Shadow of the Moon by M.M. Kaye

I really have no idea why I haven’t read this book before now. The Far Pavilions has been one of my favourite books since I was a teenager, but for some reason it just never occurred to me to look into what else M.M. Kaye wrote until recently, when I read two of her Death In… mystery novels. When I saw that Cirtnecce was hosting a readalong of Shadow of the Moon this summer, it seemed the perfect opportunity to try another of Kaye’s historical novels in the hope that I would love it as much as The Far Pavilions!

Shadow of the Moon was originally published in 1957 and revised in 1979. Like The Far Pavilions, it is set in India, but at a slightly earlier time – before and during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Our heroine, Winter de Ballesteros, is born in Lucknow to an English mother and Spanish father. Orphaned by the age of six, Winter is sent to England to be raised by her great-grandfather, the Earl of Ware, but the country of her birth still holds a special place in her heart and she dreams of returning one day to the Gulab Mahal, the place she considers home.

Winter is eleven when she meets Conway Barton, who is visiting from India, and she is captivated by his good looks and his connection with the country she misses so much. Conway, with his eye on Winter’s fortune, suggests a betrothal, but it is not until six years later that Winter is old enough to go and join him in India for the wedding. Now Commissioner of Lunjore, Conway says that he is far too busy to escort his fiancée across the sea himself, so he sends his assistant, Captain Alex Randall, in his place. Unknown to Winter, however, her betrothed is no longer the man she thinks he is and has another reason for wanting to delay their meeting. Will the marriage take place or will Alex be able to change her mind during the long voyage to Lunjore?

There’s a romantic aspect to Shadow of the Moon, then, but the historical element is just as important. Cirtnecce has put together two excellent posts (here and here) describing the political landscape in India in 1857, how the country came to be ruled by the British East India Company and the factors leading to the rebellion. All of this is explored in a lot of depth throughout the novel, showing the same impressive level of research and the same understanding and sympathy for India and its people that I remember from The Far Pavilions.

The descriptions of India itself are wonderful and vivid. Whether she’s writing about the streets and bazaars of Lunjore or the relentless heat of summer and the relief of the monsoon, Kaye always chooses just the right words to bring the scene to life. The horrors and atrocities of the Mutiny are also described in vivid detail, although a relatively short portion of the novel is devoted to the actual rebellion and much more to the gradual building of tension, ending in the controversy over the new Enfield rifles which sparked the revolt (the British required the sepoys to use cartridges which were smeared with pork and beef fat, offensive to both Muslims and Hindus).

Lunjore, where much of the action is set, is a fictional district on the borders of Oudh (although it is portrayed so convincingly I had to check to see whether it was a real place or not) but the situation which unfolds there is similar to that being played out elsewhere in India. The British commanding officers are seemingly blind to what is going on around them, refusing to listen to stories of unrest amongst the Indian people and unwilling to doubt the loyalty of their armies. Alex Randall is one of the few exceptions – a man who thinks for himself and who tries to see things from the point of view of others. It’s so frustrating to watch his advice and warnings repeatedly falling on deaf ears as his superiors tell themselves he is worrying about nothing and stubbornly refuse to heed his words.

I found Alex an interesting, complex character, torn between his feelings for Winter and what he sees as his duties and responsibilities towards both the Company and the people of Lunjore. I was particularly intrigued by his relationship with Kishan Prasad – two men who are on ‘opposite sides’ but who each understand what the other is trying to do and under different circumstances might have been friends. With the bridging role he plays between the British and Indian perspectives, Alex often reminded me of Ashton Pelham-Martyn from The Far Pavilions. It took me a bit longer to warm to Winter – I was irritated by her infatuation with Conway and had to keep reminding myself that she was only seventeen!

Whether or not the romance captures your imagination, though, I think there should be something in this novel to interest most readers…the fascinating historical background, the colourful portrait of another time and place or maybe the adventure (plenty of daring escapes, disguises, ambushes and secret meetings by moonlight). I loved it and now I can’t wait to read M.M. Kaye’s other historical novel, Trade Wind, and the rest of the Death In series.

This is book 11/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child was always going to be a hard act to follow and I think my fear that Eowyn Ivey’s second novel would be a disappointment could explain why I’ve been putting off reading it since it was published last year. Including it on my list for the 20 Books of Summer challenge gave me the push that I needed to pick it up and start reading – and I’m pleased to say that, although The Snow Child is still my favourite, there was very little disappointment here!

