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Recommended Read – The Balloonist by James Long

The BalloonistLieutenant Willy Fraser, formerly of the Royal Flying Corps, has been delegated the most dangerous job on the Western Front – a balloon observer hanging under a gasbag filled with explosive hydrogen, four thousand feet above the Ypres Salient, anchored by a slender cable. Swept across enemy lines after his balloon is damaged, Willy is hidden by Belgian farmers, whom he grows close to during his stay. With their aid, he manages to escape across the flooded delta at the English Channel and return to his duties. But once he’s back in the air, spotting for artillery and under attack, Willy is forced to make an impossible decision that threatens the life of the woman he has come to love.

This novel by James Long is divided into two distinct parts. The first finds Willy Fraser in Berlin during the last few days before the outbreak of the First World War and follows him as he makes his way to Belgium keeping just ahead of the rapidly advancing German war machine. This well researched section tells of the heroic stand of a neutral country which fought hard for every inch of land as her army retreated to the final Yser enclave which the Belgians were able to maintain for the long years of war which lay ahead. This stand by a greatly outnumbered and ill-prepared army allowed the French and British the time to strengthen the border and halt the German race for Paris.

Two years later we find Willy Fraser serving as a balloonist, a role which few people know much about. Mr Long’s detailed research of the few first hand accounts of these men (few of them lived long enough to write about their experiences) is the framework on which this novel hangs. Tethered balloons flying at almost a mile high were sitting targets for enemy planes and artillery whilst the balloonists had to combat terrible conditions as they observed the enemy lines and called in attacks onto the big guns which were turning the trenches into desperate killing fields. There were numerous ways for observers to die – failed parachutes, burning up with their balloons, or being cut adrift and coming down behind enemy lines to name but a few – and life expectancy was short. The historical accuracy of The Balloonist draws the reader in, educating on little known aspects of the war without ever seeming to preach.

Added to the historical background of this novel is the story of Willy’s journey into himself, his character and motives which change as he lives through tumultuous times. It is here that I find the one weakness in the story as there are perhaps a few too many co-incidences bringing the main characters together at key moments but this is, after all, fiction so if you are able to suspend belief at times, and enjoy an action packed and pacey ‘boys own’ storyline you will enjoy The Balloonist.

The Balloonist can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

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‘To the Bright Edge of the World’ by Eowyn Ivey

Winter 1885. Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester accepts the mission of a lifetime, to navigate Alaska’s Wolverine River. It is a journey that promises to open up a land shrouded in mystery, but there’s no telling what awaits Allen and his small band of men.

Allen leaves behind his young wife, Sophie, newly pregnant with the child he had never expected to have. Sophie would have loved nothing more than to carve a path through the wilderness alongside Allen – what she does not anticipate is that their year apart will demand every ounce of courage of her that it does of her husband.

To The Bright Edge of The World was inspired by the real-life journey of Lieutenant Henry Allen into Alaska in 1885 and tells the story of an expedition up the Wolverine River in search of passage through the mountains. It is an absorbing tale of a western explorers meeting with the First Nations people who had lived on the North American continent from time immemorial, a people steeped in myth and superstition at a point where their way of life was coming into conflict with one which was so very different to their own; a conflict in which we see that there will only be one final ‘victor’.

In her novel Ms Ivey has brought the stunning Alaskan landscape to life and peopled it with characters who are not only searching for a route across the land but are also searching for the truth within themselves. One can almost feel the cold and hunger which the early explorers of the wilderness endured, the nervousness with which they came into contact with the native peoples, the struggle for understanding when there was not always a common language between them, the fear that they might not make it back alive.

As the fictitious Allen Forrester makes his way through the northern forests his wife, Sophie, has remained behind. She is strong-willed, determined, a lover of nature; more than anything else she would have liked to travel part of the way with Allen but cannot because she is pregnant. As her husband encounters a changing world in which superstition and the natural world order are being slowly but surely changed by encroaching westernisation Sophie finds herself at an equally interesting point in the way women see and are seen. She finds it difficult to settle into what is expected of an officer’s wife on an army base and feels constrained by societies expectations of what she should and should not be allowed to do. Whilst her husband faces the trials and tribulations of the north Sophie has her own challenges which leave her, for a time, wondering where her life will take her. But Sophie also has an interest in photography which was just becoming popular, and I very much enjoyed reading about the development of this art form in the 1880’s, how Sophie experimented and persevered to try to achieve a particular type of photograph which is still not easy to achieve today.

