The Ship That Never Was: The Greatest Escape of Australian Colonial History by Adam Courtenay

ship that never was.jpgTitle: The Ship That Never Was: The Greatest Escape of Australian Colonial History

Author: Adam Courtenay

Genre: History, Non-fiction

Publisher: ABC Books/HarperCollins

Published: 21st May 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 336

Price: $29.99

Synopsis:
The greatest escape story of Australian colonial history by the son of Australia’s best-loved storyteller

In 1823, cockney sailor and chancer James Porter was convicted of stealing a stack of beaver furs and transported halfway around the world to Van Diemen’s Land. After several escape attempts from the notorious penal colony, Porter, who told authorities he was a ‘beer-machine maker’, was sent to Macquarie Harbour, known in Van Diemen’s Land as hell on earth.

Many had tried to escape Macquarie Harbour; few had succeeded. But when Governor George Arthur announced that the place would be closed and its prisoners moved to the new penal station of Port Arthur, Porter, along with a motley crew of other prisoners, pulled off an audacious escape. Wresting control of the ship they’d been building to transport them to their fresh hell, the escapees instead sailed all the way to Chile. What happened next is stranger than fiction, a fitting outcome for this true-life picaresque tale.

The Ship That Never Was is the entertaining and rollicking story of what is surely the greatest escape in Australian colonial history. James Porter, whose memoirs were the inspiration for Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of his Natural Life, is an original Australian larrikin whose ingenuity, gift of the gab and refusal to buckle under authority make him an irresistible anti-hero who deserves a place in our history.

~*~

There are many stories within the realms of national and international history that are not known, or where there might not be as much known about them as some, usually for a variety of reasons. One of these is the escape of ten convicts from the worst convict prison in Australia in the 1830s. James Porter was transported in 1823, for stealing a sack of beaver furs. He was sent to what was then known as Van Diemen’s Land – renamed Tasmania in 1856. He made several attempts to escape from the penal colony, and as a result, was sent to the notorious Sarah Island.

It was not long until Governor George Arthur declared Sarah Island would be closing, and the inmates moved to the infamous Port Arthur prison. Porter and a band of inmates took this chance to take control of the ship they were on – the Frederick, and escaped across the seas to South America, where they lived in Chile for many years as free men, before being sent back under the authority of the British colonial government at the time.

Told in a style that is engaging, whilst dealing with the historical facts and vents of a little-known convict and mutiny, I found this interesting to read, as it expanded upon what I have previously been taught and have read about Australian history. Whilst much is known about colonial era history, there are still stories that haven’t been told about various aspects – and having access to these stories allows us to wholly understand where Australia came from in the years of penal colonies and convict arrivals from 1788 until the transports ended in 1868, though different colonies stopped their transportations at different times.

It reads as both non-fiction and fiction – not overly embellished, but still capturing the spirit of the times and adventure that Porter wrote about in his journal. The author, Adam Courtenay, writes about Porter with fascination, yet allows himself to see the flaws and exaggerations that Porter wrote of, explaining in the text that the facts found in historical records about floggings and the details of how far punishments could be taken or were taken alongside Porter’s experience. What this does is show that even first person accounts that historians rely on are not always reliable, and I felt, even though I have only read the uncorrected proof, that Courtenay took what he had from Porter with a grain of salt and compared it to other accounts, and historical records to create his book.

In doing so, Courtenay has created a work that sparks an interest in this person and era, but also shows that good research is crucial – I would be interested to see if the final copy includes a bibliography, for further reading, and to show what sources he was able to find, as I imagine a little-known story such as this might not have as many sources as stories and legends that are well-known within the national consciousness.

As someone who has studied history, I know to examine various sources and accounts, just as it appears Courtenay has done. I will be looking for more information on Porter where I can, to supplement this book and build a larger picture of this man who managed to escape from Tasmania to Chile and live for several months to at least a year or two without being sent back. An intriguing book that shows that Australian history is more complex than we are originally taught.

Booktopia

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Book Bingo Ten – A forgotten classic

katherine mansfield.jpg

The second last square I have to fill for this book bingo round is a forgotten classic. For this square, which completes Row One Down and Row Four Across, I read Selected Stories by Katherine Mansfield – the Oxford University Press edition in their World Classics series.

I’m doing something a little different this time, including a full review rather than a summary of one for this book.

