A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton

For many years, Amaterasu has been grieving for the loss of her daughter and grandson, believed to have been killed when the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. Even now, Amaterasu still struggles with the feeling of guilt – why did she survive when they did not? – and with the need to find someone to blame. When a stranger comes to her door, claiming to be her lost grandson Hideo, she is unable to believe that it’s truly him. To prove he really is who he says he is, he gives Amaterasu a package of diaries and letters which shed some light on what happened all those years ago and help her to decide whether this man could possibly be Hideo.

As Amaterasu sits and reads the papers she has been given, she is forced to revisit moments from the past which she would rather forget and in the process comes to know more about her daughter Yuko than she did while she was alive. It’s obvious from the start that the villain of the story, as far as Amaterasu is concerned, is Jomei Sato, Yuko’s lover, but we don’t know at first why she dislikes him so much and why she believes he played a part in her daughter’s death. Before we can make sense of the chain of events that led to Yuko standing in a cathedral in Nagasaki which was destroyed when the bomb fell, we have to go back in time to see the beginnings of Yuko’s relationship with Sato – and then further back again to discover Amaterasu’s own personal story and to understand what makes her feel the way she does.

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding is a beautifully written novel dealing with a subject which I’m sure must have been difficult and emotional to research and to write about. Although Jackie Copleton didn’t actually live through the bombing of Nagasaki herself, her descriptions of the bombing (or pikadon, from the Japanese words for flash and boom) and its aftermath are vivid, intense and shocking. This is not just a novel about war, however. The events of that terrible day in August 1945 are just one part of the story, along with other topics and themes such as family, love, forgiveness and how different people cope with loss and heartbreak.

My knowledge of Japanese history and culture is very limited so I can’t really comment on the accuracy of the novel, apart from to say that it all seemed convincing enough to me! Every chapter begins with a Japanese word or term and its English translation, each one giving us some insight into one small aspect of Japanese life. Sometimes the relevance of the word and its definition to the chapter which follows is obvious, but sometimes I had to think about why a particular word was chosen to represent a particular chapter.

This was an interesting read (especially as it’s one of my goals to read more historical fiction set in Japan) but, with the exception of the pikadon chapter, I didn’t find it quite as moving as I’d expected. This could partly be because of the structure of the novel – the story takes the form of Amaterasu’s memories interspersed with short extracts from Yuko’s diaries and Sato’s letters, and this meant that I was always very aware that I was reading about events that were already in the past, rather than actually being there with the characters sharing their experiences as they happened. I think it might have been this lack of immediacy which stopped me from fully connecting with the characters on an emotional level.

Still, I thought this was a very impressive novel, particularly as it is Jackie Copleton’s first. I would say that I enjoyed it, but ‘enjoyed’ is not really the right word to use given the subject of the book. Instead I’ll say that it is fascinating, gripping and informative and I would be very happy to read more books by this author.

Desolation Island by Patrick O’Brian

The fifth book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series and probably my favourite so far! For once I found that I was able to follow everything that was happening – the nautical parts are finally becoming easier to understand and, now that I’m five books in, the characters are starting to feel like old friends. If you’re not familiar yet with the adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin, you may like to read my review of the first in the series – Master and Commander; otherwise, I have made the rest of this post as spoiler-free as possible, but can’t help referring to certain characters and elements of the previous four books.

Like most, if not all, of the books in the series so far, this one begins on land. Jack Aubrey is in a much better position financially than he was in at the beginning of the previous novel, The Mauritius Command, and is able to provide a comfortable home for his wife Sophie and their expanding family (the twins now have a baby brother called George). It seems that trouble could be on the horizon, however, as less scrupulous men prepare to take advantage of Jack’s open, trusting nature, and much as Sophie loves her husband, she knows he needs to get back to sea again as quickly as possible. An opportunity soon arises when Jack is asked to take command of HMS Leopard on a voyage to Australia to assist the notorious Captain Bligh (of mutiny on the Bounty fame) who is having difficulties in his new position as Governor of New South Wales.

