Book Review: A Well-Behaved Woman, by Therese Anne Fowler

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cv_a_well-behaved-womanHello, my name is Rachel, and I am addicted to historical fiction. Probably 60-70% of my adult library is historical fiction, with another 15% historical biography. For me, the sign of a good historical fiction book is one that sends me searching for more information, and A Well-Behaved Woman certainly fits the bill.

The riches to rags to obscene-riches tale of Alva Vanderbilt (nee Smith, later Belmont) is the focus of Fowler’s novel. After the American Civil War her family was left in dire financial straits, and to avoid abject poverty Alva needed to marry well (or more to the point, she needed to marry wealthy). She set her sights on William Kissam Vanderbilt, and won, entering into a world of wealth and privilege that defies comprehension.

Life wasn’t all smooth sailing (both literally and figuratively) for Alva after her marriage. The Vanderbilts were ‘new money’ and found it hard to gain acceptance in the top tier of New York society. Alva worked tirelessly to gain acceptance for the family and a lot of the novel’s plot follows her efforts to become part of the New York crème de la crème, as well as her married life with William.

Alva’s character – strong, determined, well-educated, rebellious and creative – is a gift to an author, and Fowler has made the most of it. The book is well-researched and moves along at a good pace, and successfully transports the reader to the luxurious world of Gilded Age New York, Newport and Europe. It’s a very enjoyable read, and the only thing missing for me was a Vanderbilt family tree – fictional Alva struggles to keep track of them with their reuse of names when she first meets them, and she at least had the benefit of seeing faces. As a reader it was even harder to keep track.

A Well-Behaved Woman sent me in search of one of my favourite book adaptations, the BBC’s 1995 version of Edith Wharton’s unfinished The Buccaneers, set at the same time as much of Alva Vanderbilt’s early story, and certainly appearing to be based on some real life characters (you can find it on YouTube). I also spent some time skimming my long-forgotten copy of Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart, enjoying the photographs of the novel’s protagonists. And this is why it’s easy for me to recommend A Well Behaved Woman to others who enjoy historical fiction and/or strong and interesting female characters – I was completely satisfied with the novel, but my interest was piqued and it sent me looking for more.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

A Well-Behaved Woman
by Therese Anne Fowler
Published by Two Roads
ISBN 9781473632516

Book Review: Heloise, by Mandy Hager

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cv_heloise.jpgThis is a big book. Not big in size at a reasonable 381 pages, but big in scope and ideas. It’s a book that you want to take time and care with, so that you can appreciate it as it deserves.

Lots of people may know the names of Heloise and Abelard, even if like me, they don’t really know the details. Abelard was widely celebrated as one of the greatest thinkers of the 12th century; Heloise was among the most lauded of his students, made more notable because of her gender in a time when women were most definitely meant to be barely seen and certainly not heard.

Mandy Hager tells the story from Heloise’s perspective, filling in the historical gaps with seamless narrative. She starts with Heloise’s childhood, about which next to nothing is known, and traces her life through to her teenage years and adulthood, and her fateful meeting with Peter Abelard. The story is well paced and rich, with excerpts from Abelard and Heloise’s own writing, and many references to other great thinkers including Ovid, Seneca, Aristotle and Socrates. With a lot of the story taking place within a religious setting, Sts Augustine and Jerome also get regular look-ins. The content is quite dense – not in a negative way, but in the way that a lets you know you’re reading a book that’s been really well thought-through, researched and edited.

A reader with modern sensibilities will rage against the unfairness with which Heloise is treated, where even Abelard, who professes to love and respect her, treats her as a chattel without feelings and ambition of her own. Abelard eventually comes across as a fairly unsympathetic character, even though Heloise’s love and forgiveness of his behaviour wins out time and again. I found myself snarling at some of the male characters in the story quite regularly … the perils of being a modern reader of historical fiction, I suppose!

Heloise reminds me of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, dealing in depth as it does with a historical figure who has name recognition, even if the reader doesn’t know much more. It’s substantial in the same way, and immerses you in a world that may be 800 years gone, but still echoes now in the 21st century. It’s not a light holiday read, but perfect for when you have time and space to read something substantial. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

by Mandy Hager
Published by Penguin NZ
ISBN 9780143770992

Book Review: Leap of Faith, by Jenny Pattrick

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cv_leap_of_faith_bigPattrick, an experienced New Zealand historic novelist, brings the Volcanic Plateau to life in her latest book Leap of Faith.

