Mata Hari by Michelle Moran

So far my feelings about Michelle Moran’s novels have been very mixed. Cleopatra’s Daughter was interesting, but felt too light and insubstantial, The Second Empress was much better, but I had one or two problems again with Rebel Queen. I had hoped Mata Hari (also published as Mata Hari’s Last Dance) would be another good one, but unfortunately it turned out to be my least favourite of the four that I’ve read.

Before I read this book, all I knew about Mata Hari was that she was an exotic dancer who was accused of spying during the First World War. I felt sure that she must have been a fascinating woman and I was looking forward to learning more about her. And I did learn a lot from this novel. Mata Hari narrates her story (fictional, but based on fact) in her own words and tells us all about her dancing career, her experiences of life in European cities such as Paris and Berlin, and her many romantic relationships, including several with military personnel which led to her being accused of passing secrets to Germany.

However, I wanted to get to know the woman behind the newspaper headlines and the seductive costumes – Margaretha Zelle, or M’greet as she is called in the novel – and although she does confide in us now and then about her childhood in the Netherlands (she did not come from an Indian background, as she tried to claim), her time in Java during her unhappy marriage to Rudolf MacLeod and her heartbreak at the loss of her children, I never felt very close to Mata Hari and didn’t gain a very good understanding of the person she really was.

The one aspect of Mata Hari’s life that Moran does successfully capture is her loneliness; I didn’t like her and had very little sympathy for her as she seemed so immature and selfish, but I could see that she was not a happy person and that her character had been shaped by her earlier experiences. The descriptions of Mata Hari’s various dances are also well done, particularly one that she performs with a live snake while dressed as Cleopatra. The novel is strangely lacking in period detail, though, and apart from the obvious references to the war and to other famous people of the time – her rival dancer, Isadora Duncan, for example – I didn’t feel that there was much sense of time or place at all.

The book is also disappointingly short, with under 300 pages in the edition I read. If you just want a basic overview of Mata Hari’s life and career, it’s perfectly adequate, but for something deeper you will need to look elsewhere. The section of the novel covering her spying activities is very brief and feels almost like an afterthought, which is a shame as this is the part of the story which should have been the most interesting. Even on finishing the book, I’m not completely clear on what we are supposed to assume; was Mata Hari really a spy or was she just someone who had made some poor decisions and been carried along by events outside her control? To be honest, long before we reached this point I had lost interest anyway and had already decided that I would need to look for another book on Mata Hari one day. Has anyone read The Spy by Paulo Coelho?

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The Last Son’s Secret by Rafel Nadal Farreras

This novel by Catalan author Rafel Nadal Farreras apparently enjoyed a lot of success when published in its original language in 2015 and is now available for the first time in an English translation by Mara Faye Lethem.

The story is set in the Puglia region of Italy where, in the small town of Bellorotondo, the names of twenty-one members of the Palmisano family are engraved on a memorial to the First World War. Vito Oronzo, the last Palmisano man to die in the war, leaves behind a pregnant wife, Donata. When the child – a boy whom she names Vitantonio – is born, Donata is so afraid that her son will succumb to the curse of the Palmisanos that she takes desperate measures to secure his safety.

The Last Son’s Secret follows little Vitantonio through his idyllic childhood in rural Italy, growing up alongside Giovanna Convertini, the daughter of his father’s best friend who was also killed on the same day in 1918.

They took dips in the stone laundry trough, caught crickets in the garden, ran through the fields as the farmers cleared the dead leaves from the olive trees, and they ate dinner together at the kitchen table. In the evenings everyone gathered on the threshing floor and sat in the cool air: the grown-ups sang and told stories and the children played hide-and-seek until they were so worn out they fell asleep on their aunt’s lap.

Elsewhere in Puglia, however, life is not so pleasant. A neighbour’s six-year-old son is sold into child labour, while in the nearby cave houses of Matera families live in extreme poverty. Further afield, Mussolini is rising to power and Europe is on the brink of war once more. Eventually, Vitantonio, Giovanna and their friends will be forced to take sides. Will the Palmisano curse strike again or has Donata done enough to protect her son from his father’s fate?

