James the Third by Maggie Ballinger – An alternative history of the British Royal Family when a baby boy is born

James the Third by Maggie Ballinger

This is a book which imagines one fact in the twentieth century – that not long before the death of George IV, the Queen’s father, the Queen Mother gave birth to a son, James. Apart from this fact, this novel sticks closely to the facts: Princess Elizabeth is the heir after James, King George still dies on 6th February 1952, the same difficulties arise with the royal offspring and their marriages. In addition to an impeccably factual insight into the progress of the royal family with that additional twist, there is also the story of  a London based family, specifically Lil and Peggy, born at the same time as Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, who are ardent royalists. Their story and that of their close family runs alongside their more famous namesakes, providing a commentary from the point of view of the people of the country at the time. 

This is a fascinating book which is carefully written with notes which do not distract but are there for those who want to look up the facts of a time, as well as the more arcane rules of inheritance. It blends facts with a little fantasy so well it is hard to see the join, and it is easy to view a royal story with one addition. The characters, which range from the very real, like Prince Charles, through the fictional King James and the completely imaginary Peggy, are all given real depth and dialogue. The settings, from the slightly shabby palace interiors to the homes of  postwar London are well drawn, with an excellent grasp of the aspirations of young women for their most desirable bathrooms and so on. This is not just a saga of royal life and times; there is a freelance reporter who is keen to get a life changing scoop from his royal watching. In addition, the young James begins to adopt clever and understated disguises in order to leave the formality of royal life in order to blend with people in pubs, mining towns and other places in order to hear what they really think. This is an enthralling and entertaining book which I greatly enjoyed, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it. 

The author, of necessity, has introduced new characters within the royal household, including Professor Eustace Heggarty, who is asked to advise King George when Prince Charles is born. As it seems unlikely that he will have a direct male heir at that point, he wants to know if he can invest his first grandson as Prince of Wales. The academic is taken aback and gives his opinion, but is as surprised as anyone when he is asked to return to advise on the new status of the infant James. Perhaps aware of his own failing health, King George asks him to stand as godfather to the baby, and when his majesty dies, becomes a constant presence in James’ life. KIng James is allowed to grow up without the pressures of his full royal role, as the Queen Mother is given the status of Regent. With real insight Princess Elizabeth is seen as doing the actual paperwork behind the scenes, as still concerned with the duties of her royal role. 

This is such an enjoyable book with so many fascinating aspects and at least one mystery. The research is impeccable into the royal households, the people who live and work there, and the little details of royal life with a twist. It is also excellent on social history as narrated by Lil and Peggy, from life in Woolworths to reactions to situations like grammar schools, televised royal events, and much more. I can thoroughly recommend this book to those who are interested in life within and around the royal family as well as those who have memories or research into British life in the second half of the twentieth century. 

The Cornish Captive by Nicola Pryce – a woman fights to find her identity in the early 1800s

The Cornish Captive by Nicola Pryce

This is a vivid historical novel which has as its main theme the way women could be accused of insanity as a way of control and even imprisonment in the early 1800s. The main character, Madeleine Pellingrew, has been imprisoned in a series of asylums for those seen as “mad”, moved every two years to more destitute and decrepit institutions. Her identity has been challenged and every effort made to silence her short of death. Indeed, she has fought to keep a sense of self by scratching her name on the walls of her cell. Physically she is a wreck, and in desperate need of decent food. At the beginning of the novel she is released by the offices of someone she does not recognise, and her mantra that all men lie to her means that she has lost her trust in everyone except the girl she has come to regard as her daughter, Rowan. The novel proceeds to follow her struggle to discover who is truly on her side, who has her best interests at heart, and who is to blame for her effective imprisonment. Old acquaintances, new friends and powerful people are confusing, especially as she is worn down by her recent treatment. This is all against the background of a war with Napoleon and the violence which has swept post revolutionary France, where Madeleine grew up and her family may have survived. As the way women are treated in this period, the accusations that can be thrown at them and the lengths to which they must go to survive. This is a carefully written novel which I became enthralled by, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it. 

