This book was a real hidden gem. I love fashion, so the idea of a dress that can transform the wearer’s through the years – the midnight blue satin, made of many pieces but with such tiny stitches it appears as if one piece of fabric – really appealed to me. Added to this, my in-laws history of escaping the Warsaw ghetto – at 8 years old in one case, and being sent to Siberia in the other – means I am interested in the threads of family history at a time of turmoil. My late husband’s family has its own incredible story with repercussions that echo down the generation , so I understand that lives can be displaced and changed beyond recognition, with the results of that still being felt two generations later,
It is Harriet’s love for fashion and an old photograph that leads her to the door of a Paris fashion PR for a year long internship. She is loaned a room in the apartment above the office alongside another girl. Harriet knows this is the very apartment where her grandmother Clare lived in the 1940s. She has left behind a difficult situation!. Having finished university Harriet has been living with her father and stepmother, where she has never felt welcome. Her father sent Harriet to boarding school when he first lived with her stepmom, following her mums death. Her father seemed to find it difficult to cope with a grieving daughter and a burgeoning relationship. One of Harriet’s most treasured possessions is the photo she has of her grandmother Claire and her two best friends in Paris, Mirreile and Vivi. She also has a charm bracelet given by her grandmother and it’s charms show Harriet a story of who her grandmother was. When we are taken back into the past we learn more about these three women. All work in an atelier for the Paris fashion houses. We find out that Claire and Mirreille lived upstairs first, but are later joined by Vivi. All three are great seamstresses and are quick to become friends.
When the Germans arrive in Paris at first is it easy to carry on as normal. Yes, there are more German voices in the cafes and bars, more German vehicles in the streets, but people still order couture clothes. However, as the war really starts to bite things begin to change. The girls friendship survives Claire’s disastrous dalliance with a German officer, but afterwards she notices a difference in her friends. What mysterious work is Vivi doing in the atelier after hours? Who is the gentleman Mirreille is seen with and why is she often missing after curfew? The girls are about to be involved in the war in ways they didn’t imagined; ways that could mean paying the ultimate price.
Just like the stitches in a beautiful garments the threads of history are so beautifully intertwined with the fictional story of the girls. I read Alice Hoffman’s new novel in the last few weeks and it is also set in 1940s Paris so it was interesting to see the same historic events from a different viewpoint. I could see how much research the author had done and her skill in mentioning actual events without them feeling tacked on to the girls story was brilliant, I slowly came to care about each of the girls and although Vivi seems less accessible than the other two at first, it was interesting to see how central to Harriet’s history she becomes.
The detail is often harrowing to read and the idea that trauma can be passed through generations is one I’m familiar with because I’m a therapist and have read the same research as the author. She uses this beautifully in the novel, illustrating that the German’s horrendous acts of cruelty were on such a scale that it echoes down to the next generation. It is only when someone identifies the trauma in their family and gets professional help to let go of it’s effects, that someone can start to heal. I think I expected this book to be lighter and more focused on fashion from the blurb, but what I got was far superior: an incredible story of friendship and survival. I would definitely recommend it to friends.
Meet The Author
Fiona is an acclaimed number 1 bestselling author, whose books have been translated into more than twenty different languages worldwide.She draws inspiration from the stories of strong women, especially during the years of World War II. Her meticulous historical research enriches her writing with an evocative sense of time and place.
She spent seven years living in France, having moved there from the UK in 2007, before returning to live in Scotland. Her love for both of these countries, their people and their histories, has found its way into the books she’s written. Fiona says, “To be the first to hear about my NEW releases, please visit my website at http://www.fionavalpy.com and subscribe to the mailing list. I promise not to share your e-mail and I’ll only contact you when a new book is out.”
It’s been an odd month here, because I went into the month full of energy and looking forward to a busy blog month. Then I felt very unwell and sadly had to let blog tour organisers and publishers which I hate. Thankfully I’d written this ahead of time as I read each novel, so all I had to do was write this little intro. My favourite books this month were mainly dual narrative novels, a structure I really enjoy especially when it’s done as well as these authors. I hope you all have a lovely Jubilee weekend, whether you are a royalist or are just looking forward to a long weekend off work. My carer and other half are helping me with a stall at our village jubilee celebrations. I’m at our book exchange with a box full of old proofs to swap, book suggestions and a tombola with books from the Jubilee Big Read as prizes. All the books are from Commonwealth writers so I’m looking forward to introducing people to a different perspective on our Queen’s long reign. Photos to follow!
I enjoyed this book much more than I’d expected to. It’s not that there was anything wrong with the blurb or the cover, but I thought it might be just another ‘stately home + mystery’ novel with no huge surprises. However, the depth of characterisation and complexity of the story drew me in and kept me reading for two straight days. Ellie is our present day narrator and she’s having to take leave from work as an investigative journalist after trying to expose an important businessman ended badly. So she returns to her family home in County Kerry, Ireland to spend time with her mother. Trying to keep a low profile is a lost cause in a small Irish village. It’s only because she’s desperate for reading material that she braves the charity shop to collect a box of books that have come from the large stately home nearby, Blackwater Hall. Ellie is grateful to see a few Agatha Christie novels on the top and takes the whole box. Inside is a mysterious letter, addressed only to ‘T’ but clearly belonging to the Rathmore family. It ignites a spark in Ellie and she tries to do the right thing and return it, but is bitten by the mystery surrounding the family. Charlotte Rathmore disappeared during the early part of WWII leaving a broken string of pearls by the lake. The official version is that Charlotte killed herself, but Ellie senses a story and starts to seek out other remaining members of the family. Can she solve the mystery of Charlotte’s disappearance and what changes will the truth bring to Blackwater Hall and the Rathmore family? Despite wanting all the answers, I didn’t want this book to end and there’s no better compliment than that.
