Category Archives: Recommended

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

Frog Music This is the second book I’ve read by Emma Donoghue – the first was Room, which I enjoyed, and since then I’ve been wanting to try one of her historical fiction novels. This new one, Frog Music, is set in San Francisco in 1876 and is based on a true crime story.

Twenty-four-year-old Blanche Beunon, once a star of the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris, is now a dancer in a San Francisco burlesque club. She lives in the city’s Chinatown with her lover, Arthur Deneve, and his friend – and former partner on the flying trapeze – Ernest Girard. One week in August, two newcomers enter their little circle. One of these is P’tit, Blanche and Arthur’s baby boy, reunited with his parents after a year of separation. Blanche has rarely even thought about her baby during his absence, but now she discovers what being a mother really means.

The other new arrival is a woman called Jenny Bonnet, just released from jail after being arrested for the crime of dressing in men’s clothes. Jenny, who makes her living from catching frogs and selling them to French and Chinese restaurants, is like nobody else Blanche has ever met and makes her think differently about herself and her life. But when Jenny is shot dead, Blanche is convinced that she herself was the intended victim. Can she find the murderer before he kills again and before she loses P’tit again forever?

The real life murder case on which Frog Music is based remains an unsolved crime to this day, but the solution Donoghue provides is believable and consistent with what we have learned about the personalities and motives of the characters involved. The author also includes a detailed Afterword in which she explains which of the characters and events in the story are factual and which are purely fictional.

While there are some very unpleasant, unlikeable people in this novel, I thought the central character, Blanche, was wonderful. Her personality is a mass of contradictions: she’s tough yet vulnerable, intelligent yet naïve, self-absorbed yet sensitive. She’s such a well drawn character and felt completely real. I loved her and desperately wanted her to find some real happiness. Her story is so sad at times – I don’t want to say too much, but the circumstances surrounding the reappearance of P’tit are shocking and heartbreaking; I found that part of the book quite painful to read. As for Jenny, she remains a secretive and mysterious character throughout the novel. It is only towards the end of the book that we (and Blanche) begin to see beneath her protective outer shell and are finally given some glimpses of the real Jenny Bonnet.

The sense of time and place is very strong. I’m not sure I’ve read a book set in 1870s San Francisco before and I found it a vivid, atmospheric setting. The action takes place during both a heat wave and an epidemic of smallpox and both have an impact on Blanche’s story. Another interesting element of the novel is the role of music. Many songs and rhymes are quoted from in the book and information on each of them is given in an appendix. I thought this really added something to the story, helping to provide context and historical background. As Blanche and the other main characters are French and often use French slang, there is a glossary provided at the back of the book too, if you need help in translating any unfamiliar words.

My only criticism of this book is that the way the story is structured could cause confusion. It follows two time periods – one in Blanche’s present, describing Jenny’s murder and its consequences; the other flashing back to the beginning of their friendship a month earlier. Gradually the two storylines converge until they are only a day or two apart and at this point it becomes slightly difficult to follow the chronological sequence of events. Sometimes we are given the date, but not always, so it’s not immediately clear which thread of the story we are reading.

One other thing I should mention is that as Blanche is an exotic dancer there are some quite graphic descriptions of her work. It was maybe a bit excessive, but I could appreciate that it was all part of who Blanche is and it would have been hard to convey the realities of her life without being explicit at times.

Frog Music is not a book that will appeal to everyone (though you could say the same about any book, I suppose) but I thought it was great and having enjoyed this one and Room I’ll be looking for more of Emma Donoghue’s books soon.

Ghostwritten by Isabel Wolff

Ghostwritten As a ghostwriter, Jenni’s job involves writing books for people who are unable or unwilling to do the writing themselves. Many of her projects include celebrity biographies and self-help guides, but some of her clients are ordinary people with extraordinary tales to tell. At a friend’s wedding she is introduced to a man who tells her about his mother, Klara, a Dutch woman who survived the Japanese internment camps in Java during World War II. Klara has said very little to her family about her wartime experiences, but as she approaches her eightieth birthday she has decided that the time has come for her story to be told. Intrigued, Jenni agrees to visit Klara at her home in Cornwall and help to put her memories down on paper.

