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Devil Water
Devil Water
by Anya Seton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.38

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent historical fiction set during the Jacobite Rebellions, 9 Oct 2011
This review is from: Devil Water (Paperback)
Devil's Water is the name of the river that flows past Dilston, a village in Northumberland in the north east of England. In the early 18th century, when Anya Seton's novel begins, Dilston is home to the Radcliffe family. James Radcliffe, the 3rd Earl of Derwentwater, and his younger brother, Charles, are descendants of King Charles II and were both real historical figures.

The first half of the book concentrates on the life of Charles Radcliffe and his secret marriage to a working-class Northumberland girl, Meg Snowdon, with whom he has a daughter, Jenny. Both Charles and his brother, the Earl, are Catholics and Jacobites (supporters of the Catholic James Stuart who is living in exile in France while his half-sister, the Protestant Queen Anne, reigns in his place). In 1715 the Radcliffes join the Jacobite Rising in an attempt to put James, who they consider their rightful king, on the throne. When the rebellion ends in defeat, Charles escapes to France and leaves Jenny to be raised in London by his friend, Lady Betty Lee. Throughout the second half of the book the focus is on Jenny's adventures which take her across the Atlantic to the plantations of colonial Virginia in search of Rob Wilson, the man she loves.

This book was particularly interesting to me as I'm from the north east of England myself. There are very few novels set in this part of the country so it was nice to read about places that I'm familiar with. I appreciated the effort Seton made to reproduce various local dialects, depending on whether a character comes from Northumberland, London, Scotland, Ireland, Virginia or elsewhere. Although the northern dialects didn't always seem quite right to me, it wasn't a bad attempt and it gave the book a more authentic feel. And the characters never sounded too modern or used language that felt out of place either.

Although I knew absolutely nothing about the Radcliffes before reading Devil Water, you can always trust that an Anya Seton novel would have been well researched and as historically accurate as she could make it, while bearing in mind that it's still fiction and not everything that happens in the book will be completely factual. This book includes two author's notes at the beginning and end in which she details the research she carried out and explains which parts of the story are likely to be true. There are also some useful maps and family trees which I found myself referring to occasionally. Don't worry though, because the book is easy enough to read and doesn't feel like a history lesson at all.

So, I loved the settings and the time period (I've read historical fiction about the Jacobites before and it always makes me feel sad, knowing what the outcome will be) but I did have one or two problems with the book. I thought it was much longer than it needed to be and seemed to take forever to read; the pacing didn't feel right either - some parts of the book dragged and there were some big jumps forward in time, often leaving gaps of ten years. But the main thing that prevented me from really loving this book was that some of the characters were very difficult to like. I never managed to feel any connection to Charles and was more interested in his brother, the Earl of Derwentwater. And another character, who I had just started to warm to, does something really unforgivable that completely changed my impression of them. I did like Jenny (and a few of the minor characters, such as Betty Lee) but because the people around her were so unlikeable, the story didn't have the emotional impact on me that it might otherwise have done.

The Swimmer
The Swimmer
by Roma Tearne
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written, 9 Oct 2011
This review is from: The Swimmer (Paperback)
The Swimmer is a beautifully written novel by Roma Tearne set in the small English town of Orford in Suffolk. It's the story of Ria, a forty-three-year-old poet, and Ben, a young refugee from Sri Lanka.

Ria is a single woman who lives alone in Eel House, a cottage which once belonged to her uncle. She's quite happy to be there on her own; if she needs company there's Eric, an older man from the neighbouring farm, and her brother and his family visit occasionally too - although these visits aren't entirely welcome. Sometimes, though, life can be lonely for Ria. After a few failed relationships in the past she's almost given up hope of finding someone to love...until she discovers Ben swimming in the river behind her house.

Ben, a Tamil refugee, left Sri Lanka to escape from the violence there. His asylum application has not yet been processed and so he's living and working in Britain as an illegal immigrant. Although he's eighteen years younger than Ria and from an entirely different background, the two begin to fall in love.

I really liked the first section of this book and enjoyed watching Ria and Ben's relationship slowly develop. I thought the rest of the novel would continue in the same way, but then something happened which I wasn't prepared for. The plot started to go in another direction, there was a new narrator to get used to, and I felt as if I was reading a completely different book to the one I had been expecting. This wasn't necessarily a bad thing, though; the second part of the book was interesting, moving and relevant and the narrator was a more passionate person than Ria. The third, and shortest, section of the book also switches narrator and again took me by surprise. Although I found the third narrator difficult to like, I thought seeing things from this person's point of view helped to pull the story together and set up a perfect ending to the book.