Another dual timeline novel here, with another mysterious set of letters. This was our Squad Pod read for May and as usual my review is late, but it’s no secret that I LOVED this book. I even made Chocolate Mojito cupcakes to celebrate the fact. I was unsure where this book was going to go, considering the rather modern looking cocktail cover. However, it’s story was deeper and more moving than I expected. In the 1970’s Ava Winters lives in a New York apartment with her mother and a father who seems to wander in and out. Her mother shows signs of mental illness and seems haunted by something in her past. With both parents AWOL Ava is lonely and becomes fascinated by a box sent to her apartment addressed to a woman called Gillian. It’s from Paris and holds letters as well as a butterfly necklace and a photo with LIAR scrawled across it. In the same apartment, but twenty years earlier, teachers Dovie and Gillian are roommates. However, they’re very private and guard their home lives fiercely until one unguarded moment exposes the wrong person to the truth. This novel showed me a side of life I knew nothing about. A time where ‘unnatural activities’ and desires could lead to a loss of everything from your job to your liberty. I will save the rest for my review, but don’t miss this one. It’s an incredible debut from a very talented writer.
This beautiful novel covers the early Twentieth Century in the lives of one family, from WWI to WWII. This book feels like an epic. A whale washes up on the beach of the Chilcombe Estate and is claimed for the Seagrave family by Cristabel who is the orphan cousin and doesn’t really fit anywhere. She loves adventure, activity, and endeavours, conquering the Seagrave estate rather than being the lady her stepmother would expect. The Seagrave children are an odd bunch, brought up by staff and each other, while their parents stay in bed late, are never without houseguests and like to drink as early as it is socially acceptable to do so. This is the story of the heir and the spare. Jasper Seagrave brings his new wife home to the Chilcombe Estate and Rosalind is thrown into being mistress of the house and stepmother to his daughter Cristabel. Rosalind is happy to have bagged an aristocratic husband, considering they’re in very short supply since the war. That is until the ‘spare’ arrives. Willoughby is everything his elder brother isn’t; a dashing war hero fascinated by speed whether it’s a new car or learning to fly. There’s an immediate attraction, deepening when Rosalind is on bed rest in the last stages of pregnancy and Willoughby keeps her company. Is the Chilcombe estate about to lapse into scandal and what will become of Cristabel? As the family grows to include a half-sister and brother for Cristabel we follow them towards WWII. The author shows what a toll both wars took on people and the rapid changes they forced on society. I won’t reveal whether any of our characters survive, but Cristabel remembers a saying, that war can bring out the best in people. There are those who shine through difficult days and in their own ways I think the Seagrave children all stepped up to the mark. This is a beautiful piece of historical fiction and I would happily read it all over again.
This book is my only thriller this month and it’s a cracker. This is perfect summer holiday reading whether you’re somewhere exotic or lounging in your own back garden. Hot in every sense of the world and set in picturesque Italy with a sense of growing menace all the way through. I read this one in the garden, with a Pimms in hand and with every chapter became more convinced of the old saying; the grass is never greener on the other side. Laura and Nick have been through a lot. Back in London they were struggling with infertility and Laura hadn’t felt like herself for a long time, the fertility drugs pumping her full of hormones and the grief of miscarriage left her feeling broken. When she discovers a betrayal, after Nick accidentally leaves his phone at home, she’s angry and resentful too. In his eagerness to make it up to her, Nick suggests they do what Laura has always wanted, move to Italy and create a holiday hideaway for couples. They discovered Luna Rossa on a visit to Italy several months ago, after which Laura suffered a third miscarriage. It is in the Marche region, a largely unknown area of Italy next to Tuscany but less expensive. Luna Rossa is isolated, includes a pool, a small cottage and beautiful grounds that fall away steeply gifting the house with incredible views across the countryside. Only a few months later they are preparing to welcome their first couple for a three week stay. It seems idyllic, but they’re taking a risk in welcoming complete strangers into their home. Laura has stalked her guest Madison on social media and she seems very outgoing and glamorous. Laura and Nick could be underestimating how disruptive it can be to have strangers living in your home, especially these strangers…. This is a real sizzler of a novel! My full review is coming next week.
This book is a beautiful example of writing back in history to give a voice to someone who was silenced. Celestine Babbington is recorded for history in a silent form, photographed wearing clothes he didn’t choose and posing with a man whose relationship to him is very problematic. The man, Richard Babbington, is a rich explorer who has a love for Africa and a large mansion house in England. Yet by 1907, Celestine is being kept in the attic of the house, only allowed out to work as a domestic slave. Years later, a young girl called Lowra is suffering the same fate. Locked in the attic as punishment for any transgression, when her fate has been left in the hands of her resentful stepmother. While locked in the attic she finds an unusual necklace with clawed hands, unlike anything she’s seen before. There’s also an old-fashioned porcelain doll and a sentence on the wall, written in an unfamiliar language. These are her only comfort, because she feels as if the person that owned them is with her in some way. As an adult, her stepmother’s abuse still affects her and she’s conflicted when she inherits Babbington’s house. People seem to think she’s lucky and the town is proud of this intrepid explorer. Looking into the house’s history leads her to an exhibition of Babbington’s life, where she sees photographs of Babbington and a young black boy wearing an African wrap and what looks like her necklace, the one from the attic. However, the thing that keeps Lowra transfixed, is the young boy’s eyes. Lowra sees someone filled with sorrow, a fellow sufferer of the darkness inside that house. His name is Celestine Babbington. Lowra wants to find out more about this boy, how he came to be in England and what happened to him after Babbington’s death. This book was moving and had me in it’s grip straight away. It takes me back full circle to the beginning of my post and hearing voices from the Commonwealth countries and from Black British writers. I’ll be taking a copy of this book to my stall at the weekend and I’m looking forward to sharing it with new readers.
