Herring in the Smoke by L.C. Tyler – a story of a man returned, biscuits and red herrings

Herring in the Smoke

Herring in the Smoke by L.C. Tyler


In this book, one of a series featuring Ethelred Tressler and his agent, Elsie Thirkettle, they have to decide whether Roger Norton Vane is in fact dead. The fact that they find it a difficult question is because he has just turned up at his own memorial service, twenty years after he disappeared without trace. Although this is the seventh book in this series of comedy mysteries, I am sure that it could be easily read as a stand alone book. Ethelred, sometime crime/historical /romantic author, has been given the job (and crucially the advance, possibly) to write a biography of the remarkable man that was, or is, a famous crime author who inspired fifteen series of “Gascoyne” a cult television series. The fact that he was personally obnoxious, and generally rude to everyone, means that Ethelred has a tough job finding anyone with a good word to say about the supposedly returned author with a big reputation. With his usual air of confusion, he is aided, abetted and generally bossed about by his literary agent Elsie, chocolate addict. This is a comedy mystery series that can be convoluted, unlikely and very funny. I have been really enjoying this series, and this latest episode is just as good. 


Ethelred is writing a biography of an author who disappeared twenty years ago while on holiday. The memorable man who turns up at the memorial service claims that he has been in Laos for that time, and has now decided to return to Britain to claim his accumulated royalties. He has very few living relatives, a sister in law and a niece, and an ex lover called Tim Macdonald who is the only person in Britain who was present when Roger disappeared. Cynthia, the niece, has theories about her uncle, and as his biographer Ethelred feels duty bound to discover more about the elusive Roger, especially as Elsie is pushing him to find out what is going on in order to cash in on the revelations. He therefore hunts out the fact that Roger went to Cordwainers school, an ancient private school for boys with something of a notorious reputation. There are some well known old boys who have strong views about Roger, while being anxious to stay out of any scandal. As Ethelred finds himself being offered an interesting selection of biscuits, Elsie is plotting – if only how to increase her consumption of chocolate without alerting the watchful Tuesday, her long suffering PA.


There is a lot to enjoy in this novel of red herrings, biscuits and secrets. It has some interesting points to make about discovering identity in an age when so much is on the internet and recorded on mobile phones, DNA tests and more. Ethelred is dragged along by circumstance and the ideas of other people as usual, while Elsie is as always convinced that her detective ability and personal charm will mean that she discovers the truth. There is even a cheeky reference to the other,  presumably preferable, biographers of a crime author. This is a very funny novel which I greatly enjoyed, and I recommend it to all those who enjoy a contemporary crime novel with no brutality and a lot of fun.    


The risk is, of course, when you read a book which is full of references to a particular food or drink it can make you really want some for yourself. The classic food scene is of course in the eighteenth century novel Tom Jones, or at least in the film version. My husband was probably not the only one who spent most of strict lockdown wanting a  frothy coffee, and my coffee machine was not really up to the job (not surprising really, as I no longer drink caffeine). What foods have books made you desperate to eat? Or has reading about food never enticed you to try and locate a specific thing?

The Truth in a Lie by Jan Turk Petrie – Contemporary relationships in all their complexity

The Truth in a Lie by Jan Turk Petrie


Contemporary relationships can be complex, and families have secrets which go back over many years. This subtle and intelligent book takes a situation that many of us can understand, the illness of a parent, a nightmare journey in appalling weather, and a desire to discover something of the past. Charlotte is a writer, keen to grasp at the truth and aware that she has had difficult relationships in the past. That is not only the obvious situation with Michael, but also with Duncan, her ex husband, and her mother. Her most worrying relationship is with Kate, her daughter, as she is aware that her own instability is having a marked effect on Kate’s studies. This is a remarkable book as the author is so good at the little details, the food and drink, the furniture of various rooms, even the quality of light. The dialogue is also convincing, as it effectively reveals much about the person speaking, their attitudes and their relationships. I have been fortunate enough to read two of Petrie’s other novels, both set in the mid twentieth century, and have admired her ability to create a sense of place and time. I am impressed that her skill at setting the place and sense of people has translated to a contemporary novel, and I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book. 