I was impressed by Roma Tearne's wonderfully descriptive writing and the way she portrayed the hot summer days in Orford and the Suffolk landscape with its marshlands and rivers. I particularly liked the references to the eels in the rivers which migrate from the Sargasso Sea ('swimmers', like Ben). But at times there was too much description, too much detail, which made the story move at a very slow pace.

I was pleased to find that I enjoyed this book because before I started it I wasn't sure if it would be for me. I can imagine that if you've read a lot of other novels about immigration and refugees you might find this book unoriginal and contrived, but I haven't read much fiction on this subject so The Swimmer did leave me with a few things to think about.

Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore
Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore
by Stella Duffy
Edition: Hardcover

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating historical fiction, 9 Oct 2011
Theodora by Stella Duffy is a historical fiction novel based on the life of Empress Theodora of the Byzantine Empire. The book follows Theodora's rise from her early days as an actress to her position as one of the most powerful women in the Empire.

Theodora's story begins in 6th century Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. When her father, a bear-keeper at the Hippodrome, is killed by one of his own bears, Theodora and her two sisters are sent to the teacher Menander who prepares them for a career in the theatre. Menander gives the girls and their friends instruction in dancing, singing, acting and acrobatics, but Theodora finds that her true talent is in making her audience laugh. A successful stage career follows but the darker side of this is that the girls are also forced into a life of prostitution from an early age.

When Theodora attracts the attention of Hecebolus, the newly appointed Governor of the Pentapolis (five cities in North Africa), he asks her to accompany him. She agrees to go to Africa with him but she knows that as a former actress she will not be allowed to marry and that Hecebolus will eventually lose interest in her. It's not until she spends some time with a religious community in the desert that Theodora finally reaches a turning point and starts to think about what she really wants from her life.

Theodora is the first book I've read by this author and I thought it was a fascinating and inspirational story. This is not a period of history that I've ever been particularly interested in reading about and so I didn't know anything about Theodora until now (I don't mind admitting I had never even heard of her). This means I can't comment on the historical accuracy of the book, but judging by the author's note and bibliography at the back of the book Stella Duffy has obviously carried out a huge amount of research into both Theodora's life and into the time period in general. I thought there were places where the amount of historical detail, particularly regarding religion and politics, slowed the story down too much, but most of it is very interesting and helps to paint a full and vivid picture of Theodora's world.

As well as having an eventful and unusual life, Theodora also has a complex personality, which makes her a great subject for historical fiction. I didn't find her very easy to like as a person, but I loved her as a character! She's tough, outspoken and daring, but despite her hard exterior she does have a heart. She's not perfect; she makes mistakes and says things that she shouldn't, but this only makes her more human. One thing I really liked is that although Theodora does grow and develop as a person over the course of the novel, the changes that she goes through are completely believable and she doesn't change so much that it's unrealistic.

I was pleased to discover that there are plans for a sequel as I would love to meet Theodora again and find out what happens to her after her marriage to the Emperor Justinian.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 7, 2012 10:43 AM BST

The American Boy
The American Boy
by Andrew Taylor
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

5.0 out of 5 stars Sensational historical mystery, 10 Sep 2011
This review is from: The American Boy (Paperback)
After I read and loved one of Andrew Taylor's other books, The Anatomy of Ghosts, earlier in the year, I decided to try this one next and thought it was even better! As someone who loves classic sensation novels (Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Ellen Wood etc) it's maybe unsurprising that I enjoyed this book so much. It has all the elements of a sensation novel and although it was published in 2003 it almost feels as if it could have been written in the 19th century.

The American Boy is set in England during the final months of the reign of George III. The story begins in September 1819 when our narrator, Thomas Shield, is starting a new job as a teacher at a small private school in the village of Stoke Newington. One of the boys at the school is the ten-year-old Edgar Allan Poe, the `American boy' of the title. Shield is given special responsibility for tutoring Edgar and his best friend, Charles Frant, and through the two boys he becomes acquainted with two rich banking families - the Frants and their cousins, the Carswells. He soon becomes caught up in the dramas that are unfolding within the Frant and Carswell families and when two murders take place it seems that Shield's own life could also be in danger.