I also enjoy the way that the author has used old black and white photographs of some of the key places in her story to bring the narrative alive and make it all the more believable to the reader. The photographs along with the colourful descriptions of people, time and place serve to immerse the reader in a world which is long gone yet which was so full of wonder, excitement and mystery at the end of the nineteenth century. I found myself wishing I could have travelled with Allen on his journey or gone with Sophie on her no less important journey into the art of photography, and into the heart of what makes us who we are.

To the Bright Edge Of The World can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Eowyn Ivey here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Empire of Sand by Robert Ryan

A sweepingEmpire of Sand epic historical novel about Lawrence of Arabia, one of the most compelling characters in British history.

1915: While the war in Europe escalates, a young intelligence officer named Thomas Edward Lawrence is in Cairo, awaiting his chance for action. His superiors, however, have consigned him to the Map Room at GCHQ. But there’s more to Lieutenant Lawrence than meets the eye. A man of immense energy, he runs a network of agents across the Levant. Lawrence is convinced that an Arab revolt is the only way to remove the Ottoman presence, and leave a free self-governed Arabia. Soon, alarming reports reach him of trouble in Persia, orchestrated by infamous German agent Wilhelm Wassmuss. Intent on taking down Wassmuss and, at the same time, unlocking the secret of his success, Lawrence assembles a small group and travels to Persia…

Anyone who has an interest in the First World War, the Middle East or T E Lawrence (as I do) will enjoy this book. Contemporary accounts of the life of Lawrence were often contradictory, and few people would ever have known of his actions if not for the journalist Lowell Thomas who is responsible for bringing the hero whom he called ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ to public attention. Yet, 100 years later, the real man still remains elusive and enigmatic. Empire of Sand is a work of historical fiction although much of the novel is based on events which really happened to Lawrence (destroying railways, working with the Bedouins etc.), and the tactics he used in his unconventional warfare, which are mentioned here, are still used today. In its way this novel gives us a real insight into the complex character of Lawrence and how he came to be involved in such important events in the evolution of the Middle East as we know it today.

Mr Ryan has included in his novel a number of real people such as the German Wilhelm Wassmuss (who was the same age as Lawrence, looked similar, and worked in a similar way) and Captain Noel Edward, as well as the great female explorer Gertrude Bell. The main plot line (the importance of Wassmuss’ luggage – no spoilers!) is based on a real event in which all of these men were involved. This novel is a testament to the detailed research conducted by the author who has created an absorbing novel around real and very important events. The descriptions of Cairo, the life of the British in the Middle East, and the difficulties involved in desert warfare all serve to draw the reader into this story, giving an understanding of how people used to a British climate and culture struggled to live and work in the Middle East in the early part of the twentieth century. One can almost feel the burning sun and the wind-blown sand which plagued those who struggled in unfamiliar surroundings against the Turks and Germans.

Mr Ryan has delved deeply into the character of Lawrence and his love for the Arab peoples, so much so that this novel gives a clear insight into what Lawrence believed was the best way to bring about peace in the Middle East, it is a sad truth that if he had been listened to many of the problems which face us there today might never have arisen. The narrative of Empire of Sand enables the reader to get to know the real Lawrence, rather than the hero of David Lean’s epic film, and as such elicits a sympathy for and understanding of him which is often missing in purely historical accounts.

I was disappointed that this novel took the story of Lawrence up to the time he went into the desert to help the Arab uprising against the Turks but did not include the dramatic events which led to his ride on Damascus. To do what Lawrence did, lighting a fire beneath the Arab revolt and dealing with the difficult leaders of the Middle East, took a charismatic and quite unique character and I would love to see this part of Lawrence’s life portrayed in another novel by Robert Ryan!