This book begins in London 2018, as Charlotte moves out of the house that she and Kate have shared with Michael. While it has been a relatively amicable break up, Charlotte is aware that she is walking away from a significant part of her life, and making a new start in a very different home. When Duncan turns up she is thrown, but not only by his arrival, as the call comes through from the hospital that her mother is very ill. The description of waiting in the hospital is so accurate, and what subsequently happens is so believable, that it makes the rest of the book really powerful. The way that relationships emerge, old secrets brought out and new perspectives are created shows that this is a  cleverly constructed narrative that has much to say about Charlotte’s relationship with her mother, who it appears has a more complex background than was first apparent. Charlotte feels that she needs to find out what went on, and the writer’s imagination means that she can more than hazard a guess at some of the pressures on the woman she remembers from growing up. Her own relationship with Kate is dominated by an urge to protect, to  allow her freedom. There are some surprises to come, but they are all totally realistic, and emerge from the rest of the narrative. 


I found this an engaging story with so many aspects of life that are realistic and well realised. The character of Charlotte is so realistic as she narrates her story, noticing the small things as well as the dramatic moments. This is a book that I feel accurately portrays the complexities of modern relationships and life, and I recommend it as a solid engaging read.    


As I said above, this is the third of Petrie’s books that I have read, and I must say that I am a fan! I wondered about a historical novelist turning to a contemporary story, but I found this book so compelling that I finished it in two sittings. I think that the author only finished this book during lockdown, so I am hoping that she is already coming up with a new idea!

The Sanctuary Murders by Susanna Gregory – Medieval Cambridge in uproar as Matthew and Michael must solve a mystery

The Sanctuary Murders: The Twenty Fourth Chronicle of Matthew ...

A novel of murder, conspiracy and a town at war with a university, this is the twenty fourth novel in a series set in medieval Cambridge. It features Matthew Bartholomew and his good friend Brother Michael, two men who have worked together over the years to maintain the peace in a town where the townspeople are suspicious of the University and vice versa. This is a lively story of the angry and frightened, and the unlikely comedy of many nuns, monks and a town full of fear of the French. I have read all of these books and enjoyed them, but I am convinced that it can be read as a standalone novel. Matthew is a gentle soul, but as physician and defender of the poor in the town he is sometimes exasperated by the antics of his fellow scholars and is determined to act. Michael is Master of Michaelhouse  and Senior Proctor of the University, in charge of ordering the behaviour of the scholars whose varied backgrounds and commitment to their studies make them at best an unpredictable number of young men. A large and permanently hungry man, Michael has a determination to maintain peace, but has also some ambitions. As always with this series I recommend this book of a mystery that has to be solved and physical threat as Michael and Matthew must once again act.


The opening of the book is set in Winchelsea, a small town which is the victim of a brutal raid by a party of French soldiers, in which many die. Cambridge is relatively nearby, and soon the town becomes full of rumours of a potential raid there. Some of the students are of foreign origin, many copy the language and fashions of the French, and some of the townspeople become convinced that the colleges and hotels are concealing dangerous men. There are also those in Cambridge who are jealous of Michael’s power and influence, and would like to seize both for themselves. When fire breaks out in the Spital, a place where the mentally troubled find sanctuary, Matthew and Michael rush there to help. Sadly they discover that a family has been murdered within the enclosure, and it becomes apparent that they and others were not ill, but in fact French refugees hiding in the sanctuary. Rumour and suspicion spread across Cambridge, and the picture is made more difficult by the fact that there are many nuns visiting the town for a sort of conference organised by Michael who need to be housed. Meanwhile in Michaelhouse there is much fuss around Clippesby, an eccentric but brilliant fellow whose work is causing a stir, especially as he claims to talk to the animals who live in the college, a situation which creates much humour. 


This is a book which cleverly creates the town of Cambridge with complete conviction and a lively story. The characters, both those who have featured in the other novels and those who are new in this book, come to life in the descriptions and dialogue which works so well and consistently throughout the novel. The research informs the text well, but Gregory is a sufficiently able writer not to show the depths of her knowledge. This book has a subtle message as to what happens when a crowd is frightened by refugees and other people, and how a drunken element can be terrifying. I recommend this book for its story, characters and plot and the entire series for its entertaining and engaging consistency.    