I enjoyed The Last Son’s Secret; despite it being set during the two world wars, it’s not as depressing as it might sound – the likeable main character and the messages of hope and optimism are enough to counteract the darker aspects of the plot. The depiction of life in Italy between the wars is beautiful and I could easily imagine I was there in Bellorotondo, harvesting olives, picking cherries and planting flowers in the garden of the Convertini palazzo. I particularly liked the descriptions of Matera, where Vitantonio hides out for a while at the beginning of the war.

The Second World War chapters are also interesting to read, and I couldn’t help thinking how rarely I have read anything that looks at the war from an Italian perspective. This is certainly the first time I have read a fictional portrayal of the chemical disaster caused by the release of mustard gas during the sinking of the American ship John Harvey in the port of Bari.

The Last Son’s Secret is a surprisingly quick read, but it did take me a few chapters to really get into the story. This is probably because it begins with a long chronicle of the deaths of the Palmisano men, which I expect was intended to be a quirky and unusual opening to the novel but didn’t quite work for me. Also, while Vitantonio’s story was moving at times, I don’t really think I would describe it as the sweeping, heartbreaking epic promised by the blurb. Maybe some of the emotion was lost in translation – although in general I did think the translation flowed well and I had no real complaints about it. If any other books by Rafel Nadal Farreras become available in English I would be happy to read them.

This is Book 3/20 for my 20 Books of Summer Challenge.

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

The Wild Air by Rebecca Mascull

This wonderful story of a young woman with a passion for aviation is the first book I’ve read by Rebecca Mascull, but I enjoyed it so much I will certainly be going back to read her previous two novels. Set in the Lincolnshire town of Cleethorpes in the first two decades of the 20th century, The Wild Air is both fascinating and inspirational, with a heroine I loved and connected with immediately.

Her name is Cordelia Dobbs – Della for short – and her interest in flying begins at the age of fourteen when her Great Aunt Betty comes home from America, where she has lived for the last twenty years. Della is a quiet girl who often feels overshadowed by her more attractive and talented siblings, but things begin to change with Betty’s arrival. As the sister of a railway engineer, during her time in North Carolina Betty has been paying special attention to all the latest developments in engineering and flight and has even had the opportunity to see the planes produced by the famous Wright brothers.

Seeing that she has a kindred spirit in Della, Betty takes the girl under her wing (pun intended) and together they take part in kite-flying sessions on the beach while making plans to design their own flying machine one day. Despite the disapproval of her father, Della is determined to turn her hobby into a career and become an aviatrix – a female pilot. It isn’t easy – on approaching a flying instructor to ask for lessons, Della is told that ‘the air is not the place for a woman’ – but now that her mind is made up, she will stop at nothing to achieve her ambition.

I don’t personally share the characters’ love of aviation, but their enthusiasm – and the author’s – shines through on every page. Even though the descriptions of Della’s flights and the technical details of planes and flying didn’t always interest me, I could tell that they fascinated Della and that was all that mattered. I could also appreciate how much research Rebecca Mascull must have carried out to be able to write so convincingly about the subject. She brings each scene to life so well: visiting the Blackburn School of Flying on the beach at Filey, an air show Della attends with Auntie Betty – and her first flight as a passenger with the Belgian aviatrix Hélène Dutrieu, going through the full range of emotions from fear to wonder during this amazing experience. I know I would never have been brave enough to do what Della did; bearing in mind how new aeroplanes were at that time, how unreliable they could be, and that accidents – often fatal – did happen, I’m sure I would have been terrified to go up alone in one. We owe so much to these early pioneers of aviation who were prepared to take risks and try something new.