Empire of Sand can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

 

Recommended Read – The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

The Garden Of Evening Mists“On a mountain above the clouds, in the central highlands of Malaya lived the man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan.”

Teoh Yun Ling was seventeen years old when she first heard about him, but a war would come, and a decade would pass before she travels up to the Garden of Evening Mists to see him, in 1951. A survivor of a brutal Japanese camp, she has spent the last few years helping to prosecute Japanese war criminals. Despite her hatred of the Japanese, she asks the gardener, Nakamura Aritomo, to create a memorial garden for her sister who died in the camp. He refuses, but agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice ‘until the monsoon’ so she can design a garden herself.

Staying at the home of Magnus Pretorius, the owner of Majuba Tea Estate and a veteran of the Boer War, Yun Ling begins working in the Garden of Evening Mists. But outside in the surrounding jungles another war is raging. The Malayan Emergency is entering its darkest days, the communist-terrorists murdering planters and miners and their families, seeking to take over the country by any means, while the Malayan nationalists are fighting for independence from centuries of British colonial rule.

But who is Nakamura Aritomo, and how did he come to be exiled from his homeland? And is the true reason how Yun Ling survived the Japanese camp connected to Aritomo and the Garden of Evening Mists?

This is a novel which appears, on the surface, to have a rather simple storyline, but as the reader journeys through it page by page a subtle complexity is revealed. Through a strong description of time and place the author uncovers the history of Malaya in three distinct time periods – during the Second world War, ten years after the war, and thirty years later. The novel switches between time periods without any indication in chapter headings etc. and, at first, this is a little disconcerting; but as you move further through the book it is easy to slip from one time to another which subtly mirrors the way Yun Ling’ thoughts and memories move as she attempts to come to terms with an illness which leads to loss of memory, although sometimes there are things she deliberately chooses to try to forget and these are, paradoxically, the ones which seem to remain.

As Yun Ling thinks back over her experiences, both as a prisoner of the Japanese during the war and during the Emergency which followed, the relationships between the characters and the consequences of their actions are revealed. These individual relationships mirror those of the nations involved in the conflict – no one person or nationality is wholly good or wholly bad and Yun Ling has to struggle to accept the complex characters of the people around her, particularly the Japanese.

Tan Twan Eng has drawn on his own experiences to describe Malaya in a way which is totally believable, one can almost feel the heat, smell the vegetation, luxuriate in the cooling rain. This is seen most clearly in the Japanese garden which is slowly created and is a central feature to the story, its development mirrored in the unfolding of Yun Ling’s story, her understanding and final acceptance of all that she has experienced. The subtlety of a traditional Japanese garden presenting constantly changing vistas as you move through it is used as a perfect metaphor for the journey of Yun Ling, and our own journey, through life. The layered depths of the story are beautifully described in elegant prose which leads to an absorbing novel of personal and social transformation. Important issues are hidden beneath surface detail and it is a delight to uncover these in both the people and the land as one reads further, and deeper, into this novel.

The Garden Of Evening Mists is a beautifully written novel in which the loss of honour, dreams, and loved ones in carefully balanced by the beauty of a Japanese tea ceremony, lanterns of hope released into a dark night sky, and a beautiful garden which finally brings peace and closure. This novel will not appeal to all readers. If you like an action-packed book with a clearly defined story arc you may find this a little too much work, but if you enjoy exploring ideas of identity, love and loss, and of the interplay of pleasure and pain in the recalling of your past, then I think you will enjoy this novel. It is an intelligent read in which mysteries are slowly and carefully revealed, yet certain aspects are left deliberately obscure to allow the reader to follow their own inner journey to its conclusion. When the character Yun Ling begins her apprenticeship with Aritomo she observes him carefully and notes ‘He was similar to the boulders…only a small portion was revealed to the world, the rest buried deep within, hidden from view.’ A perfect description of this wonderful novel which masterfully allows the reader to uncover those hidden depths for themselves.

