The Last of the Apple Blossom by Mary-Lou Stephens

There’s no doubt that books set in Tasmania are popular at the moment and if this marvellous debut novel by former Taswegian, Mary-Lou Stephens, is anything to go by, it’s no wonder. This beautiful, heart-wrenching and atmospheric story about the apple orchardists of the scenic Huon Valley, is Australian historical fiction at its finest.

The tale opens in a dramatic and utterly riveting fashion – with the traumatic and deadly bushfires that ripped through not just Hobart, but great swathes of the East Coast, destroying everything in their path. Readers follow schoolteacher, Catherine Turner, as she desperately sets about keeping her pupils and colleagues safe from the flames’ path, before undertaking a dangerous journey south to check on her family and their apple orchard.

Tragedy awaits Catherine yet, being stalwart and loyal, she seeks to help her grieving father and mother rebuild their business and stake a claim in the industry and area she loves. Only, long-standing prejudice, changing political and industrial conditions and heart-ache will stand in her way.

In the meantime, her neighbour and childhood friend, Annie, has just given birth to a longed-for daughter. After five sons, this child is precious. Even so, Catherine cannot fathom Annie’s set against her husband’s old friend, Mark, and his young son, Charlie, who have come to stay with them as respite from a stalled career and broken marriage. Unable to help herself, Catherine is drawn to both Charlie and Mark, alienating Annie because of her interest, but without understanding why.

Against this alternating familial and friendship backdrop, the greater story of the apple orchardists, their heart-ache, back-breaking work and disappointment plays out over the years. We bear witness to massive social and political changes and challenges, the influx of migrants into the community, union movements, decisions made in far away in an indifferent parliament (and another country) and the impact they had on the ground, and learn how the Huon particularly became a haven for hippies and other artistic folk who wished to live differently and defy stultifying social norms.

I confess, I didn’t know much about the history of apples or the orchards or how Tasmania earned the moniker the Apple Isle. Mary-Lou has done impeccable research and given the story of what was endured and survived or the adaptions made such heart and depth. I ached for these folk; laughed, cried, became so indignant and angry. It’s testimony to fabulous writing that you can be pulled into a story that, at one level, is so vast and terrible and yet, at another, is experienced very personally through the main characters we grow to know and love.

This is a beautiful tale of loss, love, tragedy and triumph but, above all, incredible resilience that is both lilting and testimony to the people to whom its dedicated. It will linger in your mind and heart long after the last page. Better still, it will make you long to not only see Tasmania and all her natural beauty, but fight to maintain it.

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No Small Shame by Christine Bell

This historical fiction by Christine Bell is a bleak and often harrowing read that nonetheless, tugs the heart strings and tells an unputdownable story of familial bonds, religion, war, love, sacrifice, courage, and heartache, all against the backdrop of Scotland and Australia during and in pre and post-war times.

Young Catholic, Mary O’Donnell, follows her family to Australia in the hope of a better life, one that offers more than their little mining village in Scotland ever could. Landing in Australia and moving to the small Victorian township of Wonthaggi, Mary’s dreams for herself and those she loves are soon shattered.

Following a series of terrible decisions and exiled from her family, Mary flees to Melbourne to start what she hopes will be a better life. There, she finally finds what’s she’s been looking for – purpose, friendship, and burgeoning love.

But when her past comes back to not just haunt her, but alter everything she thought to be true, Mary is faced with a terrible choice: ignore duty and what her faith and family tell her she must do, or follow her heart?

This is an utterly gripping book that I found so hard to put down. Swept up in Mary’s story, I read until 4.30 in the morning because I simply had to know what happened. The story told isn’t a “nice” one, after all, it’s about the impact of poverty, war, and racial and religious discrimination on individuals, families, and culture. The way Scottish and Australian history is represented in the novel is so well done – it doesn’t dominate, but serves the story as it always should in this type of fiction, allowing it to colour and, to a degree, drive the narrative forward, but never, ever overshadow it. The characters are so very rounded and real, even the minor ones. But it’s Mary that we root for and love, whose compassion and desire to break free of the shackles that she sees and feels holding herself and others back, that make you ache for her. Her – and even the less sympathetic characters who are also bound by social and other ties and cannot see their way free.