This book feels like an epic. A familial version of The lliad, the very first play that Cristabel puts on in the family’s theatre by the beach, formed from the jawbones of a whale. It washed up on the beach and was claimed for the Seagraves by Cristabel who is the orphan cousin of the family. Cristabel doesn’t really fit anywhere. She loves adventure, activity, and endeavours, climbing, running and conquering the Seagrave estate rather than being the lady her stepmother would expect, if she could be bothered. The Seagrave children are an odd bunch, brought up by staff and each other, while their parents stay in bed late, are never without houseguests and like to drink as early as it is socially acceptable to do so. This is the story of the heir and the spare. Jasper Seagrave brings his new wife home to the Chilcombe Estate and Rosalind is thrown into being mistress of the house and stepmother to his daughter Cristabel. There are definite vibes of Rebecca in this beginning, with a much younger wife slightly overawed by her new home and struggling to find her place. The ghostly presence in this case being Cristabel, creeping round corridors and the attic, having ‘boy’s own’ adventures with imaginary friends. Rosalind is happy to have bagged an aristocratic husband, considering they’re in very short supply since the war. That is until the ‘spare’ arrives. Willoughby is everything his elder brother isn’t, a dashing war hero fascinated by speed whether it’s a new car or learning to fly. There’s an immediate attraction, deepening when Rosalind is on bed rest in the last stages of pregnancy and Willoughby keeps her company. Is the Chilcombe estate about to lapse into scandal and what will become of Cristabel?
Joanne Quinn’s incredible debut begins at the end of WW1 and takes us all the way through WW2. The attention to detail is incredible and I felt completely immersed in this family’s history and the times they’re living in. This period saw huge changes for the aristocracy, often forced by the loss of two generations and bankruptcy due to death duties. Estates were sold off or had their use changed in order for the family to survive. The class boundaries became blurred as servants and masters fought together and unexpected bonds were created. Women had grown used to different roles, possibly nursing or working in factories or shops, and not all wanted to go back to a domestic role. There were also less men, so the marriage market changed and many society women, like Rosalind, had to be open to marrying men they might have previously overlooked. The author reinforces this sense of change by echoing it in the setting. When Rosalind first arrives at Chilcombe she is disappointed in the old fashioned country decor, all wood panelling and animal heads. She gradually brings the house into the 1920s with glamorous furniture and wallpaper, perhaps more suited to a London house than the country estate. The animals are banished to the attic, including a stuffed baby elephant on wheels intended as a gift to Cristabel from her mother. In fact Cristabel herself is treated rather like an unwanted piece of decor, stuffed into the attic with only the maid Maudie for company, her tomboyish ways out of step with her elegant and ethereal stepmother. As war looms again, the estate changes accordingly, with its garden turned over to vegetables and the people left behind pulling together as a team whether they are a Seagrave or the servants. They find themselves communing together in the kitchen, with all the elegant furniture sitting around like a piece of jewellery that’s too dressy for everyday wear.
The Seagrave children are the main focus of the novel, Cristabel, Flossie and Digby, each one a cousin or half-sibling they cleave together tightly due to parental neglect. Flossie is the child of Jasper Seagrave and Rosalind and I did find my heart warming to her. Nicknamed ‘The Veg’ thanks to an unfortunate resemblance to a vegetable when she was a baby, I sensed Flossie’s vulnerability. Her mother is beautiful and willowy, a perfect shape for her time, rather like an Art Deco statuette, but Flossie hasn’t inherited that elegance or poise. She’s rather like her father Jasper, a little bit awkward and not very good at asserting herself. WW2 tests Flossie’s metal and she responds with duty, grit and determination. It’s as if by pulling on her old clothes, mucking in with the servants and creating her garden at the whalebones she finds herself and becomes okay with who she is. Her friendship she cultivates with the German prisoner of war is so touchingly beautiful and fleeting. She’s a good person who can see the best traits in someone and bring them out. With both siblings away on special operations, it’s Flossie who has to find a way of keeping Chilcombe and run the estate. Digby, the son of Rosalind and Willoughby Seagrave, has the advantages of being the son and heir, but also seems like the one Seagrave who was wanted. Cristabel, belonging to Jasper and his first wife, is almost invisible. The chapter where her parents meet is unbelievably touching and I found myself bereft for Cristabel, because she would never know how much she was loved and wanted. Flossie is perhaps a reminder of those months when Rosalind was Jasper’s wife, something she seems to view with distaste. Digby could have been resented by his siblings, but both girls adore him. His love for acting shines through from being a little boy, when the theatre has a profound effect on him. So much so, that he’s still on the stage years later. To some extent, Cristabel is his parent and he looks up to her, happy to follow on in whatever escapade she has planned next.
