Sunday, 7 January 2018

Book Review: The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

Hodder & Stoughton Publishing, 2017 (I own a copy, courtesy of the publisher)

When Lane Roanoke receives a telephone call from her grandfather, telling her that her cousin Allegra has gone missing, she is forced to confront the things she learned about being a Roanoke Girl eleven years earlier when she ran away from the family home.

Roanoke girls are beautiful, rich and mysterious, but they also have a habit of running away or killing themselves.  The summer that Lane turned 15, when she first came to the Roanoke properly outside Osage Flats, Kansas, she was leaving an unhappy home.  Her mother, Eleanor (also a Roanoke girl), had been plagued by melancholy Lane's entire life.  After her suicide, Lane learns that her grandparents, whom she has never met, want to take her in.  Not just will take her in, want her.  Lane discovers what a happy, loving home is for the first time in her life, and she meets her cousin Allegra who has been a Roanoke girl since she was born.  But while on the surface, the Roanoke family seem to be perfect, Allegra's mood swings and strange stomach illnesses make Lane question what might really be going on.  And when she finds out, she runs away, not to return until Allegra's disappearance.

Some of the covers of this book call it the taboo-breaking thriller of the year. Certainly the ideas in the book are a little confronting, and you'd need to have a strong stomach to deal with the rising creep factor as you read.  But I get the impression that the author has tried to hold back as much as possible when writing about Roanoke's dark secret, because she's given herself the difficult task of having to make the readers understand why anyone went along with it.  And if you're planning on reading this book and don't want to get any spoilers, I recommend that you look away now.  Because Yates Roanoke, the family patriarch, has been carrying on romantic and sexual relationships with all of the Roanoke girls-- and they all believe that they love him.  Some, knowing it's wrong (like Lane's mother Eleanor) escape the house, but can never escape the feelings.  Others end it, like Yates' younger sister Sophia, who could not cope when his attentions began to turn to his daughter-niece, Penelope.  Frankly, it's quite unpalatable, so I am glad Amy Engel chose not to bash us over the head with this dark secret.

Our story is told by Lane, switching between the present day, when she returns to help look for Allegra, and the past, when she first arrived at Roanoke.  Interspersed throughout the book are short pieces from the points of view of other Roanoke girls of the past, telling their stories, telling why they did it. Some are gleeful, and excited about the way things are unfolding. Others are filled with jealousy, or are angry, or sad.  But ultimately, these short segments are just glimpses, and don't give us enough of the picture.

This was a fast-paced read, and Lane's voice was one I enjoyed following. She's a damaged survivor, and her relationship with local boy, Cooper, is one of the most enjoyable parts of the book.  Contrary to the way the set up leads you to believe things will go down, it is not Cooper who saves Lane at the last minute, but Lane who saves herself, and I respect that.  Allegra is a different kettle of fish.  She's manipulative and deceitful and very moody-- harking back to the victim of the eponymous book Lolita if you ask me, right down to the provocative, age inappropriate dress and behaviour.  She treats the people around her extremely poorly, but there's something fragile and vulnerable about her that makes her endearing.  Lane tries to get her out of there, but she's in, she's stuck-- she likes it there-- and so Lane blames herself for leaving Allegra behind.

The writing in this book is good-- not too dramatic, not to sparing.  Engel vividly conjures up the small American town on the page, and fills it with characters who seem to walk and talk on their own.  I think for me, because of the nature of the secret, the plot was never going to be wholly satisfying.

I gave this book three stars.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Book Review: A Vineyard in Andalusia by Maria Duenas

Scribe Publishing, 2017 (I own a copy courtesy of the publisher)

Scribe Publishing, 2017
I was in the mood for a big, historical novel when I chose A Vineyard in Andalusia off my teetering TBR pile just before the new year. Clocking in at a little over 500 pages, this novel promised adventure and romance, and to top it all off, it had a recommendation from Kate Morton on the cover. Expectations were high. And for once, I was delighted in having those expectations surpassed. A Vineyard in Andalusia is so much more than a light-hearted historical romp-- it has a bit of everything, and in following the travels of Mauro Larrea, I constantly found my thoughts shifting to reading one of my favourite classics, The Three Musketeers.