Be prepared to be transported into the past, to be caught up in a slice of Aussie history but, mostly, swept away in a completely relatable and beautifully told tale that will move and, in the end, fill you. Outstanding.

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Tidelands by Philippa Gregory

A huge fan of Gregory’s work, I was so excited to see that not only had she written a book in the third person, but had moved away from her wonderful fictive histories of various British royals to focus on an “ordinary” woman and her family. Only, the beautiful Alinor is anything but ordinary, as a young priest deposited on the shores of anti-Catholic England in 1648, just when the country is in the midst of Civil War and the King imprisoned, and who is tasked with an important mission, realises the moment he encounters her.  

Alinor is a wise-woman, a healer who acts as a midwife for her local community and is entrusted with their health and well-being. The mother of two children, her bully of a husband is believed lost at sea. Not quite a widow and not quite married, when she finds the priest, James, and leads him out of the marshes and to safety, she knows something momentous and dangerous has been set in motion.

As the weeks go by and rebellion grows even while the tidal community go on with their daily grind, James and Alinor’s secret bond grows. But these are hazardous times to be a Catholic, a monarchist but, above all, it’s a perilous time to be a wise-woman, especially a beautiful one.

This book is a slow burn. Gregory takes great delight in presenting the reader with the minutiae of Alinor’s life as well as that of other villagers. I really enjoyed the initial slow-pace, the context against which the wider political and social turmoil receded into the background. The writing is mostly lovely and it’s very easy to imagine Alinor and the rest of those who dwell in the liminal spaces between land and sea. Where I struggled a bit was with how repetitive some of the dialogue became. Characters kept repeating themselves, sometimes over and over – to each other and even with their thoughts. I found this a little distracting and even skimmed a bit when this occurred.

Overall, this is a good read with an ending that segues nicely into the next book in what promises to be a series worth following.

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In Celebration of the release of The Chocolate Maker’s Wife – here’s some background on the writing of the novel and what’s between the covers…

This is an edited excerpt of what appeared in the ARC copy of the novel.

Official release date: 18 February in Australia/NZ. Out in the USA and UK August 2019.

The Chocolate Maker’s Wife, a tale of tragedy, triumph and sensual delight in Restoration London, is my twelfth book. It’s also the fourth time I’ve used the same basic premise to explore humanity and history through fiction by focussing on women in trade. So many historical fictions are about the gentry and nobility and they’re fascinating. What captivates me even more is what ordinary folk – well educated or not, rich or poor – did to survive in business, sickness, health, love and loss. In previous novels, I’ve tackled a candle-maker-cum-courtesan, a brewer, a lock-pick/spy and due to a timely visit to Hampton Court in 2014, I’ve my latest book.

Not only was chocolate a decadent drink introduced to England from Europe – Spain (via South America) – around the 1660s, coinciding with the restoration of Charles II to the English throne and all that his reign heralded in terms of hedonism and decadence, but it was associated with a range of naughty behaviours and benefits. Touted for its health-giving properties, chocolate was also considered an aphrodisiac. While there were those who sought to ban it, there were many more who relished the wicked things it signified. Just like the new, bitter drink of coffee, entire “houses” were opened where men could gather and quaff, smoke and exchange news.

A chocolate house in Georgian times. Coffee and chocolate houses were popular, and served as clubs and meeting places for business (© TopFoto)
While this is a Georgian coffee or chocolate house, Rosamund’s in my novel would have been similar.

The new-fangled and troublesome (for king and court) profession of journalism was also burgeoning. The collision of new ideas, political protest and the ability to read what was happening as people’s literacy grew, spelled both dramatic change and disorder. Debates, gossip, plots, plans, arguments, gambling and all other manner of licentious conduct happened – and was encouraged – under the roof of the debauched, marvellous chocolate house.