I am not sure if there is going to be another Matthew Bartholomew book, and after so many stories if I were to go back to the start it would be after a long time spent reading each book as it came out, so it would almost like beginning again.  Gregory also writes the Thomas Chaloner series, which of which there are fourteen novels, set in Restoration London. I have read some of these, and enjoyed them, but I prefer the Bartholomew ones. Either way, Gregory is a consistently good writer, and should appeal to many historical fiction fans. Have you read any of her books?


Clouds of Love and War by Rachel Billington – wartime freedom and dangers of flight

Clouds of Love and War (July 2020) / Books / Rachel Billington

Clouds of Love and War by Rachel Billington


Clouds play an important part in this beautifully written novel set in the early part of the Second World War. They are what conceals, comforts and challenges Eddie, pilot and determined young man who is at the centre of this brilliantly written book of love and war in which Billington looks at the human cost of a war that was fought over the fields of Britain. Clouds are also important to Eva, a solitary young woman who tries to set them down on paper, along with much else in her discoveries of life, love and much more. This mature and well constructed novel carries the reader to the heights of skies which tempt the most earthbound of characters up into the planes which are almost characters in their own right. She is interested in the colours and forms, falling into the distraction from a family life of separation. Older people sigh and remember another war and other losses, as the countryside and a particular paradise like house is shown in comparison with other places which show the evidence of bombs. 


This is an astonishingly engaging book which balances so well on the edge of lives observed with a sensitivity which shows more than research; this book shows an acute understanding of the contradictions which most people felt a lot of the time in this uniquely inclusive conflict. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this wonderful book of love and war.  


The book opens with a visit by Fred to his son’s college in Oxford. A veteran of the Gallipoli campaign in the First World War, he knows that Eddie’s obsession with learning to fly in the skies he keeps gazing up at is going to mean that he will learn of battle in the near future, even if it is only March 1939. “They’re training you to be a killer” he says, but this a man who has searched for a philosophy of life in the wake of a War he needs to make sense of in some way. Eddie, however, is like an addict, such is his determination  to move around in a sky which seems so much his element.  Eva is a vision he encounters at a lunch party, who dominates his thoughts in a new way. Eva is also a creature of flesh and blood who is also isolated as an only child in a large house with an older distracted father can be, and she finds her expression in drawing and painting, capturing something of what and who she sees around her. Drawn together in brief moments, their contradictions and challenges run alongside a world of targets and people, hatred and love, and discovering something of a special sort of togetherness. 


This book is a superb testament to the challenges facing very young pilots in the Battle of Britain and beyond, dealing with difficult odds while discovering life and love. Eddie comes vividly to life in a book which captures the contradictions of a life of the freedom of the skies with the continual need to be aware of danger. Eva is also a convincing character as she considers the realities of love and loss which are not always as obvious as they seem. The other characters such as Sylvia add more than depth; they reflect the nature of faith and understanding not possessed by some of the other characters. This is a fully realised picture of a time, eighty years ago, when there was little certainly and many challenges. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in these times and the people who lived through them.    


This historical novel is about a fascinating period at a time only just in living memory. It is a strong tale of the actual men who fought as the few, and the delicate situation which they lived, almost on the edge of defeat. I seem to be encountering a lot of books about the Second World War at the moment – is it the recent V.E. celebration I wonder?

Threads of Life by Claire Hunter – A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle

Threads of LifeThreads of Life by Clare Hunter | Waterstones

Threads of Life by Claire Hunter


This is a “History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle” , or at least a history of the ways in which needlework has sustained, been a means of recording lives and making a protest. It makes a significant point, that as women have been the most likely to work with a needle and threat, those works of needlework that survive in a variety of places are the special history of female makers. Many pieces of work are fragile, unintended to last or temporary works, remembered as existing but not always treasured. This book records the impetus for embroidery, to beautify, to pass on traditions and to make a mark in the only available way. This book does not only dwell on the huge and important works of embroidery proudly displayed as evidence of wealth, but also on the few plaintive stitches made to record time on a piece of clothing, as well as the earliest use of sewing to join fabrics together and make rudimentary clothing. The author has a wide experience of sewing with a purpose herself, ranging from community projects to banners to mark historic events in the history of women’s lives. The writing does not always adopt a strictly chronological or indeed geographical approach, but instead has a personal and engaging style. I am so pleased to review this non fiction book. 


