are forced to play together – until that disastrous game of hide and seek. This thriller/mystery is like nothing else I’ve read, and I’m still not sure that it fully works… but it certainly powerfully evoked the time and has stayed with me since I read it.

The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke
madscientistsdaughterFinn looks and acts human, though he has no desire to be. He was programmed to assist his owners, and performs his duties to perfection. A billion-dollar construct, his primary task now is to tutor Cat. As she grows into a beautiful young woman, Finn is her guardian, her constant companion… and more. But when the government grants right to the ever-increasing robot population, Finn struggles to find his place in the world, and her heart.

If you’re looking for a slam-dunk, action fuelled adventure full of clear-cut baddies and heavy-tech weaponry, then don’t pick up The Mad Scientist’s Daughter. Because this offering is on the literary end of the genre, with nuanced, three-dimensional characterisation and coolly sophisticated prose that places this book in a heavily contemporary setting, due to the recent crash in civilisation – and also accounts for the sudden, huge reliance on robots, as their tireless assistance is needed to provide vital labour in rebuilding society. Not that this is the focus of the book. This story concentrates on Cat and her relationship with the world, after having been tutored by a robot for all her formative years. And, by default, Finn’s relationship with Cat also is under close examination. Because the bond between them is heart and engine of the book, it has to be pitch-perfect. And it is. Don’t expect any black and white answers – this book is beautifully complex and Cat’s life unfolds in unexpected and sometimes disturbing directions. And in common with the other books in this list – it is a story that still steals into my head when I’m not thinking of anything else in particular.

The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, translated by K.A. Yoshida and David Mitchell
I heard this book narrated on Radio 4 and was transfixed. Normally the radio is the background for the necessary loathed household reason I jumpchores I have to perform – but during that week, I sat down and listened. So it was a no-brainer to get hold of the book and read it for myself. Most books – for me – provide a really enjoyable way to escape the everyday. But there are a hatful of books that are inspirational, thought-provoking and genuinely life changing. I’m a tad allergic to books which trumpet this aspect – mostly because they’re not. However, The Reason I Jump is the real article.

This remarkable book, written by Naoki Higashida when he was only thirteen, provides some answers. Severely autistic, Naoki learnt to communicate via pointing to letters on a ‘cardboard keyboard’ – and what he has to say gives an exceptional insight into an autistically-wired mind. He explains the often baffling behaviour of people with autism, invites us to share his perception of time, life, beauty and nature, and offers an unforgettable short story. Proving beyond doubt that people with autism do not lack imagination, humour or empathy. Naoki makes a heartfelt plea for our patience and compassion. Even if you don’t have anyone autistic in your life, it is worth reading – especially when you consider that every letter was pointed to and then written down by a scribe, before being translated into English.

Among Others by Jo Walton
among othersAfter reading Tooth and Claw, I wanted to read more of Jo Walton’s books. Googling her immediately brought up Among Others, so it was a no-brainer to go and get hold of a copy. But would I find this next novel – so completely different from dragonkind set in a Victorian backdrop – equally engrossing?

When Mori discovers that her mother is using black magic, she decides to intervene. The ensuing clash between mother and daughter leaves Mori bereft of her twin sister, crippled for life and unable to return to the Welsh Valleys that were her own kingdom. Mori finds solace and strength in her beloved books. But her mother is bent on revenge, and nothing and no one – not even Tolkien – can save her from the final reckoning.

This is a remarkable book. I’ve never read anything quite like it and – for once – the OTT phrase on the cover by Jeff Vandermeer A wonder and a joy is absolutely spot on. For starters, there is a complete backstory that would easily fill a novel in the scenario that builds up to this book. Among Others is dealing with the aftermath. What happens next, once the protagonist has averted the End of the World at great personal cost. And make no mistake, the cost is heartbreakingly high.

The writing is extraordinary in the pin-sharp description of the everyday, alongside the remarkable and Mori’s character is so compellingly realistic and nuanced, I’m still undecided whether there is a large chunk of autobiographical detail wrapped up in this book. And I don’t really care – other than to fervently hope, for her sake, there isn’t too much that is borrowed from Walton’s own life. Memorable and remarkable art invariably is a fusion of imagination and reality – and this is both a memorable and remarkable book. Certainly the most amazing book I’ve read this year.

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 Legacy by Katherine Webb

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This book was recommended to me by my mother; I picked it up with no great hopes from the cover – and within a handful of pages was hooked.

In the depths of a harsh winter, Erica and Beth Calcott return to the house where they spent idyllic summers as children. As Erica sorts through her late grandmother’s belongings, strange fragments of family history and vivid memories break the surface of the present day… Memories of their cousin, Henry, who disappeared on summer long ago. Of their grandmother, a bitter woman, full of a deep dark hatred.

As Eric sifts through remnants of the past, a secret emerges, reaching all the way back to a beautiful heiress in turn-of-the-century Oklahoma. As past and present converge, Erica and Beth must come to terms with two terrible acts of betrayal – and the heartbreaking legacy left behind.

And there you have it. The book is split between two narratives – Erica, in first person viewpoint, tells of her present day hunt forthelegacy something in their past to help her fragile sister, Beth. While Caroline’s story, set in Oklahoma in the early 1900’s, is told in third person point of view. It’s a tricky balancing act. Almost inevitably in dual narrative books, I generally find myself drawn to one of the stories above the other. However, Webb’s flawless pacing and deft characterisation ensured that I was equally absorbed in both these plotlines. She also manages to pull off another neat trick; there is quite a lot of foreshadowing in this book, which certainly had me making certain assumptions about where the story was going – only to find that it didn’t. Yet, at no point was I exasperated.

This is an extraordinarily accomplished debut book that tells two intertwining stories with such clarity, that I’ve read several reviews that described this book as ‘simple’ and ‘uncomplicated’. However, there are plenty of elements within this book that could have rapidly caused the story to degenerate into an impenetrable mess in the wrong hands.  In addition to her skilful handling of the plot structure, Webb’s writing is a delight to read. Both main characters give detailed descriptions of their surroundings without holding up the narrative tension, which steadily builds so that I read late into the early morning to discover exactly what happened. I also appreciated the fact that Webb also manages to have one of her heroines commit a terrible act without losing the sympathy of the reader.

I found I was genuinely moved by this book – the effect of what happened wreaks havoc on this family and Webb is unflinching in exposing this to our gaze. So, after a 400 page build up, keeping me on tenterhooks right to the end, does the climax and denouement deliver? Absolutely. And again, although Webb manages to make it look very straightforward – this is a tricky balancing act when dealing with a dual narrative. Two story strands have to come to a convincing and satisfactory ending and in this case, there also has to be an answer to a major mystery dangled in front of our noses for most of the novel… If this had somehow fallen flat, or I had successfully guessed the answer fifty pages from the end, then The Legacy would have been seriously compromised – and it isn’t.

Small wonder, then, that this book was recommended as one of the TV Book Club’s 2010 summer reads. If you missed it and you enjoy a well-constructed, engrossing family drama – go and hunt for a copy. You’ll be glad you did…

9/10