The Romance Reader’s Guide to Life by Sharon Pywell

The Romance Reader’s Guide to Life by Sharon Pywell was such an unexpected delight. Provided to me by NetGalley and the publishers (both of whom I thank for the opportunity to read and review), I confess the rather unusual and slightly formal title didn’t prepare me for the marvellous and very different content.

The novel is essentially two books in one, both of which are framed by the conventions of the world’s most popular genre: romance. The main narrative centres around two sisters: Lilly and Neave Terhune, and it’s primarily their voices that tell their utterly compelling story of growing up and entering the adult world pre and post World War II in small town America. The second narrative, which interweaves Lilly and Neave’s story, is called The Pirate Lover and it uses the usual romance conventions of the stricken heroine, wealthy, dashing and dastardly hero and a terrible villain to tell its tale of love, loss, and triumph over evil.

30319080While The Pirate Lover is a rollicking romance in the grandest sense, played out in Parisian salons and the high seas, what occurs between the characters is echoed meaningfully and with chilling consequences in the sisters’ story. Both narratives also deal with the social expectations of women; how marriage is regarded as an inevitable outcome that should socially elevate them. Independence of thought action and through being financially independent is an outrageous prospect for women yet it’s precisely this that nevertheless, Lilly and Neave embrace. In this regard, both stories, but particularly, Lilly’s and Neave’s, portray a particular slice of cultural history – including, through their brother Synder, pop culture history (and I love the way Pywell plays with the devaluation of that; how it’s discredited as meaningless froth by most) – in really evocative and accurate ways.

Lilly could not be more different to her more forthright and yet romantic sister, Neave. When Neave is still quite young, she is hired by a wealthy woman to read to her daily, and it’s the relationship between the woman and Neave and the stories and books they share (and those they don’t – Neave steals a romance novel), that provide Neave with not only imaginative foundations, but emotional ones as well – which, for better or worse, will guide her throughout life.

In the meantime, Lilly embraces life, refusing to think too deeply about people’s motives or lack thereof or enter into arguments. Lilly is there for the moment; understanding and reflection can, if it does, come later… if not too late.

Establishing a successful business together, proving that women aren’t just ornaments or objects of men’s desires, Neave and Lilly, with their bond that transcends life, use their knowledge and business acumen to empower other women towards autonomy and freedom: social, economic, romantic and sexual.

But it’s the very same ability to forge careers and be single-minded and pragmatic, that also drives them towards men who don’t have their best interests at heart. When Lilly disappears, Neave’s world – real and imagined – collide in ways she never could have foreseen. Deadly danger stalks her and the family she loves and, unless she is able to utilise the help she’s being offered from beyond, then she, and the business she and Lilly worked so hard to build, is doomed.

While the novel draws on romance conventions, it also deconstructs and plays with them, weaving elements of magical realism, fantasy, history, crime and other genres into the tale. The writing is lyrical and lovely and, even if you think you don’t “like” romance” (all books are at heart, romance, even if it’s with the reader), the parallel stories – one very literary, the other more clichéd, draw you in and have you turning the pages.

My one slight issue is I felt the last quarter of the book took the magic realism element a tad too far. While I was happy to go along for the afterlife ride, it reaches a point where it’s difficult to suspend disbelief. Without spoiling the tale, there were elements to certain characters and the focus they were given at the end, which detracted slightly from what should have been their primary purpose – a purpose we’d been led to believe was the reason they still existed (albeit on another plane) in the first place. It strained even the credibility required to accept what was happening (which had been easy up until then).

Nevertheless, this is a tiny gripe about such an original, beautifully written and lovely story with lead characters to whom you lose your heart. Recommended for readers of romance, history, and damn fine books.

 

 

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Pepy’s London: Everyday Life in London 1650-1703 by Stephen Porter

11987791Short, sharp and interesting, if sometimes a little dryer than the title might suggest, Porter’s brief history of London as it was immediately after the execution of Charles I, throughout the Interregnum and Oliver Cromwell’s reign, the leadership (!) of Richard Cromwell to the restoration of Charles II, James II’s time on the throne, the Glorious Revolution and the beginnings of the reign of William and Mary, is packed full of facts and observations.

Though the title suggests this is London as Samuel Pepys experienced and wrote about it, it’s more than that. It’s also a London on the brink of religious and political upheavals as suspicion and faith caused many tensions and riots. It’s a city enduring and moving with swiftly changing economic circumstances and robust and exciting scientific discoveries, as well as a place that was culturally enterprising and rich, as theatre, music, writing and art underwent another Renaissance.

Using Pepy’s life as a yardstick by which to measure the altering moods and landscape of the city, Porter offers a keen insight into the various people and events that helped to fashion London into what it is today. Whether it was intolerance for immigrants, appreciation and exploitation of other cultures, growing literacy, expanding borders as the Empire grew, trade, war, frosts, plague or fire, what is clear is that London was rarely if ever dull – whether you were gentry or from the lower classes.

The just over half a century covered really does encompass an amazing array of transformations  – and not just in terms of leaders and governing styles. Porter is such a good historian, my only beef with the book is that it is so dry at times and when you use the name Pepys in the title, I think it’s dryer than it has a right to be! Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this great overview. The illustrations are also terrific and really well explained.

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Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil by Melina Marchetta

23566896 Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil by Melina Marchetta is quite simple a brilliant, moving and thought-provoking book that deals with so many familiar, contemporary and ideologically thorny and relevant issues in a sensitive and meaningful way.