Set in 1907, Pattrick takes the reader on a journey on what life may have been like for those drawn to the area by the railroad work, to construct the Makatote viaduct. This pioneering work made it possible to travel the whole length of the North Island, from Wellington to Auckland, by train.

Working on the railroad is somber and tough, with co-op gangs incentivised by targets to ensure the railroad is completed on time. It’s also a harsh and, at times, perilous environment. Despite these conditions, the railroad attracts a variety of characters.

At the heart of the novel is young and impressionable Billy, only 14 years old when he goes to join the camps at Makatote. He’s later joined by his siblings Maggie and Freeman, and quickly becomes good friends with Ruri, one of a few Māori working on the railroad.

It’s not long till Billy is swept up by the gospel and charm of Gabriel Locke, a preacher with a dodgy past, who passes through the town hoping to build a community of dedicated followers. Gabriel also quickly charms Amelia Grice, a prohibitionist who is determined to figure out who’s supplying sly grog to the workers.

This novel develops over two years switching between perspectives of the different characters. It also switches between past and present, which I found a little confusing at times. The pace of the book is fairly slow but finally picks up a quarter of the way into the book when an unfortunate event ties several of the characters together. This helps to move the plot along and adds some suspense to the novel – in such a small community, secrets don’t last long.

Historical novels aren’t a genre I read often and with this book I longed for more of a connection with the characters. That being said, I admired the amount of research Pattrick has clearly done. Pattrick shows a deep knowledge of not only the area but also in the construction of the railroad and the time period. She expertly weaves New Zealand’s native bush and unique rural landscapes throughout the novel:

‘The mountain appeared for the first time in months, while majestic at the head of the valley. Woodpigeons erupted from what was left of the bush, flying from ridge to ridge flashing their blue-green wings’.

Anyone interested by the New Zealand railroad or with connections to the area will find this an intriguing and enjoyable read.

Reviewed by Sarah Young

Leap of Faith
by Jenny Pattrick
Published by Black Swan – PRH
ISBN 9780143770916

Book Review: The Spy, by Paulo Coelho

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cv_the_spyThe Spy is written by prolific author Paulo Coelho. It is in some ways a re-imagining of the life of Mata Hari, using news reports and letters between Mata and her lawyer. Voiced as though Mata is narrating her own life, we are privy to her thoughts as the events of her life play out.

The story is mostly told from the perspective of Mata – and as such I think it may have partially lost its way. Paulo Coelho presents her life and thoughts using the fiction of her being ‘out of her time.’ The tag line for the book is “Her only crime was to be an independent woman.” It is in some ways a challenging read, as the reader is required to use that basis as the motivations of the character. Mata is presented as a sexually liberated dancer and prostitute, who is somewhat ahead of her time. This leads to her later conviction for spying. It seems to overlook some of the realities of her life – a young, abusive marriage, being forced to abandon her children and then having to support herself in Europe as it moved towards war. I couldn’t decide if this was an intriguing example of the ‘unreliable narrator’ – the character trying to portray herself in the best possible way. Is this genuinely how the author saw her story? Quite an intrigue.

Like similar books in this genre, it is a very easy to read overview of a particular period in history. Mata’s interactions made me quite reflective about what people do in difficult situations. What would you do to survive during wartime? What wouldn’t you do?

Mata’s internal voice is very flowery and somewhat poetic – there are some beautifully written passages such as “I was an exotic bird traversing an earth ravage by humanity’s poverty of spirit” and it concludes, sadly with “I am the nightingale who gave everything and died while doing so.”

Reviewed by Emma Rutherford

The Spy
Paulo Coelho
Published by Penguin
ISBN: 9780143783404

Book Review: Clover Moon, by Jacqueline Wilson

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cv_clover_moonJacqueline Wilson is admirably prolific. Penning her 100th title, Opal Plumstead, in 2014, Wilson is one of the biggest names in children’s literature in the UK and abroad. Clover Moon continues her fabulous work with vivacious female characters in historically-set fiction for children.

