Tag Archives: historical fiction

Book Review: Big Lies in a Small Town by Diane Chamberlain

Pic from Goodreads


The town of Edenton, North Carolina is front and centre of this dual timeline novel and what a surprisingly gripping historical mystery it is.


Morgan Christopher, once an art student is in jail for a crime she didn’t commit, when she is released on bail to restore a post office mural in time for the opening of a gallery in Edenton. She has no training on restoration and has a short deadline to complete it or she faces returning to jail. She sets to work on the mural and as she cleans and restores it, the painting reveals more than she expected.


Anna Dale, a young talented artist wins a contest in 1940 to paint the mural for the Edenton Post Office and we follow her story. Coming from the north near New York, she confronts prejudices and secrets in the small town. She disappears and so does the mural until it turns up in 2018 for Morgan to restore and the questions mount throughout the book until we reach the satisfying climactic end.


The prologue opens with three black children discovering a dead white man setting the scene for a deliciously slow unveiling. I so enjoyed this book, particularly the last half and was unable to put it down. The character development of Anna and Morgan was very well done. The two find themselves and each other with art.


Chamberlain does an amazing job with both timelines and her research into the real town and its history, good and bad,  was very enlightening. Both stories are compelling and heart-breaking fully engaging the reader from start to finish.


You won’t be disappointed reading this one and I’d heartily recommend it.

Book Review: City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert


42135029
Nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris arrives in New York to stay with her flamboyant Aunt Peg. Her aunt owns and runs a struggling theatre and, Vivian helps out by designing and sewing the  costumes for her.  Vivian, naïve and in awe of her new life in New York  befriends show girl Celia and together they treat the city and the men in it, as their playground. One night, a drunken Vivian makes a mistake, which results in public scandal and humiliation for her and the theatre. She is ostracised from the world she’s grown to love forcing her to reassess who she is and what kind of person she wants to be. It leads her eventually to the love of her life.


Apart from Vivian Morris and the minor characters along the way, the biggest star of this drama is New York. I loved reading about the world of theatre and show-business and Gilbert has done a masterful job in researching the era of the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, so that we, the reader feel fully immersed.


The book opens with Vivian telling her story to Angela in response to her request about what Vivian was to her father. She replies that all she can tell her is  what Angela’s father meant to her. And so, her story begins. And what a story it is.


It’s an honest portrayal of glamour, sex, fashion, debauchery and decadence. The old Vivian in the story doesn’t portray herself as anything other than stupidly young, frivolous and naïve. She harks back to a time of promiscuity, unwed mothers, homosexuality and where scandal by the tabloids was as ever-present as it is today.


The narration style in first person by Vivian jarred my reading at first and it took a little while to get used to it. It’s a long read and it takes quite a while for Vivian to answer Angela’s initial question, but when she does you get why it’s so long. It was one I couldn’t put down. Enjoyable and enlightening.

Book Review: The White Girl by Tony Birch

Pic from Goodreads

This is the first book I’ve read by Tony Birch and it won’t be the last.

Odette Brown is a woman who lives in shanty town in outback rural Australia in the early sixties. She looks after her grand-daughter Sissy keeping them both from the attention of the welfare authorities who systematically remove fair-skinned Aboriginal children from their families supposedly for their own good.

When Sissy turns thirteen, she comes under the notice of new policeman in town who zealously takes on the job of being the legal custodian all aboriginal children in the district. Odette leaves with her granddaughter and heads to the city with the policeman in hot pursuit.

This book, although a fictional story gives us a sense of the Aboriginal experience, one which was never taught in Australians schools or talked about in the daily newspapers.

For years, Aboriginal people living on the mission were barred from entering town, except on Saturday mornings between eight and noon, when they were permitted to shop at the company store in the main street. “

It’s well-paced and filled with tension. It’s also a story of resilience, love, courage and hope as well as connection to and the importance of family. In the words of the author, “What I do hope for with this novel, is that the love and bravery of the tenacity and love within the hearts of those who suffered the theft of their own blood.”

It’s an easy to read and well-written book which touches on important issues of a nasty era.

Book Review: The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

40538657. sy475

The Island of Sea Women is a fascinating novel of sorrow and grief but more importantly it’s also a novel of friendship, spirituality and the strength of women in an unusual matriarchal society.

Set on the  Korean Island of Jeju, the friendship of two women Young-sook and Mi-ja stretches across time from the occupation by the Japanese until 2008. From different backgrounds, they join the Haenyeo, a collective of women, who traditionally for centuries dive and harvest sea creatures to not only feed themselves, but for sale. The men traditionally stay home and look after the children while the women come together and dive. The island is known for their Haenyeo traditions where women dive even in freezing conditions and worship a female god to protect them when they go out. At the age of fifty-five they retire and nuture baby dives in their teen years.

I thought the book started slowly as we learnt about how the friendship began and all about the matriarchy of the collective and the diving. I have to be honest, while I didn’t warm to the characters at first, I persisted and I’m so glad I did. The next two thirds was a dynamite of action, tragedy and heartbreak. The story flipped into and out of 2008 but not too often.

It’s a fascinating history and the author has done a mountain of work on her research, not just about the Haenyeo, the ancient practice of worshipping female Gods but of Korea’s past and lead up to the War. I’d never heard of this particular Island and when I finished the novel, I found myself reading more about it.

