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

Available in bookshops nationwide.

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: A Dying Breed, by Peter Hanington


cv_a_dying_breedAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

A Dying Breed is the first book by Peter Hanington; I hope it won’t be his last. His work on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme during the time of the Iraqi and Afghanistan conflicts has given the book a sense of realism. When his characters move through the landscape of Kabul you are there with them, watching your back and being ever alert for danger.

William Carver is an old-school BBC journalist who likes to keep what he knows to himself, much to the irritation of his employer. He’s filing few stories, and no one knows exactly what he’s up to.

When a local official is killed in a bombing at a tailor’s shop in Kabul, it doesn’t excite Carver much. Until he learns the official was opposed to a UK company being awarded a telecoms licence. Warned to leave the story alone, Carver does the opposite, roping in his translator, Karim Mumtaz, to help him dig deeper. He discovers that the bomb was the kind favoured by foreign forces and the official died from a gunshot to the head, not the bomb blast.

Back in the UK Carver’s immediate boss, Rob Mariscal, is told to rein him in and kill the story until the contract is awarded. Carver hates working with a producer and has already been responsible for one resignation, but Mariscal sends young producer Patrick Reid to Kabul, in the hope that he will find out exactly what Carver knows. So he can get on with his research, Carver sends Reid and Mumtaz on a job that had been set up just for him. When they get kidnapped and Mariscal arrives in Kabul, Carver mistakenly confides in him, which could put his colleagues’ lives in danger.

A Dying Breed has a number of characters who play an integral part in the story – British Ambassador David Lever, private military contractor Richard Roydon, and a warlord known as the General. Everyone has something to hide and lives will be lost trying to suppress the truth. Will Carver be able to publish his story in time or will his efforts be in vain?

This book is fast-paced and extremely well-written. As a journalist myself, the characters in A Dying Breed are believable and the trials and pitfalls of chasing a major story only too familiar.

A note claiming the book was set in a shadowy le Carré-esque world worried me a little as I had never read any of le Carré’s books. Having finished A Dying Breed, I’m keen to remedy that. It just shows the difference having extensive knowledge of your subject matter makes to a novel – this book is hard to put down and leaves no questions unasked. Just like a good news story really.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

A Dying Breed
by Peter Hanington
Published by Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN 9781473625426

Book Review: Church of Marvels, by Leslie Parry

cv_church_of_marvelsAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

This book is a feat of imagination set in New York and its surrounds, in 1895. It has a slow start, but by the end it carries you along rapidly to a surprising twist that I certainly didn’t predict, which kept me thinking about the novel for a couple of days afterward.

The characters in the story are the ignored, the forgotten and the estranged. 19-year-old Sylvan is the main male protagonist, his story one of a poor multi-racial boy forgotten, who has learned to make his way in the world as best he can. His story opens with the discovery of a baby, thrown into the night-soil he is removing at the time. Though an orphan himself, or perhaps because he is an orphan, he keeps the baby, ensures its safety with a friend, and makes it his mission to find its mother.

Odile, our second protagonist (the story alternates between three viewpoints) begins her place in the tale while spinning on the wheel of death in a sideshow. Her twin sister Belle has recently disappeared, soon after the death of their mother, and she has received a letter from her. After a mishap in the sideshow, she resolves to find her sister, wherever she may be. And whatever she may have done.

Our third protagonist, Alphie, is in an asylum. She doesn’t remember how she came to be there, so her journey is one of remembering. She has a husband, back in Manhattan, whom she is convinced will save her.

As the book carries on, their stories intertwine exquisitely. This is a book which asks a lot of the reader in some ways, bringing them on the adventure without quite telling them the full story (in hindsight the prologue sheds some light); but at the halfway mark you understand enough about these worlds to find it very difficult to stop reading about them. It was one of those books I was snatching up in rare moments of quiet while watching the kids play, just to get half a chapter in to hurry towards the moment of resolution.

This is no happy circus tale. The Church of Marvels of the title has burned to the ground, killing Odile and Belle’s mother, as well as a number of their friends. Their mother was a formidable character, whose death leaves an echoing void in the lives of those who knew and loved her. The below quote is about her, from the Prologue:
‘Life is uncommon and strange; it is full of intricacies and odd, confounding turns. So onstage we remind them just how extraordinary the ordinary can be. This, she said, is the tiger in the grass. It’s the wonder that hides in plain sight.’