Stephen Maturin is joining Jack on the Leopard as ship’s surgeon, but there is another reason for his presence on the voyage which has not been revealed to Jack. The ship is carrying a cargo of convicts to Australia and among them is a beautiful female prisoner, Mrs Wogan, who is suspected of being an American spy. Stephen has been asked to keep an eye on her throughout the journey to see if he can catch her in the act of espionage. This mission is of particular interest to Stephen because Mrs Wogan is a friend of Diana Villiers, the woman he loves, who has fled to America after also being accused of spying.

I’ve enjoyed all of the previous four books in the series (some more than others) but I struggled at times with the last one, The Mauritius Command, because of the large proportion of the book devoted to naval battles. I didn’t have that problem with Desolation Island. Although there is a sea chase and a brief battle – involving the Dutch ship Waakzaamheid – this forms a relatively small part of the story. Instead, there is more focus on the daily lives of the people aboard the ship and the challenges and dangers they face on a long voyage. The crew consider the Leopard (or “the horrible old Leopard” as they call it) to be an unlucky ship and it does seem to be living up to its reputation with rumours of a ghost aboard, a sickness which breaks out amongst the prisoners and a close encounter with an iceberg!

Another reason I preferred this novel to the previous one is that more time was spent on the personal relationships between the characters. I didn’t feel that we saw much of Jack and Stephen together in The Mauritius Command, but in this book they have more opportunities to talk and to indulge their shared love of music. With some of the misfortunes that befall the Leopard towards the end of the book, Jack needs all the loyal friends he can get! With Jack kept in the dark about the true reasons for Mrs Wogan’s presence on the ship, Stephen is unable to confide in him as much as he would like to and is left to wrestle privately with his feelings regarding Mrs Wogan and her connections with Diana. With most of the novel spent at sea, he doesn’t have as many chances to observe the flora and fauna as usual, but once they reach the shores of Desolation Island, he is able to study albatrosses, seals and penguins.

There’s so much left unresolved at the end of this book that I’m sure it won’t be long before I’m tempted to pick up the next one, The Fortune of War. With Jack’s mission incomplete and the War of 1812 about to begin, I’m looking forward to seeing how the story continues!

To Sleep No More by Deryn Lake

I had never come across Deryn Lake’s books until recently, but it seems that she has written a large number of historical fiction novels, detective stories and romances, published from the 1980s to the present day. I decided to try To Sleep No More, a book which first appeared in 1987 under the name Dinah Lampitt and has now been reissued by Endeavour Press as a Deryn Lake novel. It’s an unusual book as it feels almost like three separate novels in one, but with some very important links between the three and all set in the same small community – the village of Mayfield in Sussex.

We begin in the 14th century with the story of Oriel de Sharndene, whose father marries her off to the innocent and childlike Colin, brother of Archbishop John de Stratford. As she tries to settle into married life at Maghefeld Palace, Oriel finds that although she is fond of her husband and captivated by his extraordinary musical abilities, their marriage is never going to be a very satisfying one. The man she truly loves is Marcus de Flaviel, a squire from Gascony who has recently arrived in England and has been appointed companion to Colin by the Archbishop. Colin likes Marcus almost as much as Oriel does, and for a while the three are quite happy. Eventually, though, Oriel’s relationship with the Gascon squire leads to tragedy and at that point the first part of the novel ends.

Moving forward to the year 1609, we find ourselves in the village of Mayfield (formerly Maghefeld) again – and with a new set of characters to get to know. This time we follow the story of Jenna Casselowe who decides to resort to magic to win the heart of the man she loves, Benjamin Mist. Jenna needs to be careful – if anyone finds out what she has been doing she risks being accused of witchcraft. Finally, there’s a third story set early in the 18th century, when the roads and beaches of Sussex are alive with illegal activity. Lieutenant Nicholas Grey arrives in Mayfield on the trail of highwayman Jacob Challice and a gang of smugglers – could another chain of events be about to be set in motion which will again have tragic consequences?