This book is so readable as it takes a discursive approach to the history it presents. It gives a reaction to the Bayeux Tapestry, one of the most significant pieces of embroidery or needlework in European history. As a political piece of work it has had great importance as a historical document, but it also has intrinsic value as revealing much about the circumstances in which it was made, the limitations of materials, and the possible additions made by the women who worked on the tapestry. She goes on to describe an important historical figure whose embroidery was much remarked on, Mary, Queen of Scots. It describes how she used her undoubted talents to attempt to enhance her Scottish royal apartments, then to fill her many hundreds of hours of captivity. The book goes on to remember women who spent time in captivity of many sorts, and how they sought to come to terms with it through sewing, however primitive or complex. 


The book speaks of marvellous survivals, from earlier centuries to Japanese Prisoner of War camps in the mid twentieth century, precious documents that may or may not be identifiable. As sewing for mental health is discussed in the background to many pieces, there is a nod to those men who were taught to sew after the trauma of the First World War, and the altar cloth that was found and was recently displayed in St Paul’s Cathedral. Sewing as a means of making a living is covered, though also the intense pressure on piece workers who had to risk their eyesight and more in hand finishing items of clothes. While girls were taught to make samplers which are now collectable, Hunter has some harsher words for the kits and patterns which restricted creativity and were intrinsically unsatisfactory.   

There are chapters on the international world of sewing, as stitches and patterns were important contributions to community life, and a vital way to pass on skills and memories to younger generations. Sewing as protest is covered as the author recalls the history of banners, especially in terms of unions and areas of women’s protest movements. Politics with a more local emphasis is also referred to, as community projects have played a vital role in sustaining and reinvigorating communities going through testing times.


As an admirer of embroidery and sewing generally rather than a practitioner, I can appreciate the inspiration and information that this book provides by its immensely readable style and enjoyable anecdotes which sit well against the historical elements. It is a skill which has reflected artistry for centuries, mainly by women, and therefore I feel that this book has an important and inspirational part to play in any analysis of women’s history, as well as being a fascinating read.  


An admission here – I struggle to thread a needle, but have made a quilt or two, with the assistance of a considerably more skilful daughter. This book has much to recommend it, even to those of us who frankly can’t sew, but would love to at some point. I have not seen much evidence of sewing projects over the last few months on social media, but I suppose that it is because those who sew are not surfing social media as much…

The Greenbecker Gambit by Ben Graff – a novel of a man obsessed by the spirit of chess


Chess is a way of life, a way of seeing things, a way to deal with life. That is how Tennessee Greenbecker thinks in this novel where he believes that he is the true, if unrecognised champion of the world. It is a novel which tries to answer a question; what would happen if someone tried to disturb a world championship chess match. I am not a chess player, but in this book everything is related to chess, specifically by Tennessee, whose relative success in the game is his superpower as far as he is concerned. He is very concerned, obsessed, by what he sees as his world beating skill at the game. It overrides every other consideration in his life, his physical frailty and his mental health, except his side interest in setting fires. This novel takes the form of a stream of conscious, a narration of Tennessee’s thoughts and actions,  however unsavoury. It is always his views, his complicated thought processes that propel the story as he drifts round a London of cafes, hostels and pubs. This is an intense read in some respects, full of a difficult life, but with flashes of unintended humour on Tennessee’s part. It is a very personal book, written with great power from the mind of a fictional character. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this unusual novel. 


The first phrase we hear from Tennesse is “Waiting for the body to burn is making me impatient”. It follows a number of quotations, including TS Eliot “human kind Cannot bear very much reality”. As Tennesse debates the merits and techniques of getting a bonfire to light, it becomes clear that he has experience of setting illicit fires. He consoles himself when he is forcibly moved on with the thought that he will be world chess champion. His night in a cafe is full of his thoughts of meeting Gabriel his brother, Bobby Fischer the chess champion, and his folder of chess strategies and great ideas for regaining his supposed position in the world of chess. There are hints of poor physical health, and his reactions to other people show a mental instability, but it is not a simple matter. This is a man who is fixated on missed opportunities, unfair treatment and most crucially, his expectation of challenging his nemesis to a world champion level match. His family, of which Gabriel is the only survivor, obviously had a great effect on him, especially his writer mother.   He writes of the kitchen where he grew up “Our kitchen smelt of paper and hope and words trying to connect and somehow failing”. Tennesse’s progress, or movement around London, is dominated by memories and ambition, and the squalor of his life is sad and somehow moving. 