All of these characters are wonders hidden in plain sight. This is the message the reader should remember, and perhaps remember in their own lives. Highly recommended: persevere through the backstory and you will be rewarded.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Church of Marvels
By Leslie Parry
Published by Two Roads
ISBN 9781473605633

Book Review: Remember me like this, by Bret Anthony Johnston

cv_remember_me_like_thisAvailable in bookstores nationwide. 

Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel Remember Me like This is blended from a Harlan Coben-esque thriller style of writing with a theme of family-coping that demands profundity, and meets somewhere in an awkward middle. After eleven year-old Justin, son to Laura & Eric & older brother to Griff, goes missing in Southport, Texas, he is presumed dead by most for four years. Johnston skilfully drops the reader into each of the family member’s distractions during Justin’s absence, hitting on the realities of sex, anonymity, and infatuation as tools for escape. When Justin is found, alive & healthy in Corpus Christi, only a bay away from Southport, Laura, Eric & Griff are pulled from their sovereign orbits back into a family.Johnston’s grasp on human truisms makes for sublime character depiction throughout; from a fourteen boy who, despite the revelations of a found lost-brother, is consumed by youthful passion for a girl, to a family that falling away from each other rather than into each other in times of need.

When Justin is returned to the Campbell family in an early climax, Johnston attempts to emulate heart-wrenching drama in illustrating a family, yet four individuals, being struck different blows from the same event. Mirrored by the Campbell’s realisation that their home has become a run-down house in Justin’s absence, their reunion sees them regain their awareness of each other: as they begin to re-build walls and re-sow grass, they also shed their distractions and begin to re-build as a family once more. As we begin to root for the family’s successful rebirth, Johnston cracks the Campbell’s happy-family façade with a twist that instantly sends the family recoiling to their coping mechanisms like frightened animals. The plot builds to literature-loaded storm finale, echoing the highly-charged emotions and anxieties facing the Campbell’s, both individually & collectively. Johnston weaves various threads as though in hope of a startling finish, but the final stroke is instead a predictable & neat bow-tie.

While the concept of Remember Me like This is one of surgical delicacy, I’m undecided whether Johnston has accomplished a seamless wonder or whether he has avoided a too-hard task. Johnston’s choice to leave Justin’s voice out of the novel is a stroke of brilliance, using his family member’s different perspectives to instead tell the story. After all, this is a story about the Campbell family, not about Justin’s ordeal. Yet simultaneously, the unwillingness of the Campbell’s to talk about Justin’s ordeal or their emotion is stretched to its limit and begs the edges of reality. Once Justin is returned, the family tiptoe around the elephant in the room for the rest of the novel, making the reader eager, but for resolution that never delivers. In such a ghoulish plot, Johnston’s writing seems to miss the weight of the substance.

If you enjoy Harlan Coben or T. Jefferson Parker you will appreciate Remember Me like This. As Johnston’s debut novel, it is certainly a worthwhile effort & (hopefully) preludes more refined novels to come.

Reviewed by Abbie Treloar

Remember Me like This
by Bret Anthony Johnston
Published by Two Roads (Hachette)
ISBN 9781444788068

Book Review: Love and Treasure, by Ayelet Waldman

This book is available in bookstores nationwide. cv_love_and_treasure_ayelet

This is a terrifically engaging read, the kind you don’t want to put down.

The treasure of the title is a piece of jewellery, not particularly valuable, which was part of the contents of the Hungarian Gold Train*, and it is an intrinsic part of all the interconnecting stories.

One could also read the treasure as being the relationships depicted between the main characters, the freedom so desperately sought by the Jews of Hungary, the entire contents of the train, or the efforts made to find the rightful owners of those contents. So it’s not a simple novel. But it is well-written, insightful, complex and often funny.

The novel ranges over three time periods, with three separate, but connected, stories which Ayelet Waldman weaves together very cleverly.

Three remarkable, strong women engage with three men. Each woman is fighting for recognition in a different way, and each story is challenging. In this novel we can see the way women’s roles have changed over time, how determined women can make enormous differences in their own lives, and also how they affect the lives of others.

This is quite a political book – Hungarian politics take a bit of a beating, as does the behaviour of American generals in occupied Hungary, and the early psychiatrists (or the one in this book) seem a tad dodgy in their approach to work! (Or maybe I am reading too much into it.)

It would be hard not to get caught up in all of the stories, relationships, thrills and excitement, joy and sorrow which Ayelet Waldman has formed into a really good novel.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Love and Treasure
by Ayelet Waldman
Published by Two Roads
ISBN 9781444763102

*The Hungarian Gold Train was the name given to the contents of houses, and personal belongings, which were stripped from the Jews of Hungary by government officials, before they were deported to the concentration camps.