The only problem with this new project is that the little Cornish town of Polvarth where Klara lives is a place that holds traumatic memories for Jenni, but although she is not very happy about returning to Polvarth, the temptation of hearing Klara’s story is impossible to resist. After meeting Klara and listening to her talk about her childhood, her family’s rubber plantation in Java, and the unimaginable horrors of the internment camps, Jenni is both moved and inspired. She has been going through a difficult time with her boyfriend, Rick (he wants children and she doesn’t), and she is still haunted by her own tragic past – but being with Klara gives her the strength to start facing up to her problems.

I enjoyed Ghostwritten and while I was initially drawn to it because of the Java storyline, I thought the balance of the contemporary and the historical was just right. I did prefer Klara’s storyline to Jenni’s, but ghostwriting sounds like an interesting career and I loved reading about Jenni’s work. I was also curious to find out more about the secret Jenni had spent her whole life trying to hide and her connection with a little girl called Evie who visited Polvarth years earlier in 1987.

Klara’s story, though, was fascinating, especially as I knew very little about Japanese internment camps and what conditions were like for people in Java during the war. As you would expect, some of Klara’s tales of the suffering she and the other prisoners experienced are quite upsetting to read. There are descriptions of what it was like being packed onto an overcrowded train for twenty-eight hours to be transported from one camp to another, living crammed into a house with up to one hundred other women and children, being made to stand outside in the relentless heat of the sun for hours with no shelter and nothing to drink, and worst of all finding yourself separated from a parent, a spouse or a child with no idea where they are and whether they are alive or dead.

I’ve never read anything by Isabel Wolff before, but looking at her previous work it seems that this book is a bit different from her others. I was so impressed by it. It’s not just a book about ghostwriting or Japanese internment camps, but also a book about friendship and love, about learning to forgive and to move on with life.

Ghostwritten will be published in the UK on 27th March 2014 and I hope it will be available elsewhere very soon.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches

“It begins with absence and desire. It begins with blood and fear. It begins with a discovery of witches.”

A Discovery of Witches is the first in Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy. I’ve come to this book years after everybody else, as usual, but it seems I’ve picked a good time to read it as the third book is due out this summer. I did actually receive a review copy of the second one, Shadow of Night, a while ago but as I prefer to start at the beginning of a series I couldn’t read it until I got round to reading this one first. I haven’t been actively looking for a copy of A Discovery of Witches as I really wasn’t sure it was something I would like, but when I noticed it was available through NetGalley I decided it was time to give it a try.

Our narrator, Diana Bishop, is an American academic who has come to England to research the history of alchemy in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. She is also a witch. Not the kind who wears a black hat and flies on a broomstick, but a young woman who is able to live and work alongside humans while possessing magical powers which even she doesn’t fully understand. When Diana discovers an old alchemical manuscript known as Ashmole 782 in the library, it draws the unwelcome attention of several other beings – not just witches, but also vampires and daemons. It seems that the manuscript is bewitched and contains hidden information these other creatures desperately want.

Among the crowds of otherworldly creatures descending on Oxford in search of the manuscript is scientist Matthew Clairmont, who happens to be a vampire. Together, Matthew and Diana attempt to unravel the secrets of Ashmole 782 and in the process they begin to fall in love. But relationships between witches and vampires are strictly forbidden and the Congregation – a council made up of three representatives from each group of creatures – will do anything to put an end to their romance.

This book was a nice surprise, because I enjoyed it much more than I’d expected to! If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you will know that I don’t normally read books about vampires and witches, but I think it was precisely the fact that I don’t normally read books about vampires and witches that explains why I found this one so much fun to read. It was something different for me and the complaint some readers have, that it’s too much like Twilight for adults, meant nothing to me as I haven’t actually read Twilight (am I the only person who hasn’t?) so I’m not really familiar with what might be seen as vampire romance cliches. There were echoes of lots of other books, though. The way the story began with the discovery of a manuscript in the library was reminiscent of The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (one of the few vampire books I have read) and the backstory involving Diana’s parents reminded me of the Harry Potter books.

There were lots of things to enjoy about A Discovery of Witches. I loved the combination of romance, history, adventure and fantasy. I liked the idea of creatures (the collective term for witches, vampires and daemons) co-existing with humans and doing the normal, everyday things that humans do – studying in libraries, drinking tea, checking their emails, even going to yoga classes. I loved the descriptions of the various locations Diana and Matthew visit, beginning in Oxford before moving on to a remote castle in the French countryside and then finally a haunted house with a mind of its own and several resident ghosts. And I enjoyed all the little scientific and historical details that are dropped into the story – information on evolution, genetics and the history of alchemy.