This is a powerful read of one man’s descent, or thwarted ambition, and more. It does not have a lot of technical detail regarding chess, but it captures something of the spirit of the game in terms of thoughts about strategy and dedication to the skill of playing.  I recommend this book as an engaging read about one person’s thought process and view of the world, and as an extremely well written story of a life.

Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook by Celia Rees – in the aftermath of war, food is the code



After the Second World War finished, the state of much of mainland Europe was still confused. Refugees or “displaced persons” moved across borders of former countries, Germany was divided into zones between the victorious forces, but squabbles about a new world order were dominating any attempt to rebuild cities. Into this world arrives Edith Graham who has spent the war teaching at a girls’ school, but now wants to do her bit in sorting out schools in the British zone. That would be a sufficient challenge, but her friends want to give her different missions, mainly in terms of discovering those convinced Nazis who are hiding in the ruins of a society. She has her own agenda, looking for her ex lover. While she is given official unofficial contacts, in order to transmit information to a friend she comes up with an unusual idea: a code based on a specific cookery book, hidden in innocent seeming recipes. The book brilliantly describes her feelings on arriving in Germany, her shock at the state of the buildings and plight of the people, and her confusion at who she can truly trust. This is an excellent testament to the spirit of those who wanted to help rebuild a world, but also a strong examination of some of the urge to punish those who did such appalling things in the name of a terrifying ideology and aggressive self interest. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review such a powerful historical novel of a remarkable time in Germany.


Edith is an excellent German speaker who is resentful of her war experience limited to teaching girls and caring for her widowed mother. When she gets the opportunity to go to Germany with the education corp, she is keen to go, if only for a belated chance to make a difference. However, it seems that she is required to do more, to discover the fate of some who disappeared, whether friends or enemies. Not that any of it is straightforward, as she is aware some of those placing these demands have their own agendas. Having begun a second career writing recipes and cooking hints under an assumed name, she decides to use her keen observation of food to convey secrets, impressions and information to a friend, Dori, in letters that may well be censored.  Her arrival in the British zone shows her the inequalities of the British who have too much food, power and influence, in contrast to the surviving victims of a war that has displaced huge numbers of people who struggle to find shelter and scraps of food. Her compassion for others, especially the children, reveals that so many have their own story of terrible suffering, and she tries to change some situations. She discovers secrets, dangers, physical attraction, threats and so much more in cities forever transformed by recent events. She finds friends, allies and suspicious individuals, and it is so difficult to work out who, if anyone she can trust. Meanwhile, she comments on the food, the menus, the terrible and fascinating fare presented to her and others in a place of famine and plenty. 


This is an elegantly written book of harsh realities but also genuine understanding of people in extreme circumstances. It conveys a terrific sense of place, of cold, of the ruins in which people scrape a living almost alongside those who live and work in enormous buildings. Rees is so skilled at drawing out characters in extremes of cruelty, passion and other emotions that it is a fascinating book, even with its touching testimonies of outrages. She creates images of such powerful scenes that are haunting and memorable. I recommend this book to all those who are interested in the aftermath of war, the experience of people left to cope, and the physical and mental scars of terrible events. By focusing on Edith, the reader is given a real insight into the nearly impossible to describe situation through the eyes of a sympathetic woman.  


I really enjoyed this book, if only because it shows such a human response to terrible situations. Compared with some of the books I read and review on this blog, it is a tough read, but so powerful.

The Talisman Ring by Georgette Heyer – an historical mystery farce with a lot of humour

The Talisman Ring by Georgette Heyer


Drama, excitement and a massive amount of humour; this classic book by Georgette Heyer has it all, as well as some wonderful characters who all contribute to this near farce. Including such staples as a proposed arranged marriage, a hidden ring and midnight horse rides, this book also includes some marvelous characters such as a frequently bewildered magistrate, an excitable young French woman, and some danger loving smugglers/free traders. Set in the Regency or Georgian period, this is a fast moving story of secrets and deliberate deceptions as well as hidden heroes. The women are resourceful, the men enjoy a good fight, and the element of comedy emerges in the dialogue between a fascinating group of characters who spend most of the time in a coaching inn. I really enjoyed this classic novel which tells a brilliant story in a most entertaining way. Originally published in 1936, it shows Heyer writing at the top of her form, as she tells the story of an inheritance from one remarkable old man which goes anything but smoothly. There is romance, but the main drama is concerned with the discovery of a ring which can prove a man’s innocence or guilt, an inheritance and more. 