Clover Moon lives with her large family in the squalor of Cripps Alley, a slum in Victorian England. She’s the eldest of six children, and she spends most of her time entertaining and looking after her four half-siblings, her beloved sister Megs, and the other children who live in the alley. Clover’s own mother died in childbirth with Megs, and her father has since remarried a wicked woman named Mildred, who cares very little for Clover and beats her given any opportunity. Life in Cripps Alley is grim, yet Clover (who has been taught to read and write by the crippled doll maker, Mr. Dolly) remains forward-thinking and mostly hopeful about her future.

That is, until she loses the one person she loves most in the world, her sister Megs, to scarlet fever. With a life of servitude to Mildred or poorly-paying factory work ahead of her, Clover plans to escape Cripps Alley and runs away to a home for destitute girls, where a new realm of challenges and surprises awaits her.

Wilson does a fantastic job of truthfully exploring the grim realities of slum life in the Victorian era, without resorting to melodrama. Yet while Clover Moon explores the harsh realities and deep sadness of the time, the unwavering vibrancy of Clover herself keeps the tone up-beat and the plot moving.

At a hefty 385 pages, I would find it difficult to recommend Clover Moon as a gateway for new readers into Wilson’s work. However, veteran readers of Wilson’s fiction will no doubt devour this new tale from the bestselling author – it even features a short cameo appearance from Hetty Feather, one of Wilson’s most well-known heroines. Best of all, the ending is open and abrupt – it’s very possible we’ll be reading more about Clover Moon in the future.

Reviewed by Emma Bryson

Clover Moon
by Jacqueline Wilson
Doubleday Children’s Books
ISBN 9780857532749

Book Review: The Cloud Leopard’s Daughter, by Deborah Challinor

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cv_the_cloud_leopards_daughterSet in 1863, the story begins on the Otago Goldfields where the daughter of a Chinese Tong master is kidnapped and whisked off to China and a forced marriage.

We meet up with Kitty and Rian Farrell sailing into Dunedin harbour in their schooner Katipo 111 to meet with their friend Wong Fu who is based at Lawrence, very unwell, and concerned for the wellbeing of his daughter Bao.

The couple agree to sail to China to find the girl and the reader is taken on a fascinating journey which includes pirates, another kidnapping and the opium trade into China.
When their daughter Amber is taken from a hotel in Cebu, Phillipines, Kitty is devastated as this is the fourth time in her life that Amber has been kidnapped. She wonders if she “were being made to pay for plucking Amber from the streets of Auckland when she had been tiny”.

This is the fourth book in the The Smuggler’s Wife Series which are all based on the high seas in the Pacific. This title is easily a stand alone book as I had not read any of the previous books and was soon absorbed into the adventures of the very real, colourful characters brought to life by the descriptive writing.

The author has done a great deal of research into the opium trade into China which has given an interesting depth to the story of an era which has almost been forgotten. In the author notes at the rear of the book Challinor says, “The British reluctantly paid for their pekoe, teacups and bolts of silk in bullion, but, concerned at the amount of silver in particular leaving England, soon realised there was a ready market for opium in china”.

The peaceful but rugged coastline on the front cover of The Cloud Leopard’s Daughter enticed me into this book, I learned a lot about the opium trade, and I believe anyone who likes a family saga with some adventure in it will enjoy it as much as I did.

Deborah Challinor lives in New Zealand with her husband. While at University she did a PhD in military history and when her thesis was described by one of her university supervisors as readable she sent it to a publisher, and came away with a book deal. She has now published fourteen novels in fifteen years. She has also written one young adult novel and two non fiction books.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

The Cloud Leopard’s Daughter
by Deborah Challinor
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9781460751572

Book Review: Lewisville, by Alexandra Tidswell

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cv_lewisville.jpgOur stories are an important part of who we are. This is especially so in New Zealand, which really was the ends of the earth to our brave and intrepid forebears. Why would someone choose to travel in appalling conditions to a land of promise but little fact, far away from all their family, friends and culture?