I wondered at first whether Della was a real person, but I quickly discovered that she wasn’t. However, I didn’t mind at all that I was reading about a fictional aviator rather than a real one; it allowed the author to take the story in different directions and develop personal storylines and relationships for Della without worrying about sticking to biographical facts. I loved the relationship that forms between Della and Auntie Betty as this quiet, reserved girl finds someone with whom she shares a bond and something she can put her heart and soul into. One of the most interesting relationships, though, is the one Della has with her father, Pop, a former actor who has been left angry and bitter after an injury brought his theatrical career to an end. Della feels that Pop has never shown her any love or encouragement and as the story progressed I kept hoping that the two of them would find a way to understand and accept each other.

In the second half of the book, World War I dominates as several of Della’s loved ones go off to fight and Della herself searches for ways in which she can play a part. Towards the end of the war, things take a dramatic turn and, without going into details and spoiling the story, this was the only part of the novel that I thought stretched the imagination a bit too far…until I decided that actually it was consistent with Della’s personality and just the sort of thing she would try to do. If I haven’t already made it clear, I loved this book – and now I really must read The Visitors and Song of the Sea Maid sooner rather than later!

This post is part of a blog tour for The Wild Air. For more reviews and features, please see the tour schedule below. And thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of the book for review via NetGalley.

The Echo of Twilight by Judith Kinghorn

the-echo-of-twilight It’s 1914 and Pearl Gibson, a young woman in her twenties, is about to take up a new position as lady’s maid. Her new employer, Ottoline Campbell, has estates in Northumberland and Scotland, which means Pearl will have to leave London and move north. She’s prepared to do this, however, because it’s not as if she has much to leave behind – her relationship with her boyfriend, Stanley, already seems to be fizzling out, and she has no other friends or family. Her mother killed herself just after Pearl’s birth and Pearl was raised by a great-aunt who is also now dead.

Spending the summer at Delnasay, the Campbells’ house in the Scottish Highlands, Pearl gradually settles into her new job and her new life. Although the other servants view her as proud and superior at first, she slowly wins them over, and at the same time she starts to form a close friendship with Ottoline. It seems that both Pearl and Ottoline are hiding secrets and as the bond between them strengthens, they begin to confide in each other more and more.

Meanwhile, the trouble which has been brewing in Europe throughout the year has escalated into war and the family return to England, hoping they will be safe at Birling Hall, their other estate in Warkworth, Northumberland. Ottoline’s two sons, Billy and Hugo, both enlist and are soon on their way to France, while Pearl also has someone to pray for: Ralph Stedman, an artist with whom she embarked on a new romance during her time in Scotland and who has also gone to war. All of this takes place just in the first half of the novel; there are plenty of other surprises and revelations to follow as Pearl and Ottoline learn more about each other – and as the war progresses, changing the lives of all of our characters forever.

Pearl, the novel’s narrator, is an interesting and complex character. I was intrigued by her habit of pretending to be other people, introducing herself to strangers as Tess Durbeyfield, Mrs Gaskell and even Ottoline Campbell herself…anybody but Pearl Gibson. I was happy, though, that by the end of the novel we’d had a chance to get to know the real Pearl. Ottoline was also a fascinating character, but I felt that she remained more of an enigma.

The Echo of Twilight is Judith Kinghorn’s fourth novel. I loved her first, The Last Summer, was slightly less impressed by the second, The Memory of Lost Senses, and haven’t yet read her third, The Snow Globe. This one sounded appealing to me as it is set during the same time period as The Last Summer – and although the stories are quite different, the two books do share some similar themes. The impact of war, not just on those who are fighting in it, but also on the people left behind, is an important part of both novels. We see how, with so many young men lost from the British workforce, women had to take on what would previously have been considered ‘jobs for men’, and how, once the war was over, the social structure had changed so much that the running of large estates like Delnasay and Birling tended not to be sustainable.

The Echo of Twilight is an easy read – the sort where the pages seem to fly by effortlessly – and a beautifully written one. Although I wasn’t entirely convinced by the romance at the heart of the novel and didn’t sense a lot of chemistry there, there were enough other aspects that I did like to make up for that. It’s not just a romance; it’s also a lovely, moving story about a young woman trying to find her place in the world.