Three stories which all seem very different at first, but as you continue to read some of the parallels and connections start to emerge, although others are not clear until the end of the book. I don’t think it’s spoiling anything (as it’s clearly stated in the blurb) to say that reincarnation is involved and that characters we meet in one time period correspond with characters from another. It’s not always clear who is who as they don’t necessarily keep the same appearance, sex or position in society from one life to the other, but if you’re patient there are eventually enough clues to be able to fit the pieces together.

I have to admit, when I first started to read To Sleep No More I didn’t expect to be very impressed by it (maybe it was the cover of the new edition that gave me that impression) but I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. Although it took me a while to adjust to each new story – as I’ve said, it’s almost like reading three different novels in the same book – and a lot of concentration is needed to keep track of the characters and who they may have been in a previous life, it’s not quite as confusing as it all sounds!

Each section of the book has its own sense of time and place reflecting the different era and the changes in language, culture and attitudes over the centuries. It was obvious that the author had done a lot of research into the local history of the area and into each period in general, although I was not convinced by the work of a doctor who, towards the end of the novel, is carrying out experiments involving hypnosis and regression – his methods were surely too scientific for 1721. On the other hand, without that particular plot development it’s difficult to see how else the various threads of the story could have been pulled together.

Reading Deryn Lake’s author’s note at the end of the book, I was surprised to see how many of the secondary characters and events in the three stories were based on historical fact. For example, Alice Casselowe, Jenna’s aunt in the novel, really was accused of witchcraft and there really was a gang of smugglers operating in Mayfield in the 1720s. The author also incorporates the legend of St Dunstan (allegedly Mayfield’s founder) into the story, with several characters seeing ghostly visions of a monk working at a forge. The supernatural elements of the story are usually quite subtle, though, and are used sparingly to add to the eerie atmosphere of the novel.

Have you read any of Deryn Lake/Dinah Lampitt’s novels? What did you think?

The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

Years ago now, certainly before I started blogging, I read The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova’s novel based on the legend of Dracula. It had sounded like the sort of book I would enjoy, but I remember being disappointed, although I can’t recall the reasons why. I didn’t read her next novel, The Swan Thieves, but when I heard about this latest one, The Shadow Land, I decided it was time to give Kostova another try. That was a good decision, because I found this to be a moving, powerful and beautifully written novel and I liked it much more than The Historian.

The Shadow Land is set in Bulgaria, beginning in 2008 when a young American woman, Alexandra Boyd, arrives in the country’s capital city of Sofia, where she will be starting a new job as a teacher at the Central English Institute. Discovering that she has arrived at the wrong hotel, she stands outside to wait for a taxi and here she falls into conversation with a family consisting of an elderly couple and another younger man who are also leaving the hotel. It’s not until Alexandra is sitting in her taxi, on her way to her destination, that she discovers she has picked up a bag belonging to the elderly people. Looking inside, she is horrified to find that she is now in possession of an urn engraved with the name Stoyan Lazarov and containing somebody’s ashes.

Instructing her taxi driver, Bobby, to take her to the nearest police station, Alexandra hopes this will be the end of the matter, but when the police prove to be less helpful than she’d expected, she decides to find the family and return the urn to them herself. She knows what it’s like to grieve for a loved one – her brother Jack disappeared on a hike in the Blue Ridge Mountains several years earlier – and she wants to make her apologies in person. However, the family of Stoyan Lazarov appear to have disappeared almost without trace…and it seems that somebody else is also searching for the urn.

With Bobby’s help, Alexandra travels around Bulgaria from town to town, trying to pick up the trail of Stoyan’s family and in each place she visits she learns a little bit more about the man whose ashes she is carrying. I have to admit, I found this quite unconvincing as I’m sure most of us would just have handed the urn in to the hotel reception or insisted on leaving it with the police – and even if we had decided to track the people down ourselves, it’s unlikely that a taxi driver we’d only just met would agree to come with us! The implausibility of this central plot point, however, didn’t really bother me because I was already enjoying the story so much.