About the book:

‘I was jealous of her writing. The only writing I have ever been jealous of.’ Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf was not the only writer to admire Mansfield’s work: Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, and Elizabeth Bowen all praised her stories, and her early death at the age of thirty-four cut short one of the finest short-story writers in the English language.

This selection covers the full range of Mansfield’s fiction, from her early satirical stories to the subtly nuanced comedy of ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’ and the macabre and ominous ‘A Married Man’s Story’. The stories that pay what Mansfield calls ‘a debt of love’ to New Zealand are as sharply etched as the European stories, and she recreates her childhood world with mordant insight. Disruption is a constant theme, whether the tone is comic, tragic, nostalgic, or domestic, echoing Mansfield’s disrupted life and the fractured expressions of Modernism.

This new edition increases the selection from 27 to 33 stories and prints them in the order in which they first appeared, in the definitive texts established by Anthony Alpers.
ABOUT THE SERIES: For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the widest range of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, helpful notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more.

The edition I read was published in 2008 and can be bought for around $19.95.

~*~

The 33 stories are set in the years before, during and just after World War One, and they give glimpses into a life and society that Katherine grew up in, capturing moments in time – and that therefore, need to be understood in the context of the time and place Katherine was writing in – an early twentieth century England, after a childhood spent in New Zealand, experiences that would have contributed to her world view and the way she wrote.

Each story is its own entity, though there are three or four that involve the same family, and are connected but can also be read as lone stories as well as consecutively and still understood within their individual and collective contexts.

Like many writers, Katherine Mansfield was influenced by the time and places she lived in, and the Great War – a war that inspired many authors, including Katherine’s friend and admirer, Virginia Woolf. I first read several of these short stories during an English course, and read the rest for the book bingo challenge this post is part of.

Katherine Mansfield has a way with words where she hints at what has happened, and where it isn’t always clear, but her stories that end on an ambiguous note such as The Garden Party, are perhaps some of her most interesting stories. With each story very different, the characters show the length and breadth of Katherine’s experiences and encounters in her life. I did wonder which one in my collection, if any had been inspired by what her family had lost during World War One, or if that is relegated to another collection if she wrote one like that at all/

Of all the classics, I have found that not as many people know about Katherine Mansfield compared to other authors such as Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, and May Gibbs – which is why I have slotted her into this square for this bingo round. Prior to a university course, I had never heard of her, and I feel she is one of those authors who deserves more recognition.

book bingo 2018.png

 

 

Row #1 – – BINGO

A book set more than 100 years ago: Rose Raventhorpe Investigates: Hounds and Hauntings by Janine Beacham – AWW2018

A book with a yellow cover: Tin Man by Sarah Winman

A book written by an Australian woman:The Tides Between by Elizabeth Jane Corbett – AWW2018

A forgotten classic: Selected Stories by Katherine Mansfield

A book that became a movie: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Row #4 – BINGO

 

A forgotten classic: Selected Stories by Katherine Mansfield

A book with a one-word title: Munmun by Jesse Andrews, Thunderwith by Libby Hathorn – AWW2018

A book with non-human characters: Monty the Sad Puppy by Holly Webb

A funny book: Grandpa, Me and Poetry by Sally Morgan

A book with a number in the title: Four Respectable Ladies Seek Part-Time Husband by Barbara Toner – AWW2018

Six Tudor Queens #3: Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen by Alison Weir

haunted queen.jpgTitle: Six Tudor Queens #3: Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen

Author: Alison Weir

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia/Headline Review

Published: 8th May 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 532

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: The third stunning novel in the Six Tudor Queens series by foremost and beloved historian Alison Weir

JANE SEYMOUR: THE HAUNTED QUEEN by historian Alison Weir, author of the Sunday Times bestsellers KATHERINE OF ARAGON: THE TRUE QUEEN and ANNE BOLEYN: A KING’S OBSESSION, is the third enthralling novel in the SIX TUDOR QUEENS series. A fascinating look at Henry VIII’s third wife. Essential reading for fans of Philippa Gregory and Elizabeth Chadwick.

‘Weir is excellent on the little details that bring a world to life’ Guardian

THE WOMAN HAUNTED BY THE FACE OF HER PREDECESSOR.

Eleven days after the death of Anne Boleyn, Jane is dressing for her wedding to the King.

