Cragside DCI Ryan #6 by LJ Ross

The sixth book in the DCI Ryan series, Cragside, opens with Ryan and Anna recovering from the events in the pImage result for Cragside L J Rossrevious book and the destruction – physical, psychological and emotional – The Hacker left behind. Likewise for McKenzie and Phillips. Temporarily relocated to the grounds of a manor house, Cragside, due to the fire that gutted Anna’s cottage, when Ryan and Anna are invited to a murder-mystery party, the last thing they expect is for a real body to turn up.

When more bodies start appearing, Ryan understands something sinister is afoot. Worse, a new appointment is about to be made at Northumberland Constabulary, an appointment that bodes nothing but ill for Ryan.

Once again, Ross creates a wonderful balance between intrigue, romance, personal relationships, office politics and the various suspects of the crime. Location also becomes a character in the novel, the house and the lands upon which it sits, adding atmosphere and tension (as well as beauty) to the narrative.

Managing to capture a great deal in a few words, Ross’s books are just getting better and better. It’s no wonder that as soon as I finish one, I quickly purchase and start the next. A good read indeed!

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The Walsingham Woman by Jan Westcott

23506263The Walsingham Woman by Jan Westcott tells the story of Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary and spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham’s daughter, the beautiful Frances from childhood to the eve of her third marriage.

As the daughter of Walsingham, Frances was born with beauty and brains and into relative privilege. Given a sound education, she never wanted for much. Nonetheless, like all women of that period, any status she accrued came through the men she was associated with – from her father to her husbands. After being rescued from a romantic near-disaster by the rakish Irishman, Rickard de Burgh, Frances is married while still in her teens to the darling of the queen and court, Sir Philip Sidney. Frances’ star is on the rise.

But death follows in triumph’s wake and Frances and her fledgling family are forced to not only bury two people dear to them, but also work out how to pay the massive debts that have been accrued in these people’s names. Understanding her beauty is her greatest resource, Frances sets out to catch the man considered the greatest matrimonial prize in the kingdom using her considerable nous to do so. Only, this man has also caught the eye and heart of the queen, and no-one, not even Mister Secretaries beautiful daughter, dare come between the queen and her chosen courtiers… or does she? After all, what has she got to lose?

Weaving fact and fiction, Westcott does a very good job of portraying the limited choices even someone like Frances Walsingham had as a woman n Elizabethan times. While she rose up the social ladder, it was through the advocacy, wealth and power of the men to whom she was beholden for patronage and more. Though she may have manipulated events, Frances was also at the mercy of the men who regarded her as both promise and threat.

The beginning of the novel is not as strong as the latter half as it tends to jump around. Though I am very familiar with the period and major characters, I managed to become lost in some of the gaps. This sense of disorientation and absences dissipated as the pace picks up in the second half, making the novel hard to put down.

Westcott captures the times really well – from the gender politics, to the threat of war and religious dissent to internal strife and struggles as the once formidable queen ages and her young allies eye her throne with more desire than they do her Majesty’s person.

All the major characters of the period are there, from Elizabeth through to Robert Cecil, the young gallants that surrounded the Earl of Essex (for better and worse), and some of the other important and strong women – all whom were banned from court by the queen. Frances is an engaging character, loyal, manipulative and very much, in many ways, her father’s daughter as, chameleon–like she plays her part in order to guarantee the outcome.

A good read for history buffs and those who enjoy the repatriation of women’s voices and action from our past.

 

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The Enchantress of Paris by Marci Jefferson

Having spent the last few months reading non-fiction works about the 1660s, I found Cardinal Mazarin and the influence he wielded over a young Louis XIV, featured strongly. Thus, the premise of this book, The Enchantress of Paris, by Marci Jefferson, which is ostensibly about Marie Mancini, one of the beautiful and clever nieces – known as the Mazarinettes – of the ambitious and ruthless cardinal, captured my imagination.

24832420Initially overlooked in favour of her bolder sisters, Marie, a clever, witty and all together charming young woman, bides her time. It’s time that works in her favour as she slowly but most assuredly, captures first the attention, then the heart of King Louis, and gradually begins to control much of what occurs in the Sun-King’s court.