The book was not without a few flaws, though. I thought the pace was uneven – after a great start there was a long period where not much happened and while I wasn’t exactly bored, I did wonder when the plot was going to move forward again. Somewhere in the middle of the novel I started to feel impatient with Diana as she seemed so content to have Matthew protect her and make all the decisions in their relationship, which was disappointing after she’d appeared to be such a strong character at the beginning. I found it frustrating that she was so reluctant to use her magic, although I did eventually understand the reasons why she couldn’t or wouldn’t.

It also seemed that the sole purpose of the final few chapters of the book was to set things up for the sequel. This was not a big problem for me, as I already have a copy of the second book and could have started it immediately if I’d wanted to, but I’m sure it must have been annoying for people who read the book when it was first published and wanted to know how the story would be resolved!

I don’t think I’ll be rushing to fill my shelves with vampire books now, but I did enjoy this one and will certainly be continuing with Shadow of Night soon.

Thanks to Headline for providing a review copy via NetGalley

Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie

Cat Among the Pigeons Cat Among the Pigeons, published in 1959, is one of Agatha Christie’s later Poirot mysteries and combines a girls’ school setting with the story of a revolution in Ramat, a fictional country in the Middle East. I still have a lot of reading to do before I’ll have finished all of the Poirot books, but this is one that I’ve particularly enjoyed.

Most of the action takes place at Meadowbank School, an exclusive girls-only school in England which is still run by its two founders, Miss Bulstrode and Miss Chadwick, but first we visit Ramat, where Prince Ali Yusuf is preparing to escape the uprising in his country. In an attempt to keep some of his fortune safe, the Prince gives some valuable jewels to his pilot and asks him to smuggle them out of the country. The pilot’s sister and young niece, Jennifer, have been visiting Ramat but are due to return to England the next day, so he hides the jewels in their luggage without telling them what he has done.

Back in England, Jennifer begins attending Meadowbank School, one of several new girls to join the school that term. There are also some new teachers, a new secretary and a new gardener. When a murder takes place at the school a few weeks later, it seems that whoever committed the crime may have been trying to find the missing jewels. Is there someone at Meadowbank who shouldn’t be there? In other words, is there a ‘cat among the pigeons’?

Well, I was completely fooled by this one! While I found it very easy to guess the hiding place of the jewels, I did not guess who the murderer was until the truth was revealed. The most annoying thing was that I did originally suspect the right person but was thrown off the scent halfway through the book and decided I must have been wrong. After that, I think I suspected almost everybody!

As I was reading I kept wondering when Hercule Poirot himself was going to enter the story and I was surprised to find that he doesn’t actually make his first appearance until the final third of the book. By the time he arrives on the scene the mystery has already been partially solved and while he does unravel the rest of the clues and identify the murderer, I’m not sure Poirot’s involvement really added anything to the story.

Although the mystery was a good one that kept me guessing, the reason I enjoyed this book so much was the setting rather than the plot. Like many British children I grew up reading Enid Blyton books and still have very fond memories of them. I loved her two school series, St Clare’s and Malory Towers, and in Cat Among the Pigeons Agatha Christie captures the same sort of atmosphere. The school setting, the focus on the lives of the girls and their teachers, and the very late appearance of Poirot, gives this book a slightly different feel from the others I’ve read.

Have you read this one? Which is your favourite Poirot mystery?

Crippen by John Boyne

Crippen I read my first John Boyne book, the Gothic ghost story This House is Haunted, last year just in time for Halloween. Since then I’ve been wanting to read another of his books and this novel, based on a real-life crime which took place in London more than a century ago, is the one I chose. It turned out to be a good choice because I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed This House is Haunted, although the two books are quite different.

Crippen is a fictional account of the life of the notorious murderer, Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen, who was found guilty of murdering his wife and hiding the remains in the cellar of his home at 39 Hilldrop Crescent. It sounds very morbid and gruesome, I know, but the book is actually not as dark as you might imagine thanks to Boyne’s sense of humour, colourful characters and storytelling flair.