One of the themes that emerges from this book is identity, and from the beginning Madeleine has to adopt various identities to survive and come to terms with her past, present and future. One of the people she meets early in the novel is Captain Pierre de la Croix, a French naval officer who is technically a prisoner but seemingly has some freedom providing he stays in the town. The complex situation in France means that Madeleine suspects that Pierre may not be all that he seems, that he represents danger as a possible spy, given that she has a French family. Marcel, the man who rescued her from the asylum, also seems to be behaving strangely, saying that he is waiting for instructions from a mysterious woman in France. Madeleine is confused about which man to trust, especially as there is a thief on the scene who is showing an interest in her. Happily she is welcomed into the household of an older woman who has good connections with influential people in the area. She is helped to begin eating fruit to clear scurvy, and a friendship is established with a local dressmaker who takes pleasure in helping to sort out her appearance. She begins to adjust to freedom, but seizes the opportunity to visit the house where she once lived and try to find out what really happened to her late husband. She is desperate to discover who was responsible for her imprisonment, and who will therefore want to keep her quiet now. 

This is a complex book which makes reference to a lot of characters, some of whom do not actually appear in the narrative for some time. It has warm descriptions of the coastal area and its natural beauty, as well as the life of a busy port. It is narrated in the voice of Madeleine, and the reader learns much about how she feels about those around her and her plight at the start of the book. It is a fascinating portrait of a woman fighting battles to survive, and living with an awareness of an injustice in the past and present. I recommend this as a memorable historical novel with real insights into women’s lives. 

Music of the Night – An Anthology from the Crime Writers’ Association edited by Martin Edwards

Music of the Night – An Anthology from The Crime Writers’ Association

This is an anthology of twenty five new crime and mystery tales from the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) edited by Martin Edwards. It has a huge range of stories – contemporary and historical, established characters or totally new creations, well known authors with those who are emerging. They have been selected from a large volume of submissions by Edwards, who has “tried to cater to a wide range of tastes” and I believe he has certainly succeeded. All the books have a linking theme of music; some are based on particular pieces or types of music, some feature musicians, fans of music or performers, others have a more fleeting reference to music in the background. Some are elaborate pieces with several scenes and elaborate plots, while others are very short and based on a single idea, which are no less effective. The settings vary widely which reflects where music is important; in homes of various types, theatres, a school, and other sites. Many stories involve murder or crimes of a serious nature, either in the story or reflecting past actions. Some crimes are detected, even if they are of the “locked room” type, whereas others happen and detection and punishment is to happen. There are detectives of various types and abilities, official and unofficial, and some reflect “classic” mysteries whereas others are very different. This is an excellent selection of stories which I enjoyed, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this special book. 

This collection is well set out with biographies of all the authors in the back of the book in the same order in which the stories appear. In the excellent Introduction, Edwards points out that music is a popular aspect of many crime stories, from Sherlock’s violin to modern music fans. Some of the contributors have a musical background, and have chosen to exploit that as a strong element in their story. For others there is a recurring song that a character sings or plays that are very revealing. Some stories use the fact that death, whether of the musician or someone close to them, will sell more recordings and generate more interest. In at least one case the lyrics of a song gives a huge clue to what really happened. In other stories the making of music leads to all sorts of trouble, and musicians are killed. While all the stories are new, they often reflect past times, historical or half remembered events in earlier times. There are musical instruments that get damaged for various reasons connected with the crimes in the story, or represent certain elements of the story. People are in locked rooms in order to enjoy music but still get killed, and then the pressure is on to find out how they were killed. Some stories are clever constructions, others just have a strong and memorable central point. In general I found the longer pieces more absorbing, but the impact of some short pieces is stronger. 

Some of the authors I recognised, such as Martin Edwards, the amusing LC Tyler, Kate Ellis and Peter Lovesey. Andrew Taylor, Christine Poulson, Paul Charles, Vaseem Khan and Paul Gitsham’s stories in particular caught my interest, but every story in the book deserves its place. I thoroughly recommend this book to those who enjoy short stories, crime mysteries and collections of fascinating tales.  

Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies by Jackie French – discovery, love and war for a determined young woman in the early twentieth century

Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies by Jackie French

A brilliant historical novel, this book has real depth, fascinating themes, and excellent characters. The story of Sophie Higgs begins in Australia in 1902, and visits some fascinating places. There are many surprises in this well constructed novel, which looks at huge events through the eyes of Sophie and those she comes to know and love. In a way it is a book of discovery, of the social world of the early years of the twentieth century, of the political world of pre -First World War England and Europe, of the harsh realities of unprecedented warfare. Seen through the eyes of a young woman for whom much is new and confusing, yet uniquely skilled in managing people after her training by the elusive Miss Lily. Miss Lily becomes the standard by which Sophie judges everything, even though in terms of time they were together for a matter of months. The mysteries at the centre of this book will take some time to resolve, but en route there will be superb descriptions of the settings, whether that be the wide spaces of an Australian home to the formal beauty of a sitting room in the grand Shilling Hall, a battleground in France to the rural hideaways of  England, this a magnificent novel of places, but also of people. It is a big, ambitious book which features memories and current difficulties, and one which I was so very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review. 

The book opens in July 1917, in Flanders, on the eve of yet another huge battle. Sophie, formerly a picture perfect young woman of London society, albeit sometimes known as the “Corned – beef Princess”, appears now as dishevelled and desperate. The driver of a car presently pinned down in no man’s land suggests that they may well not survive the night, as either side would feel compelled to shoot them where they rested. A large dog which Sophie calls Charlie joins them, and in order to while away the time of darkness Sophie reveals the story of her life. The second chapter begins with the young Sophie out in public in Australia, with her companion Miss Thwaites. She is known to be wealthy if not from the right class, her father having made a considerable fortune from farms and factories producing tinned corned beef. Sophie is strong willed and intelligent and as she grows she is well aware of the power that her father’s money gives her, set against the limitations of being a woman for whom marriage will define her prospects. She is attracted to a suitable young man, but her father and Miss Thwaites decide that instead of an early marriage that will tie her firmly into Australian society, she should travel to England and stay with a Miss Lily, cousin of an earl, and be brought out, presented at court and enjoy a “Season”. Being a resourceful woman she travels to Shilling Hall, and her education truly begins. She has grown up without her mother, and is in some ways eager to discover the secrets of being a successful woman in society, even if her relatively considerable wealth is tainted by her father being in trade. What she learns from the mysterious Miss Lily and the company in the house will change her life, and make her reassess everything. She also learns a certain resilience and poise that will support her in the vastly changing world that everyone will face. 

I really loved following Sophie’s progress as she discovers that very few people are truly as they first seem, and the strengths and weaknesses of established society and the people who have been led to expect a certain life. It gives a powerful picture of war in both expected and unexpected ways. This is a truly memorable book which I really recommend to everyone who enjoys solid historical fiction and consistent, fascinating characters.   

A Laird for the Governess by Catherine Tinley – a young woman travels to a remote Scottish island in this enjoyable historical romance

A Laird for the Governess by Catherine Tinley

A lovely Scottish island, an attractive governess and a quiet widowed Laird is a recipe for a wonderful historical novel, and talented Catherine Tinley has certainly delivered in this book. This is a book of unfair treatment for women, uncertainty, tragedy and regrets. It also depicts brilliantly a remote island that has a community that means everyone is valued, but where life can be challenging at the mercy of the elements and absentee landlords. Both the main characters Lydia Farnham and Alasdair MacDonald have secrets in their past which makes trust and romance difficult to achieve.

Being a governess in 1810 was not a secure job, and in Lydia’s case means that she has suffered as the result of unwanted advances from wealthy men who have either employed her or been associated with the household. Despite her attachment to the children in her charge and her undoubted skills as a teacher, she has been turned away repeatedly. The plight of unmarried women left without support in this period is well covered in literature; those from middle class backgrounds were especially vulnerable. Tinley has taken this theme and carefully placed the woman in question on an island many miles away from everything she knows and understands. She is aware that if she is dismissed from this job she will be many days travel away from London, and so the stakes are high for her in her new employment. The first sight of the Laird makes her anxious once more, but she knows little of history or why she has been summoned to the island. This is a most enjoyable novel, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.  