Having the action moving from one location to another also gives Kostova an opportunity to describe the feel and appearance of various Bulgarian towns and villages and to capture the beauty of the countryside. Because we’re seeing all of this through Alexandra’s eyes, we can appreciate what it’s like to be exploring a new country for the first time, unable to speak the language and with no knowledge of local customs and traditions. As for Bobby, I loved him and, unlikely as it might have seemed, I was glad that he decided to abandon his usual routine and join Alexandra on her mission.

The Shadow Land really is a fascinating novel. It begins with a simple idea – a person accidentally taking something which doesn’t belong to them and then trying to return it – and slowly expands into an examination of Bulgaria’s history, of war, communism and political unrest, and of one man’s courage in the face of unimaginable horrors. I wish I could go into more detail, but I would rather let you read about Stoyan Lazarov’s experiences for yourself. It’s a very dark novel in places, particularly later in the book as Stoyan’s story begins to unfold, but it’s an important story and, despite the darkness, I think it’s one that needs to be told.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie – #1951club

After reading Duplicate Death by Georgette Heyer, the second novel I decided to read for Karen and Simon’s 1951 Club this week was another crime one – by Agatha Christie this time. It seems that whichever year is chosen for the club (so far, anyway) there’s always at least one Christie novel published in that year, and as soon as I saw that 1951 marked the publication of They Came to Baghdad, I knew that I wanted to read it. The title had me intrigued immediately: who came to Baghdad and why? I couldn’t wait to find out!

This book is not one of Christie’s Poirot or Miss Marple mysteries – it’s a standalone and actually much more of a spy novel or thriller than a mystery. With an exciting plot involving kidnappings, conspiracies, impersonations, disguises and secret messages, I found it a lot of fun to read – one of those books I genuinely didn’t want to have to put down until I was finished!

So, who came to Baghdad? Well, first of all there’s our heroine, Victoria Jones, a young woman with a vivid imagination and a gift for coming up with creative yet convincing lies. Having just lost her job as a typist, Victoria takes a walk in a London park where she meets Edward, a charming, handsome young man with whom she falls in love at first sight. When, to her disappointment, Edward tells her that he’ll be leaving the next day to go and work in Baghdad, Victoria decides that she must follow him there…the only problem is, she has no money to pay for the flight. As luck would have it, she then discovers that an American lady, Mrs Hamilton-Clipp, will be flying to Baghdad three days later and requires a companion for the journey. It seems that Victoria’s problem is solved.

Meanwhile, an interesting assortment of other people are beginning to converge upon Baghdad, including the flamboyant explorer Sir Rupert Crofton-Lee; the eccentric archaeologist Dr Pauncefoot Jones (no relation of Victoria’s, although she’s quite willing to pretend that he is); Anna Scheele, a clever and elusive young woman; and the mysterious Carmichael, whom we first meet in the British Consulate wearing Arab dress and trying to convey an important message to a fellow visitor. And why have all of these people come to Baghdad? It will spoil the story if I go into too much detail, but it’s probably enough to say that an international plot is brewing and Victoria Jones is about to become caught up in it.

What a great book this is! The story is a bit far-fetched and silly at times, but it was so entertaining I didn’t mind at all. Although, as I’ve said, it’s not really a mystery novel, there are still puzzles to be solved (I particularly loved the way one of my favourite Dickens novels provides Victoria with a vital clue) and there are plenty of plot twists too – I had my suspicions about some of them, but others took me by surprise. The setting is wonderful as well, with lots of colourful descriptions of Baghdad capturing a time and place that has changed forever. While it was easy enough for Victoria to travel to Baghdad (once she’d found a way to pay for it), for most of us Iraq is sadly no longer a place that we will have the opportunity to visit, apart from through fiction.