The story begins in the summer of 1910 and introduces us to a group of passengers on board the SS Montrose, sailing from Belgium to Canada. There’s Mrs Drake, a demanding, overbearing woman, and her daughter, Victoria, who is hoping to find romance on the journey. Then there’s Martha Hayes, who would prefer to hide herself away in her cabin with a pile of novels than mix with the other passengers, and Matthieu Zela, a Frenchman travelling with his obnoxious nephew, Tom. And finally, we meet Mr Robinson and his teenage son, Edmund, who are hoping for a quiet and uneventful journey.

If you’re not already familiar with the Crippen murder case, you might be wondering what the relevance is of the Atlantic voyage I’ve just described. I can promise you it is very relevant, although we don’t find out why until later in the book. Before we reach that point, we go back in time to the 1860s where we follow the young Hawley Harvey Crippen through his childhood in Michigan. As a teenager he decides he wants to study medicine, but when his parents refuse to help him financially it seems unlikely that Hawley will ever become a fully qualified doctor. After marrying Cora Turner, a music hall singer, the Crippens move to London where Hawley becomes an assistant in a homeopathic medicines company. Several years later, Cora disappears, her friends become convinced she has been murdered, and Hawley finds himself under suspicion…

Before beginning this book, I had heard of Dr Crippen but didn’t know any of the details of the case. I didn’t even know that there was so much controversy surrounding it. Boyne presents an interesting theory as to what may have actually happened, though I have no idea whether there could be any truth to this theory or not – I suspect there probably isn’t, but the book certainly does show Crippen in a much more sympathetic light than you might expect. It would be hard not to feel sorry for Boyne’s portrayal of a boy forced to abandon his dreams, a quiet and mild-mannered man bullied and abused by his selfish, manipulative wife.

My only complaint is that it was difficult to know exactly which parts of the novel were fictional and which weren’t. I looked up some factual information about Hawley Harvey Crippen after I read the book and was surprised to find that Boyne had changed so many biographical details, such as the names of Crippen’s parents and the fact that his first wife had actually died of a stroke rather than a road accident as described in the novel. When writing a fictional account of a real person’s life, it’s obvious that things like conversations, thoughts and emotions will have to be invented, but I’m not sure what the point was in altering all those little details.

Anyway, I didn’t worry about any of this until after I’d finished the book. While I was reading I was completely captivated by the twists and turns of the story and by Boyne’s wonderful writing style. I’m looking forward to exploring the rest of his novels now!

The Secret Countess by Eva Ibbotson

The Secret Countess The Secret Countess (also published as A Countess Below Stairs) is set in 1919 and the title character is Anna Grazinsky, the daughter of a Russian count and countess. During the Russian Revolution, she and her mother and brother are forced to flee their home in St Petersburg for safety in England, but on the journey they lose their remaining family jewels and arrive in England with nothing. Determined to get a job so that she can help to support her family, Anna finds a position as a maid at Mersham, the estate of the Earl of Westerholme. With Selena Strickland’s The Domestic Servant’s Compendium as her guide, she settles into her new job and earns the respect and friendship of the other servants, who are unaware that she is a countess.

The young Earl, Rupert Frayne, is returning to Mersham for the first time since leaving to fight in the First World War and has announced that his fiancée, Muriel Hardwicke will soon be joining him. At first the Fraynes, their friends and their servants are pleased with the news of Rupert’s forthcoming marriage because Muriel is a rich heiress and her money means that the future of Mersham will be safe. But while Rupert is awaiting Muriel’s arrival, he notices the new Russian housemaid and finds himself falling in love.

It was not hard to predict what was going to happen in The Secret Countess! From the beginning it was obvious how it was going to end, but that didn’t make the book any less enjoyable. After finishing the dark and disturbing Gretel and the Dark I wanted something light and gentle to read next and this book was the perfect choice. I thought it was a lovely story with a magical, fairy tale quality and an old-fashioned feel (the book was first published in 1981 but could have been much older than that). The romance between Anna and Rupert is a subtle, understated one and doesn’t ever really dominate the story, but I never doubted that there would be a happy ending and that they would somehow overcome the obstacles in their path.

While my preference is usually for books that are less predictable and with characters that are more complex and nuanced (most of the characters in this book are either completely ‘good’ or completely ‘bad’ with nothing in between) that didn’t really bother me this time. Anna could easily have been one of those sickening heroines who is too good to be true – she’s beautiful, generous, sweet, kind and loving – but I couldn’t help liking her anyway. In the same way, the character who turns out to be the villain of the novel is horrible in every way, yet perfect in the context of the story. Another of the strengths of this book is its wonderful supporting characters. My favourite was the Honourable Ollie Byrne, the little girl who loves life despite its unfairness towards her, but all of the others are given a distinctive personality of their own too – even Rupert’s dog, Baskerville.