The title is a quote from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, a king who was greatly misunderstood and is often cast by history and, indeed, his contemporaries, as a murderer of the worst kind. For his entire reign, he dealt with suspicion, distrust, gossip and attempts to assassinate his character and his actual person. It’s not surprising then that the novel also deals with someone, actually, a family, accused of murder most foul: terrorism and the brutal slaying of 23 people when a home-made bomb is detonated in a local supermarket, destroying lives, families and cultural relations. Just like Henry IV, the family and the community deal with the fallout, gossip, and everything and anything else the media and suspicious, racist minds can generate.

Fast forward 13 years, and the scene is set for another bomb to explode – this time in France on a bus containing British kids on tour. The novel then follows the inevitable fallout that occurs when it’s discovered that the daughter of one of the original terrorists, a young women named Violette, was a passenger on the destroyed bus. Worse, she’s disappeared and taken a young boy with her. Suspended DI, Bish Ortley, whose daughter, Bee, survives the carnage, commences an investigation into the tragedy. Crossing continents, counties, encountering co-operative parents, scared and hostile ones, cultural and racial conflict, as well as his own personal demons, Bish is determined to find Violette and the boy and protect them. But there are others, including a rapacious and unforgiving media who have other ideas.

Set across mainly two countries, England and France, it nevertheless draws other countries (including Australia), cultures and faiths and the people that represent these into its narrative. Avoiding stereotypes, Marchetta constructs real people who you engage with, believe in and champion with every breath, every word. The demonisation of Otherness, the way misunderstandings are formed, and cultural appropriation manipulated, is charted and exposed in all its callus cruelty as is the ease at which we’re prepared to accept the worst of people before the best; the way in which we allow fear to govern our responses even when our hearts and heads tell us differently. It’s also a story about families, about young people, trust, loyalty and the bonds that both tie and divide us.

A timely, superb book and beautifully and powerfully written, that will have you thinking well beyond the last page.

 

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Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain

This long awaited sequel to the simply marvellous Restoration, picks up the story of the highly flawed and extremely personable, Robert Merivel, physician to King Charles II, only this time, it’s 25 years or thereabouts since we last met him.

18970894Well into his twilight years, Merivel, who in the first book enjoyed then lost the patronage of his king and went on a journey of self-discovery which saw him survive the Plague, the Great Fire and life in metal asylum run by a kind group of Quakers, is this time far more settled. His beloved daughter is now a woman; he has his well-managed estate to run and his ageing servants to consider and a life well-lived to reflect upon. Ever trying to find meaning in his life, Merivel, like the famous diarist Samuel Pepys, keeps a record of his daily activities, thoughts, mishaps, sexual encounters and triumphs, sparing the reader nothing. This is part of the joy of the man and the book.

Emulating the erratic syntax of the era, in that Tremain capitalises words mid-sentence, she also manages to plunge the reader into this wonderfully decadent and politically fraught time – stylistically, but also ideologically and emotionally. Whether it’s food, fashion, habits, religion, medical procedures or class structure, she recreates the late 1600s and the turmoil of monarchy and government as well as international relations and places masterfully.

Merivel may be older, but he doesn’t feel wiser. A sense that life is slipping him by pervades and so he makes the decision to travel to the court of Louis XIV, the King’s cousin, and see the great Versailles for himself. Always afraid of what he might be missing out on, Merivel embarks on a number of other adventures, and makes some rather interesting and, on reflection poor choices, in this book. In doing so, he learns his place in the greater world and the smaller one that is his estate and family. He discovers the real meaning of love and friendship and what’s important in life. The reader champions him on this erratic journey and our affection for this volatile but kind and very philosophical man deepens.

Including Merivel, a fictional character in real historical events and having him encounter actual personages of the time imbue the book with such immediacy and Merivel himself more relevance than he already has. He becomes our touchstone for both the macrocosmic historic events and the microcosmic ones we can all identify with.

As much as it evokes the period so beautifully, the novel is also contemporary in that the questions it poses about ageing and life are timeless.

Superbly written, with humour, pathos and such understanding, this is a gorgeous book and a fitting conclusion to Merivel’s marvellous life.

 

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Voices by Arnaldur Indridason

11283050The fifth book in the Inspector Erlendur series, Voices, is the second book featuring this rather glum but fascinating detective I’ve read and won’t be the last. The setting for this novel is an ostentatious Reykjavik hotel at Christmas time. Instead of being a joyous occasion, the planned festivities for the hotel guests, staff and children turn decidedly sour when the hotel’s Santa, Gulli, a rather simple but dedicated employee who was about to be sacked, is found naked and dead and in a very compromising position.

Enter Inspector Erlendur who, while investigating the murder, decides to book a cheerless room in the hotel rather than spend what remains of the season in his own house. What follows as peculiar guests are interviewed, Gulli’s colleagues, bosses and his dysfunctional family, is not for the feint of heart. So much for Christmas cheer. Ho bloody ho is what unfolds as the spirit of Christmas, juxtaposed as it is against the investigation and Erlendur’s attempts to improve his sorry personal life (which feature an ex-wife, drug-addicted daughter and son who all hate him), flails under the weight of what’s uncovered: a bizarre and creepy record collector, a cold, officious estranged family, corrupt hotel staff, and conflicting tales of just who and what Gulli was – and before he ever came to work and live in the hotel. Deception, brutality, searing malice and prejudice all rear their ugly heads and at a time of year when we so want to wish joy to the world. It’s a very clever setting of polar opposites, exposing and enhancing the awfulness of the crime and the facades families and people generally erect; how desperately we all want to at least appear happy. But when you can’t even do that at Christmas, what’s the point?

For those looking for a thoroughly gripping, page-turning read where the characters crackle and spit and the plot thickens, this is the book. But it’s not a fast read – everything simmers slowly, coming to boil towards the end when the twists come faster than Santa’s sleigh. Atmospheric and acerbic.

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