Alexandra Tidswell has taken on the challenge presented by her own family to answer this question. As a seventh generation New Zealander, she had the initial stories, a 1960’s search and some 1980’s genealogical data as a starting point. From this, she has created a story which gripped me to the end.

Martha Grimm escapes to New Zealand with her daughter Mary Ann from Warwickshire in 1814. She left behind parents, other children and a husband, who had been transported to Australia. She leaves to follow her dream of escaping poverty and make a new life. While the novel is based on true events, the setting and characters are beautifully rounded and add real depth to the story. This is not a poetic foray into the beauties of the New Zealand landscape. At no time was I bogged down in treacle description. Rather, the storyline is strong and urgent. Martha has a determined and ambitious plan which she works hard to bring about. The tension in the story arises with the tale of her husband, as he too tries to escape the poverty and injustice of convict life in Australia. As his wife has remarried and become something of a society lady in Wellington, will her past catch up with her?

Tidswell has treated each part of the story with a genuine honesty and sympathy for the characters and their response to events. While we could view Martha as a selfish woman who cares little for her children left in the workhouse, we are drawn into the dream of a better future. The possibility that she might claim her children when she has succeeded, is always there. However, the stories of the children are also handled masterfully as they make their own way without the care of their parents. We cannot help but share the dream of Martha.

Likewise, the role played by the indigenous people, both in Australia and New Zealand, in supporting the naïve and unprepared immigrants in this new environment, is handled well. It is not overplayed but the information is there as part of the overall view.

Wellington residents will enjoy the description of early Wellington streets and suburbs as the settlement grows and the early homes are replaced by more substantial residences.
I see Lewisville as a coming-of-age book. The family story in integral but it is a really gripping story with real characters and identifiable places. This is a valuable contribution to the backstory of our country. It is well-told, excellently edited and researched and very readable. A great way for me to start my holidays.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

By Alexandra Tidswell
Published by Submarine (Makaro Press)
ISBN 9780994137906

Book Review: An Almond for a Parrot, by Wray Delaney

cv_an_almond_for_a_parrotAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

I loved this wonderfully sensual, erotic and sumptuous fairy-tale novel about a young woman who, against all the odds, is a survivor. The gorgeous cover illustrates perfectly the colour, imagination, distortion, magic, luxury and decadence of the world of the courtesan in the mid-1700s, when, apparently, one in five women in London worked as a prostitute.

Tully Truegood is the narrator of her own story. It opens with her in Newgate Prison, awaiting trial and probably the death penalty for murder. She is writing her story in the form of a letter to an ex-lover, knowing that it is unlikely to ever be read, detailing how her life brought her to such a catastrophic end. And what a tale it is.

After her mother’s death in childbirth, Tully is left in the hands of her father, a no-good drunk gambler, and cared for by the family cook. For reasons not disclosed till later in the book, Tully is married off at the age of twelve to a young man whom she does not know. This is the defining event in her life, and is what ultimately leads to her arrival in Newgate. But her path is diverted when her father marries Queenie Biggs. Queenie brings into the house not only order, clean clothing, good food and education, but also love, care and companionship for Tully in the form of two young women, Hope and Mercy.

Queenie, in fact, owns the Fairy House: a high-class, popular brothel in London. She has a number of courtesans under her care and control, of which Hope and Mercy are part, and in due course Tully also. Tully is not only gifted in the art of lovemaking: she also has the gift of magic, expressed in many and various ways, and recognised by the magician Mr Crease. Over the course of the next few years, Tully rises through the courtesan ranks, falling in  out of love, her supernatural powers beguiling and terrifying those around her, her notoriety following her far and wide.

Tully never gives up. This is a society and time where if you were female, it didn’t matter a jot if you were born into wealth or poverty: you were simply a commodity to be traded, used and discarded at will by men. Tully always believes in love and in her self-worth. She knows she is clever; she knows her beauty and desirability  is not just in her looks; she uses her magic gift carefully; she is loyal and determined to break out of the courtesan life becoming self sufficient and independent in her own right.

As in any good fairy tale, wickedness and malevolence are never far away, and Tully has to use all her powers to outwit and destroy the evil that continually threatens to destroy her and those she loves. This is all told in the most wonderful writing: sensuous, descriptive and so vivid. Some of the writing is graphic, erotic, but it is never inappropriate. The sexual awakening of a young woman is delightfully, deliciously and outrageously told. You will never look at a maypole the same way again.