Thanks to the publisher Canelo for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

The Absolutist by John Boyne

the-absolutist It’s 1919 and twenty-one-year-old Tristan Sadler is home from the war. He knows he is lucky to have survived when so many like him didn’t – people like his friend and fellow soldier, Will Bancroft. John Boyne’s The Absolutist follows the stories of Tristan and Will, two very different men with very different attitudes towards life, death, love and war.

As the novel opens, Tristan is taking a train from London to Norwich where he plans to visit Will’s sister, Marian, and return the letters she sent to Will during the war. This is not the only reason for his visit, however – he has been carrying a terrible secret and is hoping to unburden himself to Marian so that they can both move on and face the future.

Through a series of long flashbacks, we witness Tristan’s first meeting with Will during their training at Aldershot in 1916 and then watch their relationship develop as they are sent to France and endure the horrors of life in the trenches. This story unfolds alongside the ‘present day’ storyline set in 1919, with Tristan’s big secret kept concealed until near the end of the book, allowing suspense and tension to build throughout the novel. There’s already plenty of tension anyway, of course, because this is a novel which doesn’t shy away from describing the horror and the uncertainty of war and although we know from the start that Tristan survives and Will doesn’t, we don’t know exactly how Will’s life ended or what the fate of the other characters in the story might be.

I’ve read several of John Boyne’s other novels (and particularly loved This House is Haunted, Crippen and A History of Loneliness) so I started this one with high hopes. I thought it was a fascinating and moving read which I enjoyed almost – but not quite – as much as the three I’ve just mentioned. The period leading up to, during and just after the First World War is one that I always like to read about and this novel covers many different aspects of the war and its aftermath. What I found particularly interesting was the exploration of what it meant to be a ‘conscientious objector’ or an ‘absolutist’ during the war, how they were treated by the other soldiers and how they were viewed by the public. The difference between the two is that conscientious objectors, despite refusing to fight, would often agree to fill other roles, such as stretcher bearers, but absolutists were unwilling to have any involvement at all.

The one thing that spoils The Absolutist, in my opinion, is some of the language Boyne uses, especially in the dialogue, which doesn’t feel appropriate to the time period. Other reviews of this book have mentioned inaccuracies regarding the military terminology too, although I would never notice things like that myself. It’s a shame, considering the care and attention to detail Boyne has obviously put into his recreations of life in the trenches and his treatment of other important issues of the period such as women’s suffrage and attitudes towards homosexuality. Still, I had no major problems with this novel and found it a powerful and thought-provoking read. I still have plenty of John Boyne’s earlier books left to explore and am looking forward to his new one, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, coming in 2017.

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

The Summer Before the War Six years after her debut, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson is back with a second novel – and, in my opinion, it has definitely been worth the wait! The Summer Before the War is a beautiful, moving story about a small town in East Sussex and how it is transformed forever by the effects of the First World War.

It’s the summer of 1914 and spinster Beatrice Nash is arriving in the town of Rye to take up a position as Latin teacher at the local grammar school. Despite the support of Agatha Kent, one of the school governors, Beatrice quickly discovers that not everyone is happy with the decision to offer the teaching job to a woman and that she could be about to lose her position before she’s even begun.

Also in Rye for the summer are Agatha’s nephews, Hugh and Daniel, two young men who think they know what the future holds: Hugh expects to complete his medical studies and then marry Lucy Ramsey, daughter of the surgeon he has been working for, while Daniel, an aspiring poet, hopes to go to Paris and start a literary journal with his friend, Craigmore. With the onset of war, however, all of these plans will be thrown into disarray and life in Rye will never be the same again.

Towards the end of the novel, the action switches to France where we join the men in the trenches, but most of the book, as the title suggests, is devoted to those lazy, idyllic summer days and the changes that are brought by the approach of war. The rigid social structure in place at the beginning of the summer – a time in which independence in women such as Beatrice is seen as something to be discouraged, the atrocities experienced by a young refugee girl make her a social outcast, and Daniel’s relationship with Craigmore risks causing scandal – begins to break down as the war progresses and priorities change.

