Thursday 30 September 2021

I Jonathan, A Charleston Tale of the Rebellion by George W B Scott #RBRT

5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie's Book Review Team, of which I am a member.

In a Nutshell: Historical drama about Charleston during and after the American Civil War.

Jonathan Vander is marooned in Charleston on his way back to his hometown of Boston, just as the Civil War is brewing.  Circumstances leave him with nothing but the shirt on his back, but he makes himself a life there.  He does not fight in the war; this is more of a social than a military history, showing how the war affected the people during and for many years after.  

The book is written as though a third hand true story; as an old man, Jonathan gives his account to his great-great nephew, who then gives it to the writer.  It is one of those novels that you're aware of being a heck of an achievement, all the way through; the research that has gone into it is evident without one ever feeling that one is reading research.  It's highly readable, and I loved the writing style; it was a delight to read an author who uses the language so well, and is acutely aware of the words and phrasing that would have been used in this period in history.

I particularly liked Jonathan's observations about the futility of war; there is a good section about this in the chapter Laurels of Glory.  And I loved this:

'Duty to an abstract government whose purpose was to use the heroic idealism of youth to forward the goals of the venal wealthy.  Is it not always so?'

The observations and accounts of the attitudes towards the slave trade and segregation were most interesting; I was surprised by some of them.  'Several fine hotels on Broad Street by St Michael's Church were owned by free blacks, serving only whites.  Some freemen were themselves slaveowners, buying them to use as labourers'.  As always with historical events, though, you cannot judge them by the outlook and culture of today's world.

I found the end of the book, about the aftermath, most emotive, not to mention the moment when the reader is told what the 'I' in the title means - it is not as I'd assumed.  Now and again I felt the story meandered a mite too much; it is a very long book and I felt it could have been edited down just a little. However, I could not give it anything less than five stars, and highly recommend it to anyone with a particular interest in the American Civil War, or historical fiction generally.

Sunday 19 September 2021

DESIRE & DECEIT by Carol Hedges @caroljhedges #RBRT

5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie's Book Review Team, of which I am a member, but I bought it anyway because I adore this whole series!

In a Nutshell: Victorian Murder Mystery

I've just finished the final outing in this series of stand-alone Victorian murder mysteries, and every one has been a winner.  Frankly I could carry on reading them ad infinitum, but I understand that a writer needs a change now and then!

We enter once more the world of Detectives Stride and Cully, in mid-nineteenth century London, and are introduced to a fine array of characters, many new faces and others whom we have met before.  Of the latter, I particularly like Miss Lucy Landseer, private detective (or 'detector' as the owner of a exclusive tobacconists calls Cully and his protegée Tom Williams), who is the star of one of the secondary storylines; the main one centres around a dead body without a name, the questions being who is he, who killed him, and why?

Ms Hedges' excellent plotting and characterisation shines out on every page, with her familiar themes rippling through the story: the massive chasm of difference between the haves and the have-nots, the pretentiousness of the aspirational lower middle class, the lot of women of all classes, corrupt MPs with their 'jobs for the boys' (no change there then) and complete disinterest in and disregard for the scum of humanity that floats beneath them (i.e., everyone in the country apart from their families and peers).  Then there are the music hall artistes, the conmen, and those who think they can get away with murder.

I very much liked the parliamentary clerk known only as 'the Replacement' (the MP for which he works never does bother to find out his name), and Euphemia Harbinger, an elderly lady facing the end of her life, once celebrated in society, who is more wise and experienced than her grasping, inheritance-chasing family could ever imagine.  I also loved Harriet Harbinger, a young girl being constantly overlooked in favour of her twin brother, who has her sights set on the high seas and adventure.

As ever, the threads of the story were satisfactorily wrapped up, but this time I finished it with a certain sadness, knowing there will not be any more.  This book is an absolute treat, as are all of the other eight.  If you haven't read any of them yet, I envy you!

Monday 13 September 2021

IMMORTELLE by Catherine McCarthy @serialsemantic

out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: I've read short stories by this author and liked them very much; thus, I bought!

In a Nutshell: Novella, dark mystery/ghost/mild thriller, set in rural Wales about a hundred years ago (I think).

The story is about Elinor, a ceramic artist interested in pagan and supernatural folklore/magic, whose daughter Rowena dies under mysterious circumstances.  In her grief, Elinor starts work on an immortelle (a ceramic, glass-domed wreath, particularly popular in the Victorian and Edwardian eras) as a memento as a memento for Rowena's grave.

Soon, many local people are asking her to make immortelles for their own dead loved ones, and, around a year later, one of the departed recipients appears to her.  Elinor has always had suspicions about Rowena's death, and believes that at some point her fears will be confirmed.

As with the other stories I've read by Catherine McCarthy, this one reeks of Welsh mysticism and secrets hidden in the hills, floating by on the wind or trickling in with the tide.  It is beautifully written, with not a drop in quality all the way through; it is this, and the atmosphere Ms McCarthy creates, that made this a page turner throughout, even in the middle section which is more concerned with emotion than events.  Such was the subtle build up of suspense that I felt, all the way through, as if there might be a truly shocking occurrence just round the corner.

I'd class it as a low-key supernatural mystery rather than horror, though it does have that dark, sinister quality to it that this author pulls off so well; it probably comes naturally, as she was clearly born to write this stuff!  The story totally works; it fits nicely into the novella length with an ending that is pleasing on several levels.

Sunday 12 September 2021

Guest Post: Tom Williams on the re-release of CAWNPORE #History #IndianMutiny @TomCW99

Tom Williams, writer of historical fiction, has just republished his book Cawnpore, about the Indian Mutiny.  It is the second book in his trilogy entitled The John Williamson Papers, and is available from Amazon HERE.  