Educated, kind and loving but at the whim of her ambitious uncle, Marie tries to resist his orders regarding the manipulation of the king, preferring instead to appeal to Louis’s heart and head. Eschewing not just her uncle’s increasingly harsher demands and punishments, and her abilities with black magic, Marie chooses to rely on her undeniable attractions to influence the man she loves – her intellect and good heart.

While Marie wants nothing more than to have Louis for herself and all that entails, her greatest ambition is to free him from her uncle’s manipulative clutches. But Louis is young, untested and has, like his mother, relied upon the cardinal since birth. With war threatening and offers of peace coming with bride-caveats, can young, lovely Marie succeed in freeing Louis from her uncle’s control where others have not only failed, but died trying?

This isn’t usually the kind of book I like in that, though I love historical fiction, I find ones that are all about unrequited passion and endless declarations of love, long looks, sighs, teary reunions etc. especially among the nobility and royalty quite tiresome. Much to my surprise, though this novel is filled with these, I found it difficult to put down and was curious as to how far young Marie would succeed in her quest to wrest the king away from those who would control him for their own ends. Familiar with some of the history, the role of the Mazarinettes, as court ornaments, as assets for their uncle to use in an endless political game, and the relationship between Marie and Louis was largely unknown, and the historical research Jefferson has done is nicely woven into this tale of passion, freedom, regret, promises, deceit and power.

Marie, as a character, is rounded and complex. Understanding the role she’s destined to play as a pawn in a larger game, she nonetheless allows herself to dream, keeps her ethics and sense of self, and maintains an optimism that’s both endearing and frustrating. Louis is less interesting and, I think, because he’s more familiar to history buffs, unable to be drawn except with recognisable strokes. The relationship between the king and Marie is at the core of the story – a story that’s also about liberty and the pursuit of that whether it be a king or a second-class citizen in the form of a noble woman desiring it. It’s also about power and how even those deemed powerless can find passive and lasting ways to exert their authority and with lasting consequences.

For those who love a strong romantic novel and have a passion for well-fictionalised history and anything to do with the Sun King, this is a book you can lose yourself in. So long as you don’t mind endless protestations of amor and adoration!

 

 

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The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

imgres-1This was a delightful, heart-warming novel about the power of books to inspire, offer reflections upon life and people as well as escapism, and above all heal those who read them – especially if a person reads the right one. Enter the protagonist, Monsieur Perdu, a rather lost man who owns a floating bookshop on the Seine, a barge named Lulu, filled with 8000 books, which he gallantly tries to match to the right reader. You see, Perdu has a gift: calling himself the “literary apothecary”, he is able to find the exact book to cure almost any ailment or agitation of the heart and soul.

Despite his gift for connecting stories and readers, Perdu cannot help himself or heal the broken heart he stubbornly nurses. A lonesome creature, he lives in a barren apartment, trapped in the past and the memories of the free-spirited and magnificent Manon, a married woman with whom he had a passionate affair over twenty years earlier and who left him with nary an explanation, only a letter which he has never read, he endures.

It is not until an attractive neighbour, Catherine, convinces him to read Manon’s letter that he uproots himself, his barge and sails along the southern waterways of his country, determined to discover the whole story of which he possesses only the beginning and an end. Accompanied by a young bestselling author, Max Jordan, besieged with crippling doubt and unable to embark on his next work, and two contrary cats, Perdu encounters others on his journey, including a lovelorn Italian chef who becomes an intrinsic part of the motley crew.

Perdu spends months cruising the rivers and learning more stories, dispensing books like currency as well as medicine, and encountering folk who challenge, embrace, and accept him. Passing through remote and popular villages, he’s encouraged to participate in rituals, traditions, dine at tables with families and, after so much water under the bridge (pun intended) step up and into the kind of life he only ever knew through his beloved books. As a consequence, Perdu undergoes a physical, emotional and psychological transformation, literally fleshing out his yet-to-be-completed story that ceased when Manon left.

I thoroughly enjoyed this love-story/coming of middle age tale and the characters that people it as well as the wonderful cross-references to other literature, classical, contemporary and everything in between.

 

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The Beast’s Garden by Kate Forsyth

I finished The Beast’s Garden, the latest novel by one of my all-time favourite authors, Australian writer, Kate Forsyth, a while ago and found myself so deeply affected and moved by the story that I bided my time before reviewing it. I had extreme visceral responses to what’s ostensibly a love story set against the horrendous backdrop of Nazi Germany.