The Garden Of Evening Mists can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Tan Twan Eng here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

 

 

Sashenka by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Winter, 1916. In St Petersburg, snow is falling in a country on the brink of revolution. Beautiful and headstrong, Sashenka Zeitlin is just sixteen. As her mother parties with Rasputin and her dissolute friends, Sashenka slips into the frozen night to play her role in a dangerous game of conspiracy and seduction.

Twenty years on, Sashenka has a powerful husband and two children. Around her people are disappearing but her own family is safe. But she’s about to embark on a forbidden love affair which will have devastating consequences.

Sashenka’s story lies hidden for half a century, until a young historian goes deep into Stalin’s private archives and uncovers a heart-breaking story of passion and betrayal, savage cruelty and unexpected heroism – and one woman forced to make an unbearable choice …

Sashenka is a classic historical fiction novel focusing on the lives of a family across generations. Encompassing the story of Russia through the 20th century Mr Montefiore has woven a fascinating tale of the rise and fall of Soviet Russia and its impact on Sashenka, the daughter of a wealthy family, who embraces the message of equality within the communist doctrine. As with all good books in this genre a number of historical figures are featured, and it is their interaction with fictional characters which is so appealing – you can know the history of Russia, but the way it impacts on this fictional family is new to you and, as such, draws you in.

As always, Mr Motefiore has conducted detailed research into the period he is writing about. The description of St Petersburg under the last of the Tsars gives an insight into two very different Russias – high society with its materialism and decadence, coupled with the secret police and their attempts to destroy the fledgling communist party set against the extreme poverty of millions of women and children whose men are sent to fight in the First World War. The novel then leaps forward to the Soviet period under Stalin and focuses on the fear and insecurity of people like Sashenka, people who have been loyal communists from the very beginning yet are just as likely to suffer under Stalin’s mercurial rule. The final section is moving in the way it portrays life after communism, the search of people who lived through difficult times for those they loved and lost, most not expecting any kind of reunion but just wanting to know what happened to their families.

The author of Sashenka has created believable characters who can be idealistic yet brutal, worldly yet naïve, and who it is easy to sympathise with. This is not a comfortable novel to read, at times it can be quite brutal, but to omit such sections would give a false picture of those times in Russia and do a great disservice to the real people on whose lives these fictional characters are based. The style of Mr Montefiore’s writing is clear and precise at times but can then switch to a description of deep love and passion, whether between a man and woman or a woman for her children, and as such the book has a great emotional impact.

Sashenka is a novel full of plot twists and turns, it is well-paced and vivid, complex and passionate, and incredible evocative of time and place with its accurate historical backgound; in all a gripping read which I would recommend to anyone with a love of historical fiction or of Russia.

Sashenka can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Simon Sebag Montefiore here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – Csardas by Diane Pearson

CSARDAS – taken from the name of the Hungarian national dance – follows the fortunes of the enchanting Ferenc sisters from their glittering beginnings in aristocratic Hungary, through the traumas of two World Wars.

From the dazzling elegance of coming-out balls, feudal estates and a culture steeped in romance, to terror and starvation in the concentration camps – no story could be more dramatic than that of Eva and Amalia Ferenc, whose fate it is to be debutantes when the shot which killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo plunged Europe into the First World War. Their story is enthralling, tragic, romantic – and absolutely unputdownable.

Csardas is incredibly well researched giving a detailed and seemingly faultless history of Hungary from the feudal society which existed in the Austro-Hungarian empire before the First World War through to the creation of the communist state after the Second. With a clever choice of families to follow (aristocrats, wealthy half-Jews and poor serfs) Ms Pearson has been able to look at the key points in the history of Hungary from all perspectives in a narrative which is never ‘instructive’ but flows as a good story should.

The novel is well written giving a real feel of time and place whilst gently encouraging the reader to invest in the lives of its central characters who are believable and multi-layered. You will soon find yourself loving some and feeling less sympathetic towards others – the shallow young girl who never really grows up; the aristocrat whose experiences during World War One leave him mentally scared in a way that guides his future actions; the peasant boy who can’t commit to others because of his fear of loss…

The publisher’s description of this book may give the impression of a romance novel but it is much more than that. There are love stories intertwined throughout, but that is the nature of life itself; where Csardas excels is in the subtle way in which serious topics are covered from the depravities of war to the suppression of the lower classes and horrific treatment of Jews. Essentially this is a book which charts how life and culture in a country changes due to politics and war, giving the reader a fascinating insight into a country which we all know of but know little about.

