The Muse by Jessie Burton

Published: 26th July 2016 (print)/26th July 2016 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
 Picador/HarperAudio
Pages: 445/1 disc – 12hrs (MP3)
Narrator: Cathy Tyson
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Historical Fiction
★   ★   ★  – 3 Stars

A picture hides a thousand words…

On a hot July day in 1967, Odelle Bastien climbs the stone steps of the Skelton gallery in London, knowing that her life is about to change forever. Having struggled to find her place in the city since she arrived from Trinidad five years ago, she has been offered a job as a typist under the tutelage of the glamorous and enigmatic Marjorie Quick. But though Quick takes Odelle into her confidence, and unlocks a potential she didn’t know she had, she remains a mystery – no more so than when a lost masterpiece with a secret history is delivered to the gallery.

The truth about the painting lies in 1936 and a large house in rural Spain, where Olive Schloss, the daughter of a renowned art dealer, is harbouring ambitions of her own. Into this fragile paradise come artist and revolutionary Isaac Robles and his half-sister Teresa, who immediately insinuate themselves into the Schloss family, with explosive and devastating consequences. 

I actually read this before I read The Miniaturist and since I didn’t like that, I wonder if I would have picked this up. But since I read it before I eagerly took it up and actually rather enjoyed it. It was steady, not obviously exciting or adventurous, but it was interesting and dramatic in its own way. There was a lot of focus on the characters and their interactions with others to create the drama rather than needing too much outside influence, despite the civil war looming in the background in the 30s, which I must say did add its own tension and a wonderful historical reality.

The story has a dual timeline which switches between 1960s London and 1930’s Spain, a connection between the two we’re not sure of until a painting arrives at the gallery where Odelle Bastien has begun working. Burton switches between the 1960s and the 1930s beautifully, mixing the stories together and revealing what needs to be told at the right times, holding back when needed.

I liked that Burton gave us a few intriguing mysteries to ponder. I had theories about them and changed and altered them based on what happened in the story. Of course, some were predictable in hindsight, but there was always a slight chance that I was wrong, and I guess when I had a bet on either side I was going to right either way. I loved Odelle as narrator. I listened to the audiobook so Tyson did a beautiful accent which brought Odelle to life. But even without that, Odelle is a great character, she is a smart, sensible woman, she has pride and respect for herself and while she is a bit timid at times, she is also loyal and curious. This curiosity gets her involved with her employer and starts her on her own investigation into why there are so many unanswered questions and mysteries surrounding not only her employer but also this new, important painting.

There are many intriguing characters in this story. Isaac Robles and Olive Schloss are complicated in their own ways, as is Teresa. The pressure of their era and the secrets that they must keep haunt them and Burton brings this out in their words and their actions, making each one complex and full. The tone changes between each era are subtle but make a huge difference. Burton doesn’t just tell us we’re in the different decade, her writing has a different tone to it that feels freer or more confined, depending what is needed.

I enjoyed where this story went, I became more invested as it went along in both Odelle and Olive’s storylines. I wanted to know the answers as much as Odelle did and I was curious how Burton would approach their reveal. What resulted was a captivating story with twists and turns that actually did surprise me at times. I loved the chaos of the characters and the human motives behind decisions that alter paths completely.

I found myself wanting to keep going, I looked forward to getting back into the story, and with a curiosity of my own I wanted to see how it ended. Burton has created a story that will delight and surprise you in a multitude of ways. It has great a great historical presence across two defining eras of the 20th century, which has been coupled with fascinating characters that bring their own dramas to the page. Even if you weren’t a fan of Burton’s other work (as I wasn’t), give this story a go because it might just surprise you.

You can purchase The Muse via the following

QBD | Booktopia
Amazon | Wordery
Book Depository | Dymocks

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The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Published: 3rd July 2014 (print)/26th August 2014 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
 Ecco/HarperAudio
Pages: 416/1 disc
Narrator: Jessie Burton
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Historical Fiction/ Magical Realism
★   ★  – 2 Stars

On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office–leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.