23702432The Beast’s Garden explores the lead up to World War Two: the targeting of the Jews, the pogroms, the “Final Solution”, as well as the resistance movement and the general attitudes and experiences of everyday Germans to the injustice, horror and fear as their leaders declared war against the world. Set between the years 1938-1943 and beyond, the book is very much located in Berlin, the epi-centre of the Nazi regime and tells of the young and beautiful Ava, a woman with the voice of an angel, and how she attracts the attention of a handsome and very Aryan Nazi officer, Leo.

As the book opens, the persecution of the Jews is on the rise, and Ava’s close friends, the Fiedlers, especially their children, homosexual Rupert and his sister, Jutta – are subjected to incredible hardship, particularly Rupert, through whom we experience the utter desolation and cruelty of Buchenwald. Concomitant with this is the ascent of the Nazi party and the officers whose names were to become part of global history and stark reminders of humans’ capacity for cruelty – Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, etc. As the Fiedlers descend into poverty and become increasingly marginalised and disempowered, Ava’s star, as a singer of talent, is on the rise and yet, she resists what is being offered to her, aware of the injustices being meted out around her and feeling powerless to make a difference… that is, until she meets a group of courageous people.

What makes this book so unique in terms of story, apart from setting a passionate love story against such a dire and harrowing backdrop (which made it richer and deeper – out of great ugliness, beauty and love still rise and shine), is the fact it focuses on both ordinary everyday German people and the hardship they also experienced, their revulsion towards what was happening to the Jews and their efforts (often at the risk of their own lives and that of their families) to extend help and alleviate suffering and a specific wing of the German military – the intelligence services and the officers serving within it. While there were those who revelled in the downfall of a people they came to blame for all their social ills, there were so many other brave souls – outside and within the machinery of war – many of whom died for their selfless efforts. Forsyth is at pains to acknowledge these people, her exhaustive research paying homage to the risks they took and their humanity in the face of such danger and suffering.

Peppered with real figures and events (some of which are obscure in terms of familiar history, but oh so powerful), it’s a huge credit to Forsyth that the book is never didactic. It’s also testimony to Forsyth’s beautiful prose, the way her sentences flow and gather momentum, ironically building a crumbling world as she describes the beauty of a snow-covered Strasse, the brutality of the commandant’s wife at Buchenwald, and Rupert’s attempts to inscribe meaning upon his bleak existence. Her words grab you by the throat and heart and don’t let you go.

The overall narrative is loosely based on the old Grimm tale of the “Singing Springing Lark” which has been retold in various renditions as “Beauty and the Beast”. This poignant, traumatic and yet soul-stirring book is far more than a retelling of a famous fairy-tale. It’s a record of a time we should never forget – of our ability to transcend evil, through love, kindness, and connection but also of the darkness that lurks inside some people and how sometimes, we allow that to blot out the light and in doing so, we all suffer.

In the spirit of never forgetting, I feel I should also contextualise the reason for my intense response to this book. Of German-Jewish descent, I lost almost all my family to the Holocaust – Mendelssohn was our family name and, yes, we’re related to the composer, Felix (whose music Hitler banned). My great-grandfather (who was interred in Buchenwald and later died, alongside his wife, my great-grandmother, Ilse, in Tereisenstadt), also being a Felix. It was always driven home to me, by my grandmother, who escaped to Israel in her late teens/early twenties before coming to Australia, that her parents and family were first and foremost German. They were not even practising Jews and so were shocked and in total disbelief at what happened to them, their neighbours and extended family – how their birthright as Jews was turned against them in such profound and evil ways – their shared German history and undeniable loyalty to their country counting for nothing.

With every page, I felt I wasn’t just stepping into a version of history, but into personal history. It was a hard but worthwhile journey in so many ways. I thank Kate for that.

This is a wonderful addition to Forsyth’s growing body of work – from her simply addictive and clever fantasy books to her extraordinary works of historical fiction – all of which rate among my much-loved books.

Though I found myself alternately reeling, crying, sighing, having to put the book down and walk away; though memories of my own family and the stories I’d been told resurfaced and bubbled like a cauldron, I cannot recommend this book highly enough for lovers of history, great writing, and tightly plotted and executed stories that remain with you days and weeks afterwards. Simply superb.

 

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