I've read the whole trilogy and can most definitely recommend, especially if you have particular interest in the Victorian era.  The first book in the series, The White Rajah, will be of particular interest to anyone who has enjoyed the new Jonathan Rhys Myers film Edge of the World - it is Tom's fictional version of this true story, and does, I believe, pay more attention to historical accuracy!

I hope you will enjoy this guest post from him... take it away, Tom :)

here has been a lot of talk lately about how people in Britain don’t know anything about the history of the British Empire. The ‘Empire Project’, people say, should be looked at afresh. The British should face up to the reality of the things that the country did in the past.

The British Empire in 1837 - British possessions in dark grey.

The problem is that it’s an uncomfortable thing to do. Partly because from a 21st century liberal perspective much of the Empire Project was morally objectionable, but also because it means questioning some of the same 21st century liberal thinking about heroes of the liberation struggle.

My book Cawnpore was first published in 2011, long before the recent resurgence of interest in Empire. It’s set in 1857 and we are immediately mired in controversy.

I refer to the events of 1857 as the Indian Mutiny because my ‘Empire’ stories are written in the first person and that’s what people called the fighting in India then. (For the same reason, I write about Cawnpore rather than call it by its modern name of Kanpur.) Indians tend to refer to the same conflict as the First Indian War of Independence. The Indian name is slightly more accurate but both are misleading. It was definitely not a mutiny, but nor was it a war of Indians vs Europeans. In today’s terminology, it was probably best described as an insurgency.

If there is controversy about the name of the place the book is set and what to call the events at the heart of the story, that’s nothing to the differences in the way that the people in the story are viewed. (Except for my fictional narrator, almost everybody in the book is a real person.)

The story of Cawnpore, whoever tells it, is a tragedy. British forces, surrendering after a long siege, were massacred. The Indian commanders attempted to save many of the women and children who had been trapped in the siege. Later, though, all the women and children were massacred in their turn.

Artist: Jason Askew

It was, by any standards, utterly appalling. It was used by the British to justify reprisals all across India, with the mass murder of men, most of whom were nowhere near Cawnpore and many of whom were not involved in any rebellion.

The Memorial Well on the site of the massacre, photographed in 1860

Both Indians and Europeans have much to be ashamed of. Yet until late in the 20th century, Cawnpore was taught in British history books as a story of native savagery. There was little discussion of why British troops were in India in the first place and nothing about the horrific reprisals against civilians. Now the pendulum has swung. The memorial on the site of the massacre has been removed and the park where it was has been renamed after the man responsible for the killings, Nana Sahib. He has been hailed as a hero of the liberation struggle. His image has even appeared on postage stamps.

The trouble with discussions of the rights and (multiple) wrongs of the Empire Project is that the issues are seldom as ethically clear-cut as modern commentators would like and the details of particular events have often been lost or lack context. In many ways, works of fiction can raise these issues more easily than history books. In my case, Cawnpore describes the events of 1857 as seen by a European who was there but who was horrified by the actions of both sides. The reader sees things as my fictional narrator saw them and then has to draw their own conclusions as to where their sympathies lie.'


Would you like to know more?

Tom's blog, on which you can read more about 19th century history, about his other historical series, thoughts on writing, and much other assorted random stuff!

Tom's Facebook Page

Follow Tom on Twitter

Tom's Books on Amazon UK

Monday 6 September 2021


4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie's Book Review Team, of which I am a member.

In a Nutshell: Unusual family drama.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, which is both entertaining and incredibly sad.  It is set mostly in 1989/90, with flashbacks to the 1930s, and Matty Osborne, also known as Matilda Windsor, has been a resident in psychiatric hospitals for fifty years - since she was around twenty.  The reason given at the time was 'moral turpitude' - in other words, becoming pregnant without being married.  I remember seeing something on television once, a long time ago, about how, in the first half of this century, young girls who were committed to asylums for getting pregnant, and were never let out again.  In this circumstance, Matty eventually lost her mind; her path to this state is not revealed until the end of the book.

She believes that she is in her own stately home - sometimes during the Great War, at other times during World War II - that the other residents are her guests, and the carers are her staff.  The story weaves between three points of view: Matty, a young carer called Janice, and Matty's younger half-brother Henry who doesn't know where she is or why she left home.  The staff of Tuke House have no idea whatsoever what goes on in Matty's head, or probably within the head of any of the residents.  Janice is likable and fun, and I enjoyed the portrayals of the people she worked with, most of them ghastly, grey jobsworths with limited imagination.  She is very much a young woman of the Thatcher years with anti-Thatcher ideals; I felt such a sense of going back over 3 decades when I read about her.

I guessed early on what had led to Matty's dreadful fate, but it's not obvious, and I did change my mind a few times; either way, the fact that we don't know 'how, who and why' adds to the page-turning quality of the book.  When I got to the end of her 1930s story, I could have cried at how alone she was, how there was no-one, anywhere, who would listen to and believe her.  It was so tragic, so shocking, made even more so because you know that this sort of thing happened to so many girls, never mind the stories of some of her friends in the unmarried mothers' home. 

Another element that adds to the suspense is Henry's search for the long lost sister he hardly remembers, and all the near misses when he could have found her but didn't.  They're frustrating; each time I though, oh, they're going to find each other!

I found this book particularly interesting because I've worked at a psychiatric hospital in the past, and because I was reminded of my late mother, who had Alzheimer's for eleven years and lived in a care home for the last seven or so years of her life.  I visited her often; I remember her being under the impression that the place was a hotel, and the carers were waitresses.

Although this story has a certain amount of resolution, I gather there is to be a sequel.  I admit to being a little disappointed as I expected to get to the end and have everything nicely wrapped up - but life isn't like that, and the stories of Matty, Janice and Henry will continue.  I look forward to reading the next book when it appears!