The book is set around 1860 and follows Don Mauro Larrea, a mining mogul from Mexico who has just learned that the big financial risk he took, commissioning mining machinery from an American despite the threat posed by the civil war, has left him totally bankrupt. He has no choice but to sell everything that he owns and try to find some way to rebuild his family estate. But, he is rich and powerful in his home town, and had the fates of his two children to think of, so he and his estate manager, Andrade, try to save face. Larrea takes out a loan from a notorious money lender, and promises to pay one third of it back in four months, or else risk losing his family home entirely to the money lender and his family.  Then, he tells everyone that he is off to seek investment opportunities in Cuba. What he finds in Cuba will set in motion a string of events that will take him half way around the world, and help him find a love he was not even aware he was looking for.

On the surface, this had the potential to be quite a dry book, a lot of it being about money and property transations.  But Larrea is a bit of a rogue, he takes risks, he broods, and he doesn't always play by the rules.  He is both a fiercely loyal friend and father, and a formidable opponent.  Following his exploits through the 500 or so pages, we see Larrea seducing the daughters of government officials, besting his rivals at all night billiards games, kidnapping, climbing tall buildings to rescue a damsel (and her husband) in distress, freeing slaves, and so much more.  Taken into its parts like that, it sounds a little bizarre, but it is the skill of Duenas' world building, and of course of the translation, as this book was originally written in Spanish, that make it a romp of a read.  Duenas' settings of Mexico, Cuba and Spain are richly peopled and feel right both for the time and place that they are supposed to be. Her characters are interesting and larger than life-- I think this book would make an excellent Netflix mini-series just for the sake of seeing who they would cast to play Carola Gorostiva, the slightly unhinged femme fatale. 

The trick to this book, perhaps, was not overdoing it with flowery descriptions, and leaving the lushness of language to the dialogue-- giving the speech of certain characters a more appropriate feel for the mid 19th Century setting, while also lending a hint of foreignness to this English edition.  The romantic element of the story too was understated, and felt natural.  While there were occasional descriptions of heaving bosoms, it was right for the story, and the swashbuckling tone that had already been set.

I expected to find this book so so, but instead, raced through it and found myself eager to return to its pages each time I had to take a break. 

I gave A Vineyard in Andalusia 4.5 Stars.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

A Few New Books I Am Excited to Read in 2018

* The Sisters' Song by Louise Allan

* Dustfall by Michelle Johnston

* You Belong Here by Laurie Steed

* The Art of Persuasion by Susan Midalia

* Circe by Madeleine Miller

* Obsidio by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman

* Jane Seymour- The Haunted Queen by Alison Weir

* The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin

* The Secrets at Ocean's Edge by Kali Napier

* The Passengers by Eleanor Limprecht   

* The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

* The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

* The Paris Seamstress by Natasha Lester

* Redemption Point by Candice Fox

* Transcription by Kate Atkinson    

* The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland

* You Think It, I'll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld

* The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

These are in no particular order, and if I have missed any amazing books or you'd like to recommend me a new release (especially if it's yours!) please let me know in the comments section.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Book Review: The Cottingley Secret

The Cottingley Secret
Hazel Gaynor
Harper Collins, 2017 (I own a copy courtesy of the publisher)

Though I watched the movie Fairy Tale: A True Story (1997) many times as a child, it wasn't until the news of this book coming out did I think to check if the story of Frances and Elsie and the Cottingley fairies really was based on a true story.  In 1917, Frances Griffiths and her cousin Elsie Wright stunned the world by photographing themselves in the company of fairies down at the 'beck' (an old word for stream) at the back of Elsie's family home in Cottingley, Yorkshire.  These photographs soon came to the attention of the local Theosophical Society, and were certified as genuine by a Mr Snelling-- an expert in photography.  They also came to the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes books, who went on to publish these photographs alongside two articles which he wrote for The Strand, as well as a book called The Coming of the Fairies which was released in 1922.  Many may find it strange to think that the author who created one of the greatest deductive and logical minds in fiction could believe in the supernatural, but it must be taken into account that these photographs appeared at a time of grief, near the end of the First World War, where every town had lost loved ones.  Conan Doyle was no exception, his own son having died.  The film Fairy Tale touches on this a little by introducing the character of Harry Houdini, who makes it his mission to debunk the phony psychics who claim to be able to channel the voices of loved ones, taking advantage of the grief being felt world-over.  When Conan Doyle (played by Peter O'Toole) asks Houdini (Harvey Keitel) if he truly believes Conan Doyle could have been tricked into thinking a phony psychic was speaking to him in his own child's voice, Houdini replies "You wouldn't be the first." 