The plot is so intricate and complex I won't even try to go into any more detail, but in addition to the murders, there's also a disputed will, mistaken identities, family secrets, betrayal, revenge and even romance. Thomas Shield's adventures take place in a variety of wonderfully atmospheric locations from the dark, foggy streets and over-crowded slums of London to the snowy landscape of the Carswells' country estate in Gloucestershire, complete with an ice house and ruined abbey. Taylor made his settings feel vivid and real without going into pages and pages of description.

I should point out that although Edgar Allan Poe does have an important part to play in the story, he's really just a minor character. I actually thought this whole aspect of the book was unnecessary as the plot would have been strong enough without it and a fictional character could easily have been used in his place. I'm not complaining as I do like Poe and found his brief appearances interesting, but I don't want to mislead anyone into thinking this is a book about Poe because it really isn't.

I know it's a cliché but I didn't want to put this book down and the very short chapters made it even more tempting to keep reading. If it hadn't been so long (500 pages) I could have read it all in one sitting. I also appreciated the author's attempts to make the book feel like an authentic 19th century novel through his use of language and Thomas Shield's narrative style. It won't be for everyone though; you either like this type of book or you don't, but for anyone who has enjoyed books such as The Quincunx by Charles Palliser, The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox or The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, I can highly recommend this one.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 8, 2012 4:18 PM BST

Burned (Henning Juul 1)
Burned (Henning Juul 1)
by Thomas Enger
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.26

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Promising start to a new crime series, 10 Sep 2011
Burned is the first in a new series of crime novels by Norwegian author Thomas Enger. This book is set in Oslo and introduces us to Henning Juul, a journalist working for 123news, an internet-based newspaper. When we first meet Henning he is trying to come to terms with the tragic death of his son, Jonas, in a house fire. On his first day back at work after a long absence, he is asked to cover the story of a young woman who has been found brutally murdered in a tent on Ekeberg Common. Henning's research leads him from Oslo's Muslim community to the world of film-making, but will his investigations make him the killer's next target?

This series has a lot of potential and I'm pleased I could be there at the beginning rather than coming in halfway through the series which is what usually seems to happen to me! Although I didn't think it was an outstanding book, there was a lot to like about Burned and I'm pleased to have discovered another Scandinavian crime writer whose work I enjoy. With its short chapters and fast-paced plot the book was difficult to put down and despite its length was a quick read.

There were plenty of twists and turns in the plot which helped to keep me interested, but while plot twists can be an important element of a good crime novel, I thought there were too many towards the end of the book. I wasn't quite sure exactly what was supposed to be happening and I started to get slightly confused. The writing doesn't always flow very well either, though this could be due to the translation (the book has been translated from the original Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund).

I enjoyed the descriptions of daily life in an internet newspaper office and the processes involved in researching, writing and publishing news items. I've never worked as a journalist but it all seemed quite realistic to me (which is to be expected as I believe Thomas Enger has experience in journalism himself). I also really liked Henning Juul and found him an intriguing character. I was left thinking that there must be a lot of aspects of his history and his personality still to explore, and that is why I'm already looking forward to the publication of the second book in the series.

The Obscure Logic of the Heart
The Obscure Logic of the Heart
by Priya Basil
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.97

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars More than just a love story, 10 Sep 2011
The Obscure Logic of the Heart is the story of Anil Mayur and Lina Merali who meet as students and fall in love. The problem is, Anil's family are Sikhs and Lina's are Muslims. It seems that almost everyone disapproves of their relationship: Anil's parents are prepared to support their son but make it clear they're not happy, Lina's parents refuse to even consider allowing her to marry a non-Muslim, and Anil's best friend Merc also has his own reasons for trying to split them up. And when Lina, who is beginning a career in the UN, starts to suspect that Anil's father may be involved in illegal arms trading, she faces a battle not just with her parents but with her conscience too.

Interspersed with the main storyline are letters written by a woman to a man during the 1960s. At first this was confusing and I had no idea who or what I was reading about. Eventually, though, everything became clear and when I went back to re-read the letters again they made much more sense.

It took me a while to really get into this book, but as the author threw more and more obstacles into the way of Lina and Anil's love, I became desperate to see how things would work out for them and whether they could overcome all their differences. Lina's indecisiveness irritated me at times, but I could understand the difficulties and conflicting emotions she faced in trying to please both Anil and her parents. I thought Priya Basil did an excellent job of showing us the situation from a number of different perspectives so that at various points of the book we could sympathise in turn with Lina, Anil and both sets of parents. I particularly liked the parts told from the viewpoint of Shareef and Iman Merali, which helped me see why they were so reluctant to approve of their daughter's relationship with Anil.