To the Bright Edge of the World, like Ivey’s first novel, is set in Alaska – but other than that, it’s a very different type of book. It tells the story of Colonel Allen Forrester who, in 1885, is commissioned to lead an expedition with the aim of navigating Alaska’s Wolverine River and charting previously unmapped territory. Through a series of journal entries we are able to join Allen and his small group of companions on their journey and are with them every step of the way as they struggle over difficult terrain, face harsh weather and encounter native tribes. It all feels so authentic that you could easily believe Allen Forrester was a real person and these were his real diaries – actually, he is a fictional character but it seems that Eowyn Ivey based him on a real-life explorer, Lieutenant Henry T. Allen, who led an expedition in that same year up the Copper River (reimagined as the ‘Wolverine River’ in the novel).

Although this book does not have the fairy tale feel of The Snow Child and is much more grounded in reality, myth and folklore still play an important part in the story. As they make their way up the Wolverine River, Allen and his men are followed by an Old Man who is said to be able to fly and are joined by a woman called Nat’aaggi who believes that her husband was an otter.

– They believe it is a thin line separates animal and man, Samuelson said. – They hold that some can walk back & forth over that line, here a man, there a beast.

This is not just Allen’s story, however. It is also the story of Sophie, his wife, who had hoped to join her husband on his adventures but had to settle for being left behind at Vancouver Barracks. Desperately awaiting news, with no way of knowing if Allen is even alive or dead, it’s going to be difficult for Sophie to get through the months ahead. Looking for something to fill her days, she decides to take up photography and develops a passion for her new hobby, going to ever greater lengths to capture photographs of the wildlife and birds she sees around the barracks.

Sophie also keeps a journal, recording her thoughts and feelings so that she can share them with her husband when he returns, and these two journals – Sophie’s and Allen’s – form the bulk of the novel, one set of entries alternating with the other. I was interested in both and although Allen’s may sound much more exciting, I had no preference for one over the other. There were some passages from each journal that I found slightly tedious or where I felt that things were being dragged out for too long, but a few pages later I would be pulled back into the story again. I liked both characters, so that helped!

The 19th century stories of Allen and Sophie are interspersed with contemporary letters exchanged between Walter Forrester, their great-nephew, and Josh Sloan, the curator of a museum in Alaska. Walter has decided to make a gift of the Forrester journals and the other artefacts from the expedition to the museum – and we are given the opportunity to see some of these artefacts, which include photographs, illustrations, newspaper reports and fragments of documents. These are not always presented in chronological order, which is sometimes confusing, but it gives the overall effect of looking through a scrapbook or somebody’s private collection of memorabilia. It was also nice to watch a friendship developing between Walt and Josh, two men of different generations and backgrounds, living many miles apart.

Not knowing very much about Alaska and its history, I feel that I’ve learned a lot from this novel, as well as being entertained by a fascinating story.

This is book 9/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

Beneath a Burning Sky by Jenny Ashcroft

I was drawn to Beneath a Burning Sky by the setting – Egypt in the late 19th century – and comparisons to other authors I’ve enjoyed, such as Victoria Hislop and Dinah Jefferies, made it sound even more appealing. Including it on my 20 Books of Summer list ensured that I got to it quickly but, although I did find a lot to like, I was left with feelings that were much more mixed than I’d hoped.

The plot is an exciting one. It begins shortly after twenty-two-year-old Olivia marries businessman Alistair Sheldon and leaves England to live with him in Egypt, the country where she spent her own early childhood. It’s not long before she becomes aware of the true nature of her cruel, abusive husband, but she is unwilling to admit to anyone just how unhappy her marriage is and devotes herself instead to settling into her new home in Alexandria and to getting to know her sister Clara, with whom she has just been reacquainted after many years.

When Clara disappears on a trip into the city – seemingly abducted from a busy street – Olivia is devastated. This is the second time she has lost her sister and she is determined to do everything she can to rescue her. As she searches for clues to explain Clara’s disappearance, however, she becomes convinced that her own husband, Alistair, may have had something to do with it. It’s a terrible situation to be in and even the one bright spot in Olivia’s life – her relationship with Edward Bertram, Alistair’s lodger – is just another additional complication. As the story unfolds, there is plenty of the “love and betrayal and mystery” promised by the blurb; all the ingredients for a great novel, so I was disappointed that, for me, they didn’t quite come together to form a successful whole.