The book opens with Sir Tristram Shield arriving at Lavenham Court, where his remarkable great uncle Sylvester, Lord Lavenham, lies ill. Shield is an unexcitable character, the complete opposite of his cousin Mademoiselle de Vauban, Eustacie, a young woman rescued from the horrors of revolutionary France by her grandfather. Unfortunately for Shield, she is full of romantic ideas of adventure and romantic death, and both of them have severe doubts about their enforced proposed marriage. Another relative turns up, who is known as the Beau, for his stylish manners and appearance, who discusses with Shield the missing heir, Sylvester’s grandson Ludovic, and why he remains in hiding after an alleged murder to recover a Talisman Ring. Following Sylvester’s death, it is proposed that the marriage take place in the near future, but Eustacie objects and decides that she will have her own adventure travelling to London. After a complicated ride around a forest in the middle of the night, Eustacie and her new, injured companion seek shelter in a post inn, with a sympathetic landlord. They also meet Sarah Thane and her brother, Sir Hugh, a befuddled magistrate, and discover that Sarah is completely undaunted by any adventure, and eager to help with any scheme. As people enter and exit the inn, a secret cellar must be used for safety, and there must be a lot of fast thinking if all is to end well. 


It is difficult to pick out one event, scene or character that stands out, as they all contribute to a very enjoyable whole. The two Thanes are probably my favourites, as Sarah is able to deal with any situation by adopting a different persona, and Sir Hugh because he is so unconcerned by what is truly going on, as he is more interested in the drink in the cellar than who is hiding or searching there. With hapless early police, an evil designing character and some impressive quick thinking, this book works in its faultless setting, description and characters. I thoroughly recommend it as a fast moving and very funny book which is a brilliant introduction to Heyer’s genre defining books. 


As I am re reading these novels I am discovering just how funny they are, with characters and dialogue that really bring the story alive. Sitting in the sunshine laughing out loud at this classic novel is a great way to spend an afternoon! If you want to investigate Georgette Heyer’s novels, this is an excellent place to begin.


The Women Who Ran Away by Sheila O’Flanagan – two women search for clues for life


An idyllic literary tour of France and Spain sounds a most attractive idea for a holiday, staying in beautiful hotels, exploring small towns and cities, eating fabulous food, all sounds wonderful. However, the two women who undertake this journey in this lovely book from Sheila O’Flanagan’s  are both traumatised and searching for a new perspective to be able to cope with their recent respective pasts. Deira has been in a relationship with Gavin for thirteen years, coped with various challenges, and now feels betrayed. Grace is an older woman whose strong willed husband is dead, but she still has many questions and regrets about the man who controlled most of her adult life. Meeting by accident or fate, thrown together on this unusual journey by unique circumstances, this is a book which explores more than beautiful scenery in their search for new lives, or at least a way of coping with their present ones. This dynamic book looks at the cost of love and relationships for women in contemporary Ireland, and the strength of new friendship in coping with the challenges that women face. I found this a remarkable and wholly enjoyable read, full of genuine insight, beautiful descriptive writing and a powerful picture of women who have regrets. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this novel. 


The book opens with Deira acquiring a convertible and very desirable car from her ex partner’s car parking space. They had booked a trip with it from Dublin by ferry to France. Deira decides that although they have split up, she still wants to fulfil her ambition of driving around Paris in an open top car. She is angry with Gavin for more than just breaking up with her in finding a younger woman; she now feels her chances of becoming a mother slipping from her. She accidentally meets Grace, an older woman of serene beauty who gives the impression of coping brilliantly with life. However, after a small accident and no longer being able to drive the disputed car, Deira discovers that Ken, Grace’s late husband, has left her a series of puzzles on his laptop relating to the hotel rooms he has booked for her to stay across France. It emerges that Ken had been one of Deira’s literature lecturers at University, and she helps Grace to solve the mainly author related clues on a treasure hunt. As they travel together they reveal their individual traumas to each other; Deira’s sense of betrayal, Grace’s realisation of how Ken had dominated her life and always assumed that she would cope. They both have their points of despair, but in each other they begin to discover a mutual support in their journey through beautiful countryside. 