Lydia has been assured by the clever and intuitive employment agency owner  Mrs. Gray that she will be treated differently in Scotland, and that the salary will be generous to reflect the fact that it is so far from London. The child she will teach has not had any education and has physical problems. The household of Ardmore castle is truly welcoming, and she is assigned her own maid. When Alasdair encounters Lydia he is over whelmed by her appearance, but quickly remembers that he has had unfortunate experiences with a beautiful woman. It transpires that he is a devoted father to his only child, Mairead, and she is the focus of attention for the whole household, being carried around and humoured in her avoidance of being taught. When Lydia is given charge of the child, she makes lessons enjoyable, and begins to suspect that the little girl’s disability is capable of improvement. As the cycle of weddings and romances take place in the glorious setting of the islands, there seems to be much to love in the close-knit community. Lydia soon becomes aware of the problems of the islands, that there are those who are forced to leave as absentee landlords do not care for their tenants, and the sea provides a potentially dangerous element in islanders’ lives. The Laird meanwhile gradually becomes suspicious and a little jealous of Lydia’s relationship with her charge. He is also painfully aware of how attractive she is, and because his earlier experience of a beautiful woman who became unhappy with island life, fears that she will soon want to return to London, leaving both Mairead and him bereft. He struggles not to become too close to her, and Lydia is fearful of another unfair dismissal. It seems they can never be close, both painfully aware of the dangers of love.

I really enjoyed this book. Life on the island is well described, and the community is well described. A lot of research has obviously gone into describing island life at the time, as well as the varying weather that can become treacherous so quickly. The atmosphere that Tinley creates is truly enthralling, and the characters are so consistent and have real depth, even though their actual role may be relatively small. I recommend this book as an exciting read.    

Brown Eyes by Frances Ive – a family dog sees family life from a different perspective

Brown Eyes by Frances Ive

This unusual novel is told by two voices – a woman whose marriage is in trouble, and the Brown Eyes of the title – Benji, the family labrador. This dual view point gives a unique set of insights into a complex set of circumstances. Benji’s understanding of what is going on is not sophisticated, but once combined with Meriel’s account of her life over a few months it gives a picture of a separation, of friends and family, of the effects of one relationship breaking down. In some ways this is quite a simple book, written with a great deal of sensitivity and understanding of events, emotions and actions. In other respects it reflects quite a sophisticated reflection on the fall out from a potential breakup. It is a typical suburban setting of family homes, walks in parks, and conversations at gatherings. Benji, as could be guessed, is concerned with walks, food and other dogs, but also observes the mysterious arguments, tense conversations and outbursts that go with intense emotions. He has favourite humans, and struggles to understand why they are behaving differently and being so angry with each other and occasionally with themselves. There is plenty of well written dialogue, especially as Meriel consults her friends about the progress of her relationships. There are some realistic portraits of teenagers as well as adults, all in understandable and probably familiar settings. Altogether this is an enjoyable book that I was pleased to have had the opportunity to read and review.

The first chapter is headed with a phrase that really sums up the heart of the novel “Like a fly on the wall. From the inside out. The heart of the family. The only one to see it all.” Benji the dog realises that there is a problem and “My perfect life is under threat” as he hears Meriel and her husband Phil shouting and having a terrible row. In the aftermath Phil tells Benji something of what happened from his point of view. The second chapter begins with Meriel’s views, of how she is usually the person people tell their troubles to, people like Tania who is a good friend. Tania reveals something of her own troubled romantic life, with hints that her interests are no longer limited to her own husband. This format of story telling allows different insights into the same events and relationships, ranging from the simple recognition of prevailing emotions by Benji, to the complexity of Mariel’s feelings as her marriage is subject to pressures. There is tragedy to cope with as well as complex situations between people, with intervention from others. 