It is Cristabel who is the hero of this book, from the child who has to crawl in bed with one of the maids for comfort and affection, to a special operative in occupied France, she is a survivor. Full of ideas, her determination to claim the beached whale is almost comical, couched in the very male language of expedition and discovery. Once only the bones are left, it takes someone equally creative and energetic to help establish the Whalebone Theatre. A visiting artist, scandalously living in the cottage with his wife and identical twin lovers, imagines walking through the creatures jawbone to reach the theatre (a space repurposed for Flossie’s vegetable garden during WW2). They create a script from Homer’s work and utilising Rosalind’s skills and interest in design, make a seating area and light the way to a stage that has the sea as a backdrop. Their plays succeed in bringing everyone together in the endeavour, each with a part to play whether it’s on stage, setting up, or making flyers for the village. These happy parts of her childhood take on such a nostalgic element, especially years later when she’s crouched in a ditch in occupied France trying to survive. There’s a sense in which the whole ensemble and even the villagers bring up this little girl and I loved the knowing way people would assume some daring escapade was the work of Miss Cristabel. I felt most sorry for her when we learn that her story could have been so different. Jasper is knocked off his feet by this woman who wants to talk to him at the hunt and appears immune to the charms of his notorious brother. The paragraph where Jasper recalls how in tune they both were and how brilliant and capable she was of running the estate with him. I can see a great deal of her mother in Cristabel and I was moved by the joy they felt in finding out they were going to be parents. The stuffed baby elephant they install with wheels for their baby shows that they imagine her like a little Maharaja, riding her elephant around the house.
Cristabel’s war years are incredibly intrepid and there are scenes where I was scared for her. The languid inter-war years seem decadent by comparison with these more sparse and disjointed episodes showing all three Seagraves in different parts of the world. I thought the pace really picked up as we followed Cristabel on her missions, parachuting into occupied France as a messenger, often with German soldiers a hair’s breadth away from discovering her. One scene with a German officer is so real I felt sick for her! She proves that her ‘adventures’ were not just an affectation. She is willing to put herself on the line, proving her aptitude for work as a operative, but also such incredible bravery. The final days of Nazi rule in Paris are tense, nail-bitingly so, but I didn’t fear for her. I had a sense Cristabel would survive no matter what. I thought this was an incredible depiction of life through the war, whether from Flossie’s more domestic side including service as a land girl to Cristabel and Digby’s seemingly more dashing exploits. His sister’s determination to find Digby showed that these children loved and cared for each other so deeply, probably because they had been left to their own devices. For Cristabel, it is servant Maudie who shows her what a mother’s love should look like and she in turn, mothers her little brother and sister. The author shows what a toll both wars took on people and the rapid changes they forced on society. I won’t reveal whether any of our characters survive, but Cristabel remembers a saying, that war can bring out the best in people. There are those who shine through difficult days and in their own ways I think the Seagrave children all stepped up to the mark. Most importantly the loving bond they had as children, stood firm and could not be broken.
Published 9th June 2022 by Fig Tree (Penguin)
Meet The Author
Joanna Quinn was born in London and grew up in Dorset, in the South West of England, where her “brilliant, beguiling” debut novel The Whalebone Theatre is set.
Joanna has worked in journalism and the charity sector. She is also a short story writer, published by The White Review and Comma Press among others. She teaches creative writing and lives in a village near the sea in Dorset.
I have been looking for second hand copies of this book, because I’m creating a book stall at our village book exchange for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. My plan is to include books based in the Commonwealth countries or that represent a definitive moment in the Queen’s reign. This book sits a little early, starting in WW2, but sets a scene for those early years of her reign and shows how the people of the Commonwealth felt about their ‘mother country’. I first read Small Island after university, where I’d become the student obsessed with diversity, disability and all of those words that mark out difference. In my final year I looked closely at Caliban in The Tempest because my heart went out to him. I did a module in the Gothic, Grotesque and Monstrous, and another in Post-Colonial literature. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was ploughing a very specific furrow and my dissertation in disability earned me a solid first. These studies really did hone my taste in reading and while I read across the breadth of fiction genres and subjects, the books that really get me in the heart have a thread of social justice and characters coping with prejudice. This book appealed to me because I hadn’t read much about the Windrush generation. Andrea Levy won the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Orange Prize ‘Best of the Best’ as well as the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Whitbread for this novel. It was also described as ‘possibly the definitive fictional account of the experiences of the Empire Windrush generation’, when it was selected by the BBC as one of its ‘100 Novels That Shaped Our World’.
It is 1948, and England is recovering from a war. But at 21 Nevern Street, London, the conflict has only just begun. Queenie Bligh’s neighbours don’t approve when she agrees to take in Jamaican lodgers, but with her husband, Bernard, not back from the war, she has little choice in the matter. Gilbert Joseph was one of the many Jamaican men who joined the RAF to fight Hitler. But when he returns to England as a civilian he doesn’t receive the welcome he was expecting, and it’s desperation that drives him to knock at Queenie’s door. Gilbert’s wife Hortense, who for years has longer for a better life in England, soon joins him. But London is far from the golden city of her dreams, and even Gilbert is not the man she thought he was.
Small Island explores a point in England’s past when the country began to change. In this delicately wrought and profoundly moving novel, Andrea Levy handles the weighty themes of empire, prejudice, war and love, with a superb lightness of touch and generosity of spirit.
I loved the slow pace of this novel, allowing each character’s story to unfold fully, and meander across each other. I felt deeply for Queenie, with a father-in-law shell-shocked from the First World War and her husband Bernard still away, even though WW2 has ended. I could understand how her friendship with lodger Michael started, she must have been so lonely. However the consequences of the relationship only serve to isolate her further. Gilbert follows friend Michael to the U.K. for active service, only to return in 1948 when the British Government put a call out to the colonies for workers. Many English men were lost during the war leaving a labour shortage and Gilbert knows he has the skills to help. Hortense has always had a dream of going to England, where she would want to be a teacher like she is in Jamaica. As married couples are more likely to be accepted, Gilbert and Hortense make a pact, to have a marriage that fools the authorities and forge futures for themselves in England. He knows exactly where they’re going to live, 21 Nevern Street, because Queenie’s were the only lodgings that didn’t have a card in the window saying ‘No Blacks.’
I fell in love with Gilbert, who proves himself to be a loyal and trustworthy friend to both Queenie and Hortense, although there are times when the latter would test the patience of a saint. Hortense is so haughty! She made me smile with her airs and graces. I love the way she dresses, with her gloves and handbags strangely reminiscent of Queen Elizabeth’s style. In her mind she has done everything her mother country asked of her. She’s been to a good school and become educated, she has her teaching certificate and is a dedicated Anglophile. When the call comes to the colonies, that England is in need of workers, she thinks she can be useful. Gilbert tries to explain to her that England won’t be what she is expecting, her education will be looked down upon and instead of welcoming, people may be hostile. She tells him he’s wrong. England is a massive shock to Hortense, not just the cold, but the shame of everything she’s worked for being worth nothing. She’s also misjudged their friend Michael, who had passed through during the war. Back in Jamaica, Michael is practically a saint and Hortense is taken in by his good looks and nice manners. Another hard lesson to learn. At least Gilbert is there, faithfully keeping her going, trying to soften the blows and always sleeping on the chair while she takes the bed. I had so much sympathy for Queenie, who is overwhelmed and exhausted. Her father-in-law can be hard work, he doesn’t speak and is prone to wandering. I can feel that she is very fond of him. Her pregnancy is conceived in the spirit of war; a mix of attraction, plus loneliness and a sense that death might not be so far away. Women who conceived while their husbands were away, often hid the pregnancy under the respectability of their marriages. If their husband returned on time they could announce a baby which was then born prematurely. If not, the woman was very reliant on her husband to accept and choose to bring up the child. Sadly for Queenie this choice isn’t open to her and we see what society’s reaction might be to a mixed race child. Would her father-in-law or her husband even accept her baby?
I thought the structure was brilliant, moving back and forth from before and during the war, to post war. It also moves geographically, from England to Jamaica. These changes in structure were helpful to the storyline, because of the perspective it gives us on events. Going to Jamaica shows us the attitude of our characters to England and how that changes once they’ve helped us through a war. Gilbert expected to be treated better. He answered the call to go to war and then goes to England’s aid a second time. It’s a shock to find there isn’t a welcome. In fact a lot of people are downright hostile and it feels so unfair. Hortense thinks her skills and presence will be welcomed too, but they’re not. Why ask them to come if they aren’t welcome? By visiting each character in turn we get to know them intimately, their whole inner world is open to us. We might see reasons for behaviour that had seemed strange before and we might change our mind about a character. The slow pace helps the reader really get to know them and how they change through their experiences. Through these people the author brings to life issues of identity and our cultural heritage, bringing to mind interesting contrasts with today’s attitudes, especially in light of the more recently discovered Windrush Scandal. Levy created characters that years later still feel as real to me as my friends and by the end I cared about them so much that there were tears. I’ve re-read this novel so many times and it’s power doesn’t fade, nor does the impact of the characters, and it’s this that makes Levy’s book a masterpiece.
Meet The Author
After she passed away on the 14th of February 2019, the Bookseller wrote: ‘Andrea Levy will be remembered as a novelist who broke out of the confines assigned to her by prejudice to become a both a forerunner of Black British excellence and a great novelist by any standards.’
Born in England to Jamaican parents who came to Britain in 1948, Andrea Levy wrote the novels that she had always wanted to read as a young woman, engaging books that reflect the experiences of black Britons and at the intimacies that bind British history with that of the Caribbean. She was described by BBC News as ‘a writer who tackled important social issues . . . her writing . . . witty, humane and often moving, and full of richly drawn characters’.
She was the author of six books, including SMALL ISLAND, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction, and the Whitbread book of the Year, and was adapted for TV and for the stage, by the National Theatre. It was selected by the BBC as one of its ‘100 Novels That Shaped Our World’. Her most recent novel, THE LONG SONG, won the Walter Scott Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and was adapted for TV by the BBC.
Samira is an up-and-coming TV journalist, working the nightshift at a major news channel and yearning for greater things. So when she’s offered a trip to the Middle East, with Kris, the station’s brilliant but impetuous star photographer, she leaps at the chance In the field together, Sami and Kris feel invincible, shining a light into the darkest of corners … except the newsroom, and the rest of the world, doesn’t seem to care as much as they do. Until Kris takes the photograph. With a single image of young Sudanese mother, injured in a raid on her camp, Sami and the genocide in Darfur are catapulted into the limelight. But everything is not as it seems, and the shots taken by Kris reveal something deeper and much darker … something that puts not only their careers but their lives in mortal danger. Sarah Sultoon brings all her experience as a CNN news executive to bear on this shocking, searingly authentic thriller, which asks immense questions about the world we live in. You’ll never look at a news report in the same way again…
Sarah Sultoon’s debut was a hard hitting belter of a novel so I was really looking forward this one, set in the world of war journalism -something that seems so pertinent right now as I watch Orla Guerrin and Jeremy Bowen on my TV screen, showing us the evidence of what can only be called war crimes in the Ukraine. Having read some of Janine di Giovanna’s writing about covering the genocide in Rwanda, Bosnia and now in Syria, I had a good idea of what the war correspondent’s life looks like. She describes lots of waiting around, mixed with personalities that are driven and easily bored. When you combine that with the things they’ve experienced it can be a potent mix, leading to abuse of drink or drugs in order to cope. It means being shipped off to one of the most dangerous places in the world at a moment’s notice, living on adrenaline and even the risk of being seriously injured, as happened to BBC Security Correspondent Frank Gardener. It’s the type of work that can become addictive, ruin relationships and damage health. I saw that dynamic being played out in Sultoon’s novel following hardened correspondent and star of the show Kris, and his producer Samira who is eager and new to the job.
Kris has something of the hero about him, always looking slightly battered and dishevelled, and ready to jump back into the fray before his injuries have healed from the last mission. He’s loud and full of machismo, but this is a surface layer. He does care about the people he’s reporting on and wants to express to the world everything he is seeing in conflict, but it also takes a toll. We see it as he returns home injured, he’s already desperate to get back out there and his mind is barely on his wife, or her concerns about their son and what he understands about his father’s job. Sami is ambitious, stuck on night shifts but lurking around the news room for that elusive shot at an overseas production role. She finds it when Kris saunters back in looking for trouble and there’s news that the American president is making a flying visit to Afghanistan. Kris is up for a quick trip and Sami is in the right place at the right time. He’s quickly impressed by how organised and well researched she is. Even before they reach Afghanistan, Sami is already thinking about the opportunities to land a big story and with Kris on board, she asks to be taken around an Afghan hospital. In the women’s hospital they find the hidden victims of the Taliban, women who have tried self-immolation as a way out of their restricted lives, but only succeeded in creating a world of agonising pain.
Sami and Kris are praised back at home and become a close team, although Sami does feel that no matter what they report, viewers are not waking up and taking notice. It’s all a journalist wants, ‘the shot’, the one that has impact worldwide and changes the way people think about a place, or a war. The one that has people approaching their MP and protesting for change. They find it covering the conflict in in Darfur, Sudan. A shot of a young mother, the victim of a devastating assault by the armed Arab militia the ‘Janjaweed’, one picture representing a dark, genocide lurking just under the surface of what we know. A way to refocus the eyes of the world on a truly terrible and largely forgotten war, crime. The author has a brilliant way of bringing us right into the moment, without long flowery descriptions, such as the way the sheer beauty of Afghanistan is described with its ring of snowy mountains round Kabul. This gives an eternal feel to the place, it is ancient and will stand here long after the war is over and everyone has returned home. In other scenes it’s something as simple as the clean clothing Kris puts on when he returns home; his cargo trousers and a fleece top, always the same. In barely any words it tells us Kris has a ‘uniform’ and that he’s never off duty and won’t be staying for very long. This isn’t an easy read. War is brutal and should be depicted that way. This really shines the spotlight on those supporting staff, the war correspondents are risking their lives of course, but so are their guides and interpreters. It really brought home to me the fear these men must have felt when America withdrew from Afghanistan suddenly and power was back in the hands of the Taliban. Those who’d worked with the foreign correspondents and without who’s help we wouldn’t have known the raw truth of the conflict, were abandoned and turned away from the airport in those chaotic last days for not having the right papers. I often wonder how many of them are alive now. This is urgent, brutal writing and the pace never lets up, giving us a taste of the adrenalin rush for the correspondents and the terrible fear that their families must live with at home. All of them are the emotional casualties of war.
Meet The Author
Sarah Sultoon is a journalist and writer, whose work as an international news executive at CNN has taken her all over the world, from the seats of power in both Westminster and Washington to the frontlines of Iraq and Afghanistan. She has extensive experience in conflict zones, winning three Peabody awards for her work on the war in Syria, an Emmy for her contribution to the coverage of Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015, and a number of Royal Television Society gongs. As passionate about fiction as nonfiction, she recently completed a Masters of Studies in Creative Writing at the University of Cambridge, adding to an undergraduate language degree in French and Spanish, and Masters of Philosophy in History, Film and Television. When not reading or writing she can usually be found somewhere outside, either running, swimming or throwing a ball for her three children and dog while she imagines what might happen if… Her debut thriller The Source is currently in production with Lime Pictures, and was a Capital Crime Book Club pick and a number one bestseller on Kindle.
1941, Nazi-occupied Paris: In the glamorous Ritz hotel there is a woman with a dangerous secret…
As Coco Chanel’s assistant, Adèle lives side by side with German officers in the splendour of The Ritz hotel. But Adèle has a secret. She is working for the resistance, right under the Germans’ noses. As occupied Paris becomes more and more dangerous, Adèle will have to decide if she can risk everything to save innocent lives and protect the man she loves…
Present day: Chloé’s grandmother has never spoken about the war and avoids questions about the legendary designer she once worked for. Now Chloé has come to Paris, to uncover the truth about Adèle’s life. But is she prepared for what she will find? And for the power of her grandmother’s secrets to change her family forever…
Chloé has travelled to Paris after the breakdown of her marriage in order to help a friend with their vintage shop. She knows her grandmother worked for Chanel in the 1940’s so when she hears about an auction taking place at the Ritz she decides to have a look. The Ritz is selling some wartime items which grab her interest and when she meets Etienne, who is an art dealer and war historian, he is a great source of knowledge. He tells her about recently unearthed information that Chanel was sympathetic to Hitler’s cause and had visited Berlin several times. Like many people who survived the war, her grandma has been very reticent about sharing her experiences for that? As Chloé starts to look in the archives, she begins to worry. What will she feel if she finds out her grandmother collaborated.
The historical research undertaken for this novel is undeniable and before reading this I had no idea of Coco Chanel’s stance in WW2 or the stories of her collaboration with the Nazis. I think now that history has shown us the full extent of the Holocaust and Hitler’s belief in a master race, we can’t conceive of anyone who doesn’t see him and his actions as unremittingly evil. However, it’s clear that during the war, for both Germans and occupied citizens the distinction wasn’t so clear. With our own aristocracy hiding many who were enthralled by Hitler’s planned genocide, it shouldn’t be a surprise that in France, Greece and Italy allegiances and the reasons for them were very complicated. If you had a bakery in the occupied Greek islands would you rather see bread go to waste or would you sell to the occupying force? For Chanel, living in the Paris Ritz alongside German soldiers it must have been hard to live next door and keep up a secret campaign of hatred. This is where Adèle’s story shines a light, as Chanel’s PA she can come very close to them, but still want them dead and gone from France. So with great bravery she resists under their very noses.
Adèle’s wartime story is so engrossing, that I think it makes the book a little lopsided. The dual timeline, as in the present Adèle’s granddaughter Chloé researches her family history, is definitely the weaker end of the story. It’s almost there as a device and although it gives present day interest, I think the book would be just as strong without it. It’s possibly just that the tension and drama need to be high for the WW2 setting, so anything would have seemed quiet in comparison. Prior to the war, Adèle grew up in an orphanage, taught by nuns. She had worked for Chanel before war broke out and is lucky to be chosen as her personal secretary when the atelier is closed, because all the other staff are let go. Adéle is in charge of her correspondence, packing her luggage when she travels and organises any meetings she has. However, she does not enjoy living at the Ritz, especially when the German soldiers move in and Chanel starts to socialise with them, dating a much younger man at the same time. It’s the guilt that’s so hard to deal with, especially when Adèle sees other people going hungry. When she first sees a Jewish woman being arrested, she’s stunned and feels sick that this is happening in her country. As she goes for her routine blood donation to the Red Cross she meets Theo, a doctor who is a member of the resistance. Can Adèle continue to watch others suffer or will she have to help?
I think that this writer takes a piece of history and weaves a great story, full of intrigue and drama especially in the WW2 sections. Chloé needs to move forward from her divorce and find her confidence again and there is something about filling in the gaps of her family history that does this. Learning the truth about her grandmother is nerve-wracking considering her employer’s history, but if it shows she was a hero then Chloé will filled buoyed up by it. Knowing you’re from a line of strong women, can help you find your own strength and I think that’s the essence of Chloé’s journey. Adèle is a courageous woman in a very tough situation and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know her and the full history of one of France’s most famous collaborators.
Published on 22nd January 2022 by Avon Books.
Meet The Author
Lorna Cook is the author of the The Girl From the Island, The Forbidden Promise and the Kindle Number 1 Bestseller ‘The Forgotten Village’, which was her debut novel, staying in the Kindle Top 100 for four months. It has sold over 150,000 copies, has eleven overseas/foreign language editions, won the Romantic Novelists’ Association Katie Fforde Debut Romantic Novel of the Year Award and the RNA Joan Hessayon Award for New Writers. Keep up with all her news and bookish chat at:www.lornacookauthor.com www.facebook.com/LornaCookWriterwww.instagram.com/lornacookauthorwww.twitter.com/LornaCookAuthor
I’ve been reading Kate Mosse since Labyrinth all those years ago and I’m always impressed by the level of detail and knowledge of French history she weaves into her books. Every detail is considered and you have the impression straight away that you’re in safe hands. In The City of Tears she combines her fictional narrative with fascinating real events focusing on the Catholic and Huguenot conflicts of the 16th Century. This is the second book in the Burning Chambers series and I did choose to go back and read the first book. However, due to Mosse’s ability to immerse you in her world, I think this could be read as a stand alone novel. It continues the adventures of Minou Reydon-Joubert and Piet Reydon, characters caught up in a period beset by complicated religious and political wars. Mosse walks the tightrope between these warring factions carefully, illustrating that there is honour and corruption on both sides, but keeping the focus on the family at the centre of these conflicts.
We return to the Languedoc region of France and the wars have now raged for ten years. It’s May 1572 and Minou and Piet travel with their two children, Marta and Jean Jacques, to Paris for the royal wedding of Charles IX’s sister, Catholic Marguerite de Valois, and Protestant Henry III of Navarre. This wedding has the political and religious benefits of uniting both Catholic and Protestant factions, so could mark the start of peace, but it’s a fragile accord. Piet’s old acquaintance Cardinal Valentin (Vidal) is in Paris too, but he’s now an enemy, unbeknownst to Piet he has a plan to kill all important Huguenots during the celebrations. The terrible violence that follows was known as the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and thousands of Huguenots were murdered. Seven year old Marta is separated from her parents in the chaos and goes missing. It’s a parent’s worst fear, but unable to find her, Minou and Piet have to flee the city without her. The pair are devastated as they cross the border and make their way to safety in Amsterdam. I loved the way Mosse depicted the strain this decision places on the couple’s relationship. They have managed to ensure the safety of their two year old son, but are filled with guilt for leaving their daughter behind.
Minou and Piet only return to France twelve years later after hearing of a woman who bears a resemblance to Minou. Could it be Marta? They have to take a chance and search for their daughter, but danger is still everywhere. They don’t know that family enemy Vidal is there, with his collection of fake relics, that he intends to use with the ambition of gaining power and position. He believes Piet is in possession of a stolen relic and is driven by bitterness and revenge. His evil nature and conviction he is carrying out God’s work, is beautifully offset by Minou who is a strong willed and opinionated woman doing the best for her family rather than a religion. Piet is also more logical and open-minded, he’s a Huguenot by religion, but doesn’t believe there is only one way to God, particularly when religious difference is used as an excuse to oppress and murder. The couple’s return has raised the tension and jeopardy for all their friends and family, and Mosse delivers some suspense filled twists and turns where the hunted and hunter just miss each other.
I felt like I was in the hands of a master storyteller here. Mosse is able to bring historical fiction to life, and really makes the reader care about the lives of people long gone. She delivers the drama at such a pace, her characters barely have time to draw breath. The depth of her research is truly impressive, even if sometimes I found myself having to read very carefully so I didn’t become confused – but that’s my failing, not hers. The family are so well drawn I truly cared about their outcome and the dynamics between them are written with emotional intelligence. The character’s emotions feel so real and add depth to an already absorbing story. My heart broke for Minou at the loss of her daughter, and I was so invested in her grief that I couldn’t see how she would adjust to living without her. The strain they were under and the constant danger they’re in added an intensity to Minou and Piet’s relationship that was so romantic. Mosse’s incredible skill is to make the reader care about and feel a connection with people who lived in the 16th Century. They are so different to us in dress, daily life and beliefs but the themes of family, parenthood and loss are so universal that they cross the centuries. It will be interesting to see where these fascinating characters go next.
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Meet The Author
Kate Mosse is a number one international bestselling novelist, playwright and non-fiction writer. The author of eightnovels and short story collections –including the multimillion-selling Languedoc Trilogy (Labyrinth, Sepulchreand Citadel) and Gothic fiction The Winter Ghosts and The Taxidermist’s Daughter, which she is adapting for the stage –her books have been translated into thirty-eightlanguages and published in more than forty countries. She is the Founder Director of the Women’s Prize for Fiction and a regular interviewer for theatre & fiction events. Kate divides her time between Chichester in West Sussex and Carcassonnen in south-west France.
I was interested in reading this book, because I have a real gap in my knowledge when it comes to the final days of Rhodesia. I’ve read missionary’s accounts of leaving the country, but as these were largely from church sources, told through solely white, Christian, missionaries I feel my knowledge is very limited. We talk about literature as a way of understanding human experience and it’s important to me that my reading covers diverse human experiences, not just my own reflected back at me. In this novel set in the final days of Rhodesia, before it became Zimbabwe, there is a nun in a church mission called Beth, who has adopted this country as her home and is now watching it tear itself in two. Susan Haig is a white settler, who has lost one son to war with her second declared unfit for duty. Nyanye Maseka is in a guerilla camp in Mozambique, with her sister in tow, after their village was destroyed. Heartbreakingly, her mother is missing and they have had to take flight without her. This gives the reader three different perspectives on what is happening. The women’s fates become entwined as the lives they were used to, become a casualty of war.
In a similar way to Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun, this author concentrates on the female experience of civil war. Adichie wrote about the Biafran conflict in Nigeria through two sisters. Here the three women’s story of everyday lives in war, tell us wider stories about society and politics in Rhodesia. It’s not an easy book to read, but it shouldn’t be. It should make us uncomfortable. It should be harrowing. This is what it takes to put across the horrors of war. War is harrowing, and knowing these experiences come from factual accounts and from an author who has lived there, gives the story authenticity and makes it hit home even more strongly.
Susan. Well it’s hard to write about Susan’s views because they made me so angry. Sadly though, they did echo a lot of the views I’ve heard from white settlers who left Rhodesia during the Wars of Liberation. They were views I had shared with me very recently on Facebook, from a friend who was born out there in the late 1960’s. The killing of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests seemed to bring these views out into the open. As if they were ok. My friend’s list is a little bit lighter these days. Views like ‘there hadn’t been any African history until the European arrived’ are staggering in their arrogance and ignorance. As if it’s unthinkable there is any other way of doing things than the British way. I’ve heard ‘they need someone to organise them’ or ‘if we weren’t there they’d just kill each other’. The use of ‘they’ tends to push all Black South Africans and Zimbabweans into an homogenised mass, with no individuality or humanity. I couldn’t believe I was still hearing the Victorian attitude that natives were little more than savages. Yet she was needed in the narrative. The reader needed her to show the entitled attitude that comes from empire and from one nation thinking it’s a show of greatness to own another. Without Susan there would be nothing to fight against, however difficult she is to read. I imagine there was an element of catharsis in writing her character, the ability to put all the hateful words and attitudes you’ve encountered in one place, and leave them there. A way of doing something good with such evil.
Through all of these characters we see the strength and the fight women must have to survive a war. War often leaves women with the greatest burdens to carry and that was an important thread woven throughout, with all the women. I loved Nyanye’s fight and her need to let others know she wasn’t beaten or conquered. The love the author has for the country shines out of the pages, with vivid descriptions of nature and the weather she really set the scene for me. In one scene, at night, she describes the sound of wind in the grass, calls of distant animals and crickets calling all under a sky filled with stars. It felt poetic, and created such an atmosphere for the reader, adding to the sadness that such a beautiful country is being torn apart. The way her writing is so lyrical one moment, then so raw and brutal, really brings home the horrors of conflict. Yet, there is such beauty and hope. These women show such strength and faith. It could be faith in their role as a mother, as part of a sisterhood serving God. There’s also a sense that these women are learning they’re part of a greater sisterhood of women, no matter their race, religion or colour. They have also learned to have faith in themselves, to realise their strength and will to survive. The book ends with this hope – for justice and equality. It acknowledges a need for peace and for people, like these women, to work together to achieve it. I was left with an aching sadness for the people who lived through this war and the turbulent years since. This is a book that has made me think and will stay with me.