Much as I enjoy Agatha Christie’s detective novels, Victoria Jones is such an engaging heroine that it didn’t bother me that there’s no Poirot or Marple in this one. If you’re looking for something slightly different from Christie, I would definitely recommend trying They Came to Baghdad!

A trio of books: London Roses; The Hurlyburly’s Husband; The King’s Favourite

I’ve been struggling to keep up to date with my reviews recently – I seem to go into each new month with at least four or five books still to write about from the month before – so I thought I would try putting together the occasional multi-book post with slightly shorter reviews than normal.

London Roses by Dora Greenwell McChesney, first published in 1903, follows the stories of a group of people who meet in the Manuscript Room at the British Museum. Rhoda Comstock is a young American woman who has come to London to stay with her English cousin, Una Thorpe, and the two strike up a friendship one day with journalist Stephen Fulford and his brother Thomas, getting together to discuss their research and to engage in lighthearted debate about the differences between life in Britain and America. When Stephen makes the sudden decision to go to South Africa to report on the Boer War, he leaves behind a scandal which puts Thomas in a difficult position and poses a threat not only to the bond between the two brothers but also to their newly formed relationships with Rhoda and Una.

London Roses is packed with interesting ideas and themes – loyalty and friendship; the importance of trust; adjusting to life in a different country – although none of these things are explored in as much depth as they could have been. The characters also had the potential to be a lot more complex and well-developed than they actually were. None of the main four ever came fully to life and I was much more intrigued by the character of Anthony Pettigrew, an old man Rhoda nicknames the Moth, who has spent thirty years coming to the British Museum to research books that he’s never written.

Far too much of the novel is spent discussing the English Civil War, which is apparently a passion of several of the characters (and also of the author – as I know, having read her historical novels Rupert, by the Grace of God and Cornet Strong of Ireton’s Horse), but which felt a bit strange as it had very little to do with the rest of the plot. On a more positive note, there are some nice descriptions of London and the Museum, but overall I was disappointed by this book and was thankful that it was such a short one!

The Hurlyburly’s Husband is an English translation by Alison Anderson of Jean Teulé’s 2008 French novel. Set in 17th century France, it tells the story of the often forgotten husband of Madame de Montespan (mistress of the Sun King, Louis XIV). Louis-Henri, Marquis de Montespan, marries Athénaïs, as she becomes known, after her fiancé flees following a duel. He loves his new wife and believes that she loves him, but it’s not long before Athénaïs goes to court as a lady-in-waiting and takes the place of Louise de la Valliere in the king’s affections. Unlike many cuckolded husbands of the period, Montespan is not interested in using his wife’s position to gain money and titles at court; instead, when it becomes obvious that Athénaïs is lost to him, he chooses to defy the king and take revenge in any small way he can.

A lot has been written about Madame de Montespan, her relationship with the king and her involvement in the Affair of the Poisons, but her husband is usually ignored. It was good to have the chance to read his side of the story and to see how he may have felt about all of this. As Athénaïs is absent from her husband’s life for most of the novel, the focus is always on Montespan himself: his attempts at winning glory on the battlefield, his relationships with his children, and his acts of defiance against the king (adding horns to his coat of arms, for example).

This is an entertaining little novel, as lively, colourful and scandalous as the French court it describes. There are even some illustrations, which are always a nice addition to any book. And in case you’re wondering, the hurlyburly of the title refers to the hairstyle popular in the 17th century known as the hurluberlu.

The final book I want to talk about here is The King’s Favourite by Marjorie Bowen (originally published in 1938 under the pseudonym George R Preedy). The King of the title is King James I of England and VI of Scotland – and the Favourite is Robin Carr, a young man who catches the King’s eye when he falls and breaks his leg in the tilt yard. Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton, sees his chance to gain influence at court by pushing his pretty, seventeen-year-old great-niece Frances into an affair with Robin. But Howard is not the only one who is plotting and scheming; Robin’s friend, Tom Overbury, is also keen to encourage the romance between Robin and Frances in the hope of gaining more power for himself.

