Tag Archives: Book reviews

The Road Between Us by Nigel Farndale

1939: In a hotel room overlooking Piccadilly Circus, two young men are arrested. Charles is court-martialled for ‘conduct unbecoming’; Anselm is deported home to Germany for ‘re-education’ in a brutal labour camp. Separated by the outbreak of war, and a social order that rejects their love, they must each make a difficult choice, and then live with the consequences.

2012: Edward, a diplomat held hostage for eleven years in an Afghan cave, returns to London to find his wife is dead, and in her place is an unnerving double – his daughter, now grown up. Numb with grief, he attempts to re-build his life and answer the questions that are troubling him. Was his wife’s death an accident? Who paid his ransom? And how was his release linked to Charles, his father?

As dark and nuanced as it is powerful and moving, The Road Between Us is a novel about survival, redemption and forbidden love. Its moral complexities will haunt the reader for days after the final page has been turned.

‘The Road Between Us’ is a thought provoking novel which touches on subject matter which can make it uncomfortable reading at times. Following the stories of a father and son (one during the Second World War and the other set in the present day) Mr Farndale weaves a picture of love and loss, of discrimination and cruelty, yet also of loyalty and hope. During the war Charles loses his commission for ‘conduct unbecoming’ and spends the rest of the conflict searching for and attempting to rescue his lover, Anselm, who had been deported to Germany for ‘re-education.’ In the present Charles’s son, Edward, is released after eleven years in captivity and is also searching for love and hope, both of which he has buried deeply in order to survive his long period of isolation and deprivation.

Mr Farndale has approached the difficult subjects in his novel with respect and sensitivity. His descriptions of place and character are vivid, making the reader feel as though they are there and drawing them into the story. Even though some of the subject matter is difficult I found myself wanting to read more, to discover what made these characters tick and how they came to terms with aspects of their lives which were so troubling at times. It is the mark of a great novel to keep you reading under such circumstances, the key here being the believable characters who are drawn so sympathetically.

The historical context of ‘The Road Between Us’ has been well researched which gives a depth of plausibility to the story – the ‘re-education’ workcamps, the treatment of homosexuals etc. The dialogue has an authentic ring which brings the characters to life, dialogue which reflects the authors understanding of human psychology and encourages the reader to look deeper into themselves. All in all, this is a very moving story and compelling reading; it has a great narrative, the feel of both thriller and love story, intelligent and literary writing.

If you like historical novels which explore the human condition with depth and sensitivity then I heartily recommend ‘The Road Between Us’ to you.

(I have deliberately avoided going into details of this story as it would be difficult to do so without spoiling it for you!)

‘The Road Between Us’ can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Nigel Farndale on his website 

You can read more of my Recommended Reads here

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Recommended read – ‘A Town Like Alice’ by Nevil Shute

a-town-like-alice

Jean Paget is just twenty years old and working in Malaya when the Japanese invasion begins. When she is captured she joins a group of other European women and children whom the Japanese force to march for miles through the jungle – an experience that leads to the deaths of many. Due to her courageous spirit and ability to speak Malay, Jean takes on the role of leader of the sorry gaggle of prisoners and many end up owing their lives to her indomitable spirit. While on the march, the group run into some Australian prisoners, one of whom, Joe Harman, helps them steal some food, and is horrifically punished by the Japanese as a result.

‘A Town Like Alice’ is a classic which loses none of its appeal with the passage of time. The description of life for the English women and children who are unwanted prisoners of the Japanese, forced to march for months on end by Japanese officers who refuse to take responsibility for them, is harrowing. You would be forgiven for saying that something as inhumane as that could never have happened – but it did, though in Sumatra not Malaya. Mr Shute met with one of those women after the war, and this novel is a tribute to her strength and endurance and that of those who were held with her, and those who died during their long captivity.

You may also be forgiven for thinking that the story must be depressing, it is not. This is a novel of hope not despair. Mr Shute uses his characters to show us the good in humanity, the willingness to help others despite personal cost – Joe, the Australian soldier, who stole to feed the women, with tragic consequences; Jean’s struggles as she tries to cope with the ‘normality’ of England after the war, unable to begin life again because of a burden of guilt she carries from her time as a prisoner; the kindness and support show to Jean by her solicitor, Noel. Mr Shute skilfully weaves a believable plotline which takes Jean back to Malaya and on to Australia, searching for answers and for a purpose in life. Can she re-build her life in a new country in ‘a town like Alice (Springs)’ which Joe told her so much about?

