Tag Archives: book review

The Words In My Hand by Guinevere Glasfurd

The Words In My HandThe Words in My Hand is the reimagined true story of Helena Jans, a Dutch maid in 17th century Amsterdam working for an English bookseller. One day a mysterious and reclusive lodger arrives – the Monsieur – who turns out to be René Descartes.

At first encounter the maid and the philosopher seem to have little in common, yet Helena yearns for knowledge and literacy – wanting to write so badly that she uses beetroot for ink and her body as paper.

And the philosopher, for all his learning, finds that it is Helena who reveals the surprise in the everyday world that surrounds him, as gradually their relationship deepens in a surprising story of love and learning.

We know the writings of the philosopher Réne Descartes but not so much about his private life. Historians often describe him as ‘a loner’, but was this really the case? We know that he had a daughter, Francine, with Helena Jans who was a maid in the house Descartes lodged in in Amsterdam in 1634. We know that they corresponded (although their letters do not survive), and we know that they continued to live close to each other for many years after the death of their daughter. The implication is that their relationship must have been both complex and important. Ms Glasfurd has taken this scant information to create a novel which is both beautiful and compelling.

‘The Words In My Hand’ is an atmospheric novel which brings 17th century Holland to life with all its sights and sounds, its varied people with their thoughts and prejudices, and the conflict created by new thoughts and ideas which opposed both tradition and the Church. Within this totally believable world we find a realistic and unsentimental story of love between two very different people who struggle to overcome the divide between them. The author seems to have delved into the depths of a woman struggling against the challenges which faced her gender and social class yet never bowing totally beneath them. The writing is descriptive, fresh, and cleverly constructed, the novel gentle paced in which great characters are described with subtlety and understanding.

As you read ‘The Words In My Hand’ you become immersed in Helena’s world and it can be difficult to remember that this is fiction, a tale of love and a search for knowledge which is totally of its time yet could be any time at all.

Readers who enjoy character driven novels which stretch their imagination and understanding are sure to enjoy this superb debut novel by Guinevere Glasfurd.

The Words In My Hand can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Guinevere Glasfurd here

You can find more of my Recommended reads here

 

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Canvey Island by James Runcie

canvey islandIt is 1953 in Canvey Island. Len and Violet are at a dance. Violet’s husband George sits and watches them sway and glide across the dance floor, his mind far away, trapped by a war that ended nearly ten years ago. Meanwhile, at home, a storm rages and Len’s wife Lily and his young son Martin fight for their lives in the raging black torrent. The night ends in a tragedy that will reverberate through their lives. This poignant novel follows the family’s fortunes from the austerity of the post-war years to Churchill’s funeral, from Greenham Common to the onset of Thatcherism and beyond, eloquently capturing the very essence of a transforming England in the decades after the war. It is a triumph of understated emotion, a novel about growing up and growing old, about love, hope and reconciliation.

If, like me, you are a child of the 50’s or 60’s there is much in this novel which will take you back to your childhood and beyond, reliving stories and experiences which you may have forgotten yet which suddenly come flooding back to life as the author weaves together the stories of a cast of very real characters. As Martin and his mother fight for their lives during the terrible floods of 1953 your heart goes out to the young child then, as the years goes by, you see him change as he struggles with his emotions, and you sympathise with the way this one early experience structures the whole of his future life. Although Mr Runcie does not mention Post Traumatic Stress specifically it is clear from the way Martin interacts with the people he loves that this is the core of what drives him to his chosen career and blights his personal relationships.

Mr Runcie has cleverly structured his novel so that each chapter is written in the first person by one of the main characters and so enables us to delve more deeply into their emotional drives and feelings. Through this Mr Runcie is able to explore different views on ideas which have evolved over the years to shape the world we live in today– the role of women, nuclear disarmament, environmental protection, racism – there is something in this novel which will resonate with everyone. The author of Canvey Island has got to the heart of what it meant to grow up in the second half of the twentieth century. As you read this novel you are immersed in the sights and sounds of a period of rapid change – the life of a fisherman on Canvey island, the Christmas gifts which people gave in the 1950’s, the ubiquitous Avon Lady of the 60’s, the women’s camps at Greenham Common, the long hot summer of 1976, the Winter of Discontent 1979. Anyone who has lived through those times will recognise the detailed research which the author has carried out to enable him to bring these snapshots of British life sharply into focus.