The variety of settings in which Priya Basil sets her story is another interesting aspect of the book. Anil's family live in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, Lina's family are from Birmingham in England, and there are other chapters set in London, New York and various parts of Sudan. I also found Lina's work for the UN fascinating to read about. It gave the author a chance to incorporate lots of different political and human rights issues into the novel, including the illegal arms trade, the corruption of governments, guns and violence, poverty in Africa, and how people viewed Islam following the 9/11 attacks. There's such a lot going on in this book; it's much more than just a simple love story.

On Canaan's Side
On Canaan's Side
by Sebastian Barry
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.58

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A beautifully written story, 10 Sep 2011
This review is from: On Canaan's Side (Hardcover)
On Canaan's Side is narrated by Lilly, a retired cook. At the beginning of the book she is eighty-nine years old and has just lost her beloved grandson, Bill, who has committed suicide after returning from fighting in the Gulf War. As Lilly mourns for her grandson, she begins to remember all the things that have happened in her life and over the next seventeen days she shares her memories with us.

Canaan, in the Bible, is the 'promised land' and the title On Canaan's Side represents the idea that many Irish people had that America was a place where they would be safe and happy. Lilly's story begins during her childhood in Ireland as the daughter of the superintendent of the Dublin police. She is forced to run away to America when both she and her boyfriend, Tadg Bere, find themselves the target of an IRA death sentence. However, Lilly soon discovers that even there, on `Canaan's Side', she and Tadg are still in danger. The following decades are filled with tragedy and sorrow. Lilly's story is unbearably sad and yet her voice never becomes self-pitying; she stays a strong and resilient character until the day when her 'eighty-nine year-old heart' finally breaks.

At first I thought I wasn't going to enjoy this book because the first chapter was very 'stream-of-consciousness' and it seemed as if it was going to be one of those novels where nothing really happens. But when I got further into the book and the story began to take shape I didn't want to stop reading. I usually prefer books with more plot but the way Barry uses language and imagery is so stunning and mesmerising, the slow pace of the story didn't bother me.

And it's really not true that nothing happens: there's murder, rape and suicide, for a start. Other themes include war (both World Wars, Vietnam and the Gulf War) and how it's possible to survive a war physically but not mentally; identity and how sometimes we can live with people for years without really knowing who they are; important events in Irish and American history; racial tensions; love and loss. I loved this book and although it was slow to begin with, I was soon swept away by the quality of Barry's writing and the atmosphere his words convey.

Princes in the Land
Princes in the Land
by Joanna Cannan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.49

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Snobbish characters spoiled this book for me, 3 Sep 2011
This review is from: Princes in the Land (Paperback)
Princes in the Land, first published in 1938, is the story of Patricia Crispin and her experiences of being a wife and mother. We first meet Patricia as a child, shortly after her father has been killed in the Boer War. Patricia and her sister Angela are being taken by their mother to live with their grandfather, Lord Waveney, at his mansion in the countryside. While Angela is the quieter and better behaved of the two girls, Lord Waveney takes a special liking to the red-haired, freckled Patricia, who is more courageous and shares his love of horses.

Several years pass and Patricia marries Hugh Lindsay, a student from a poor background, much to the disgust of her mother who wanted Patricia to marry someone of her own class. Patricia and Hugh have three children, August, Giles and Nicola - and as they grow older they begin to disappoint Patricia as much as she had disappointed her own mother.

This novel has very little plot but raises a lot of interesting issues including marriage, parent/child relationships and class differences. The book itself is well-written and I liked the setting and the time period, but unfortunately I didn't enjoy it much at all.

The biggest problem I had with this book was the characters. I don't always need to like the characters to be able to enjoy a book, but in this case I think it would have made a big difference if there had been just one person I had been able to identify with and care about. Patricia and her mother both seemed to be complete snobs. Patricia's attitude towards her daughter-in-law, Gwen, is particularly nasty and based purely on the fact that she thinks Gwen's family are `common'. I don't mind reading about snobbish characters if they are written with a touch of humour or satire, as in Jane Austen novels for example, but that wasn't the case here. Patricia seems to think her attitude is perfectly acceptable and I felt that we, as the readers, were expected to agree with her.