This is a novel which achieves a lot in quite a short book. It looks at all the reactions to a situation which affects many people either directly or indirectly. It shows the ripple effect of one unfortunate event on a big group of people from the point of view of an observer who sees more than anyone expects. Benji’s role in all this confusion is largely unintentional, but he becomes the unwitting confidante of most people. This is a very relevant novel for contemporary times, and an unexpected retelling of a relatable story.     

The Marquess of Yew Park House by Lotte R James – an historical romance with a thoughtful twist

The Marquess of Yew Park House by Lotte R James

As historical romances go, this is a splendidly thoughtful one with some secrets, consistent characters and a wonderful Scottish setting. The Marquess in question, Spencer, is a man of impulses which contrast with his upbringing and society’s expectations. When he encounters the mysterious Genevieve de l’Ormont he is left stunned by the encounter, and the novel has much to say about how they both adjust to another unexpected person in their lives. There is passion, humour and many kinds of discovery. Genevieve has traumatic secrets and a past that has brought out every survival instinct on behalf of her daughter Elizabeth, and her friend Jules. As the novel progresses it becomes clear that Spencer is affected by secrets that are destabilising his life, and that while he has run as far as possible, he will have to return to stern reality eventually. Set on a family estate in Scotland, the lochs, countryside and beautiful formal gardens provide a setting of wonder and attraction for all the characters. This is such a well written book that I found myself drawn into the narrative and relishing the characters’. I enjoyed the dialogue, and the theme of a naughty goat who enjoys eating clothes. This is such an entertaining book, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.

The book opens in May 1830, as Spencer arrives at his most remote estate, Yew Park House, having departed from London without warning three weeks before, with the bulk of his clothes travelling in the care of Josiah, his devoted valet. He has not visited this estate since his childhood twenty nine years earlier, but such is the lifestyle of the wealthy at the time there is a full staff  to greet him. No one, including his mother, has any idea where he has gone and why he has left in this unprecedented manner. His housekeeper, Mrs. McKenna, seems to be unsettled by his arrival, but that is a question for another day. While exploring his estate, he discovers a girl who is running through the garden, delightedly exploring. She is apparently called Elizabeth, for the figure following her is calling her. The first sight of the woman is memorable, her reaction to discovering her landlord while trespassing in his gardens obviously shocks her. She immediately realises who he is, despite having been assured that he has not visited the area for decades. She assesses whether he will recognise her, and thinks it unlikely, and also recalls that he has not been known for any memorable scandals. They are both attracted to each other, but know that they must return to their lives, him to experiment with following just what he wants to do with his time, while she and Elizabeth return to their modest home and their household concerns. The lure of the gardens proves too much, and a second meeting leads to some acknowledgement of their mutual attraction, and Spencer’s instinctive desire to spend what time he has in the area with the intriguing lady and her daughter. He is still fighting his fears, exaggerated by a discovery in the woods, while Genevieve must cope with her past decisions, and her concerns for her little family’s future. 

This is a passionate and well written book which deals with some interesting themes, not least the treatment of married women at the time. It also identifies the pressure on men to marry for duty rather than love, and accept that their role is limited by expectation even though they may have significant wealth and influence. This is a good read, and I recommend it to fans of historical romance. 

The Gifts by Liz Hyder – a novel of Victorian women and the challenge of being different

The Gifts by Liz Hyder

An historical written with real skill and flair, this novel is a triumph. At first sight it seems unlikely, with a basic proposition that almost makes it a fantasy, but it is solidly lodged in its time of early Victorian London. This is a time of absolute poverty for most and social ambition for some. There is scientific curiosity which runs alongside strong religious beliefs. This is an age of strict social expectations of women, who are sometimes forced to take drastic action, and the deep unfairness of the treatment of someone who is different. There is unfairness and real peril, but also optimism. Although most of the action takes place in the streets and buildings of London, there are also pictures of the Shropshire countryside and refences to a destination even further away. The story is told from five perspectives, which seems complex, but as the narrative proceeds it becomes completely natural, as each character in this well written book is consistent and each in their own way is fascinating. I found Etta, Edward, Anne, Mary and Natalya well drawn, as well as those around them, from street urchins to concerned elderly ladies. The narrative of this book drew me in, as it established itself as reasonable and logical, and it becomes a searing account of the treatment of the different at the time on various levels. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.