This is the first adult novel for this writer, who has written it under a pseudonym. She is actually Sally Gardner, a children’s writer and illustrator who has won many awards for her books. A quick bit of Google research reveals that many of her children’s books also have magic and fantasy in them. Here she has brought this magic realism to an adult novel, managing to make it believable and entertaining: a joy to read.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

An Almond for a Parrot
by Wary Delaney
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9780008182571

Book Review: Scarlet & Magenta, by Lindsey Dawson

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cv_scarlet_and_magentaFamily letters retained and passed down in a family, inspired this book set in Tauranga in the late 1800s. Author Lindsay Dawson has cleverly woven an interesting story around an idea in her great- grandfather’s correspondence and the resulting novel delves into early history of New Zealand, especially of the pioneering women and men who settled in this country.

It is January 1886 when Anna Hamilton wife of Bank Manager meets Violet Sutton who has recently arrived in Tauranga from London. She has a past, considered scandalous in Victorian times, which led to her marriage to an older man and her voyage to the other side of the world. She is able to confide in Anna and the pair enjoy a spirited friendship.

Violet’s liason with rival banker Rupert causes ripples in the town setting off a chain of events which have dire consequences for the strong, free-thinking woman.

I was half way through the book before I had an inkling of how the interesting title came about, but with his bright red hair it is an apt description for Rupert, while Violet describes herself as scarlet, “ not so much a school marm as a scarlet woman . We are a red pair you and I”

Over half of Scarlet & Magenta takes place in the first six months of the year in the Bay of Plenty town, with the author recording the tale like a diary, with each chapter dated. The inclusion of quotes at the beginning of each chapter is also an interesting touch. Dawson explains in notes at the rear of the book, “they are taken from newspapers and journals published in the era covered by the story.”

I found it an easy read which flowed along at a good pace. Life in early New Zealand was vastly different for women compared with today and Dawson has highlighted a number of these differences. The book combines interesting historical events, such as the Mount Tarawera eruption, with a touch of romance and mystery so will appeal to a wide number of readers.

Lindsey Dawson has written eight other books, but Scarlet and Magenta is her first historical novel .As well as writing her own stories she enjoys helping others write theirs, offering mentoring , workshops in person and online.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Scarlet & Magenta
by Lindsey Dawson
Published by Out Loud Press
ISBN 9780473341428

Book Review: The Watercolourist, by Beatrice Masini

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cv_The_watercolouristBeatrice Masini spent ten years working on this novel, which I find fascinating, as this story features a number of characters working on lengthy creative endeavours, some more successful than others. The Watercolourist‘s central character is Bianca. Bianca. who is young and recently orphaned, is offered a post as illustrator for a well-known author. Her job is to document and colour every single plant on the large summer estate. As the project is so lengthy, Bianca becomes involved with the large family and other semi-permanent guests.

Bianca’s role is somewhere between employee and guest. Although there is a clear barrier between her and the female members of the family, she isn’t popular with the other employees, who see her as ‘above her station’. So Bianca is both involved and apart – and this starts her down her trail of observing the household members.

This is a cleverly written book. It starts out very focused on Bianca’s everyday experiences – her work, her efforts at getting to know the family. It then slowly turns more insular, and we learn more of Bianca’s developing thoughts – thoughts that distract and consume her. Her art, her main concern and occupation at the start, changes over time as her inner thoughts become her chief affair. She is oblivious to the danger in this – while ruminating over the lives of the family she lives with, she does not observe the risk in her situation.

I read the last few pages of the book in a great rush, fascinated by the ending. It was very good, and exceptionally well done. As a historical novel, it offers an insight into Milan in the nineteenth century. There is political unrest, as well as a lot of detail on the lives and choices available to women of different classes. Even though it is a historic novel, it feels more like a drama or even a mystery. I was really impressed. I highly recommend this book.

Reviewed by Emma Wong-Ming

The Watercolourist
by Beatrice Masini, translated by Clarissa Ghelli
Published by Mantle
ISBN 9781447257714