As you can tell (because I could go on), I simply adore doing the research!

The Chocolate Maker’s Wife focusses on the first of these chocolate houses to open in London and with a woman at the helm. With great business acumen, young and lovely Rosamund – someone with a past both uplifting and utterly wretched – arrives in the capital. Rosamund makes a deal with the devil and learns all there is to know about chocolate, serving men who would both bed and wed her. Through chocolate and the people it brings into her orbit, her life undergoes an extraordinary transformation.

An 18th-century reproduction brass pot stands ready to dispense its liquid contents.
A glass chocolate pot – note the molinillo (the stick in the lid) and he handle out the side for pouring.

But one cannot serve “sin in a bowl” and expect their reputation to remain unsullied. Nor at a time when war is brewing, plots against the crown are thick, laws tightening, plague and then fire threatening, never mind lustful men and jealous women, can Rosamund expect to remain safe – especially when those plotting against her are the same who promise her security.

The Chocolate Maker’s Wife is filled with real historical figures, rich in historical detail and facts as well as a healthy dose of imagination and a great deal of luscious chocolate. I hope in reading it, like Rosamund, you’ll find damnation has never been so sweet.

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An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

12142746An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears is a book I resisted reading for a while for the simple reason I thought it a tad too long. There were other books I wanted and needed to read, so it kept being moved to the bottom of a very big pile. Even owning a Kindle was not reason enough to embark on such a journey. Well, more fool me.

An Instance of the Fingerpost (which is taken from a larger quote by Francis Bacon) refers to the way in which a fingerpost points in only one direction and how, when presented with “facts” and “truths” in relation to a situation, humans tend to only see one solution/suspect. So it is with this simply marvellous tale of murder and intrigue set in 1663, during the reign of Charles II, who was restored to the throne on the back of the Interregnum after the death of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell and the failure of his son, Richard, to hold power.

Set in Oxford, it basically tells the story about the murder of a university don, a Dr Grove, who appears to have been poisoned. Told in four parts from four different points of view (a Venetian medical student and traveler, Marco Da Cola; a passionate and angry young man, John Prescott who is trying desperately to prove his father isn’t the traitor to the crown he was believed to be; Dr Wallis, a stern and unbending cryptographer and, finally, Anthony Wood, an archivist and historian), the tale unfolds slowly, in detail, allowing time for the reader to understand not only the incredible narrative being told, but the person telling it. Rich in detail, philosophical insights and human observation, other characters become significant, such as the bold and assertive Sarah Blundy who earns the enmity and admiration of people in equal measure, and her injured mother, the so-called witch, Anne. Then, there are also the genuine historical figures who pepper the book such as the Earl of Clarendon, Cromwell’s former spymaster, John Thurloe, scientist Robert Boyle, architect Christopher Wren, Mr Lower, Bennett, the king, and other well-known names from a heady, culturally progressive and violent period.

When Dr Grove is found murdered, all sorts of reasons are given for his death and various suspects and their motives come to light, but without spoiling the story, it’s when someone the reader least suspects confesses, and shocking events follow, that the narrative (and the reader’s heart) quickens.

But Grove’s murder is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Bubbling away beneath the brutal death of this pompous man are plots and secrets aplenty as well as those who fear what the discovery of these might do to a kingdom fractured by religion, potential wars and the lascivious desires of a once deprived and exiled king.

Hidden documents, unfair accusations, half-truths, outright lies, deceptions, decoys, murder and betrayal all feature in this incredibly plotted, wonderfully detailed book that brings an era of suspicion, intrigue, distrust but also wonder to life. The accuracy of the portrayals of real and fictitious figures (though even the fictitious ones are based on real people and events) is breath-taking. I was filled with admiration and so much respect (as well as a healthy does of lexical envy) for Pears who has written a tour de force with this book. When I finally finished, I was tempted to start again so as to really appreciate the way traps were laid, truths and evasions set into place before the big and ultimate reveal.

What a magnificent tome this is. I highly recommend it for lovers of history, mystery and just damn fine writing and stories.

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