The Summer Before the War is a long book (with a lovely, cheerful and sunny front cover) but I enjoyed every minute I spent with this set of characters. The story is told with humour, intelligence and sensitivity – and some witty, Jane Austen-style dialogue. Occasionally a word or phrase feels out of place, but otherwise the atmosphere of that summer of 1914 is perfectly evoked. Although the pace is quite gentle I was completely absorbed, discovering as I reached the final chapters how much I had come to care for the men on the front line and the women left behind.

This is a warm, emotional and poignant story and I was close to tears at the end. I loved it and look forward to more from Helen Simonson.

Thanks to Lovereading for providing a review copy.

Non-Combatants and Others by Rose Macaulay

Non-Combatants and Others Rose Macaulay is an author I’ve been interested in trying for a while (since reading Dorothy Dunnett’s The Spring of the Ram, which is set in Trebizond, and discovering that Macaulay had written a book called The Towers of Trebizond). I don’t have a copy of the Trebizond book, though, and do have a copy of Non-Combatants and Others, so it made sense to start with this one.

Non-Combatants and Others, published in 1916, is set during the First World War and, as the title suggests, it tells the story of ‘non-combatants’ and other people who didn’t or couldn’t take an active part in the war. Our heroine, twenty-five-year-old art student Alix Sandomir, is the daughter of a Polish activist father who died in a Russian prison and an English mother, Daphne, who is a pacifist. As the novel opens, Daphne has gone to New York to promote peace, while Alix has remained in England, staying with family in the countryside.

At first Alix may seem to be a rather selfish character. She takes no interest in politics or in helping the war effort; unlike her aunt and cousins, she refuses to get involved in volunteering, nursing, driving ambulances, helping refugees or knitting for the soldiers. Instead she buries herself in her drawing, and at the first opportunity she goes to London to lodge with another set of cousins while she continues her studies at art school. She finds her new companions easier to live with, as they, like herself, are doing their best to ignore the fact that the country is at war.

We soon find, though, that this is just Alix’s way of trying to cope. Her health is not good – she walks with a limp following a childhood illness, and she has a very sensitive, nervous disposition which means she has trouble handling stressful situations. She is also worried about her younger brother, Paul, and the man she loves, Basil Doye, who are both fighting on the front line. Although Alix would love to be able to help in some way, she is frustrated by her own uselessness and decides that the solution to this is simply not to think about it. It is only when she learns the truth about Paul’s experiences in the trenches that she finally has to face up to reality – and when her mother returns from her latest conference, Alix must decide whether she too should join the battle for peace.

Non-Combatants and Others is an unusual novel but a very interesting one. I think what fascinated me the most about it was that it was published in 1916! With hindsight, we know that in 1916 the war would continue for another two years; when Rose Macaulay wrote this book she had no idea how much longer it would last or what the outcome would be. The novel is only two hundred pages long but manages to touch on a wide range of issues which affected those involved – or not involved – in the war: the role of women, the work of the VAD nurses (there’s a very moving chapter set during a visit to a London hospital), the reintegration of wounded ex-soldiers back into society, and the effects of shell shock.

I read an edition of this book published by Capuchin Classics which has a foreword by Sarah LeFanu. When I turned back to read the foreword after I finished the novel I was surprised to find that LeFanu was also discussing a short story called Miss Anstruther’s Letters as if it should have been included in the book. It seems there must have been another edition which included both Non-Combatants and Others and Miss Anstruther’s Letters, but this one does not, which was slightly disappointing. I hope I’ll have a chance to read that short story at some point in the future. I also mentioned a few weeks ago that I was looking for historical fiction novels written by classic women authors and I have since discovered that Rose Macaulay wrote a book called They Were Defeated, set in the seventeenth century. Has anyone read it?