The beginning of Csardas may seem a little slow to some readers as it sets the scene within Hungary at the beginning of the twentieth century and introduces the key characters, but this is necessary as it gives a great foundation for the engrossing story which follows. This is a book which I have read a number of times and no doubt will return to again in the future.

If you like well-written epic stories based on historical fact then Csardas is for you.

Csardas is available on Amazon

You can find out about other books by Diane Pearson here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – ‘Paris’ by Edward Rutherfurd

City of love. City of splendour. City of terror. City of dreams.

Inspired by the haunting, passionate story of the city of lights, this epic novel weaves a gripping tale of four families across the centuries: from the lies that spawn the noble line of de Cygne to the revolutionary Le Sourds who seek their destruction; from the Blanchards whose bourgeois respectability offers scant protection against scandal to the hard-working Gascons and their soaring ambitions.

Over hundreds of years, these four families are bound by forbidden loves and marriages of convenience; dogged by vengeance and murderous secrets; torn apart by the irreconcilable differences of birth and faith, and brought together by the tumultuous history of their city. Paris bursts to life in the intrigue, corruption and glory of its people.

Author of Sarum, London and New York, Edward Rutherfurd illuminates Paris as only he can: capturing the romance and everyday drama of the men and women who, in two thousand years, transformed a humble trading post on the muddy banks of the Seine into the most celebrated city in the world.

Mr Rutherfurd has written an engrossing saga of interwoven stories of four families who lived and loved in the city of Paris, families which come from all aspects of society – nobility, bourgeois, revolutionary and labourer. The lives of these fictional families are skilfully entwined with the history of the city from its earliest days to the Second World War and beyond, which makes the novel ideal for someone who wants to get an overview of the history of Paris and how different social groups influenced, or were influenced by, events. Each family history is carefully plotted and although there are rather a lot of co-incidences these are necessary to bring the characters together in a complex yet coherent plot, ‘Paris’ is, after all, historical fiction not fact.

Mr Rutherfurd has obviously conducted a great deal of detailed research into the history of France and Paris which is evident in the complexities of both the culture and politics of France which he has handled with skill. Whilst the main portion of the novel covers the period from 1875 to the mid-1960’s this story is interspersed with cameos of the families from 1261 onwards, the abiding theme being the socialist and revolutionary spirit of many of the city’s inhabitants. This is an effective way of telling the story of Paris without overwhelming the reader with too much detail or including information just for the sake of it. Mr Rutherford seems to get the right balance here, and anyone who wants to find out more about any of the periods will be able to conduct further research for themselves.

‘Paris’ is a story of divided loyalties, lies, deceit, love, honour, and a whole raft of other emotions, all told against the backdrop of this vibrant city. One fascinating aspect of the novel is the descriptions of the landscape and architecture and how these changed over the centuries. The physical space of the city is so well written that you can feel yourself there, and anyone who has ever visited Paris will recognise the authenticity of the descriptions from Versailles to Notre Dame, the Eifel Tower to Montmartre.

Mr Rutherfurd has a writing style which is engaging and moves the story on at a good pace. The one thing which readers may find difficult to follow is the relationships of the characters and family histories but the author has provided excellent family trees to help with this, and the more you read the less you need to use them. What draws the reader in is the believable characters who elicit a variety of responses, from sympathy to anger; what is interesting is that you are able to see the history of France from many different perspectives and find your sympathies residing with different parts of society at different times. It takes a very clever wordsmith to create such a believable world for his characters to inhabit.

I would recommend ‘Paris’ to anyone who enjoys historical sagas. The novel is an easy and engaging read from which it is possible to learn a great deal whilst also being entertained. Based on my enjoyment of this book I shall certainly be reading more novels written by Edward Rutherfurd.

‘Paris’ can be found on Amazon

Mr Rutherfurd’s website can be found here

More of my Recommended Reads can be found here