The Black Mountain by Kate Mosse #NovNov22

Week 4 in Novellas in November is Contemporary novellas (post 1980)

The Black Mountain by Kate Mosse (136 pages) 3*

This is a Quick Reads publication – a series of short books by bestselling authors and celebrities. They are designed to encourage adults who do not read often, or find reading difficult, to discover the joy of books. I like the long novels Kate Mosse writes, so I wondered what this short novel would be like.

It is historical fiction set in May 1706 on the northern part of the island of Tenerife, where Ana and her family live in the shadow of a volcano, known locally as the Black Mountain. It’s also a murder mystery – Ana’s father Tomas had apparently committed suicide, but Anna just can’t accept that and reading the letter he’d left she is convinced it was murder. She is determined to find out the truth.

Legend says the mountain has the devil living inside it and when the devil was angry he sent fire and rocks up into the sky. However, there has been no eruption for thousands of years and no one believes it is a threat. Sometimes the earth trembled and shook but the sky never turned red. Until, that is two days after Tomas’ death. He had seen the signs that the mountain was about to erupt and had tried to warn people – but they didn’t want to know. When more tremors occur, and grey ash starts falling Ana realises the danger signs are increasing and she needs to warn people that they must flee before the volcano erupts and destroys their world.

I enjoyed this novella, reading it quickly, feeling almost as though I was also in danger as the Black Mountain threatens to erupt and wondering if Ana would discover the truth about her father’s death in time for her to escape.

The Black Mountain is based on a real historical event. The town of Garachio erupted from May 4 to 5, 1706, which was disastrous not only for the town but also for the entire archipelago. Its port concentrated a large part of the international trade that linked the island with Europe, Africa and America.

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I’ve read a few of the Quick Reads. Here’s a list of all the available titles.

Two Short Reviews: Coffin Road by Peter May and The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

Two more short reviews as I try to catch up on the books I’ve been reading. Both are excellent books, each one with a great sense of location and descriptive writing bringing the scenes and characters vividly to life.

First, Coffin Road by Peter May, is a standalone novel, set on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. I read it because I loved his Lewis trilogy. There are 3 strands to the story. There’s a mystery surrounding a man, washed up during a storm on a deserted beach on the Isle of Harris. He is wearing a life jacket, is battered and bruised – and has no idea who he is or where he is. The only clue to why he is living on Harris is a folded map of a path named the Coffin Road and following the route marked on the map he finds some hidden beehives that are familiar to him. In the second strand DS George Gunn investigates the murder of a bludgeoned corpse discovered on a remote rock twenty miles to west of the Outer Hebrides. And thirdly, a teenage girl in Edinburgh is desperate to discover the truth about her scientist father’s suicide.

It is fast-paced, almost impossible to put down, and full of intrigue and mystery. Each strand of the story kept me guessing, wondering what the connections between them were. It’s tense with the sense that time is running out for all the characters and I wasn’t sure whether any of them were reliable narrators or were who they appeared to be.

In addition the bees have a major role in the story. All the facts about the bees slot seamlessly into the story and I learned quite a lot about bees that I didn’t know before, especially their role in climate change.

The Wonder is a very strange story. It’s uncomfortable reading, but I felt I just had to read it. And although it moves at a slow pace I read it quickly in large chunks. It is tense, full of atmosphere and just like Coffin Road, I found it almost impossible to put it down, such is the power of Emma Donoghue’s storytelling.

The plot is simple: it is set in a small village in the Irish Midlands in the 1850s. Eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell stops eating, but remains miraculously alive and well. A nurse, Lib Wright, trained in the Crimea by Florence Nightingale, and a nun, Sister Michael are hired by a committee of influential locals to spend two weeks observing her to make sure she is not being fed secretly.

Lib observes Anna in scrupulous detail, noting Anna’s symptoms. At first she seems a healthy little girl but as the two weeks go by she develops worrying symptoms – downy cheeks, scaly skin, blue fingertips, and swollen lower limbs and hands. Lib begins to realise that it is not just a question of how Anna is managing to exist without food, but also why. What is motivating Anna to persist in saying she is not hungry and doesn’t need to eat? The answer seems to lie in her religious beliefs, and maybe religious hysteria is playing a part as well as the clash between medical science and faith. But is there more to it? Lib wonders about the family’s relationships and the effect of Anna’s brother’s death just a few months before Anna stopped eating.