She has witnessed at first-hand how courtly play can quickly turn to danger and knows she must bear a son . . . or face ruin.

This new queen must therefore step out from the shadows cast by Katherine and Anne – in doing so, can she expose a gentler side to the brutal King?

JANE SEYMOUR
THE THIRD OF HENRY’S QUEENS

HER STORY

Acclaimed, bestselling historian Alison Weir draws on new research for her captivating novel, which paints a compelling portrait of Jane and casts fresh light on both traditional and modern perceptions of her. Jane was driven by the strength of her faith and a belief that she might do some good in a wicked world.

History tells us how she died.
This spellbinding novel explores the life she lived.

~*~

Jane Seymour was third wife of King Henry VIII during Tudor times in the 1500s, and she married him eleven days after Anne Boleyn was beheaded. But Jane’s story of her time at court began in 1529, when at the age of twenty, she was sent to be a lady in waiting to Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, for whom she came to respect deeply and was very loyal to her. Things changed over the next six years as Henry divorced Katherine to marry Anne Boleyn – and Jane was witness to this and the harsh treatment Henry doled out to Katherine and daughter, Mary, to declare the marriage wrong and his daughter illegitimate. Jane’s loyalty to Katherine was soon pushed aside – to keep the peace – when Henry married Anne 1533 – a three-year marriage during which Anne gave birth to a daughter – Elizabeth – and miscarried two children and gave birth to a still born son. Jane became queen in the years after – until her death twelve days after the birth of her son Edward in 1537, which is where the novel ends.

Alison Weir’s third book in this series focuses on Jane’s rise to a position she never dreamed or thought she would obtain. It covers her entire life at court, and her family’s pushing to get her to allow the King’s attentions, and their eventual joy at her marriage and pregnancies, the last of which results in the heir that Henry so desperately wants. As it is a historical novel, it is known that Jane dies – yet not what her life at court was like.

We see her serve two queens in this novel – two very different queens, and this tests her loyalties to the true queen, and again to Anne, during difficult times in her marriage, and when Henry starts to take notice of Jane – she does her best to encourage his loyalty to Anne, whilst following the demands and expectation of her family to allow Henry’s attentions, but also, to keep a safe distance. So for most of the book, Jane grapples with her hatred for what Anne did to Katherine, whilst trying to reconcile what she is doing. It is an intriguing novel, and as Alison Weir notes at the end, one she speculated on a bit, based on research and lack of facts, and varying interpretations – such as the ones about Jane’s character that show her as compliant, virtuous and an instrument of an ambitious family – Jane’s marriage to Henry ensured powerful positions for her brothers, or as one who took part in Anne’s downfall, and as ambitious as her family members – something, Weir notes, that has no middle ground and that Weir has found historians must choose a side – in this novel, I felt she chose the former, showing Jane’s ambition but also her loyalty, and how she felt when things were hidden from her, such as what really happened to Anne.

Within the realms of this novel, Alison plays with the idea that the hurried marriage after Anne’s death was due to Jane being pregnant – as Weir states, Jane Seymour’s life and biography is not always complete, so there are times she has imagined what had to happen using the cues in her research and gaps in history – much the same as she did with Jane’s death – she took her research to a medical professional, to posit a possible diagnosis – the results of which make reading the author’s note interesting as well.

This was a novel that was rich with character and history, showing that this period of history is more complex than is usually told in other books and media. Jane’s story ties in with the first two books in the series – Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen and Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession. It would be interesting to read those to see how Jane fares and plots that link up in each one, and the characters who are woven into each one, and who I can only wonder if they’ll appear in the next three in the series. Jane’s story is quite interesting – I did some research after reading and found that Henry only married again three years after her death – which left me wondering, as did the way he is seen in this novel – if Jane was someone he truly loved – her sudden death would have pained him, as Alison Weir shows.

I thought Alison did an excellent job of showing as many sides to all the characters as possible, making them interesting and evocative as they moved through a court that faced conflict, plague and issues of religion, and family loyalty and pressure. As Jane goes through her brief reign as queen, she is haunted by the ghost of Anne Boleyn – and throughout these sleepless nights, we come to learn her fears and nightmares – which make the novel all the more intriguing and well worth the read if you are interested in this area of history.