In the 1980s, Frances and Elsie admitted to staging the first four photographs, creating the fairies out of illustrations from Princess Mary's Gift Book which Elsie had drawn on sandwich paper and propped up using hat pins.  But the girls have always maintained that the final photograph, called 'The Fairy Bower' in Conan Doyle's accounts, was genuine.  In this image, faint shapes that resemble female figures can be seen gathered around the outside of what looks like a bird's nest in the grass. 

If you would like to read more about the Cottingley Fairies, or see the images taken by Elsie and Frances, you can do so here

One hundred years on, Irish author Hazel Gaynor reimagines the story of Elsie and Frances for her latest historical novel.  The Cottingley Secret is a beautiful, multi-layered story which follows Olivia Kavanagh in the present day and Frances Griffiths back in 1917.  When Olivia's grandfather dies, he leaves her his second hand bookshop, Something Old, as well as a manuscript and a mystery.  The manuscript turns out to be Frances' account of the Cottingley incident, during which she and her cousin Elsie staged fairy photographs in order to convince their families that they really did see fairies down at the beck.  The fairies themselves being too difficult to photograph, Elsie and Frances resorted to making their own fairies to ensure they would get the proof they needed. Frances begins to have strange dreams of the fairies, in which a little red headed girl hands her flowers and repeats 'For my Mammy'.  Neither Frances nor Elsie could have predicted the flurry of attention their photographs would bring, nor the way that their story would captivate the hearts of a nation.  Meanwhile, as Olivia reads Frances' words to her grandmother, now in a nursing home with severe dementia, she begins to find out the secrets of her own family's past.  Olivia too begins to dream of the red headed child and the flowers.  Who is she?  What connection does she have to both Frances and Olivia?  And is it really the fairies who are making magical things happen in the window of Something Old?

The Cottingley Secret is a perfect escapist read.  At times, the prose can be a little clunky, and I found the first few chapters a bit cliched, but once I was into the flow of the narrative, it was the story that carried me along.  It has a bit of everything-- history, magic, romance and a family saga, as well as some great literary references thrown in.  It's also a love story to bookshops, and I have to love that!  Some of the plot points were a tad convenient, and I did get annoyed with the ending to Frances' manuscript having notes tacked on from both Olivia's mother and grandmother, just to ensure you felt like weeping a bit (I didn't though-- not quite).  I think many of the things about this book that I found not quite satisfying are traits of the genre, and within that, were done quite well.  But perhaps it's time to move on from a few of them, hey?  We don't always need to find the letter that explains everything.  History is never truly neat and tidy like that.

While it's no Kate Morton novel (and speaking of which, hopefully we are due for another one of those soon, hint hint), The Cottingley Secret hit the spot, and I would be intrigued to read more from this author, especially seeing as she's also written a novel about the Titanic.

I gave this one three and a half stars. 

Monday, 4 December 2017

Books of the Year: 2017

There are still four weeks left in December, so maybe I am jumping the gun by writing this list.

Books are funny things.  There are some that you love in the moment, but can't recall the plot of months or even days later.  There are others that frustrate you to no end while you're reading them, but you can still find yourself dwelling on years down the track. And because books have such a profound effect on their readers, every year I like to do a shout out to the books that have moved me over the course of the year.

These are in no particular order, and I couldn't limit myself to just ten-- I give you the 17 books I read in 2017 that I would recommend to all of you...

The Possessions by Sara Flannery Murphy

Portable Curiosities by Julie Koh

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

The Weight of a Human Heart by Ryan O'Neill

Bloodlines by Nicole Sinclair

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

The Love of a Bad Man by Laura Elizabeth Woollett

Miss Lily's Lovely Ladies by Jackie French

Australia Day by Melanie Cheng

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

The Woolgrower's Companion by Joy Rhoades

Code Name Verity & Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

Beautiful Messy Love by Tess Woods

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Bird Country by Claire Aman