The book opens with a Prologue that features Etta. She finds herself in the countryside where she usually roams free, without her much loved canine companion who has succumbed to poison. She finds herself in inexplicable agony, not knowing what is happening to her. Just as she discovers, to her absolute surprise, that she has just sprouted a pair of huge wings from her shoulders, she feels the pain of being shot by a boy with a crossbow, and she descends into darkness. The scene changes to a few days earlier in London, as surgeon Samuel demonstrates a rapid amputation on a hapless patient in the pursuit of speed rather than accuracy or concern for infection. Edward Meake is watching jealously, aware that such shows will win his long-term friend and enemy more plaudits and advancement. Samuel crows about this being the age of science, and “And yet, are we not in our own way gods you and I, eh?” For Edward ambition is all, to be grasped by any means, such as been seen at the right church with his wife Anne, by illicit private experiments in the basement of his house, and the desperate urge to throw everything at achieving the breakthrough that will make his name and fortune. Thus, Anne is left alone in the upper part of the house, separated from her friends, denied her need to sketch and paint. When Edward obtains a remarkable specimen in the form of the corpse of a winged woman, he develops a dangerous obsession. Meanwhile in a poor part of London, Mary, a remarkable young woman, has grown up in the care of two loving men. George has recently died, and the surviving uncle, Jos, has tried to drown his sorrow in excessive drink. Happily, Richard, who learnt his journalism from Jos, has returned to London and encourages Mary to earn proper money from reviewing books. When they learn of the mysterious Thames Angel, they get onto the story from fortunate hints. Meanwhile, Natalya, a storyteller, is making her way to London in a desperate search for a cousin and a new life.

This is a multi-perspective novel which is so well written that the main narrative drive is clear, and the book rapidly becomes enthralling. This is a fantastic read, and I recommend it to everyone who enjoys well written historical fiction.

The Moon Over Kilmore Quay by Carmel Harrington- a memorable novel of home, friendship and so much more

The Moon Over Kilmore Quay by Carmel Harrington

Leaving home for another country, another way of life, is an experience that shapes lives, sometimes over generations. This clever novel is a fascinating picture of the Irish community in New York, one that has existed for decades and is still vibrant today.Looking through the eyes of two young women, Lucy and Bea, it has much to say about the difference in lifestyle between Ireland and New York, the power of community and ultimately the strength of female friendship. One woman, Lucy, moves from Ireland in 1992, leaving her parents and all that she has ever really known, to find adventure with her sister. Bea was brought up in a family home, Innisfree, in Brooklyn, and over a period from 2019 to 2020 makes some stunning discoveries which took me by surprise. This novel is excellent on place, the differences between the sight, scenes and more, between Ireland and New York, as well as the things that link them. Both women are firm friends with two others; it is this which really sets this book apart in some ways despite all the challenges that they face. Lucy and Bea have realistic voices, well able to keep the stories of their lives going, truthful about themselves and those around them. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this tremendous book. 

The book opens with Bea receiving a letter from her ten year old self, written in 2003. On New Year’s Eve, 2019, she is alone, opening the letter that will propel her into thinking of her past, her friends Stephanie and Katrina, her boyfriend Dan who she is no longer with, and the family she has grown up in the heart of, with the greater Irish community in the background. The letter itself will go on to lead her into many sorts of questions about herself and others, questions that she feels compelled to answer. Then the story of Lucy appears, beginning with a national lottery which she enters with her friend Michelle and her sister Maeve. It is to win a Visa for America, the chance to emigrate from Dublin, from the house next to Nellie’s pub. Michelle does not win a chance, but both Lucy and Maeve find themselves with the opportunity to leave, to find a new life. Lucy is especially torn about leaving her parents and all she has ever known, whereas Maeve comes up with the fiction that it is just for the summer. Arriving in New York with all its differences, its atmosphere and so much more, both girls are a little bewildered, but Lucy soon discovers the joys of the Irish community with Ryan who she meets accidentally outside the library. She is invited to Innisfree where she meets his parents and his brother Mike. Bea’s story also develops; she feels the need to contact her friend Stephanie, whose own life is traumatic, and with Katrina they rediscover their deep friendship. Events for both women take over, and they make further discoveries which rock their lives.