But Nella’s life changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist–an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways…

Johannes’s gift helps Nella pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand–and fear–the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation…or the architect of their destruction?

I’ve given it two stars, but by the end of it I wanted to give it 1.5. I was told this was a brilliant read, I did not find this. I persevered and hoped for something to come of it. And not only did I get no real answers, the ending was unsatisfactory and I feel a bit cheated. I don’t know whether this has to do with the magical realism side of the story, but I wasn’t a fan.

The beginning started out ok, after a prologue from an unknown voice we’re introduced to Nella and her arrival at her new life. We’re thrust into Amsterdam in the 1600s and all its glory. Burton makes it easy to understand while still having the gravitas it needed and the seriousness to understand Nella’s predicament, and her style of writing feels like it suits the era and is easy to comprehend.

I settled into the story and got used to Nella and the other characters. I was intrigued, I was curious. It does start to go a bit stale and as part two hit I was weary but something finally seemed to be happening. This didn’t last though and the story dragged on. I think Burton tried to include too much. There’s the historical story happening with sugar, plus a lot of religious elements and political components. On top of that is Nella’s place and the mystery of the miniaturist. It makes for a heavy story and one that takes a lot of pages to tell.

Some parts were predictable and it was a case of waiting for the book to catch up with what you already suspected. Other times it felt like every second chapter had a typical twist of some kind and it got to the point it was just “Oh, another twist, sure, why not’. I will give Burton some credit, she actually followed through on a few things I thought she wouldn’t, that impressed me. But in doing that she also added to the unsatisfactory feeling and the sense that while some things appeared to be resolved, nothing felt like it was. We’re left hanging, not even with a sense that we understand how things would keep going, an abrupt finish that doesn’t answer anything.

I found that I wanted to get to the end without reading the middle. I figured I could ignore this middle part and just see what happens and get the answers to the big questions that Burton keeps raising. I wanted to get to the end to find out what the whole point of it was and found nothing but disappointment. It was anticlimactic after the [supposed] build up and it felt flat.

I’d been looking forward to reading this for months and had it praised and recommended to me by a few people so I was eager to see what it was like. Not to mention the beautiful cover. To come out the other end with meagre enthusiasm is a sorry state to be in.

You can purchase The Miniaturist via the following

QBD | Booktopia

Amazon | Wordery

Book Depository | Dymocks

Riot: A 1960’s Love Story by Charles S. Isaacs

Published: 8th September 2015 Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Harpers Ferry Press
Pages: 458
Format: ebook
Genre: Historical fiction
★   ★  – 2 Stars

It’s September 1967. As the Vietnam War and a militant Antiwar Movement hurtle toward explosive confrontation, Steve Harris – white, idealistic, and naïve — begins his freshman year. During that year, he will fight to end the war, fall in love, confront painful truths about his family, and be jailed and beaten by police. Through this crucible, he emerges with a transformed consciousness, of the world and of himself.

The change begins with a rousing antiwar speech delivered by Emma Gold, a Depression-era radical. When Emma introduces him to young Cat Crawford — inter-racial, brilliant and exotically beautiful – his bewitching is complete. The two students’ instant friendship blossoms before long into a passionate love affair. Their bond is tested, though, by the mounting demands of the Antiwar and Black Power Movements, and by their own deep-seated psychological issues.

1968 is marked by campus unrest, urban rebellion, assassinations, and political violence that leads the two into clashes with the Chicago Police and the National Guard. The story builds to a heartrending climax during the street battles surrounding the Democratic National Convention.

This is a complex, fast-paced journey on an emotional roller coaster, punctuated by flashes of self-discovery, and bursting with political and sexual passions. 

Note: I was provided with a copy of this book by the author for review.

I have mixed feelings about this story. The content was interesting; I learnt a few things and felt I was reading through history, but at the same time I didn’t really connect with the characters or their story. I am fully prepared to accept it may have been me so don’t let that deter you, there is no denying the effort and creativity Isaacs has gone to to bring this story to life and pack it with so much history.