As Donoghue explains in her author’s note The Wonder is an invented story, inspired by almost fifty cases of so-called Fasting Girls in the British Isles, Western Europe and North America between the 16th and 20th centuries. A film of the book is available on Netflix, but I don’t think I could bear to watch it.

The Island by Victoria Hislop: A Short Post

I have been struggling to write posts recently. I haven’t been able to settle down to writing after finishing a book, either because I’m too eager to read the next book, or like Heavenali I’ve been so distracted and mithered by other things going on in my life, mostly minor that shouldn’t really bother me, but do, that I am finding it hard to concentrate on writing.

So, that is why I haven’t written about a number of books I read earlier this year. Some of them are books that qualify for the Wanderlust Bingo CardThe Island by Victoria Hislop, The Fellowship of the Ring by J R R Tolkien, The Night of the Mi’raj by Zoë Ferraris and Coffin Road by Peter May. These aren’t the only books I’ve read that need to write about, but it’s a start.

The first one I’m writing about is The Island by Victoria Hislop, her debut novel and one of my TBRs. It’s been on my bookshelves for years and I did start reading it soon after buying it, but I didn’t get very far and put it back on my bookshelves. Since then I’ve read three other books by Victoria Hislop and enjoyed them so I decided to try it again, especially as it fills the Island Square (set in Greece) on the Wanderlust Bingo card. I began reading it in August, when I took it away with me, visiting family, but didn’t find much time to read it and had to set it to one side. After I returned home I went on to read other books until October when I picked it up once more.

It is historical fiction set in Plaka on the island of Crete and in Spinalonga, a tiny, deserted island just off the coast of Plaka. I wasn’t very sure I would like it when I read the first chapter about Alexis Fielding longing to find out about her mother’s past. Sofia had never told her anything about it and all that Alexis knew was that Sofia had grown up in Plaka, a small Cretan village before moving to London. She gave Alexis a letter to take to an old friend, Fotini, promising that through her she will learn more. And once Fotini entered the story I was hooked as she told what had happened to Sophia’s grandmother, Eleni and her daughters, Anna and Maria after Eleni caught leprosy and was sent to live on Spinalonga.

Beginning before the Second World War the story moved between Plaka and Spinalonga and I loved all the details of Elena’s life on Spinalonga, but then when the narrative moved on to describing her daughters’ lives I began to lose interest. Instead of a fascinating historical novel about leprosy it changed into a historical romance, which I didn’t enjoy as much as the earlier part of the book. Overall, I think it’s too long and drawn out, and the ending is a bit too neat. So I’m giving this book 4*, combining 5* for Eleni’s story and 2-5* for both the beginning and the ending.

I’m hoping to write similar short posts for the other three books.

Book Beginnings & The Friday 56: Nemesis by Rory Clements

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading. You can also share from a book you want to highlight just because it caught your fancy.

Today I’m featuring Nemesis by Rory Clements, the third book in his Tom Wilde series, historical fiction set in the Second World War. I’ve read books 1, 2, 4 and 5. It’s probably better to read them in sequence, but I’ve found they read well as standalone books. I am about to start this one.

This was the best day of his life, watching his beloved boy, here in this ancient chamber of light.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice, where you grab a book and turn to page 56 (or 56% of an eBook), find one or more interesting sentences (no spoilers), and post them.

Page 56:

Why was the door open?

He stood on the front doorstep, as his eyes adjusted to the gloom. Across the road, beside the fenced-off garden at the centre of the square, he thought he saw shadowy movement. At first he dismissed it, but then, he heard voices too.

RORY CLEMENTS is a Sunday Times bestselling author. He won the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Award for his second novel, Revenger, and a TV series of the John Shakespeare novels is currently in development. 

Synopsis from Amazon:

In a great English house, a young woman offers herself to one of the most powerful and influential figures in the land – but this is no ordinary seduction. She plans to ensure his death . . .

On holiday in France, Professor Tom Wilde discovers his brilliant student Marcus Marfield, who disappeared two years earlier to join the International Brigades in Spain, in the Le Vernet concentration camp in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Wilde secures his release just as German tanks roll into Poland.

Meanwhile, a U-boat sinks the liner Athenia in the Atlantic with many casualties, including Americans, onboard. Goebbels claims Churchill put a bomb in the ship to blame Germany and to lure America into the war.

As the various strands of an international conspiracy begin to unwind, Tom Wilde will find himself in great personal danger. For just who is Marcus Marfield? And where does his loyalty lie?

A brilliantly intelligent, gripping WW2 spy thriller from the Sunday Times bestselling author of Corpus and Hitler’s Secret.

What do you think? Would you read it?

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson

Random House UK| 27 September 2022| 440 pages| e-book Review Copy| 2.5*

Synopsis from Amazon

1926, and in a country still recovering from the Great War, London has become the focus for a delirious new nightlife. In the clubs of Soho, peers of the realm rub shoulders with starlets, foreign dignitaries with gangsters, and girls sell dances for a shilling a time.

At the heart of this glittering world is notorious Nellie Coker, ruthless but also ambitious to advance her six children, including the enigmatic eldest, Niven whose character has been forged in the crucible of the Somme. But success breeds enemies, and Nellie’s empire faces threats from without and within. For beneath the dazzle of Soho’s gaiety, there is a dark underbelly, a world in which it is all too easy to become lost.

With her unique Dickensian flair, Kate Atkinson brings together a glittering cast of characters in a truly mesmeric novel that captures the uncertainty and mutability of life; of a world in which nothing is quite as it seems.

My thoughts:

Kate Atkinson is one of my favourite authors, so I was expecting to enjoy Shrines of Gaiety. But it took me a while to settle into this book and for quite a while I wasn’t at all sure that I wanted to carry on reading. But I persevered and finished it, because I wanted to find out what happened.

The novel begins just before the General Strike in May 1926. What I liked about it is that it does give a good idea of life in the 1920s, the atmosphere and attitudes after the First World War. There’s the nightlife, the new nightclubs, gangsters, corrupt police, and missing girls, drugs, drinking, crime and murder. The ‘dark belly’ of Soho’s underworld was very dark indeed and the gaiety superficial.

However, my problem with it was I found it confusing, with several plot lines and lots of characters, in lots of different locations, and at different times, and the narration jumps around between all of them. I had to keep backtracking to work out who was who and how they interacted. It was hard work! And some of it was boring, with quite a lot of padding, making the book as a whole far too long. It’s a sprawling story that could probably have been better spread between two or even three books.

In her Author’s Note Atkinson explains that inspiration for her novel came from the life and times of Kate Meyrick, who for many years was the queen of Soho’s clubland. Many of the details for the novel are taken from her autobiography, Secrets of the 43 Club and Atkinson also cites Barbara Cartland’s autobiography, We Danced All Night and several other works as sources for the novel. But although based on fact and including real people this is very much a work of fiction and she lists several details that she has invented.

Shrines of Gaiety has all the ingredients I love in a novel, but for me it didn’t hold my interest. Sometimes timing is everything and this may be just a case of the wrong book at the wrong time for me.

My thanks to Random House for an ARC via NetGalley.

Miss Austen & Godmersham Park by Gill Hornby

In January I read Miss Austen by Gill Hornby, but despite enjoying it I didn’t write about it then. And in September I read Godmersham Park. Both are based on Jane Austen and her relationships with family and friends.

Miss Austen is the untold story of the most important person in Jane’s life – her sister Cassandra. After Jane’s death, Cassandra lived alone and unwed, spending her days visiting friends and relations and quietly, purposefully working to preserve her sister’s reputation. Set in 1840, Cassandra in her ’60s, visits Isabella Fowle following the death of her father, the Reverend Fowle when Isabella is packing up her parents’ belongings so that a new reverend can move in. Cassandra is convinced that her own and Jane’s letters to Eliza Fowle, the mother of Cassandra’s long-dead fiancé, are still somewhere in the vicarage. Eventually she finds the letters and confronts the secrets they hold, secrets not only about Jane but about Cassandra herself. Will Cassandra reveal the most private details of Jane’s life to the world, or commit her sister’s legacy to the flames?

I was surprised by how much i enjoyed this book as I don’t usually like spin-offs, sequels or prequels of my favourite books, but I really enjoyed this book as Cassandra relives her life with Jane, revealing what life was like for spinsters living in the early 1800s. It is different from Jane Austen’s own novels but still manages to recreate that flavour of her novels that I have loved ever since I first read Pride and Prejudice. It’s very well researched, a novel that held my attention from the beginning right to the end. A definite 4.5 star book.

I didn’t enjoy Godmersham Park quite as much as Miss Austen. It is the fictionalised life of Anne Sharp, employed as the governess to Fanny, Jane Austen’s niece. Fanny’s father was Edward Austen, who was adopted by the wealthy Knight family (Thomas Knight was a cousin), taking their name in 1812. Anne became one of Jane’s closest friends.

Little is actually known about Anne as Gill Hornby acknowledges in her Author’s Note. So the story of her early life before her arrival in 1804 at Godmersham Park is a ‘fiction, fashioned out of the biographies of other, contemporary genteel ladies who found themselves working as governesses.’ But the two years she spent working for the Austen family were recorded by Fanny in her diaries and so Gill Hornby has closely followed her account. Henry Austen, Jane’s favourite brother was a regular visitor at Godmersham and Jane, Cassandra and their mother visited too during those two years.

Anne had no experience of teaching, but was left with no alternative as her mother had died and she had to find employment. She found it difficult – treated neither as a servant nor as one of the family, she risked dismissal if she overstepped the mark. Similarly she found that Henry Austen’s attention put her in the most awkward situations. But when Jane visited she was able to relax in her company and the two struck up a friendship.

I can’t quite put my finger on why I find this novel not as good as Miss Austen. But it moves at a slower pace and apart from the mystery that surrounds Anne’s father, I didn’t find it as absorbing – there’s that anticipation in Miss Austen of will Cassandra find the letters and what will they reveal. In parts Godmersham Park came over to me as just a tiny bit flat and I never grew as fond of Anne as I did of Cassandra. Having said that, I did enjoy this book enough to give it 3.5 stars.

Undercurrent by Barney Norris

This is another short review of a book I read in the summer and didn’t manage to review before I went away on holiday. I really enjoyed it.

Random House| 25 August 2022| 257 pages| e-book Review Copy| 4*

Blurb:

Years ago, in an almost accidental moment of heroism, Ed saved Amy from drowning. Now, in his thirties, he finds himself adrift. He’s been living in London for years – some of them good – but he’s stuck in a relationship he can’t move forward, has a job that just pays the bills, and can’t shake the sense that life should mean more than this. Perhaps all Ed needs is a moment to pause. To exhale and start anew. And when he meets Amy again by chance, it seems that happiness might not be so far out of reach. But then tragedy overtakes him, and Ed must decide whether to let history and duty define his life, or whether he should push against the tide and write his own story.

Filled with hope and characteristic warmth, Undercurrent is a moving and intimate portrait of love, of life and why we choose to share ours with the people we do.

A few years ago I read Turning for Home by Barney Norris and thought it was a moving book with emotional depth. Undercurrent has very much the same tone, plumbing the same depth of emotion, as he tells the story of a family’s grief and loss as well as love.

The main story centres around Ed and his immediate family, but the narrative includes the stories of his grandparents and great grandparents. He had a troubled childhood, living on a farm in Wales with his mother, stepfather and stepsister, Rachel. His mother wants him and Rachel to take over the farm when she dies, but neither of them want to, which leaves Ed feeling guilty and frustrated. But when his mother becomes seriously ill and dies he has to make a decision.

It’s also the story of his grandparents and great grandparents, beginning in 1911 in India when Arthur, an Englishman met and later married Phoebe a young Indian teenager. When the First World War broke out they moved to England and Arthur enlisted in the navy. She never got over leaving India and sank into depression and melancholy. Their son, Leo, was greatly affected by his mother’s mental illness and caring for her and the farm became too much for him, resulting in tragedy. The women in the family followed the same pattern as Phoebe – following the men, their lives changing for better or worse.

I don’t feel I have done justice to this novel, finding it quite difficult to review. It’s a quiet thoughtful book that explores the nature of our relationships and emotions. The central theme is the pull of home, that sense of belonging, of attachment to a place, and how our past has shaped our lives. Alongside this there is the desire for a new life, and new experiences. It is beautifully written.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy via NetGalley.

White Rose, Black Forest by Eoin Dempsey

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This is the second of several short posts as I try to catch up with writing reviews of books I read earlier this year.

White Forest, Black Rose by Eoin Dempsey is a World War 2 novel which is different from other books set during the War that I’ve read before, told from the perspective of a German who opposed the Nazis. It is set in the Black Forest, Germany in 1943, where Franka Gerber is living alone in an isolated cabin, having returned to her home town of Freiburg after serving a prison sentence for anti-Nazi activities.

It is December and the Forest is blanketed in deep snow when she discovers an unconscious airman lying in the snow wearing a Luftwaffe uniform, his parachute flapping in the wind. Taking him back to the cabin she saves his life, but whilst he is unconscious she hears him speak in English and so it seems that he is not who she first thought he was. Both his legs are broken and, having been a nurse, Franka is able to set the bones, and tries to discover his true identity. Trapped in the cabin they both gradually reveal details of their past lives and learn to trust each other.

It is a tense, claustrophobic novel and as soon as he is able to walk they decide to leave the cabin and so begins a race against time, as they are hunted by the Gestapo. Can they trust each other enough to join forces on a mission that could change the face of the war and their own lives forever?

White Rose, Black Forest is a novel inspired by true events, although the author doesn’t clarify what is fact and what is fiction. I enjoyed it, especially the historical aspects. The White Rose movement in Germany was a non-violent intellectual resistance group in Nazi Germany, who conducted an anonymous leaflet and graffiti campaign that called for active opposition to the Nazi regime.

It slots into the Forest box in the Wanderlust Bingo card and is also one of my TBRs, a book I’ve owned since 2018.

Throwback Thursday: The Remorseful Day by Colin Dexter

Today I’m looking back at my post on The Remorseful Day by Colin Dexter, the last Inspector Morse book. I first reviewed it on August 2, 2015.

My review begins:

Chief Inspector Morse is one of my favourite fictional detectives (maybe even the favourite). I first ‘met’ him years ago in the ITV series Inspector Morse and so, just as Joan Hickson is forever in my mind as Miss Marple and David Suchet is Poirot, John Thaw is Morse. The series was first broadcast in 1987, but I don’t intend to write about the books versus the TV adaptations – I’ve enjoyed both. This post is just about the last book in the series – The Remorseful Day.

Click here to read my full review

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The next Throwback Thursday post is scheduled for September 29, 2022.

Book Beginnings & The Friday 56: All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading. You can also share from a book you want to highlight just because it caught your fancy.

Yesterday I finished reading Shrines of Gaiety, Kate Atkinson’s new book which will be published in September. I’ll write about it in a later post. Although I’m still reading The Return of the King and The Island, I wondered what I’d like to read next. I was thinking of reading  Lion by Conn Iggulden, the first in a new series ‘The Golden Age’, set in Ancient Greece in the 5th century BC. But, today I wasn’t in the mood for ancient historical fiction and fancied something more rural and more modern – and spotted All Among the Barley in a pile of books waiting to be read. It’s set on a farm in Suffolk just before the Second World War.

Prologue

Last night I lay awake again, remembering the day the Hunt ran me down in Hulver Wood when I was just a girl.

And then Chapter 1:

My name is Edith June Mather and I was born after the end of the Great War. My father, George Mather, had sixty acres of arable land known as Wych Farm; it is somewhere not far from here, I believe. Before him my grandfather Albert farmed the same fields, and his father before him, who ploughed with a team of oxen and sowed by hand.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice, where you grab a book and turn to page 56 (or 56% of an eBook), find one or more interesting sentences (no spoilers), and post them.

Page 56:

Unlike Doble, whose family had been tied to ours for generations, John was what we in the village called a ‘furriner’, having been born sixty miles or more north of us, where our clay gave way to flat, rich peat.

Synopsis from Amazon:

WINNER OF THE EU PRIZE FOR LITERATURE

‘BOOK OF THE YEAR’ NEW STATESMAN, OBSERVER, IRISH TIMES, BBC HISTORY MAGAZINE

The fields were eternal, our life the only way of things, and I would do whatever was required of me to protect it.


The autumn of 1933 is the most beautiful Edie Mather can remember, though the Great War still casts a shadow over the cornfields of her beloved home, Wych Farm.

When charismatic, outspoken Constance FitzAllen arrives from London to write about fading rural traditions, she takes an interest in fourteen-year-old Edie, showing her a kindness she has never known before. But the older woman isn’t quite what she seems.

As harvest time approaches and pressures mount on the whole community, Edie must find a way to trust her instincts and save herself from disaster.

I chose this book because earlier this year I enjoyed Melissa Harrison’s novella, Rain: Four Walks in English Weather, which is about four rain showers, in four seasons, across Wicken Fen, Shropshire, the Darent Valley and Dartmoor. I like the way she writes about the natural world and All Among the Barley looks as though it will bring to life a world governed by the old rural traditions, in an evocation of place and a lost way of life.

What do you think? Have you read this book ?