This is a difficult book to review without giving too much away, and it is not a straightforward read. It is a book that will linger in the memory of its careful writing, its consistent characters, and its basic message of the importance of love and friendship. 

The Porcelain Doll by Kristen Loesch – An ambitious novel of women in twentieth century Russia

The Porcelain Doll by Kristen Loesch

This is a huge book in some senses, using some vividly drawn female characters to look at much of the twentieth century in Russia. At least one looks like the porcelain book of the title, and this is a recurring theme in a book that looks at the power of story and memories. From the inequalities of pre-revolutionary St Petersburg to the questions of Moscow in the later twentieth century, this book alternates narratives of Tonya, a young woman and the voice of Rosie, a woman who in 1991 feels compelled to investigate her family, rocked by tragedy and exiled to Britain in her childhood. It features brutal stories of imprisonment in camps beyond the edge of survival and the confusion of enormous political and social upheavals through the eyes of those who fought to live through them. It reveals the secrets and half truths of those who were besieged in a war torn city, as well as the disappointments of families and lovers. Nevertheless it expresses the complexity of survival at any price, and the unintentional legacies of the past. It is an ambitious book, using the perspective of women to look at so much uncertainty in a world being destroyed and rebuilt. The setting is cleverly invoked by hints of city streets contrasted by the rich vegetation attacking a house, and the crowds of uncertain people with those left alone. The characters are consistent and well drawn, if left deliberately ambiguous at times. I was very impressed by this book, and was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it. 

The book opens with a Prologue in the manner of the short stories that season the novel. It is brutal, and raises the subject of the pretty girl and the matching doll, the dichotomy between reality and imagination. The focus then shifts to Rosie in London, 1991. She recounts how she  goes to listen to Alexey Ivaov, a man who “is nearly a century old” who is reading from “The Last Bolshevik”, his memoir of life in Russia. She is eager to meet him, hoping that his advertised research trip will mean that she can at last return to the country she was born in, from where she was rapidly brought by her mother, the only survivors of an attack on her family. Visits to her mother, dying from the effects of alcohol, show how she is nervous of the “porcelain prisoners” or dolls that were some of the few items that they brought from Russia in their haste. She discovers her mother’s notebook, frustratingly difficult to read, apparently full of stories. Then the plight of Antonia in Petrograd in the autumn of 1915 is featured; a very young woman imprisoned in marriage to Dmitry, a wealthy man who collects beautiful things and collected her on a visit to the country. She is aimless in a life of luxury, but is observant, and spots a young man, a leader of workers, a maker of speeches. On her solo early morning walks she meets Valentin Andreyev and they sense a mutual attraction, one that must be kept secret. Tonya is a young woman who has nightmares, memories of her mother’s sadness, seeing no way forward despite Valentin’s call for a workers’ revolution. As time goes on, Tonya must face the horror of a revolution, the need to return to where there is a perceived safety. Meanwhile Rosie has returned to Russia and is beginning to discover the unsettling nature of her dead sister’s spirit seemingly everywhere, the contrast between memory and what she is beginning to find out about her mentor and half remembered people. In the disturbance of a state changing on a daily basis, she must be careful of the balance among those around her and cities she is beginning to recognise. 

This is a powerful book which deals with the power of memory, of the stories that people leave behind. It provides a fascinating insight into a nation’s history via the people who were there. I recommend it as a big book, and a memorable reading experience.