The Scandalous Life of Sasha Torte by Lesley Truffle

31306285The Scandalous Life of Sasha Torte is the fantastically titled second novel by Melbourne-based writer, Lesley Truffle and I have to say, it is unlike any book I have ever read. Part historical fiction, part-fantastical and whimsical romp, part crime mystery, cooking extravaganza and cautionary fable, it’s also a picaresque novel that tells the tale of the irrepressible Sasha Torte, flame-haired daughter of a murderess and heiress to a bad reputation and melancholy, who becomes not only a world-famous pastry-chef in, of all places, the wilds of Tasmania in the early 1900s, but courts men, drugs and danger with abandon.

Told with Truffle’s wonderful flair, at first I wasn’t sure what to make of a book that opens with the heroine in a luxuriously appointed prison accused of murder. Deciding to pen her memoirs, Sasha then takes the reader back through her childhood, revealing how she grew up in a brutal and unconventional family surrounded by dedicated servants and a doting grandfather. As she matures, she learns to deal with nepotism, bullying, the cruelty of strangers and their kindness in equal measure. When her Aunt Lily enters her life, she finds a soul-mate and confidant to whom she can also aspire.

Launched into the society that wants to reject her, but finds they’re unable to resist her, the beautiful Sasha appears set to conquer not only men, but the globe.

But in earning devotion, Sasha also attracts enmity, even from those who purport to love her and it’s when the handsome Dasher brothers enter her sphere that trouble for Sasha and those she cares about looms large and deadly.

Featuring wilful, sassy and smart women, dedicated and dastardly men, horses, dogs, a psychic goldfish (no, I’m not kidding) ghosts, gangs, and, of course, amazing confectionary and pastries, this novel is fast-paced, enormous fun and heart-aching at the same time. Able to transport you from the docks of fictitious and rough Wolftown, to parties on wealthy estates, then sail you to London (where the Hotel Du Barry has a cameo role), Paris, Vienna and beyond, you find yourself captivated by Sasha – honest, steadfast and fair – as you ride the roller-coaster of her full and often tragic life.

For all its fantastical elements, the book coheres into a luminous whole, an adventure and story like no other that you feel the richer and more fulfilled for reading. Like one of Sasha’s sweet creations, it lingers in your mouth, head and heart long after you’ve finished it. Quite simply, it’s so completely different and a real treat.

 

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Extraordinary People by Peter May

18867320I read Extraordinary People by Peter May, the first in what’s called the “Enzo series” during a May reading binge. Whether it was because I simply adored his Lewis books, Entry Island and Coffin Road and expected more of the same and therefore wasn’t thrilled with the change of direction and tone or whether it was because this book featuring the forensic expert, the Scotsman Enzo was a bit Dan Brown-lite, I’m not sure. Needlesstosay, I didn’t find it extraordinary, but nor was it ordinary either. It was somewhere in the middle. Good without being great, which is fine.

The novel introduces readers to middle-aged Enzo who gave up his life and first wife and daughter in Scotland to follow his lover and heart to France many years earlier. Reduced to teaching biology in Toulouse and dealing with the anger of the daughter from which he’s alienated and basking in the love of his second and younger daughter with his now dead lover, Enzo is very affable and clearly clever.

When an old journalist acquaintance basically dares him to crack a cold case involving the disappearance of a famous person, Enzo is up for the challenge. What he doesn’t anticipate is a treasure hunt replete with clues, sometimes a map, and grisly body parts which all point to the man they’re searching for being dead, but nothing to reveal the murderer.

It’s only when Enzo (and the group he’s gathered around him), using brawn and brains starts to get close to the killer’s identity, that his own life and that of those he loves is placed in danger. The dare is no longer a game, but deadly serious…

Well written, well paced, I am not sure why this novel didn’t resonate like the others. I think the hunt drags a bit, some of the characters are two-dimensional and some of the secondary characters and their motives detract from the prime narrative.

I did find I was turning pages and wanting to know what happened and can easily rate the book 3.5 stars, but I am not sure I care enough about Enzo or his adventures to embark on another one. But I still really rate Peter May and I know other people have simply relished this book and the series.