Above everything else, though, Canvey Island is a novel about people – the emotional description of a family funeral juxtaposed against that of a state funeral as the nation pays its last respects to Churchill, the struggle of a child who misses his mother yet sees his father forming a new relationship, moving from the excitement of early romance to the domesticity of married life, coming to terms with your own mortality. This is a lovely piece of social history built around characters who are flawed yet draw sympathy and understanding from us. Mr Runcie writes with sensitivity and truth which makes this novel quite compelling in many ways, although I felt the ending was a little abrupt and would have liked perhaps one more short chapter to see what happened to Martin next.

This is an absorbing read although not a fast paced thriller, but if you are interested in people and what makes them tick then you are sure to enjoy Canvey Island.

Canvey Island can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Longlisted for the baileys women’s prize for fiction 2017

A New York times book of the year

From Annie Proulx, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain, comes her masterwork: an epic, dazzling, violent, magnificently dramatic novel about the taking down of the world’s forests.

In the late seventeenth century two penniless young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in New France. Bound to a feudal lord, a “seigneur,” for three years in exchange for land, they become wood-cutters – barkskins. René suffers extraordinary hardship, oppressed by the forest he is charged with clearing. He is forced to marry a Mi’kmaw woman and their descendants live trapped between two inimical cultures. But Duquet, crafty and ruthless, runs away from the seigneur, becomes a fur trader, then sets up a timber business. Proulx tells the stories of the descendants of Sel and Duquet over three hundred years – their travels across North America, to Europe, China, and New Zealand, under stunningly brutal conditions; the revenge of rivals; accidents; pestilence; Indian attacks; and cultural annihilation. Over and over again, they seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource, leaving the modern-day characters face to face with possible ecological collapse.

Barkskins is a riveting read. I had assumed it would be just another historical novel following a few disparate characters but it turned out to be much more. Initially the reader is interested in the characters while the trees and forests are merely something of a backdrop, but as time passes in this wide-ranging novel it becomes obvious that these natural resources are not as limitless as the timber merchants think and we are led on an inexorable path towards ecological disaster. Have the Duke family realised in time that we need to do something to save our planet or is it all too late? The history of the development of the timber trade – the types of trees taken, the methods of cutting and working, the uses of the wood – is cleverly entwined in the story of these two families so that the reader absorbs a great deal of knowledge through osmosis, never feeling lectured to or bogged down with irrelevant information. The amount of research that Ms Proulx has conducted into the timber trade around the world – from North America to New Zealand – is impressive, as is the link to European trade, the whole coming together as an indictment on the dangers of colonialism.

Barkskins is cleverly written as a saga which follows the lives of two families arriving in North America at the same time and in the same condition but then following very different paths. The rich Duke family introduce the reader to the development of business and trade on the new continent while the Sel family show the awful impact that this immigration brought to the lives of the First Nation peoples of the United States, Canada and New Zealand. From the decimation of tribes by European diseases to the discrimination meted out to whole peoples considered to be ‘inferior’ simply because their culture and civilisation were not understood, to the scandal of the Canadian Residential Schools this is a novel which immerses the reader in a conflict of cultures which is still ongoing. Perhaps Ms Proulx in her last few chapters has presented us with a vison of hope in which there may be reconciliation as the First Nations people whose lives were once so closely entwined with the forest may now be the ones with the knowledge and skills to help us save our world from ourselves.

Barkskins is a long novel which might put some people off, but I urge you to read it. The plotting is a tightly-knit web, the characters well rounded – some engaging and loveable, others quite unpleasant, – the descriptions of the forests atmospheric, the prose as a whole beautifully written and engaging. If you are looking for something to keep you occupied on cold winter evenings then curl up with this book and lose yourself in a past world which has such relevance and meaning for our own.

Barkskins can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Annie Proulx 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

 

The General by C S Forester

The most vivid, moving – and devastating – word-portrait of a World War One British commander ever written.

C.S. Forester’s 1936 masterpiece follows Lt General Herbert Curzon, who fumbled a fortuitous early step on the path to glory in the Boer War. 1914 finds him an honourable, decent, brave and wholly unimaginative colonel. Survival through the early slaughters in which so many fellow-officers perished then brings him rapid promotion. By 1916, he is a general in command of 100,000 British soldiers, whom he leads through the horrors of the Somme and Passchendaele, a position for which he is entirely unsuited and intellectually unprepared.

Wonderfully human with Forester’s droll relish for human folly on full display, this is the story of a man of his time who is anything but wicked, yet presides over appalling sacrifice and tragedy. In his awkwardness and his marriage to a Duke’s unlovely, unhappy daughter, Curzon embodies Forester’s full powers as a storyteller. His half-hero is patriotic, diligent, even courageous, driven by his sense of duty and refusal to yield to difficulties. But also powerfully damned is the same spirit which caused a hundred real-life British generals to serve as high priests at the bloodiest human sacrifice in the nation’s history. A masterful and insightful study about the perils of hubris and unquestioning duty in leadership, The General is a fable for our times.

The British generals who served during the First World War have a reputation for incompetence and a callous disregard for human life, yet until the late 1920’s they were recognised as heroes – 1 million people went to London to pay their respects at the funeral of General Haig in 1928. It was not until the late 1920’s that novels began to appear criticising the war and those who led it, and it was in this climate that C S Forester wrote ‘The General’ in an attempt to explain what made men launch such catastrophic attacks against the enemy time and time again.

This is a story of human nature rather than military strategy, revealing the thought processes and perceived obligations of an officer during the First World War with such clarity that it reads more like a biography than fiction. Mr Forester has written a well-researched revelation of life on the front line, getting to the heart of the conversations of soldiers and the planning of the disastrous attacks which killed so many. The development of tactics and arms from the end of the use of cavalry through the introduction of machine guns, reconnaissance planes, and tanks is shown through the perfectly normal feelings of scepticism which always accompany new ideas and inventions. ‘The General’, which takes Curzon from South Africa to northern Europe, gives the reader some understanding of how difficult it would have been for officers of the ‘old school’ who had last fought during the Boer War to face the nightmare of trench warfare which the author describes in word pictures which are all the more real for their simplicity.

The character of Curzon is rather awkward, socially limited and lacking in imagination, yet he is single-minded in his loyalty to his men and his desire to be the best officer possible. He is respected and admired by his men, a dedicated and hard-working professional, but his tragedy is that he is unable to grasp the changing nature of warfare and use it to his advantage even though he does take the unusual step of appointing civilian conscripts rather than the traditional officer class to carry out new roles in logistics, chemistry, train scheduling etc.

This novel criticises the lack of imagination in the planning of the war – if an attack fails then just do the same thing again but with more men and more guns. Curzon sees the tragic and appalling loss of life as indispensable to victory and so accepts them in a way which  may seem callous to us but which is perhaps intended to show how each aspect of the General’s role was compartmentalised as he focused on final victory, he buries his reaction to the death of his men in order to carry out his duty and ‘finish the job’. The reader has to face the same dilemmas as the General himself – should Curzon have surrendered positions to save lives? Would defeat have been better?

The General shows that the perception of cowardly generals leading from behind the lines is unjust. In fact most generals visited the front lines regularly, for some it was almost every day, and more than 200 generals were killed, wounded or captured during the course of the war. A General serving during the First World War would have been considerably closer to the action than generals are today. (About 12% of ordinary soldiers in the British army were killed during World War 1 as opposed to 17% of its officers).

The General paints a portrait of a man who was not wicked or incompetent and who elicits some sympathy from the reader. It is not really possible to love Curzon, but he can be seen as a tragic figure who did the best he could for his country in a particular time and place. As we are currently commemorating the centenary of the ending of the First World War in November 1918 it is perhaps a fitting time to read this novel and reflect.

‘The General’ 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

 

 

Recommended Read – First Of The Tudors by Joanna Hickson

Jasper Tudor, son of Queen Catherine and her second husband, Owen Tudor, has grown up far from the intrigue of the royal court. But after he and his brother Edmund are summoned to London, their half-brother, King Henry VI, takes a keen interest in their future.
Bestowing Earldoms on them both, Henry also gives them the wardship of the young heiress Margaret Beaufort. Although she is still a child, Jasper becomes devoted to her and is devastated when Henry arranges her betrothal to Edmund.
He seeks solace in his estates and in the arms of Jane Hywel, a young Welsh woman who offers him something more meaningful than a dynastic marriage. But passion turns to jeopardy for them both as the Wars of the Roses wreak havoc on the realm. Loyal brother to a fragile king and his domineering queen, Marguerite of Anjou, Jasper must draw on all his guile and courage to preserve their throne − and the Tudor destiny…

First Of The Tudors’ is a sequel to two novels about Catherine of Valois by Joanna Hickson (‘The Agincourt Bride’ and ‘The Tudor Bride’), but you do not have to have read these to enjoy ‘First Of The Tudors’ which can be read as a stand-alone novel. The author cleverly interweaves the backstory of Jasper Tudor and his family into this captivating and exciting novel to give a full understanding of previous events without slowing the pace of the story.

As with all good historical fiction this book weaves together historical figures and fictional characters to give a rich tapestry of life in another time and place. Ms Hickson accomplishes this by the clever use of two narrators – Jasper Tudor and his mistress Jane Hywel. Although Jane is a fictional character it is known that Jasper had children and so the creation of a mistress who cares for the young Henry Tudor is not unbelievable. In introducing Jane into her novel the author brings a balance between court life and intrigue, the domestic life and childhood of the young boy who was to grow up to be Henry VII, and how the events which led to the Wars of the Roses impacted on both spheres of Jasper’s  life.

Ms Hickson  peoples her novel with many historical figures from Jasper Tudor, the little known figure behind the rise of one of the greatest dynasties in British history, to Margaret Beaufort who enters the novel as an innocent and vulnerable girl yet grows to be a strong and influential individual capable of clever political manipulation to protect her beloved son, Henry. Henry VII is often overshadowed by his son Henry VIII and granddaughter Elizabeth I so it is interesting to see how, as a boy, he was shaped by his situation, his mother, and his uncle into a young  man who would be able to go on to found a dynasty; I look forward to finding out more about his life in the sequel to ‘First Of The Tudors’, which is due to be published next year.

First Of The Tudors’ is a character driven novel which paints a totally believable picture of life in the fifteenth century thanks to the meticulous research of the author. Her language is free-flowing and emotive, and her descriptions of place clearly recognisable to anyone who has visited any of the locations mentioned (Pembroke Castle, for example). It is the mark of a good writer of historical fiction that Ms Hickson is able to present a totally believable interpretation of a known historical story by the inclusion of fictional characters and speech without detracting from the facts as they are known. I found it interesting that the author chose to present this story through the eyes of the enigmatic figure of Jasper Tudor, a man who is rarely studied yet played such an incredibly important role when he became protector of his young nephew Henry VII at a time of incredible danger for the Lancastrians, and continued to lend advice and support for many years to come.

If you enjoy a multi-faceted view of history which brings to life people and places which have, for many years, been left in the shadows, then ‘First Of The Tudors’ is the book for you.

First Of The Tudors is available on Amazon

You can find out more about Joanna Hickson here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here