My biggest problem with the book was the beginning. I found the opening chapters confusing and muddled. A lot of characters seemed to be introduced all at once – and had such involved and eventful backstories that I wondered if this was actually a sequel and if the early lives of Olivia and Clara had already been covered in a previous book (it isn’t and they hadn’t). Things did settle down after a while, but I still felt that some aspects of the plot were never fully explained or resolved.

Although I came to like and care about the two main characters, Olivia and Edward, and wanted them to find some happiness together, I thought the novel’s villains were just too evil to be true. Alistair had no nuances to his character and no redeeming qualities at all, while Olivia and Clara’s grandmother Mildred, a bitter, spiteful woman, had a hatred for her granddaughters which seemed out of proportion to the explanation that was given. There were some interesting characters amongst the Egyptians, though, particularly Nailah, a young woman whose story is linked with Olivia’s in ways which don’t become clear until the end of the book. The decision to write the novel from the perspectives of both Egyptian and British characters provided an opportunity to compare lifestyles and attitudes and to see things from more than one angle.

I didn’t feel that I learned much about the history of the period but, to be fair, it wasn’t really that sort of book. I think it will have more appeal to readers who enjoy romantic suspense rather than those who are looking for a more detailed work of historical fiction – personally I enjoy both, so despite my problems with Beneath a Burning Sky I still liked it enough to keep reading to the end, curious to see what had happened to Clara and whether Olivia and Edward could find a way to be together.

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

This is Book 7/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

What is the Essex Serpent? A magical beast? A wonder of science? A judgement from God? William Ransome, vicar of the parish of Aldwinter, where the legendary serpent is said to have been sighted, is reluctant to give any credence at all to the rumours, viewing them as a distraction from the religious faith he is trying to instil in his parishioners. Cora Seaborne, however, is fascinated by tales of the fearsome sea monster lurking in the marshes of Essex, stealing away livestock and claiming human lives. Unusually for a woman in 1893, Cora is an amateur naturalist, with a particular interest in the work of the fossil collector Mary Anning. When she hears of the Essex Serpent, she wonders whether it could be an undiscovered species – or some sort of dinosaur?

Cora will have plenty of opportunities to test her theories and investigate further; having been recently widowed, she and her son Francis have moved from London to Colchester in Essex. It is on a visit to nearby Aldwinter that she meets William Ransome. Although their views are very different – not just on the serpent, but also on science, religion, and just about everything else – the two find themselves drawn together and a friendship begins to develop; a friendship which could become something more, if it wasn’t for the fact that Will is already married and that his wife, Stella, is dying of tuberculosis.

Although it is the relationship between Cora and William which drives the novel forward, there are many other subplots involving a large number of other characters. There’s Cora’s companion Martha, for example, a socialist who is campaigning to improve the living conditions of London’s poorest people, and Luke Garrett, a surgeon who closely follows all the latest advances in medicine and is itching for an opportunity to try them out for himself. A lot of time is also devoted to Francis, a serious, solitary boy who would probably be diagnosed today with a form of autism, and to Stella who, as her health declines, develops an obsession with collecting anything blue. I couldn’t help feeling, at times, that Sarah Perry was trying to do too much – trying to include every possible social issue of the 19th century – but on the whole I thought this was a fascinating, intelligent novel, with ideas spilling out of every page.

The Essex Serpent is one of those novels which is not only set in the Victorian era, but also attempts to capture the tone and style of a Victorian novel – while at the same time, being written in the modern day, bringing a new perspective to topics and themes which Victorian authors had less freedom to explore. The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles is a good comparison – although I have to say I enjoyed this book a lot more than Fowles’. I thought Sarah Perry’s writing was excellent, especially her descriptions of the landscape and the natural world, but occasionally her choice of language (particularly the use of contractions such as I’d’ve and shouldn’t’ve) pulled me out of the 19th century world she had otherwise so carefully created.

The criticisms I have of this book, though, are just minor ones; overall I was very impressed and can certainly understand why it has been so popular and so successful. It’s also nice to find a book that lives up to the promise of its beautiful cover!