Described as a 1960s love story there is a blossoming love but romance isn’t the sole focus of the novel. Steve is a college student who finds love and friendship during a critical time in late 1960s America; the Vietnam War has begun and the civil rights movement is underway. These important moments of history get embroiled with his life and Isaacs tells a story about the life of students and regular Americans who are trying to stop a war no one wanted and survive the tensions between black and white America.

After being fairly oblivious and uninterested in politics and racial conflicts, Steve has his eyes opened when he befriends bookshop owner Emma and fellow student Cat and soon he discovers the world of anti-war protests, boycotts, and the civil rights movement. In doing so you see Steve find his feet and a sense of purpose, he jumps at the chance to become involved.

Steve, Emma, and Cat are the three central characters, detailed and complicated enough which makes them well rounded. Steve is naive but willing to learn, and his eagerness to contribute is admirable. When he meets Emma and Cat you begin to see him grow and become more aware, which in turn affects other aspects of his life and the decisions he makes. Emma is a fiery, strong willed woman who is passionate and willing to fight for what she believes in, she goes out of her way to help people and her generosity and good nature compliments her fierceness really well. Cat is similar in her own way, though her past holds her back and she wavers between fighting for what’s right and holding back. Throughout the story you see the stress of fighting a war affect everyone, especially Steve and Cat, and the strain adds drama to their relationship.

Isaacs mentions at the end that only a very small part of the book is fiction, many names, events, books, and songs mentioned are real and historically accurate, something which helps to bring the late 1960s to life. As you read you recognise key moments in history like protest marches, Martin Luther King Jr’s speech, flowers in rifles, and the fight for civil rights. If you love history then this would probably be a fascinating account of American history to dive into. At almost 500 pages there is a lot of detail and Isaacs paces it accordingly. Things follow at a realistic pace, day by day almost rather than large jumps and in doing so it shows how much actually happened in such a short period of time and the ongoing effort people did behind the scenes before grand demonstrations. This does make it a slow read when nothing seems to happen for a long time, but this  is where the romance and personal relationship elements balance with historical events.

There are a lot of positives about this book, the research is incredible, the detailed exploration of key historical moments, and the subject is interesting, but despite that I found that I couldn’t get into the story. It wasn’t the length, being an ebook I didn’t actually notice it until much later, I just found I wasn’t connecting with the characters or their lives and the writing style was hard to get into. I say this of course contrasted with the fact that it was interesting to read about all the protests and the effort students and people went to show their disapproval of the war, and the campaigns they ran to boycott products. I did enjoy reading about the civil rights, the reactions to King’s speech and the fight for equality. But aside from recognising these moments and learning the details I still couldn’t connect.

There are surprises and a few unexpected moments that add emotion and drama as Isaacs links history with the romance and the fiction, and seeing the everyday person react and interact with history offers great insight away from it being simply a past event. I’m disappointed I didn’t love this book more, but there is no denying that it was an interesting read.

You can purchase Riot via the following

Amazon

Amazon Aust

David Dyer Talk: The Midnight Watch

David-Dyer.jpgA little over a week ago I went to a talk in North Sydney to hear David Dyer talk about his new book, The Midnight Watch. The story is of the Californian, the ship who saw the Titanic sink and did nothing to help. The story itself is incredible, I am working on a review for that at the moment, but I journeyed the many hours and had an adventurous train trip to hear David speak because I was in love with this book before I even read it.

It was a quaint little cafe and wine and canapés were offered which was very swish. There was a small but enthusiastic crowd; the 30 chairs provided being mostly filled. I discovered during the talk many people had no read the book yet which was interesting, but many did purchase it on their way in or out so I guess David’s talk was successful.