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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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The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick

30107954The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick is a simply magical story about a sad and rather lonely widower, named Arthur Pepper who, a year after his wife dies, finally faces up to the emotionally painful task of sorting his beloved Miriam’s clothes. Among her belongings, he finds a quite beautiful and ornate charm bracelet. Unable to recall seeing it, let alone his wife wearing it, Arthur can’t help but be intrigued by what the charms signify and wonders if they could possibly represent an aspect or aspects of his wife, about which he remained blissfully unaware.

When he concludes that the engraving on the small gold elephant charm is actually an international number, the normally orderly and ordinary Arthur does something extraordinary: he rings it. What he learns from that phone call sets Arthur on an incredible journey into his wife’s past and the woman she once was. But it also takes the usually reticent Arthur on his own voyage of personal discovery as he meets people who wouldn’t usually cross his path, travels to exotic locations and finds his normally tight boundaries challenged and shifted in ways he’d never conceived. The more he learns about his wife’s past, the more he learns about himself, them as a couple and even as a family. Scared his life up until now has somehow been fraudulent, a lie he ignorantly lived, Arthur is both anxious but determined to uncover the truth: who was his Miriam and why on earth did she settle for him, if she even did?

Heart-wrenchingly lovely, unexpected in wonderful ways, this is a novel with soul and more than a little charm. I found myself thinking about it for days afterwards and cannot recommend it enough. Lyrical, insightful and moving it is a reader’s delight.

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Conspiracy by S.J. Parris

19613980The fifth book in the Giordano Bruno series, Conspiracy, has everything we’ve come to love and expect from these fabulous novels by S.J. Parris: an excellent hero, toxic politics, intelligencers trying to outwit, outlast and out survive each other and, of course, the continuous deadly and vexatious issue of the 1500s: religion.

Yet, what I love about this series also left me, in Conspiracy, a little bit irritated at times too. In that, a great deal of the plot was driven not by Bruno’s intellect and ability to read signs and people (as has happened in previous books), but by his propensity in this one to make critical errors and find himself in deep trouble and even outright danger. The good Dr Bruno kept repeating the same mistakes and trusting and/or putting his faith in those everyone except him knew he shouldn’t. Rather than solving dilemmas, he stumbled in and out of them – and then, lo and behold, did the same thing again! This became quite frustrating. However, in terms of the richness of the book and the pleasure gained from reading it, these are small criticisms.

The year is 1585 and Bruno is a reluctant returnee to Paris. The effete Valois, King Henry III is on the throne, his mother, Catherine di Medici rules from behind with an iron fist, controlling her son and his policies and all the while, the ambitious Guise family do what they can to promote rebellion and arouse dissatisfaction with the king and his court. In other words, France is not unlike the England Bruno left behind, something the presence of many English Catholic exiles and spies also makes apparent. Yet, Bruno is not pleased to be back.

Deciding he needs to make peace with Rome if he’s to have a future, Bruno seeks out a priest he knows (who also happens to be a member of the radical Catholic League) in order to beg him to facilitate the reconciliation process. When this priest is found brutally bashed and is only able to utter one last word, “Circe”, to his friend, Bruno, before he dies, suspicion falls on the Italian doctor and the Hugenots.

This being a Bruno story, more deaths follow and though he knows it puts him in danger, Bruno agrees to help the King and the Duke of Guise (who approach him independently and quite dramatically) to track down the murderer. But what if it’s those asking for his help who are guilty?

From dank and stinking prison cells to court masques, monasteries, libraries, boudoirs, the streets of Paris, the Seine, and hotel rooms, Bruno needs to pull out all stops – physical and mental – to solve these murders and before the killer or killers set their sights on him.

Written in its usual fine style, this is a solid addition to the series, even if Bruno’s silly decisions and the repetition of events and consequences did get a tad tiresome. The historical detail is superb and the book ended with a wonderful possibility that will no doubt lead our erstwhile philosopher down more fantastical and dangerous paths.

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