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

This novel by Italian author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, published posthumously in 1958, is one I had been interested in reading for a few years, having seen lots of very positive reviews, but it was including it on my 20 Books of Summer list that pushed me into picking it up towards the end of June. I have to confess, when I first started reading it I wasn’t at all sure whether I was going to like it, but I think that was mainly because I had no understanding of the historical context. Google came to the rescue and after I’d familiarised myself with the background to the novel I found it much easier to follow what was happening.

The Leopard is set in 19th century Sicily during the Risorgimento (the movement for the unification of Italy). We explore this period of Italian history through the eyes of a Sicilian nobleman, Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, who is forced to watch as the world around him changes beyond his control. Beginning in 1860, the year Garibaldi lands on the coast of Sicily, we see the gradual decline of the Prince’s family and the nobility as a whole.

While Don Fabrizio regrets the loss of values he once held dear and hopes that somehow, once Italy has been united, the class system will be able to survive, his nephew Tancredi has a very different outlook, explaining that “everything needs to change, so that everything can stay the same”. The relationship which develops between Tancredi and the beautiful Angelica, daughter of a wealthy businessman, is only possible because of the breakdown in the class structure; characters like Angelica represent the future, whereas those like Don Fabrizio are becoming part of history.

Although the novel is set in the past – and does immerse the reader in another time and place, with some elegant and vivid descriptive writing – the author occasionally reminds us that he is viewing events from a point many years in the future. For example, he lets us know that the palace he is describing with painted gods on the ceiling will be destroyed by a bomb in 1943. It all adds to the poignancy and to the atmosphere of decay and decline.

If you’re wondering about the title, it refers to the symbol of the Salina dynasty and, I think, the power and grace of the aristocracy. As the Prince himself muses, “We were the Leopards, the Lions; those who’ll take our place will be little jackals, hyenas…” The whole novel is rich in symbolism: a stone leopard above the door has the legs broken off in a sign of things to come, while the initals engraved on Don Fabrizio’s wine glass are fading away and even the fate of his dog Bendico is another reminder that everything must come to an end.

The Leopard is a beautifully written book and although it’s surprisingly short, there’s so much packed into its pages I think a re-read would be necessary to be able to fully appreciate it. After an uncertain start, I was very impressed with this book and can see why it is considered a classic Italian novel.

This is Book 4/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

Despite enjoying two of Emma Donoghue’s previous books – Room and Frog Music – this latest novel about a girl in 19th century Ireland who stops eating didn’t appeal to me when it was published last year. It was only when I picked it up in the library a few weeks ago that I thought ‘actually, this does sound good’ – and with such a beautiful cover, how could I resist? And as it turned out, this is my favourite of the three Donoghue books I’ve read so far.

The Wonder is set in a small community in rural Ireland during just two weeks in 1859. Lib Wright, an English nurse who worked with Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War, arrives in the village to start a new job, knowing nothing about the position she has accepted except that her services will only be required for fourteen days. She is surprised to discover that her patient is an eleven-year-old girl, Anna O’Donnell, and that her task is not to nurse but to watch and observe.

Anna’s parents insist that their daughter has eaten nothing at all since her birthday four months ago and exists purely on prayer and faith. Lib is sceptical, but it seems that most people in the O’Donnells’ village – including the local priest and Anna’s elderly doctor – are happy to believe the claims. News of the girl’s amazing achievement has spread far and wide and visitors are arriving from all over Ireland to see ‘the Wonder’ for themselves. To prove whether or not Anna is a fraud, Lib and another woman – Sister Michael, a nun – have been appointed by a committee to take turns watching over Anna all day and night for the next two weeks.

Lib expects to get to the bottom of this mystery very quickly. Anna looks so healthy and full of life, it seems obvious that someone must be providing her with secret supplies of food – all Lib needs to do is keep her wits about her and ensure that she and Sister Michael never let the girl out of their sight. After a few days, however, she’s not so sure. Is Anna really the saint the villagers believe her to be? Is it all an elaborate hoax? Or could something more sinister be going on – and if Lib decides Anna is in danger, at what point should she try to intervene?