If I’ve understood correctly, this book was originally written as a book for adults but has now been repackaged to appeal to YA readers. I honestly think this is a book that could be equally enjoyed by both adults and younger readers and it would be a shame if anyone missed out on reading it because it has been marketed in a certain way. This is only the second book I’ve read by Eva Ibbotson (the other was Madensky Square) and I’m pleased that I still have so many of her other books to explore!

A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger

There seem to have been a lot of historical thrillers in recent years that focus on the search for a valuable item – a book, a crown or a manuscript. A Burnable Book is another one, but with enough differences to make it feel refreshing and original. While many authors (CJ Sansom, SJ Parris, Nancy Bilyeau to name a few) set their stories in the Tudor period, this one is set in the 14th century, during the reign of Richard II, a period covered less often in historical fiction. The missing item in question is a book of prophecies which accurately predicts the deaths of the previous twelve Kings of England…and the one who is currently on the throne, King Richard II.

This book – and the embroidered cloth in which it is wrapped – has fallen into the hands of Agnes Fonteyn, a ‘maudlyn’ (or prostitute), who receives it from another girl whom she meets just outside London’s city walls. Minutes later this girl is murdered, leaving Agnes, who is unaware of the book’s contents, wondering what is so special about it that someone was prepared to kill for it.

John Gower, poet and ‘trader in information’, hears about the book from his friend, Geoffrey Chaucer, who asks John to find it for him but refuses to explain exactly why he wants it so desperately. When John begins his search for the book he soon discovers that he and Chaucer are not the only ones looking for it and that the prophecies it contains could implicate one of England’s most important noblemen in a plot against the King. As the action moves from one side of London to the other, over the Thames to Southwark, to the libraries of Oxford and then to Florence and back again, the history of this ‘burnable book’ is slowly revealed.

The name of the author, Bruce Holsinger, should be familiar to anyone who took the Coursera course “Plagues, Witches and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction” last year (Holsinger was the instructor). This is his first novel and after listening to him talk about other works of historical fiction during the course, I was interested to see what his own book would be like. I’m pleased to report that it’s very good! The setting is believable, the historical background feels thoroughly researched, the plot is cleverly constructed and the story is exciting.

I did have a slight problem with the number of characters in the book as I found some of them difficult to distinguish from each other, particularly some of the bishops and noblemen who only played a minor role in the story. After a while, though, several characters began to emerge as stronger and more interesting than the others: John Gower, whose strained relationship with his exiled son, Simon, is tested during the course of his investigations; Millicent Fonteyn, sister of Agnes, who will do anything to avoid returning to life in the brothel where she grew up; and Edgar/Eleanor Rykener, born “a man in body, but in soul a man and woman both”. I liked the fact that the novel shows us the lives of people from all levels of society, from the nobility and clergy of England to London’s lower classes, including butchers’ apprentices and the ‘maudlyns’. Eventually the stories of each of these characters and more begin to come together, connected by the common thread of the burnable book and its treasonous prophecies.

Bruce Holsinger is a medieval scholar and it shows in his portrayal of the 14th century world which feels accurate and authentic. I can’t say the same for the dialogue, which is too modern for the period, but this didn’t irritate me as much as it sometimes does and the slang probably reflected the way some of the characters would have spoken. When reading the author’s note at the end I was interested to find that some of the things I’d assumed were fictional were actually based on fact. The character of Edgar or Eleanor Rykener, for example, was inspired by historical records of a transvestite prostitute. The poet John Gower really existed but not many details of his life are known, so Holsinger was able to use his imagination to fill in the gaps.

I think my favourite aspect of the novel was the concept of the ‘burnable book’ itself and the cryptic messages it contains. It was fascinating to learn more about the process of creating and breaking ciphers and codes and to watch as various characters tried to interpret the meanings of the prophecies. I also enjoyed following Gower’s mission to locate the book and identify its author, and the problems faced by Agnes and the other maudlyns in deciding what to do with such a dangerous possession. I don’t know if Bruce Holsinger is planning to write a sequel to A Burnable Book but I hope so as I would love to meet some of these characters again!

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