This is a well-researched and well written novel in which Mr Shute immerses the reader in life in three very different locations – war-torn Malaya, bombed out London and the developing outback – with the effortlessness of a master wordsmith. This is a story of ordinary people with an extraordinary tale to tell; a timeless tale of love and loss, of romance and redemption. ‘A Town Like Alice’ is one of the books I’ve read more than once and always enjoy coming back to. If you have never read this modern classic you really must give it a go.

‘A Town Like Alice’ can be purchased from Amazon

You can find out about more about the life and work of Nevil Shute at the Nevil Shute Norway Foundation

Recommended read – The Gift Of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

the-gift-of-rain-by-tan-twan-engPenang, 1939. Sixteen-year-old Philip Hutton is a loner. Half English, half Chinese and feeling neither, he discovers a sense of belonging in an unexpected friendship with Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat. Philip shows his new friend around his adored island of Penang, and in return Endo trains him in the art and discipline of aikido.

But such knowledge comes at a terrible price. The enigmatic Endo is bound by disciplines of his own and when the Japanese invade Malaya, threatening to destroy Philip s family and everything he loves, he realises that his trusted sensei to whom he owes absolute loyalty has been harbouring a devastating secret. Philip must risk everything in an attempt to save those he has placed in mortal danger and discover who and what he really is.

With masterful and gorgeous narrative, replete with exotic and captivating images, sounds and aromas of rain swept beaches, magical mountain temples, pungent spice warehouses, opulent colonial ballrooms and fetid and forbidding rainforests Tan Twan Eng weaves a haunting and unforgettable story of betrayal, barbaric cruelty, steadfast courage and enduring love.

In ‘the Gift Of Rain’ the reader is immersed in life in Malaya during the 1940’s. Tan Twan Eng writes some of the best prose I have read in a long time, and it pays to take the time to read slowly and savour this poetic and evocative language. Whether he is describing the beauty of Malaya or the brutality of occupation the author places the reader there, in the midst of the action, in such a way that it easy to become lost in this book. Supporting the lyrical descriptions is a cast of characters who are multi-faceted and totally believable. It is easy to sympathise with Philip in his search to find out where he belongs; even when he makes choices which we might not agree with we can understand his reasons and fervently hope that he will find the love, acceptance and peace that he is searching for.

This book is written in two distinct sections. The first, set in Penang in 1939, moves at a gentle pace as Philip meets a Japanese aikijitsu master, and through his lessons with Endo develops a physical, intellectual and spiritual awareness which remains with him for the rest of his life. There is a strange bond between the two which seems to transcend time and space, and the playing out of this relationship is the pivot of the whole book. The second part of the book takes place after the Japanese invasion and is faster paced, dramatic and hard hitting. Philip finds that life puts him in a position which challenges his ethics and morals; does his loyalty lie with his family or with Hayato Endo? Or does he have a much broarder loyalty to the people of Malaya? And where does his sense of self fit within this conflict?

‘The Gift Of Rain’ evokes a real sense of time and place, giving the reader insights not only into the history of Malaya but also of Japan and China. The way that the Second World War impacted on the different ethnic groups and their relationships with each other is the cloth of which this story is woven; it is a testament to the thorough research which Tan Twan Eng has made of the history of these countries, and of the colonial impact which played a part in shaping events. Why does history seem to see British occupation of Malaya as acceptable, unlike the Japanese occupation which is seen as criminal? What responsibility did the colonial power have to the people of Malaya, and they to it? There are no easy answers to this, and the questions raised are played out through Philip’s own personal search for identity.

Tan Twan Eng has created a book which looks at the darker side of life yet which holds an incredible balance. One could almost describe the whole novel as an evocation of the ying and yang of life, the balance of duty and loyalty, the image of a civilised and refined Japan which can be selfish and brutal at the same time. It is a book which is incredibly difficult to categorise. Part historical fiction and part martial arts treatise, part philosophy and part a coming of age story, it is a book which draws the reader in from the very first words and doesn’t let go, even after the last page has been turned. I have read this book a number of times and come back to it again and again, learning something new each time. I heartily recommend ‘The Gift Of Rain’ as one of those few books which will leave a lasting impression on you for some time to come.

The Gift of Rain is available on Amazon 
Tan Twan Eng has a website here
You can find more of my book reviews here

Recommended Read – Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

life-after-life-by-kate-atkinson

What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath. During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale. What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?

Life After Life’ is not the usual type of historical novel that I review. This is a fascinating story which explores the concept of life and time. What would happen if we lived the same life over and over again? Would it always be the same or would things change? Would we be able to guide our destiny to avoid the bad things which happen in life or to seek to achieve a goal which appears to be out of reach? Ms Atkinson uses the life/lives of Ursula to explore this theme.

Ursula is born one snowy day in 1910. She dies without taking her first breath but then is born again in the same situation with one minor difference which allows her to live. The novel continues to follow Ursula as she is born and dies, again and again. Each time her life is changed in some small way which leads to much larger changes as the years go by. Edward Lorenz asked, ‘Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?’ In this novel Ursula finds that her choices, as well as the decisions which people make all around her, do indeed lead to great changes – lives saved or lost, war or a chance for peace, all made possible through something as small as the proverbial flap of a butterfly’s wings.

Knowing, in part, what is going to happen to Ursula leaves you rooting for her, hoping that she will make a certain choice, speak to a certain person, avoid a certain action. In some of her incarnations you find yourself hoping that she survives and is happy, in others you hope that her death comes more quickly and she can start a new and better life. It is a strange novel in this sense, yet compulsive reading.

The reason I am recommending this book as historical fiction is the period in which it is set. Ursula lives during the turbulent years of both World Wars, and Ms Atkinson conveys these times in incredible detail. Her fictional accounts of the London blitz are some of the best I have read – both harrowing and inspiring. In another life Ursula lives in Germany during the Second World War. The descriptions of the changes from pre-war euphoria through nationalism to war and, finally, despair in Berlin during the last days of the Reich bear testimony to the depth of research which the author has carried out.

‘Life After Life’ is a unique novel in its structure. It is also a novel rich in historical detail and, in addition, a compelling portrait of Ursula and her family. Ms Atkinson’s writing cuts to the heart of human hopes and dreams, ambitions, loves and losses; the reader comes to love or hate the characters who are well drawn and believable, the kind of people you could meet almost anywhere.

The author writes with great skill, producing a novel which is thought provoking, moving and at times uncomfortable. It is the sort of book which leaves the reader reflecting on life, destiny and fate. What might be the consequences of our actions? Can we shape the future by a single word or deed or is it all pre-ordained? This is not a light read, but if you are looking for something entertaining and educational which leaves you asking questions and wanting more then I heartily recommend that you read ‘Life After Life’.

This novel won the 2013 COSTA Novel Award, and deservedly so.

‘Life After Life’ can be found on Amazon

Kate Atkinson’s website can be found here

More of my Recommended Reads can be found here.

Recommended Read – ‘A Fine Balance’ by Rohinton Mistry

a-fine-balance-by-rohinton-mistry‘A Fine Balance’ tells the story of the lives of four individuals who are brought together by circumstances. While we learn a lot about their background the main focus of the novel is the political and social situation in India in the 1970’s. Through their relationships with each other and interactions with other people Rohinton Mistry paints a compelling picture of poverty and prejudice in India. The levels of corruption and injustice portrayed in the novel give a sense of the hopelessness of life for many, yet the fact that the poorest characters can find a joy in their lives which evades those of a higher social standing is humbling.

This is a novel which tells the truth of the brutality if a government which could force sterilization on people in an effort to control the population; and the brutality of people who , by a  simple accident of birth, found themselves in a position of power. The title ‘A Fine Balance’ is well chosen as Mr Mistry balances this darkness with a  lightness and humour from both the characters and  their situations. As one who has lived in India for the last few years I found many of the descriptions incredible accurate – from the chaos of the courthouse and other official institutions to the busy streets, chaotic trains and remote village life.

Sadly, my experience tells me that although the caste system is now illegal in India it is still all pervading, and it would not be difficult to imagine aspects of this story happening today. Yet alongside this the humour, love and hope which Mr Mistry describes are still there and the road to change, which often seems too long and slow, is still progressing.

The only aspect of this novel which I found difficult was the number of coincidences which occurred, bringing minor characters into the story at frequent intervals which are unlikely to happen in life. Having said that, I recognise that these characters and their meetings are an essential part of the story which Mr Mistry is telling, so if you can set aside the coincidences and accept the truths that the characters bring to the story it will not spoil your enjoyment.

‘A Fine Balance’ is a well written novel with deeply nuanced characters, all the more real to me as I see in them much that reminds me of the Indians I know and love. It is well structured, invoking a sense of place so that we can almost feel the heat, smell the streets, taste the food, bathe in the dust or rain. This is a novel which shows the real India, where life can be hard for all but the most wealthy; it is therefore interesting that the character who has the easiest life, the best situation, finds it the most difficult to cope. As for the reader, I think we can all learn from the attitude of the main characters, and Indians in general – life is not easy, we all face difficulties challenges and heartaches; what defines us though is how we face what life throws at us, and move on.

‘A Fine Balance’ is up there as one of my favourite novels about India, alongside ‘A Suitable Boy’ by Vikram Seth. Anyone who wants to try to understand the complexities, mysteries and universal truths of India presented by an author with an exceptional command of language should read this novel.

Highly recommended.

A Fine Balance is available on Amazon

More of my Recommended Reads can be found here

Book Review – ‘The Secret Wife’ by Gill Paul

the-secret-wifeA Russian grand duchess and an English journalist. Linked by one of the world’s greatest mysteries . . .

Love. Guilt. Heartbreak.

1914 Russia is on the brink of collapse, and the Romanov family faces a terrifyingly uncertain future. Grand Duchess Tatiana has fallen in love with cavalry officer Dmitri, but events take a catastrophic turn, placing their romance – and their lives – in danger . . .

2016 Kitty Fisher escapes to her great-grandfather’s remote cabin in America, after a devastating revelation makes her flee London. There, on the shores of Lake Akanabee, she discovers the spectacular jewelled pendant that will lead her to a long-buried family secret . . .Haunting, moving and beautifully written, The Secret Wife effortlessly crosses centuries, as past merges with present in an unforgettable story of love, loss and resilience.

 ‘The Secret Wife’ is an engrossing read which takes the reader back to the days of the Russian Revolution and on through the years of the 20th century. It follows the life and loves of Dmitri, an aristocrat who has to flee from the communist regime not knowing where the woman he loves is, or even if she is still alive. It is a tale of war, romance, lost love and redemption. The book also follows the troubled life of Kitty, Dmitri’s great-granddaughter, whose research into the life of her ancestor helps her to come to terms with problems in her own life and helps her to make a decision about what she wants for her future. The two stories are expertly woven together into a novel which I found difficult to put down.

Ms Paul has written a truly captivating novel with strong characters and a strong, believable story line. The history, particularly the turbulent times surrounding the lives of the Romanov’s, has been well researched and is presented in a style which is easy to read yet immerses the reader in the political intrigue and violence of revolution and the life of a political refugee. Ms Paul also expertly delves into the psychological impact that such events would have on an individual. It is easy to sympathise with Dmitri as he struggles to come to terms with his changed circumstances, with Tatiana as she copes with violence and loss, and with Kitty as she understands why she is the person she is and finds a new direction for here future.

Many of the characters in this novel are actual historical figures about whom we know quite a lot, but historical evidence for what happened to some of them disappears after 1916/17. We do know the fate of some (no spoilers!), but it would be nice to think that Ms Paul’s story could be true!

If you like historical fiction, sagas, intrigue, strong characters and a story which draws you in right from the start then please give this book a read. I will certainly be reading more of Ms Paul’s books in the future.

Ms Pauls website can be found here

The Secret Wife can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

 

First review in for ‘The Cavalier Historian’

Cover_Kindle_front coverI woke up this morning with just days to go before ‘The Cavalier Historian’ is published on kindle and feeling rather nervous. Now I have a big smile on my face after receiving my first pre-publication review by Romuald Dzemo writing for Readers’ Favorite. Romuald has given my new novel five stars, which is a wonderful achievement from such a large and respected review site. So, thank you, Romuald, for the review – and the consequent boost to my confidence!

Romuald’s review:
A story that begins with a man waking in the middle of the night, feeling cold and uneasy, to find an ugly woman lurking in his room and telling him she’d waited many years to face a certain Mr. Hardwycke is a good promise for an adventure. The Cavalier Historian by Dorinda Balchin is this story, a tale that features witchcraft, civil war, and a gruesome injustice.

Robert Hardwick has been entrusted with the task to help transform the legendary Marston Manor in Oxfordshire into a themed attraction on the English Civil War. But strange things begin to happen as he starts this exciting project. Someone seems to be working against him, making sure that he doesn’t make any progress. He doesn’t have to investigate because his dreams create the link for him, thrusting him back in time to relive the awful events that took place during the war, and the witch trials of 1651. A woman named Rebekah seems to be at the center of the mystery. Can Robert right the injustice she’d suffered back then?

Part historical and part paranormal, The Cavalier Historian is a story that allows the reader to relive the horrors of the Civil War and the persecution of witches, a story about one of the controversial events in English history. What is most astounding is the bridge the author creates between then and now, making the story read as though it was happening now. The descriptions are vivid and readers will enjoy how the settings and culture are portrayed through the masterful use of language. The plot is fast-paced and intriguing, and I enjoyed the suspense created around the ghostly woman. Dorinda Balchin is a good storyteller with the gift of making the supernatural feel as real as the rainbow and creating characters readers want to stick with. Brilliant. Loved it so much!