I'm sure a lot of people would enjoy reading Princes in the Land much more than I did, so please don't let me put you off reading it. It was an interesting book, worthy of being a Persephone title and I can't fault the writing either, but the amount of snobbery and class-obsession was just too much for me.

The Small Hand: A Ghost Story
The Small Hand: A Ghost Story
by Susan Hill
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £6.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Atmospheric but unoriginal, 3 Sep 2011
The narrator of The Small Hand is Adam Snow, an antiquarian book dealer. Driving home to London one day after visiting a client, he takes a wrong turning and decides to ask for directions. Heading for the nearest house, Adam finds himself in an overgrown garden. Seeing that the house itself appears derelict and deserted, he starts to walk back to the car and it's here that he has the first in a series of supernatural experiences when he feels a child's small hand gripping his own. As time goes by Adam is visited by the small hand on several more occasions and becomes aware of a ghostly presence that seems determined to lead him into danger. But who does the hand belong to and what does its owner want?

This is a short book and I would recommend reading it in as few sittings as possible to get the maximum impact from the story. The book is beautifully written, although if you're expecting something very chilling and scary I think you might be disappointed because I would describe it as an eerie, unsettling read rather than a frightening one. As far as ghost stories go, I didn't think this one was particularly original. Even though I don't read a lot of this type of book anymore, I still found it easy to predict what was going to happen.

The best thing about this book is the atmosphere Susan Hill creates. The story has a timeless feel and apart from the occasional cultural references that tell us it's taking place in the present day, it could just as easily have been set a hundred years ago. The descriptions of the various settings, such as the neglected house and garden or the lonely French monastery, are wonderful too. I loved the world Susan Hill created, but I think the plot was too thin to make this a very satisfying read for me.

by Jude Morgan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Romantic poets and the women who loved them, 27 Aug 2011
This review is from: Passion (Paperback)
Passion is a historical fiction novel which tells the story of four women and their relationships with the Romantic poets, Byron, Shelley and Keats. There's Lady Caroline Lamb, a married woman who has an affair with Lord Byron, and Augusta Leigh, his half-sister who also becomes his lover. Then there's Mary Godwin, future wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley and author of Frankenstein, and finally, Fanny Brawne, John Keats' fiancée. This long and ambitious book takes us through the lives of all of these characters, describing the passionate and unconventional relationships that scandalised the public during the early years of the 19th century.

Although the book concentrates on the four women I've already mentioned, there are several other women who also play an important part in the story. One of these is the writer and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (Mary Shelley's mother) and in the prologue we learn a lot about her life and death. We also meet Byron's wife, Annabella Milbanke, and Claire Clairmont, Mary's stepsister, who becomes involved with both Byron and Shelley. All of the female characters in the book are portrayed as interesting and complex people in their own right, not just because of the men they loved.

As well as providing information on the historical and political background of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Morgan also shows exactly what it was like to be a woman living during those times. It was this attention to detail that made me really believe in the story. And he takes us right inside the minds of Mary, Caroline, Augusta and Fanny, imagining what they might have thought and how they might have felt. I thought the characterisation of Lady Caroline Lamb, with her excitable, emotional personality was particularly well done. I also enjoyed reading about Augusta Leigh's relationship with her half-brother, Byron - the dialogue between them felt completely believable and the scenes where the two of them were together were some of my favourite parts of the book.

At over 600 pages long and with its variety of narrative styles and techniques this is not the easiest of books to read. The story is told from several different perspectives, there are shifts from past to present tense, and from the third person to first person, sometimes with the characters (particularly Caroline) talking directly to the reader. I had an idea of what to expect as I recently read one of Jude Morgan's other books, The Taste of Sorrow, and although his writing style does take a while to get used to, I really like it.

Of the three poets, Byron comes across as the most charismatic and colourful character, which I expect was also true in real life, but Shelley was fascinating to read about too. He had such interesting ideas about vegetarianism, religion and marriage. Keats, however, doesn't appear until near the end of the book and although he and Fanny Brawne do take more of a central role in the final chapters, the focus is definitely on the other characters. Keats' and Fanny's story felt disconnected from the others and this is the one thing that disappointed me about the book. I do understand though that Keats was slightly younger than Byron and Shelley and their paths didn't really cross until later, so maybe it would have been difficult to incorporate him into the earlier parts of the book.

Although Morgan's book about the Brontės, The Taste of Sorrow, had more personal appeal for me because I'm more interested in the Brontės than I am in the Romantic poets, I thought this book was equally impressive.

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