Nobody expected the two to actually fall in love, but that is what happens. With his plans thrown into disarray, Overbury finds himself caught in the middle of another plot – but this one is directed at himself. The King’s Favourite is based on real events from history, but I was unfamiliar with the details of this particular story. My lack of knowledge meant I had no idea what was going to happen and could enjoy this as a suspenseful true crime novel before looking up the facts after I’d finished and comparing them with Marjorie Bowen’s version.

While the plot (after a slow start) is an exciting, dramatic one, the characters are not particularly strong and not at all sympathetic either! I can’t say that I liked any of them – although I was interested to see that the astrologer and physician Simon Forman plays a prominent part in the story. I remember being intrigued by his appearances in Sally O’Reilly’s Dark Aemilia, so it was good to learn more about him here.

I see that there have been several other novels written over the years that also deal with the Overbury case, including one by Rafael Sabatini (The Minion) which I’m now very interested in reading. The TBR continues to grow!

Duplicate Death by Georgette Heyer – #1951club

Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon of Stuck in a Book are hosting another of their book clubs this week. This time it’s the 1951 Club and the idea is that we all read and write about books published in the same year. 1951 seems to have been a particularly good year for publishing – I have linked to some of my previous reviews at the bottom of this post – but when choosing what to read this week it was the crime novels from that year which appealed to me the most. The first one I picked up was Georgette Heyer’s Duplicate Death. Heyer is better known for her Regency romances, but she also wrote mysteries and, having read two of them (Envious Casca and Footsteps in the Dark), I’ve been looking forward to reading more.

Duplicate Death brings back characters who first appeared in They Found Him Dead, which I haven’t read yet but will eventually. Although a few references are made to things which I assume happened in the earlier novel, I don’t feel that reading this one first was a problem. At the beginning of the novel, Jim Kane receives a letter from his mother telling him of her concerns about his half-brother, Timothy, who has just become engaged to Beulah Birtley, a secretary in the household of the wealthy Mrs Haddington. Jim’s mother is unhappy because she has been able to discover nothing at all about Beulah’s family or background – surely the girl must be an Adventuress! Reluctantly, Jim agrees to visit Timothy to see if he can shed any light on the matter.

Meanwhile, Mrs Haddington is hosting a bridge party at her home in London. When one of the guests is found strangled after leaving the room to answer the telephone, suspicion falls on several of the people present at the party, including the mysterious Beulah Birtley. Chief Inspector Hemingway of Scotland Yard is called in to investigate, but before he’s had time to solve one murder, another takes place. The second murder appears to be identical to the first – but is it? Have both crimes been committed by the same person? And what is Beulah’s secret?

I enjoyed this book, after a slow start, but not as much as the other Heyer mysteries I’ve read. I felt that the story took too long to really get started; I appreciate that some time needs to be spent on setting the scene, but the characters just didn’t interest me enough to hold my attention throughout the build-up. With the exception of Timothy, they’re an unpleasant bunch of people – and although there are still examples of the witty dialogue Heyer is so good at, I think she does it much better in the Regencies than the mysteries. Once the first murder was committed and Hemingway arrived on the scene, though, the story became a lot more compelling.

I said in my Envious Casca review that, as far as literary detectives go, Hemingway is not a very interesting one. This time I found that I liked him more than I did before. I liked his brisk, no-nonsense attitude and the fact that he doesn’t have any little quirks or eccentricities; instead of bringing too much of his own personality to the investigations, he just gets on with the job, which is actually quite refreshing. His relationship with his assistant, Inspector Grant, works well, although I’m not sure that having Grant returning from his trip home to Scotland speaking Gaelic was really as funny as it was obviously intended to be!

I’m now reading a second book from 1951 – They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie – and hope to post my thoughts on that one before the end of the club.

~

More 1951 books previously read and reviewed on this blog:

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
The Quiet Gentleman by Georgette Heyer
The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham