Imagining discovery and colonialism in the South Seas

To the Fair Land by Lucienne Boyce

r/suggestmeabook: I want to immerse myself in the British perspective of empire-building and colonialism from both someone who’s stayed in the home country and one who’s voyaged.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 332

Publisher: Silverwood Books

ARC provided by Rachel’s Random Resources; apologies for the late review!

Georgian Imperialism Mystery/Adventure

From the publisher: In 1789 struggling writer Ben Dearlove rescues a woman from a furious Covent Garden mob. The woman is ill and in her delirium cries out the name “Miranda.” Weeks later an anonymous novel about the voyage of the Miranda to the fabled Great Southern Continent causes a sensation. Ben decides to find the author everyone is talking about. He is sure the woman can help him – but she has disappeared.

Let me open with this: I was fascinated by the story line of To the Fair Land. I was pulled in immediately by the description of the play, which immediately triggered my brain to produce the theme song from Blackadder the Third, set a little later, but close to the right time period (however, not the right tone at all). Lucienne Boyce’s writing style is dynamic and engaging, and I was propelled to read to the finish.

The book starts in 1789, after the conclusion of Captain James Cook’s exploration of the South Seas, and I’ve included illustrations from those voyages, as they inform the imagery and plot of the book. England was rapidly moving from the voyages of discovery to full-fledged capitalist industrial exploitation of countries without the wherewithal to resist. The occupation of India started over a century before the initial portion of the novel, and the Caribbean and North American colonies had been well-established, and the 13 colonies that will make up the United States have been lost.

Cook’s journeys were taken in part to try to find a mythical southern continent known as Terra Australis, although that motivation was kept secret; at least at the start he was ostensibly tracking the course of Venus. He didn’t find Terra Australis, instead being credited as the first European to encounter the Hawaiian islands. Cook’s travels did, however, lay the groundwork for the extensive occupation of the South Seas by Britain.

In To the Fair Land, Boyce contemplates questions of power and the application of realpolitik by individuals in their choices, particularly with reference to colonialism, but also frequently about beliefs and roles of women. The mechanism for this is the two stories that make up the novel: that of Ben Dearlove’s search for the author of the anonymous novel and the story of the delirious woman, both of which are quite interesting. The anonymous novel is about the discovery of a mythical land by characters with names to reflect their attributes; for example, the hero is called Mr. Noble.

Ben, the son of a Bristol pharmacist, is living in London and trying to make a living as an author to avoid going home to the family business. As a rather conventional white male of the period, he starts from the twin premises that England’s colonial policy is a positive force in the world and that women are incapable of feats routinely carried out by men. The anonymous woman, on the other hand, views colonialism as a destruction of native culture and has flouted social convention. These two characters highlight social issues and concerns by their comparison.

He spoke with the dusty wheeze of a man who breathed nothing but particles of paper and parchment.

Lucienne Boyce, To the Fair Land

Both characters are well-realized, and their individual stories are excellent. I really enjoyed Ben’s character development, particularly with regard to how he views women. Class distinctions are felt throughout the story, and Boyce also highlights privilege and the way it influences actions. I also loved how it contemplated problematic aspects of colonialism.

Walking around the Exchange’s vaulted colonnade, he indulged himself in his usual game of guessing what business brought people here.

Lucienne Boyce, To the Fair Land

In particular, what stays with me was the point at which a character says, after a discussion of consequences of colonialism on the indigenous civilization, “If they do exist, they cannot remain unknown to the civilized part of the world…The French, the Spanish and the Dutch also wish to expand their territories. If anyone is to govern them, it is better for the natives that they should be under British rule.”

Although I’d say it’s pretty hard to figure out who did colonialism the worst, as they all have some egregious periods, the rationalization is hard to avoid: If it’s inevitable that a culture that has less technology with which to defend itself would be discovered and become a colony, what’s the right thing to do with the information that would lead the Western powers to finding it sooner? Is it better to reveal its whereabouts to the country you believe will be the least destructive or to try to keep the location secret?

What do you think happens to a land when it has been discovered? What do you think it becomes once it has been exposed to our greed and cruelty?

Lucienne Boyce, To the Fair Land

The reason I didn’t give a higher numerical rating has more to do with how I felt after finishing the book than how I felt while reading it, which always makes for a tricky explanation if you’re trying not to give spoilers. So I’ll give a rather vague one here, with a more specific and potentially spoiler-y one down below the picture of the bird (a red-rumped parrot).

What sort of woman could have written such a book? Only one who has entirely lost all sense of feminine delicacy. The best place for her is an asylum.

Lucienne Boyce, To the Fair Land

The problem I had was that there is a major shift of the type of story being told at about the 67% mark. Up until then, it’s more in the vein of a mystery; at that point, it shifts to a travel adventure. The change in tone, and in POV, makes the book feel disjointed rather than having two parallel stories or timelines. The mystery is all about the anonymously published hit book about the discovery of a mythical continent: who the author is, why they are hiding, and why others are pursuing them as well? You’d expect the second tone to be a little foreshadowed by excerpts from the book in question, but the book within the book is more fantasy than the realistic discussion that takes place in the travel adventure.

Not so much the Scottish poet these days as the sottish poet.

Lucienne Boyce, To the Fair Land

More importantly, there’s a key plot point which didn’t make sense to me. Whether that’s due to how I read the book or to my preconceived ideas of how the world works or to the writing, I can’t say. But it diminished my experience of the book’s overall arc.

It was not the dark little man’s sibilant spitefulness that bothered Ben so much as the fountains of spittle that drenched anyone who happened to be within range of his criticisms.

Lucienne Boyce, To the Fair Land

I was also disappointed there wasn’t an author’s note to give me a better idea of what was imagined versus what was factual. All that’s included is a glossary at the back, which gives a few insights, but isn’t as detailed as I’d like, as there were more allusions than explanations of Cook’s voyages, which, after looking into it more, would have been nice to have known as I was reading the story. Perhaps there’s less reason for that for a UK than a US audience, as the Cook journeys may be more emphasized in the former than the latter.

I will be watching for new books from Boyce, though, as her writing is compelling, and the topic and period she chose to address are relatively rarely covered in historical fiction, and I appreciated the imaginative way she included questions that are still being debated about imperialism and women’s rights.

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Warning: Spoilers follow

Here’s the crux of my problem: I don’t see the connection between knowing about Sarah Edgecumbe and the Miranda’s voyage and prosecuting either Bowood or Jacob Edgecumbe for the murder of his father. The motive wasn’t what happened; it was fear of what might have happened. And even at that, it’s tenuous enough for a conviction of any sort, so all of the story that hinges on that connection fell apart for me, meaning that the reason the Navy would go after Bowood seems forced.

I like that the tone of the speakers was different between Ben and Sarah, but everything in her account seemed so removed from the type of story and the themes of Ben’s that the two tales didn’t seem to mesh all that well, even though I found each separate story intriguing. But I think the murder of Ben’s father and his search for justice may have undermined that as well. I preferred the original motivation, to discover the author and get some cash, which could easily have turned into a quest for the answer itself without requiring revenge as a motivation.

I also couldn’t decide whether the incest allegation was true or if it was supposed to be deliberately somewhat ambiguous. I rather like the idea that the truth of the allegation was irrelevant to just about everyone and therefore it was not clear to me as a reader, but there’s the brief passage where Sarah is watching her brother change that seems to be confirmation of the allegations. However, that passage is vague enough that I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to take it; coupled with the earlier discovery of the siblings in a rather inappropriate situation, it seems like I’m supposed to surmise that there actually was an incestuous relationship.

I’m not all that crazy about the incest plot because if I’m supposed to believe it actually happened, I’d like more details about the power dynamic. The brother was significantly older than the sister, so on the face of it, it’s hard to take it as consensual. And it’s the consensuality of it that drives how I feel about the characters and their attitudes toward it if the sibling incest is to be considered true in the context of the novel, which is part of why I rather favor the idea that it’s probably not true, but the truth was irrelevant to the other characters because the allegation suited their objectives.

Mastering gifts, politics and relationships

The Shadow of Water by Jacquelyn Benson

r/suggestmeabook: I want to follow the adventures of a precog learning to master her talent and her gifted friends in the shadow of the beginning of WWI.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 494

Publisher: Vaughn Woods Publishing

Series: The Charismatics

ARC provided by Book Sirens

From the publisher: In an England on the brink of war, Lily is plagued by psychic visions of the cataclysmic destruction of London. An ancient prophecy is coming to fruition, and it starts with the gruesome discovery of a corpse in the sewers.

Jacquelyn Benson’s writing style is lovely, and I love the characters. It’s always hard reviewing a sequel, as it’s hard to avoid comparing it to the preceding book. “The Shadow of Water” would not have stood up well on its own, as my feelings about the characters is derived more from the relationships built in the first book in the series, “The Fire in the Glass,” than in this one. In particular, the relationship between Strangford and Lily was less evoked by Strangford’s actions than by Lily’s summary comments. And for some reason I was having more difficulty keeping Ash and Cairncross straight, although that could be more my issue than that of the author.

Fear the pain of grief. Fear neglecting to embrace life with both your arms and draw all the joy of it that you can. Fear being stingy with your love or your compassion. But do not fear Death.

Jacquelyn Benson, The Shadow of Water

Also, since much of the tension in the first book was derived from the question of whether her precognition showed an unalterable future, that tension was lost and there wasn’t as much to replace it. I felt less on-the-edge-of-my-seat about how things would turn out than in the first book.

Alone. Such a small word for such an enormous burden. It had driven her to poor choices in the past.

Jacquelyn Benson, The Shadow of Water

This installment felt less layered and complex, although the mystery of Sam’s past was a great subplot, and I felt like Sam was developed much more in this book, which I enjoyed, although the characterization of his relationship with Ash was a bit repetitive and not really resolved.

Progress is like water. It will always find a way.

Jacquelyn Benson, The Shadow of Water

The other thing I missed was the inclusion of someone you love to hate. Viscount Deveral was perfectly nasty and Joseph Hartwell creepy in the last book, but there wasn’t a concrete baddie to hate in this book. At best, there were people taking actions that were murky or unpleasant, such as Ash and Strangford’s mother, but those actors weren’t personally reprehensible.

The debutante caught the gaze of another young woman tied to a dour chaperone. She flashed her a flirtatious smile.

Jacquelyn Benson, The Shadow of Water

So although I love Benson’s writing, and I’ll still read the next installment in the series, “The Shadow of Water” was a little bit of a let down.


Spotlight: Paris in Ruins by M.K. Tod

Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Summary, Excerpt, Praise, and Author Bio

Pages: 370

Publisher: Heath Street Publishing

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Franco-Prussian War

From the publisher

Paris 1870. Raised for a life of parties and servants, Camille and Mariele have much in common, but it takes the horrors of war to bring them together to fight for the city and people they love.

A few weeks after the abdication of Napoleon III, the Prussian army lays siege to Paris. Camille Noisette, the daughter of a wealthy family, volunteers to nurse wounded soldiers and agrees to spy on a group of radicals plotting to overthrow the French government. Her future sister-in-law, Mariele de Crécy, is appalled by the gaps between rich and poor. She volunteers to look after destitute children whose families can barely afford to eat.

Somehow, Camille and Mariele must find the courage and strength to endure months of devastating siege, bloody civil war, and great personal risk. Through it all, an unexpected friendship grows between the two women, as they face the destruction of Paris and discover that in war women have as much to fight for as men.

War has a way of teaching lessons—if only Camille and Mariele can survive long enough to learn them.

AMAZON | BARNES AND NOBLE | GOOGLE PLAYKOBO

Excerpt

Although laughter followed, the conversation soon returned to the perilous state of Paris.

“Our leaders have been too busy organizing a new republic and ensuring positions of power for themselves,” said Ernest Garnier, whose bald head and white beard conferred an air of authority.

Camille knew Garnier and his son Jules, who was developing a reputation as a portrait artist. She leaned forward. “And what do you think of our new government, Monsieur Garnier?” she asked. “Will these men be able to lead us through such difficult times?”

“Our government has too many republicans with radical views for my liking,” Ernest Garnier replied. “And too many neophytes. This is a time for men of experience, not men who merely know how to appeal to the masses.”

Garnier’s reply reminded her of the speeches she’d heard at the republican club. “And the women, Monsieur? How do you feel the women can best be of service?”

“Well, the actresses of the Comédie-Française have turned the theater into a convalescent hospital, and there’s a rumor that Sarah Bernhardt will do the same with the Odéon. Perhaps they will need volunteers. No doubt Bernhardt’s relationship with Kératry will enable her to get all the necessary supplies.” Garnier’s eyes twinkled.

Camille had no idea why the men laughed in response. She made a mental note to ask
Bertrand on the way home.

“But to answer your question, Mademoiselle, I don’t believe actresses are suitable companions for a young lady like you,” Garnier continued, bringing the lighthearted moment to an end. “Women like you should stay at home and leave the worrying to us.”

Despite the man’s condescending attitude, Camille smiled to acknowledge his opinion. A few seconds later, she felt a tap on her shoulder. When she turned to look, André tilted his head and gestured at a window next to a potted palm. She waited until the next round of conversation got underway before joining him.

“That conversation was becoming tedious,” André said. “Too many men who think they could do a better job. I doubt any of them have military experience. I need a breath of air. Will you join me on the balcony?”

“When did you join the Guard?” Camille asked after they moved onto the balcony. “I didn’t realize you planned to do so.”

André stared at the street below, where a dog sniffed the ground beneath a lamppost. “I feel it’s my duty. I’m not a man who desires combat, but the times call for extraordinary measures. If men like me refuse to enlist, the National Guard will be dominated by extreme factions who believe in overthrowing the government.”

Camille pressed her lips together. “How will Paris withstand the kind of siege those men are expecting? There won’t be enough food for everyone. The shops and trades won’t have enough business. The poor . . . I can’t imagine what the poor will do. Life is difficult enough for them now. And the Prussians . . .” Suddenly, she felt as if she couldn’t breathe.

“Do you wish me to be frank?” André’s tone remained neutral.

“Of course.”

“Paris can withstand a siege until the level of suffering demands surrender. It’s September. The weather is warm, and for the moment, we have an abundance of food. Come November or December, the poor will be dying in the streets from cold and starvation. People like us will find ways to manage, but others will soon run out of money. Think of the little children who’ll be affected and the women whose husbands will lose their livelihood, or even their lives. Those people won’t be able to keep a roof over their heads. And to make matters worse, the radicals might seize the opportunity to create further turmoil. We could even face another revolution.”

“You make it sound dire, Monsieur and I applaud your decision to enlist. As for me, I hope to volunteer at one of the hospitals.”

“You don’t plan to heed Monsieur Garnier’s words, then.”

“No, Monsieur. His opinions are firmly entrenched in the past. Fortunately, my father
permits me a little more liberty. I chose to remain in Paris in order to be useful.”

“I’m certain you will be more than useful.” He turned to face her. “Will you go to the meetings in Montmartre?”

After attending the club at Restaurant Polignac, she’d spent hours considering André’s request, weighing the dangers against her desire to contribute to the country’s future and the bolder approach to living she’d adopted since Juliette’s death. Ultimately, she had sent him a letter confirming her participation.

“Yes. I gave you my word, Monsieur. I’ll attend the next meeting and let you know what happens.”

He did not smile. “Don’t write anything down. Tell me in person.”

Praise

“The story of two women whose families were caught up in the defense of Paris is deeply moving and suspenseful.” -Margaret George, author of Splendor Before the Dark: A Novel of the Emperor Nero

“Tod is not only a good historian, but also an accomplished writer … a gripping, well-limned picture of a time and a place that provide universal lessons.” -Kirkus Reviews

“M.K. Tod’s elegant style and uncanny eye for time and place again shine through in her riveting new tale, Paris in Ruins.” -Jeffrey K. Walker author of No Hero’s Welcome

About the Author

Paris In Ruins is M.K. Tod’s fourth novel. Mary began writing in 2005 while living as an expat in Hong Kong. What started as an interest in her grandparents’ lives turned into a full-time occupation writing historical fiction. Her other novels are Time and Regret, Lies Told in Silence, and Unravelled.

Beyond writing novels, Mary’s award-winning blog, www.awriterofhistory.com features the reading and writing of historical fiction. When she’s not writing, or thinking about writing, you can find her hiking, golfing, traveling, or hanging out with friends and family. Mary is married and has two adult children and two delightful grandchildren.

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Fiery Girls by Heather Wardell

A book blast from Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Progressive Era Historical Fiction

Giveaway

During the Blog Tour, the publisher is giving away a $20 Amazon Gift Card! The giveaway is open internationally and ends on April 9th. You must be 18 or older to enter.

From the publisher

Two young immigrant women. One historic strike. And the fire that changed America.

In 1909, shy sixteen-year-old Rosie Lehrer is sent to New York City to earn money for her family’s emigration from Russia. She will, but she also longs to make her mark on the world before her parents arrive and marry her to a suitable Jewish man. Could she somehow become one of the passionate and articulate “fiery girls” of her garment workers’ union?

Maria Cirrito, spoiled and confident, lands at Ellis Island a few weeks later. She’s supposed to spend four years earning American wages then return home to Italy with her new-found wealth to make her family’s lives better. But the boy she loves has promised, with only a little coaxing, to follow her to America and marry her. So she plans to stay forever. With him.

Rosie and Maria meet and become friends during the “Uprising of the 20,000” garment workers’ strike, and they’re working together at the Triangle Waist Company on March 25, 1911 when a discarded cigarette sets the factory ablaze. 146 people die that day, and even those who survive will be changed forever.

Carefully researched and full of historic detail, Fiery Girls is a novel of hope: for a better life, for turning tragedy into progress, and for becoming who you’re meant to be.

AMAZON | BARNES AND NOBLE | INDIEBOUND


About the Author

Heather is a natural 1200 wpm speed reader and the author of twenty-one self-published novels. She came to writing after careers as a software developer and elementary school computer teacher and can’t imagine ever leaving it. In her spare time, she reads, swims, walks, lifts weights, crochets, changes her hair colour, and plays drums and clarinet. Generally not all at once.

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Finding freedom in British Guiana

A Review of Song by Michelle Jana Chan

 Random Things Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want to experience British colonialism from the perspective of a Chinese boy trapped in a racist system. And lots of birds.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 480

Publisher: Unbound

ARC provided by Random Things Tours

British West Indies Colonial Fiction

From the publisher: Song is just a boy when he sets out from Lishui village in China. Brimming with courage and ambition, he leaves behind his impoverished broken family, hoping he’ll make his fortune and return home. Chasing tales of sugarcane, rubber and gold, Song embarks upon a perilous voyage across the oceans to the British colony of Guiana, but once there he discovers riches are not so easy to come by and he is forced into labouring as an indentured plantation worker. 

Michelle Jana Chan has delivered a world that I was not familiar with, British Guiana (Guyana since 1966), a colony where power resided in the planters. The British Empire outlawed the slave trade in 1807, but emancipation didn’t occur until 1838, and the sugar cane planters replaced their slaves with what were nominally indentured servants. They might have well have been slaves, given that they were often transported under deceptive term with the cost of the transportation supposedly to be worked off, but it was a goal that moved ever away as the planters charged the indentured servants’ cost of living to their remaining debt.

Song is a boy who endures the cost of that deception as well as the racism that fuels a system dependent on a powerless labor class. British Guiana used Chinese and then Indian workers after the former enslaved persons of African descent wanted nothing to do with the plantations.

The character of Song is well realized, as well as the rest of the cast: the despicable Mr. Cameron, the progressive Father Holmes, the hearts-of-gold ladies, the ruffians of Bartica, the friendly Amerinds, and the snobbish “civilized” folk of Georgetown. There are some heart-tearing moments of racism and violence, and the questions of what will you do to be safe and how to combat the status quo are reckoned with.

The pacing is a little uneven. It took me a little while to get into it, then I was completely absorbed in the story until, even though it’s a sad commentary on how my attention works, things got better for Song for a while and there seemed to be little conflict. This oasis for him was sweet and helped build for the next push of crap to be thrown at him, but it was much slower reading. However, I cared enough about Song by that point that I stuck with it.

In addition to the themes of power and privilege, racism and activism, Chan explores some other very interesting ideas in this novel: how much property does one need, what dreams are worthy, how do we deal with repeated losses, and how much does education remediate class differences? She doesn’t necessarily provide answers, but she illuminates portions of the spectrums.

A fascinating study in the book is that comparing Bartica, a rough frontier town, to Georgetown, the heart of colonial government. The overt premise is that the evils of the former are all on the outside, and less in aggregate, than those of the latter, hidden, insidious, and greater. There may not be stabbings on the street or whores every few blocks in Georgetown, but Song is assailed more frequently and pointedly in Georgetown than Bartica. And therein lies what seems to be the implicit story: that racism is more pronounced in “civilized” areas where power congregates and evil is disguised than in a rough place where most are scrabbling to survive.

My biggest complaint is about the ending, which is always a tricky thing to complain about without some spoilers. Let me simply say that it felt like it trailed off rather than ended, which is often a choice on the part of the author, but part of what I enjoy about fiction (as opposed to real life) is the possibility of closure, of a sense of completion. I’ve heard some critics talk about the need to meet the expectations that have been set, but those expectations are set by Western storytelling conventions, so I’m not saying this is wrong or bad, just that it’s a type of ending I don’t care for.

However, it’s largely a compelling read and an intriguing slice of life in a part of world history that many Americans have probably never heard of, and I appreciate the guided tour.


A tale of three orphans

The Girl in the Painting by Tea Cooper

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want to follow two generations of orphans through their struggles, particularly two numerate women.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 383

Publisher: Thomas Nelson

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Late 19th/early 20th century

Giveaway: Enter to win a paperback copy of The Girl in the Painting by Tea Cooper! The giveaway is open to the US only and ends on March 31st. You must be 18 or older to enter.

From the publisher: Australia, 1906. Orphan Jane Piper is nine years old when philanthropist siblings Michael and Elizabeth Quinn take her into their home to further her schooling. The Quinns are no strangers to hardship— having arrived in Australia as penniless immigrants, they now care for others as lost as they once were.

From a Liverpool workhouse to an Australian orphanage, and from a gold rush town to a solid municipality, this tale of three orphans brings in trauma, history, mystery, and social commentary, all within gripping and fast-moving prose. Tea Cooper’s writing illuminates and penetrates, and the plot is well-conceived.

From the water, Sydney didn’t look like much. A small, ugly town, surrounded by barren sandy coves, the trees—short and stunted—clinging to the rocks.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

The three orphans are a brother and sister, Michael and Elizabeth Quinn (originally Ó Coinn), and a girl they foster, Jane Piper. Their stories are told in tandem, beginning in 1906 with nine-year-old Jane at the Maitland orphanage, whose life is covered for around a decade. The second thread covers the 1860s to 1870s, with the Quinn’s emigration from England through their life in frontier Bathurst and then to sedate Maitland.

Acumen? What was an acumen? Another A word. She hadn’t had time to look up aptitude and accountant yet, and now she had to remember acumen.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

There’s not a lot of discussion of the traumas of their disrupted families, but it’s evident in the way the characters act. Michael and Elizabeth are deliberate in their patronage of the orphanage and of individual orphans, which I read as a tacit understanding of the difficulties those young people would face. Watching the mentoring is more effective than a discussion of it.

Jane discovered there was a whole lot more to arithmetic than she thought. But most fascinating of all was Elizabeth’s abacus. Why didn’t everyone use one?

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

Cooper also shows the early maturity of these kids, having the responsibility for their own survival thrust upon them early in life. It’s alway surprising to me to remember that kids in other times and/or other places have had to take on so much more than the ones in my life (or that I was).

Michael scrubbed Father MacCormick’s large white handkerchief across his face, drew in several slow breaths, and tried to remember he was a man.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

Be prepared, though, if you’re sensitive: there are some fairly detailed depictions of PTSD as well. I’m not a mental health professional, but they match up to the things I’ve had psychiatrists describe (and articles out there on it). Although no one was calling it that back then, there had to be some recognition of the symptoms.

In the corner of the room, in a damp-smelling space between two cabinets, a figure huddled, knees drawn up to her chest, her hands cradling her bent head as though protecting it.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

Issues of class, social norms, bigotry, and sexism are all raised by the plot and characters. In particular, both Elizabeth and Jane are numerate and trusted with accounting, which they both recognize is unusual for their sex, and Michael’s attitudes toward their abilities is contrasted by other characters, again, illuminating by example rather than discourse. Overall, the various social issues are handled sensitively.

Angry, red swollen blisters peppered her skin. His words dried in his throat. By all that was holy, something wasn’t right, and he’d be finding out what it was.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

I loved all three of these characters. Watching all of them grow and handle the challenges of their sundry lives was a pleasure. I wondered if Cooper was trying to portray Jane as neurodiverse, possibly on the spectrum, but in the historical context, no one would have termed it that way, and I’d be interested to hear if people from that community read her that way.

Numbers had a practicality, a definitive no-nonsense, no-alternatives, no-misinterpretations, black-and-white reality. She always found a certain security and comfort in the neatly lined-up columns and rows of the account ledgers.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

The minor characters were also well done—the endlessly catty fellow orphan, the town gossip, the villain…well, he was a little mustache-twirly, but I enjoyed it. The backdrop of Australian history is nicely integrated as well. Despite the fact that Thomas Nelson is publishing this novel, there’s no overt Christianity aside from the cultural Catholicism of the Irish-born Quinns.

It wasn’t only Michael who disapproved of her friendship with Jing. Mr. Li thought her as much of an infidel as people believed the Celestials to be.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

Tea Cooper gives a masterclass in The Girl in the Painting about how to “show rather than tell” works, and it will definitely be a book I’ll be recommending and re-reading for a long time.


The making of the Queen of Mystery

The Mystery of Mrs. Christie by Marie Benedict

r/suggestmeabook: I want to read a solution to the historical mystery of Agatha Christie’s disappearance.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 383

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

WWI and Interwar Period

From the publisher: In December 1926, Agatha Christie goes missing. Investigators find her empty car on the edge of a deep, gloomy pond, the only clues some tire tracks nearby and a fur coat left in the car—strange for a frigid night. Her World War I veteran husband and her daughter have no knowledge of her whereabouts, and England unleashes an unprecedented manhunt to find the up-and-coming mystery author.

David Suchet, who played Hercule Poirot for 25 years, presciently expressed how I feel about this book in the 2014 documentary The Mystery of Agatha Christie:

When I first heard about Marie Benedict’s The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, I immediately flashed back to a different documentary, which I cannot now find. I couldn’t remember any of the details except that Agatha Christie had disappeared for a short period of time, and that it had never satisfactorily been explained. This wonderful novel gives the explanation I craved; whether it is truly the reason why is irrelevant, because it’s great storytelling. (And much better than the Doctor Who version, although I enjoyed it at the time.)(Warning: Possible spoilers.)

The first section of the book is split between past and the present of 1926, with the past being first person from Agatha Christie, and the present being a third person close from her husband’s POV. The technique works very well, with the past informing the present. Although the chapters from the past have the title “Manuscript” on each, it wasn’t until I reached the second part of the book that I realized those sections were supposed to be from a manuscript written by Christie.

In truth, the only time I felt like myself was when I was writing. No matter how I tried to anticipate his needs, I couldn’t please Archie, and all the qualities he used to admire—my spontaneity, my love of drama and adventure, and my desire to discuss feelings and events with him—now irritated him.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

Both Agatha and Archie are well drawn, although it’s not entirely clear exactly how WWI changed Archie’s personality. It’s implied that he suffers from PTSD, not exactly a reach for a man who served in combat (as evidenced by the award of the Distinguished Service Order in 1918). PTSD can cause longterm personality changes, but I would have liked a little more explicit discussion of that process. Perhaps any overt mention was omitted to avoid making him sympathetic; he isn’t very.

Archie walks alone, of course. It wouldn’t be seemly for him to link hands with these regular folks, not in his current predicament.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

One of the factors that comes between them, it seems, is the difference in class. Agatha went to finishing school in France and is well-schooled in the etiquette of the upper class. It’s not exactly clear what Archie’s status is, but he is shown to flagrantly violate the established norms early on in the relationship. What is crystal clear that Agatha’s mother thinks Archie is a terrible match for Agatha.

No matter what happened in the future, I didn’t want her disliking Archie any more than she already did. And nothing had more significance to Mummy than a man acting like a gentleman and a woman acting her part as a lady in turn.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

The other characters in the story are also memorable. Agatha’s mother, the investigator Kenward, their daughter Rosalind, Agatha’s sister Madge, and Rosalind’s nanny (and Agatha’s part time secretary) Charlotte each contribute to the story line and are easy to imagine. The interaction of Agatha with all of these characters, and her husband, as well as the lingering remembrance of financial woes when her father died, move Agatha inexorably to being the author of legend.

Madge exhaled cigarette smoke as she reclined on the sofa even further, ever assuming the pose of the confident older sister and first daughter.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

A couple of themes in the book that I quite liked were that of what are the duties of a wife and the role of the unreliable narrator. The first was a well considered review of what women were taught for a good deal of Anglo-American history, as enunciated by Agatha’s mother, which basically were to ensure that you caught and kept a man to keep your status. The arc of Agatha’s view on this advice is captivating, and I could hear echoes of what I was told by my grandmother and mother in what she was told; indeed, some women are still given the same kind of advice even today.

A wife’s duty is to be with her husband, because her husband must come first, even before her children. If a wife leaves her husband alone for too long, she will lose him.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

The saddest application of marital advice was to Agatha’s relationship to her daughter, Rosalind. Archie’s fear of being displaced and her mother’s admonitions to always defer to her husband’s wishes lead Agatha to distance herself from Rosalind in her babyhood. That decision seems tragic for them both.

Perhaps this was mankind’s fate—to learn that none of our paths were as straight as we believed they would be.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

The unreliable narrator was a lovely touch, as it referenced Christie’s groundbreaking use of the same in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which arguably was what propelled her into the front ranks of her field. The observation that we are unreliable narrators of our own stories has a double application: it’s simply an interesting idea about our personal blindspots and also a commentary on the story itself.

As I reread it for a final time, it occurred to me that we are all unreliable narrators of our own lives, crafting stories about ourselves that omit unsavory truths and highlight our invented identities.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

Marie Benedict has created a marvelous solution to an enduring mystery that even Agatha herself would have appreciated (if she hadn’t been so set on keeping it secret).


Inferences, or why what you show isn’t what you want to tell

a note to indie authors

Photo by Sora Shimazaki on Pexels.com

For most people, “infer” is usually something you only talk about in contrast to “imply.” In one of my previous lives I was a civil litigator, and inferences can be a consideration in trying and appealing a case.

When you try a case, you present a bunch of pieces of evidence (witness testimony, photos, other documents) and then you try to convince the jury of your side of the story. [Sidebar: Drives me nuts when TV shows et al say “It’s just circumstantial evidence.” It’s almost always only circumstantial evidence!] Sometimes the type of evidence you have becomes an issue because the jury doesn’t have enough to make a “reasonable inference,” or judges will decide that the inference wasn’t reasonable.

In other words, the jury came up with an answer that wasn’t warranted based on the evidence before them. Given that the standard advice for fiction writers is “Show, don’t tell,” it seemed a parallel situation: sometimes readers come up with an answer you didn’t mean for them to when you “show” them the story.

Let’s take a concrete example: Here’s a letter sent home from an elementary school. Before the letter, Teacher A and Teacher B split the school day between them, with Teacher A taking the morning and and Teacher B taking the afternoon:

We want to notify you of a staffing change that will affect your child. Effective Tuesday…[Teacher B] will be your child’s…virtual teacher in all subjects. Your assistance in making this a smooth transition is deeply appreciated. As always, if you have any questions, please feel free to call. You may also set up a meeting time at 8:30 am. We are confident that this will be a successful school year for your family.

What did the recipients “see” from this?

  • Teacher A was fired.
  • Teacher A quit.
  • Teacher A was taking all the kids attending in person, while Teacher B was taking the virtual classes.

There wasn’t enough evidence from the letter to decide, so inferences were made. The way you would make those inferences would depend on what you thought of Teacher A–her competence, her satisfaction with work; how you would be reacting to the situation; and what you thought or knew about how the school works with staff.

The more you want to control those inferences, the more you have to either “show” more or tell the audience directly. In this case, if you’d seen Teacher A make many mistakes, then you might think she’d been fired—unless your experience leads you to believe that schools never fire anyone that isn’t convicted of a crime.

On the other hand, if you knew Teacher A was immuno-compromised and was really worried about the recent reports that some other staff members had contracted Covid-19, you might think she quit—unless you didn’t know what her insurance situation was and she’s a “Miss,” and you’d never quit a job without having health insurance.

Or, on a foot, if you knew they were having to rearrange staffing because there were more students returning to in-person classes, you might think it’s just a change in terms of how they staff for virtual versus in-person students—unless you know that Teacher A has always done only math and Teacher B has never taught math and you thought they always split classes by subject.

In this case, it would probably have been easiest for the school to simply state that they were rearranging the class loads because more students were returning to in-person classes. But if this were a story, you’d want to give the reader more of the types of information as illustrated by the sorts of things that would fill in the blank.

The more “evidence” you give the reader, the more likely they are to read the story the way you want them to. On the other hand, there are intangibles, like whether the reader liked the character of Teacher A—if not, the reader would be more likely to want the first scenario than if they would if they did like Teacher A.

So if you’re getting feedback about how readers are perceiving a particular situation that’s different than you’d meant for it to be, consider the evidence you’ve given them so far. You have the choice to leave it ambiguous (“Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn.”) or to make it clearer. You can’t control all the inferences, as illustrated above, because of preconceived ideas the reader brings with them to the reading, but, unlike a trial, you can manufacture any evidence you need to get the jury to come to the verdict you want.

Weaving through the Crucchi

The Garden of Angels by David Hewson

 Rachel’s Random Resources Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want to go to Nazi-occupied Venice and see it through the eyes of a young man grappling with his identity.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 320

Publisher: Severn House

ARC provided by Rachel’s Random Resources

WWII historical fiction

From the publisher: The Palazzo Colombina is home to the Uccello family: three generations of men, trapped together in the dusty palace on Venice’s Grand Canal. Awkward fifteen-year-old Nico. His distant, business-focused father. And his beloved grandfather, Paolo. Paolo is dying. But before he passes, he has secrets he’s waited his whole life to share.

David Hewson has created a taut snapshot of a few days in Nazi-occupied Venice through the eyes of a young weaver and those whose stories intersect his own. The frame story is set in Venice of 1999, but the main action is in Venice of 1943, when 18-year-old Paolo finds himself confronted with the world outside his hidden retreat set in the garden of a long-abandoned palazzo. His neighbors thought the isolation was because he was gay, a fact Paolo has mostly stayed unaware of, knowing that his family was also considered outsiders by the insular Venetians.

Imagination was a place he’d usually avoided. Particularly of late. There were corpses there, eyes open, looking at him.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

Paolo must confront the basic question raised by the Nazi occupation: Does he stand aside, and hope the storm passes him, or does he act, whether to collude with the Germans to help himself out of the poverty the war has brought or to resist them? It’s a question most of the book’s non-Jewish characters ask themselves at some point. Paolo’s moment comes at the insistence of the parish priest Filippo Garzone, who believes that inaction is not a choice.

There were occasions, it seemed, when the right decision was beyond a simple man like him. To act or do nothing? Both might end in bloodshed, for guilty and innocent alike.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

I haven’t been reading many WWII era books of late, but I made an exception for this one because it is set in a part of the war I know less about. The invasion of Allied troops helped split Italy in half between the southern royalist government and the northern Mussolini one, which was, effectively, a puppet of Hitler. Venice was in the northern half. This sobering book gave a lovely introduction to the people and geography of Venice. Hewson’s pride of elegant and measured, giving the story the respect it deserves.

The city on the water was spared most of this since it lived at the edge of the conflict, a precious gilded prison too beautiful for the horrors Italy was seeing elsewhere.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

The framing works quite well, as Nico provides a counterpoint to his grandfather’s story. No one in the 1990s wants to talk about the war, preferring to boil it down to its barest essence, so Nico is left on his own to puzzle out how the veracity of his grandfather’s account. Not surprisingly, Nico is unnerved by the idea of his grandfather’s sexual identity being something other than completely heterosexual. The frame also helps build the tension for the main story, as Paolo insists that Nico keep it to himself, that he’s not to share it with his father.

If the fact a couple of men in extremis should get close to one another is …weird…I hate to think what you’ll make of life later on. Unless you lead a dull one.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

Hewson manages to avoid creating characters of unrelenting good or evil, allowing us to see that all of them are human, making choices that are good or evil instead. The text highlights how well-meaning people can drift into a totalitarian state, which is part of the enduring fascination with the Third Reich: how do ordinary people end up committing the atrocity of the Holocaust? He also does a good job of presenting the pressures the Germans (which the Venetians call the Crucchi) put on the inhabitants of the country they occupy, and how those pressures warp people.

That was one of the lessons I think he was trying to teach me: evil wasn’t special. There was no need for extraordinary villains with scars and wicked, dark glints in their eyes. It was ordinary, mundane, a part of the city, a lurking virus within us all.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

The character who best exemplifies the grays of the story is Luca Alberti, a former police officer turned liaison with the Nazis. Alberti is hard to get a grasp on, as he lies to himself as much as to anyone else. He’s somehow likable despite his alignment with the Crucchi, although the Venetians generally view him with contempt. Perhaps his motives are more than self-serving, but each reader will have to render judgment.

Dust and the remains of insects rose like a golden mist in the lamplight as he unhinged the bronze clasp on the cover and let the contents breathe for the first time in years.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

The Garden of Angels is an absorbing tale, both for its imagining of wartime Venice and the themes it raises of how to deal with oppression in the present and with memories of the past.


Spotlight: Random Things Tours

A Beautiful Spy by Rachel Hore

Pages: 413

Publisher: Simon and Schuster

ARC provided by Random Things Tours

Interwar spy novel

Book excerpt

Summer 1928

It all began at a garden party in a leafy provincial suburb. ‘Don’t dawdle, dear,’ called Mrs Gray, hurrying ahead along the front path.

Minnie sighed as she shut the wooden gate then followed her mother round the side of the white-painted mansion with reluctant footsteps. They passed beneath an arch of tumbling pink roses and out onto a sunny terrace overlooking a rolling expanse of lawn dotted with people and stalls selling home- made jam and baked goods.

From here she surveyed the busy gathering with dismay. There were a few people she recognized, but they were mostly her mother’s friends, middle-aged women in frumpy hats and floral frocks, some with their husbands in tow. At twenty-one, it seemed that Minnie was the youngest person here. How she wished she’d never come.

‘Look, there’s Sarah Bowden. Come on, Minnie!’ Mrs Gray, bright-eyed and purposeful, propelled her daughter across the grass to where a willowy lady in navy was queuing by a snowy canopy where teas were being served.

‘Betty darling,’ Sarah Bowden cried in welcome, carmine lips curving in her foxy face. ‘And Minnie. So sweet of you to keep your mother company. I’m here on my own. Ernest had a bowls match, wretched man.’

‘I’m not being sweet, Mrs Bowden, there was nothing else to do.’ Minnie had never warmed to beady-eyed Mrs Bowden. ‘Tennis was called off and Mother wouldn’t leave me moping at home, would you, Mother?’

‘Really, Minnie,’ her mother muttered. ‘Do you have to be so honest? I’m sorry, Sarah, sometimes I don’t know what to do with her.’

‘Poor dear Minnie,’ Mrs Bowden murmured, patting Minnie’s arm. ‘It won’t be much fun for her here.’ She glanced around and her voice dropped. ‘Honestly, Betty, look at the men. The ones that aren’t old and married are hardly a young girl’s dream.’

Mrs Gray scanned the crowd with a predator’s eye. ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ she said briskly, ‘there are one or two nice younger ones. Don’t slouch, Minnie. It’s not attractive.’

They took their turn at the rows of white crockery and there was a pause while they collected cups of tea and finger sandwiches. Minnie slid a slab of warm marble cake onto her saucer then licked her fingers, causing her mother to frown.

Mrs Bowden narrowed her eyes and whispered above the rattle of cups, ‘Did you hear that Mr Chamberlain himself is expected?’

Mrs Gray’s expression clouded. ‘His wife didn’t mention it when I saw her at last week’s committee meeting.’

‘Didn’t she?’ Mrs Bowden said happily. ‘There are rumours, you know, that he’s to switch to our constituency in the next election to be sure of a good majority.’

‘I know about that. Minnie, I’ve told you how important Mr Chamberlain is becoming in the House of Commons. It would be something for you to meet him.’

‘If you say so,’ Minnie murmured, long bored by the sub- ject of the Chamberlains, though secretly she supposed that encountering Neville Chamberlain would be special. Not only was he one of Birmingham’s MPs, but he was the son of the renowned Victorian statesman Sir Joseph Chamberlain. Now what was wrong? Her mother was inspecting her in a critical manner. My hair, probably. Minnie touched a hand to her new blonde crop and worried whether the style suited her.