David only spoke for 30 minutes which I was very surprised about. The event had been listed as 6-7pm, and it wasn’t until about 6:15 I realised the first half hour was for the food to go around. Not to be ungrateful because David did a wonderful job, but I’m slightly indignant that it only went for 30 minutes. The argument can be made that the $35 I paid was for the food/wine/venue, but if you chose not to eat or drink, you really are paying a lot (and personally coming from a fair distance) for 30 minutes. To his credit, David fit a lot into those 30 minutes.

He told us that he’d always been passionate about the Titanic, having seen A Night to Remember when he was around four years old. Reading this book I was amazed to learn there had even been another ship in the area, I always hear about Carpathian and Titanic, never a third. The way David tells the story is beautiful and filled with history that comes straight from the records.

Click to find out more.Helen Baxter from Blues Point Bookshop introduced him and asked whether there was anything more to write about the Titanic, was it not overdone? But she complimented David for not only taking on the task but for doing it astonishingly well. David himself was surprised by the interest, the story is of course well known by the 1997 film, which catapulted the story like no film ever has. Because of this everyone knows the story of Titanic, but what surprised David was that not many people know that everyone on board could see another ship. The entire story would have been different, the Titanic may not have even been remembered, if the Californian had gone to her rescue and saved the 1500 who were lost.

David spoke about how his obsession grew over the years until he finally wrote a book about it. Even though the book is fiction it sets out to tell the truest story. As well as the Titanic/Californian story, an additional backdrop of the novel, and history really, is the suffragette movement; something David said was at its peak just before the disaster and which was set back years as a result.

Before becoming a writer David told us about training to become a doctor (but he faints at the sight of blood) before deciding to go to sea and work on merchant ships and tankers. He learnt a lot about himself at sea and this experience feeds into the novel. He was also a lawyer working in Australia and in London. In an incredible coincidence he was a litigation lawyer in the firm that represented White Star Line, the company that owned the Titanic.

When he decided to write the novel he began researching, and somehow ended up back in Sydney as a teacher. He took time off in 2009 to do hard research into the Californian and why it didn’t go to help. This took him all over the world, London, New York, Boston, and the Liverpool Maritime Museum, where all of Captain Lord’s papers are held.

Lord left all of his things to a friend who kept them all his life, and when he passed he donated them to the museum. David thought he would find an answer in these documents but only found commendations and a lot of people praising Lord, saying he was very brave. One of the greatest finds was two original letters that had been given to Lord by the two men who’d watched the distress rockets being launched and seen the Titanic in the distance.

These letters were written within a day of the sinking and listening to David read out his photocopies was incredible. These were the actual words of those who’d seen Titanic and are amazing contemporaneous evidence. As David read the words of the two men it’s no wonder Lord had the letters kept secret for 50 years because they clearly show him at fault.

David said that even more important than documents was actually visiting places and locations where events happened – New York, Venezuela, London, Liverpool etc. David called it narrative telepathy; he needed to go to the places the people went, needed to get under their skin. He went to the captain’s address and the second mate’s address to get a sense of how terrible they’d feel and what it was like for them to live among the community where so many were lost. David sensed Lord’s shame and anger, but not from malice. It was a small mistake that had consequences of 1500 lives.

In order to achieve the most narrative telepathy David was in the middle of the north Atlantic 100 years to the second over the sink site on 14 April 2012. He spent hours there looking over the water. The weather was the same, dead calm, no wind and a black night. He couldn’t imagine being in the water. Apparently one of the worst sounds heard by the 700 who escaped in lifeboats was people crying out in pain as they entered the water. The worst sound came ten minutes later when there was no sound at all because that was how long they had. This, David said, is what’s at stake in the novel – the captain should have come to help.

The audience were quite good considering most hadn’t read the novel yet. They asked why lord had kept the letters if they incriminated him. David admitted he didn’t know but thought perhaps Lord couldn’t bring himself to destroy them. There were bits of evidence to support it wasn’t the Titanic, but he may have known in his heart that it was.

David answered a question about the transcripts of the American and UK trials that took place, telling us they are available online for public viewing. The American trial was four days after the disaster and useful for being so immediate, while the UK one was more measured and thorough a few months later. Captain Lord and the two officers gave evidence and much of the dialogue in the book is verbatim from these transcripts.