This is a genuinely lovely read in which the setting shimmers with sunshine and comfort, but is shadowed by the emotions that both women struggle to come to terms with as they share some times and also separately consider their lives. It shows how women can give up their independence and their chance to live their own fulfilling lives. It shows how women, people, can go through truly difficult times, as Grace says “And you look back and and say, that was a terrible week, or month or year.But you’ve got to remember that it’s only a tiny amount of your whole life.”. I enjoyed this read of what feels like real life in some respects, when ironic events can bring home what we have, and what we have achieved. I thoroughly recommend this book for its wonderful writing, its insight into the questions many people, certainly women, ask, and its sense of momentum as the two women travel hopefully.   


This novel is a contemporary story which contrasts in some ways with the historical novels or classic books that I often review, but I think that some of the issues it discusses transcends the time in which it is set. The themes of limitations on women’s lives and much more really dominate this book as it does in many historical books, even if the twenty first century is supposed to be a time of equality. Not an obviously “feminist” book, this novel does look at some of the dilemmas which women face today, and how they can begin to cope.  

Paris Savages by Katherine Johnson – an historical story of spirits, science and the treatment of people


An historical novel which brings to life the unfortunate experience of small groups of people brought to Europe in the 1880s, this is a book of large themes and horrors. Hilda is a young woman who has travelled to Fraser Island, Australia and spent six years there, learning of and experiencing at first hand the Badtjala people, their family links, traditions and superstitions. When her father, a troubled engineer, decides to take three of the surviving tribe members to Germany and beyond, Hilda believes that it is to help raise funds for a reserve in which they can live safely. This is a complex tale told in journal entries, third person narration and from the viewpoint of a ghostly interpreter. The three individuals they take, Bonny, Jurano and Dorondera, are far more vulnerable than they at first seem, especially to the exploitation and more that they face. This is a book in which the settings of nineteenth century Europe really come alive, and the attitudes towards the “other” are demonstrated in all their painful reality. This is a novel which deals with the nuances of the treatment of people who were denied voices then, and has therefore something to say about how people are treated today. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.


The book opens with Hilda remembering her mother and observing her father as they live amid the tribespeople in almost dreamlike circumstances. Several of the older people remember losses of loved ones, yet there are also the small touches of humour as the natural world affects the dances and lives of the people and Hilda’s friends. She mourns her mother, and remembers vividly the things she said, how she looked, how she wrote in her journal. Hilda has a close relationship with the tribespeople, and taking the three individuals abroad creates all sorts of feelings for her, the desire to protect them, the fear of their embarrassment and suffering. Their experiences are hurtful in many ways, their living quarters insulting, and there is an enthusiasm to treat them as exhibits, objects to be measured, anything but people. Bonny in particular is physically strong, determined and focused on his intention to see Queen Victoria in person, but even he struggles to retain his dignity and sense of self in the face of challenges. The young woman, Dorondera, suffers from the indignity of being surrounded by men who want to examine her, treat her as an object, claiming that the needs of science overcome the considerations of common humanity.


This is a novel of showmanship, of how the prospect of financial gain can overcome conscience. This is not the hopeful world of the earliest circus celebrated in film, but of the sordid shows of people from other ethnic groups, treated like animals, with little concern for their well being and dignity. Written off as being less than human, Hilda sees their sadness. This book is full of the spirits, the stories and the impossible to explain elements of a life so different from that experienced in Europe, and Johnson writes so powerfully of the pain of that misunderstanding. Johnson is so good on the telling details of people encountered that many people spring from the story making it a complex tale. I recommend this book as a powerful exploration of lives lived in the shadow of discrimination and more, with many implications for today’s world.


I found this a complex and painfully honest book. It certainly shows a very different type of historical novel from many I have reviewed on this blog, which shows the variety in this genre. It is a very powerful read.