I’d recommend it thoroughly.

Book Review: The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben McIntyre

37542581

Move over James Bond. The Spy and the Traitor is an edge of the seat read about Oleg Gordievsky, a Russian spy working for the British intelligence during the Cold War.

Oleg was the son and brother of KGB agents and it only seemed natural that he too join the KGB. His first post as an intelligence agent in Denmark opened his eyes to the West in 1968. As he rose through the KGB ranks to become the top KGB officer in London, his disillusionment with communism intensified and became an informant for the British from 1973 until his defection in 1985.

The intimate workings of both sides of the spy game was a fascinating read and I was astounded to find out that the world was on the brink of nuclear war in 1983 when Russian paranoia was at its height. Russia mistakenly believed that the US was about to push the nuclear button. Gordievsky revealed this information which was given to Thatcher and Reagan who quickly diffused Russia’s concerns. Thank God for Gordievsky. He is also credited with not just preventing nuclear war but quite possibly the break-up of the Soviet Union.

MI6 kept a close eye on Gordievsky; the risks were high and very few people knew his identity. However, the CIA were desperate to find out the identity of the British source and the power struggles between the two intelligence machines was intense.

The spy world is filled with treachery, ego and stupidity highlighted by games of cat and mouse. I had to keep reminding myself that this actually happened and was not make-believe which served to make me feel a bit uncomfortable that the world’s peace is in the hands of these so-called intelligence gathering experts.

The way the author has pulled this book together from interviews and documented evidence  is truly remarkable. It makes for chilling and uncomfortable reading. Just try and put it down. I’ll bet you can’t.

Book Review: The Fragments by Toni Jordan

The FragmentsPic courtesy of Goodreads

Oh, how I adored this book!

Inga Karlson a phenomenally successful novelist in the late 1930’s died in a New York fire which also destroys all evidence of her latest and highly anticipated book. An exhibition of her life in the form of photos and fragments of burned manuscript comes to Brisbane. While strolling through the exhibition Caddie Walker, a bookseller and Inga fan, crosses paths with an elderly woman named Rachel who recites;

“And in the end, all we have are the hours and the days, the minutes and the way we bear them, the seconds spent on this earth and the number of them that truly mattered.”

Caddie is astounded when she realises the fragment of a burned page that survived ended the above sentence at ‘we bear them.’

The fact that Rachel can recite the next line leads her to believe the lost book may actually have survived or that this woman has somehow read it or knows something.  So ensues a chase through history to investigate and discover what really happened to Inga and what was so important in her last book. For Caddie the possibilities of her own book and Ph.D. about Inga are in her grasp.

This literary whodunit story is beautifully written and evocative of 1980’s Brisbane and 1930’s New York. Told in a dual time-line narrative the characters of Rachel and Caddie evolve wonderfully and then come together in a very satisfactory end. Rachel’s love story was gentle and beautifully told contrasting nicely with Caddie’s own difficult love life. But it’s not a love story, it’s a mystery portraying the ends people will go to destroy another person’s life. In Inga’s case, it was her work and her life while in Caddie’s case it was academic theft of her work by her ex-lover Professor.

The politics of academia is explored as is the politics of pre-WW2 German activity in America. It’s a fascinating examination and the novel is well-paced with unsettling tension. If you are after a page-turner, then grab this one.

Book Review: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

 

Pic courtesy of Goodreads

This is a powerful read with a lot in it. George Washington Black is born into slavery on a sugar plantation in Barbados owned by the ruthless and cruel Englishman, Erasmus Wilde. Never knowing his parents, young Wash, as he is known, lives a life where brutality and hardship are daily struggles for survival.

By the age of eleven, another white gentleman known as Titch comes into his life. Titch is Erasmus’s younger brother and is a scientist who builds a prototype of a hot air balloon on a hill in the plantation. It’s the 1880s and his invention is sneered at by his older brother. Titch sees Wash and plucks him from the fields to be his assistant because he is the right weight for his contraption. Titch is also an abolitionist and objects to slavery and takes on Wash’s education and discovers his talent for drawing. Wash quickly assimilates into a new way of life and grows attached to Titch but he is never free of fear as Titch takes him on an adventure with dire consequences.

This is a very well researched historical fiction giving an intimate examination of slavery. But it’s more than that; it’s full of adventure, suspense, love, and history. It’s set in an era where science and invention are challenging the norms of society. The writing is wonderful from the point of view of Wash in the first person. His observations are clear.

“A man who has belonged to another learns very quickly to observe a master’s eye; what I saw in this man’s terrified me. He owned me, as he owned all those I lived among, not only our lives but also our deaths, and that pleased him very much. His name was Erasmus Wilde.”

We’re taken on a journey with Wash –  loving him, fearing for him and caring, deeply. And even though that journey at times feels impossible and almost improbable to believe, it doesn’t matter because we care so much about what happens to Wash and dare to hope for a better life for him. Along the way, we become caught up with the science of the time, from hot air balloon inventions to the world’s first aquarium, the wilderness of Canada and arctic exploration. The dynamics of Titch’s dysfunctional family are played out with Wash stuck in the middle trying to belong and find love.

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018, it’s a wonderful story. From violence to beauty and hope, it’s fascinating and absorbing, so much so, I couldn’t put this page-turner down.