Like The Good People by Hannah Kent, another book set in 19th century Ireland, this is a fascinating exploration of the harm that can be done, often unintentionally, by superstition and a lack of understanding and the basic knowledge we take for granted today. In addition to this, there’s the hugely influential role of the Catholic Church, such a large part of everyday life for many Irish people in the 1850s, which Lib Wright – as an Englishwoman who has had her own faith driven out of her by her experiences in the Crimea – finds very frustrating; it seems incomprehensible to her that so many people are ready to accept that Anna O’Donnell is a living miracle when science suggests that there must be a more logical explanation. Anna’s situation is often quite sad and harrowing to read about and I desperately hoped her story would have a happy ending.

I was curious to know whether The Wonder was based on a true story, as the other Emma Donoghue books I’ve read were, but on reading the author’s note at the end it seems that although it is inspired by tales of Victorian ‘fasting girls’, it is not based on one particular case and is a fictional story.

The mystery element of the novel is very strong and at first the reader is as confused as Lib. Anna doesn’t appear to be a starving child, so she must be getting food from somewhere – but who is giving it to her and how? As the novel progresses and we learn more about the O’Donnell family and the community in which they live, other questions are raised. I was able to put enough of the clues and hints together to form a theory as to what was happening, but I was still completely gripped, waiting for Lib to uncover the truth. I thought The Wonder was…well, wonderful. Highly recommended!

This is Book 1/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

This is one of my final reads from my Classics Club list and, I have to admit, it wasn’t one that I was looking forward to, having had at least two previous attempts to read it. I did read The Idiot a few years ago (also for the Classics Club) and got on much better with that one, so I was prepared to give Crime and Punishment another chance. I’m glad I did, because I managed to get to the end this time and enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.

Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky’s 1866 novel, follows the actions and thought processes of Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, an impoverished former student living in St Petersburg. In the first chapter we learn that Raskolnikov is planning the murder of an elderly pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna, a crime he proceeds to carry out, although it doesn’t go entirely according to plan. At this stage his motives are not completely clear, but it seems that he is simply in need of money: he is struggling to pay the rent, can’t afford to continue with his studies and has discovered that his sister is about to marry a man she doesn’t love for his money.

Nothing in a Dostoevsky novel is simple, however, and other motives soon begin to emerge. At one point Raskolnikov states that the old woman he has killed is just a ‘louse’ and of no use to society. He also explains that he believes in the theory that there are some people who are superior to others and have the right to commit serious crimes such as murder. He considers Napoleon to be one example of such a person and he is keen to test the theory out for himself. Are some men really so great that the law doesn’t apply to them and that they have no need to worry about the consequences of their actions because by committing murder they will have proved their greatness?

Of course, Raskolnikov does not escape the consequences and from the moment he kills the pawnbroker, his emotions are thrown into turmoil. Although he gets away from the scene of the crime presumably undetected, he obsesses over every detail of the murder, becoming feverish and causing his family and friends – who know nothing of what he has done – to worry about him. Despite taking some steps to cover his traces and remove the evidence, there are times when he seems to want to be discovered and goes out of his way to make himself appear suspicious. He becomes more and more tormented as the novel progresses and as Dostoevsky allows us to access Raskolnikov’s innermost thoughts, this is not the most comfortable or pleasant of reads! You wouldn’t really expect a book with the title Crime and Punishment to be comfortable and pleasant, though, would you?

The crime part of the novel is obvious enough, but the punishment takes more than one form. First, there is Raskolnikov’s psychological disarray in the days following the murder, which is a punishment in itself, but there is also the question of whether or not his crime will eventually be found out and he will receive punishment of a different kind. I won’t spoil things by telling you whether he is discovered, betrayed, confesses or escapes justice forever, because once the detective Porfiry Petrovitch gets involved, there is a certain element of suspense which I’m sure you would rather experience for yourself.

Although I don’t think I would describe this book as “one of the most readable novels ever written” as stated on the cover of my edition, once I got into it I found it very compelling and a quicker read than I’d expected it to be. I’m so pleased I gave it another try and that I persevered past Raskolnikov’s nightmare about a horse being thrashed to death, which was where I stopped on my last attempt. And of course, the horse dream, horrible as it may be, is in the story for a reason and its significance starts to become clear later on. I won’t pretend that I fully understood everything that happens in the book, but I can always read it again one day – after I’ve read The Brothers Karamazov, which I think is going to be one of the titles on the second list I put together for the Classics Club.