Ending on a light hearted note David answered a comment about Clive Palmer stating that he would never have gotten his second Titanic to work because not only would he need to adhere to safety measures that did not exist 100 years ago, but no one would agree to share one bath between 600 people in third class as they had to do on the original.

As I said, despite only speaking for 30 minutes David managed to speak about a lot, including time for questions. There was a lot he couldn’t elaborate on which was a shame because it was clear he loved the topic and could have spoken for longer but what he did mention was fascinating. At the end I was able to get my book signed and I was even brave enough for a question (at the signing table mind you, not during the talk) so I was pretty pleased.

David is appearing at the Sydney Writers’ Festival to talk more about his novel and the suffragette movement if you’re interested. Full details are on his website and the SWF website.

A Plum Job by Cenarth Fox

Published: 4th August 2015Goodreads badge
Publisher:
 Fox Plays
Pages: 249
Format: ebook
Genre: Historical Thriller
★   ★   ★   ★  – 4 Stars

It’s 1940. Germany’s military might is smashing through the Low Countries and the British, Belgian and French forces are trapped at Dunkirk. The Nazis will soon be in Gay Paree. 

Louise Wellesley is a gorgeous and aristocratic young Englishwoman desperate to become an actress. But her upbringing demands that young women of her class go to finishing school, the Buckingham Palace debutante ball and then remain at home until the right chap comes along. Such young ladies most definitely do not cavort semi-naked upon the wicked stage. 

But war brings change. People tell lies. Rules are broken. So when you’re in a foreign country and living by your wits while facing arrest, torture and death from the French police, Resistance, Gestapo and a double-agent, you bloody well better remember your lines, act out of your skin and never ever bump into the furniture. 

Oh and it helps if your new best friend is Edith Piaf. 

Note: I was provided with a copy of this book from the author for review.

This is a great story that has been slotted into the folds of history. From innocent beginnings into the throws of World War Two Fox tells a captivating story about young Louise Wellesley.

The narrative perspectives of Louise plus cousins Max and Kurt Hartmann provide different sides of the events and opens up new perspectives. Fox connects the trio’s stories creatively and with style, and brings their humble origins into the dangers of a world war. Louise is not innocent nor is she entirely naive. She is determined and brave, and is quick thinking. Kurt and Max also have their own agenda’s and ambitions, their differences coming to light on the page and through their actions.

Louise is a character to admire even before her assistance to the war. She is fiercely loyal and a wonderful friend, she adores her family and wants to do right by them. But she is also ambitious, something she’s not supposed to be, but with her determination she gets what she wants and becomes who she wants to be. There is still a hint of that young inexperienced girl inside her, but that doesn’t stop her from doing what needs to be done.

The more you read of Louise’s time in Paris it’s hard to imagine her as the simple actress from England, but Louise has not forgotten her acting roots, nor those who guided her, and as she finds herself in times of trouble she reflects on what she’s been taught, faking confidence, suave, and bravery she keeps herself alive and out of danger for the most part.

Knowing a little but not a lot about the early days in Paris, I enjoyed the references to historical events and figures. The reactions and responses by those close to Hitler and those who suffered because of distant orders was interesting and it told of the gradual yet seemingly well organised invasion by Hitler’s forces.

A Plum Job is about passion and perseverance, about missed opportunities and great losses. Against the backdrop of a fresh world war and suspicion on both sides it is more than just a tale of a wannabe actress. The fictional tale Fox has woven through historical events is captivating and filled with drama and excitement, it’s even a little bit heartbreaking to be honest.

It’s not 100% historically accurate but it is hard to put down all the same with a story that’s filled with drama, excitement, and suspense. There are numerous surprises and unexpected things that keep you interested and engaged and it’s a compelling story, you’re never quite sure where it is heading but you don’t mind the journey getting there.

You can purchase A Plum Job via the following

Amazon

Amazon Au

Amazon UK

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