The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse

the burning chambersTitle: The Burning Chambers

Author: Kate Mosse

Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia

Published: 24th April 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 608

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: Bringing sixteenth-century Languedoc vividly to life, Kate Mosse’s The Burning Chambers is a gripping story of love and betrayal, mysteries and secrets; of war and adventure, conspiracies and divided loyalties…

Carcassonne 1562: Nineteen-year-old Minou Joubert receives an anonymous letter at her father’s bookshop. Sealed with a distinctive family crest, it contains just five words: SHE KNOWS THAT YOU LIVE.

But before Minou can decipher the mysterious message, a chance encounter with a young Huguenot convert, Piet Reydon, changes her destiny forever. For Piet has a dangerous mission of his own, and he will need Minou’s help if he is to get out of La Cité alive.

Toulouse: As the religious divide deepens in the Midi, and old friends become enemies, Minou and Piet both find themselves trapped in Toulouse, facing new dangers as sectarian tensions ignite across the city, the battle-lines are drawn in blood and the conspiracy darkens further.

Meanwhile, as a long-hidden document threatens to resurface, the mistress of Puivert is obsessed with uncovering its secret and strengthening her power…

~*~

In 1562, France is caught in a war between the Catholics and the Huguenots – a Protestant movement who faced persecution from the Catholics and were called heretics. Carcassonne and Toulouse are at the centre of this novel, where Minou Joubert is charged with taking care of her brother – Aimeric, sister – Alis and the bookstore that her father owns in his absence when she stumbles upon a Will, and a note delivered to her, inscribed with She knows that you live. And so, Minou sets off on a journey to discover the person behind the note and find her father, and ask about her past, and makes discoveries that will forever change her life. Amidst this mystery, is the backdrop of religious conflict between the Catholics and the Huguenots, the latter considered to be heretics, and the ownership of a Protestant Bible feared. On her journey, Minou meets Piet Reydon, a Huguenot convert, who has his own mission. Their missions and tasks will cross paths, leading to a confrontation where it seems those who want them dead, such as the mistress of Puivert, where Bernard Joubert was headed, might just succeed.

The Wars of Religion in France were a sequence of eight civil wars between the Catholics and the Huguenots, ending in millions dead or displaced over the thirty-six-year conflict. If modern wars are much to go by – I don’t think very much has changed since the 1560s.  In a time of darkness and brutality, Kate Moss has done an excellent job showcasing this dark history for what it was, and what it meant to so many – that two factions of the same religion, who followed the same God, and a similar religious text to fall into war seems unfathomable these days, yet for people like Minou and Piet, was very real, and very harsh.

It is a very long book – dense with historical fact, and strong women who did what they could to fit in, were strong and brave and yet at the same time, appropriate for their time – they knew what they had to do, and how to act. Minou, the main character, is caught between these wars and her heritage – she has always known she is not quite like her family – and the way Mosse has dealt with this ensures the mystery is intriguing and holds its own for the entire book, and is also sensitive, showing that Minou’s heritage was something that was worth another woman pursuing her over, going to extreme lengths to draw Minou into her deluded game of cat and mouse. It is this mystery that drives the novel, and the shorter chapters in italics are at first a mystery, making the reader wonder who this person could be – until later in the novel, when things start to become a little clearer, but are still a little murky and need to be resolved. Opening 300 years in the future in South Africa – a time and place that we will hopefully return to soon, hints at what is to come, in a strange yet mystical way. What connection do these characters have with those in 1562?

It is a dark history, and the book is one that a genre cannot be pinned down to. It has history, mixed with suspense, with a touch of romance woven throughout that happens as the war progresses, with the dark, gothic backdrop and mystery that influence everything the characters do. The reader is swept up into the story, living in these times along with the characters, which shows that Kate Mosse’s sense of time and place is evocative and highly emotive.

This is the first in a series. with book two, The City of Tears, due in 2020. A rather long time to wait, but given the depth of this book, will be well worth it for the deepening research that Kate Mosse will be undertaking for it.

Thanks to the NSW Writer’s Centre for a copy of this to read

Book bingo nine – a book of short stories, and an award-winning book.

book bingo 2018

This week, I’m knocking off two more squares, leaving me with two more before I embark on a second card for the second half of the year – which will include new reads and some previous reads from this year that had several categories to fit into, but I ended up choosing one. In this week’s bingo, I have also completed two more rows across,

Row #2 – BINGO

 

A book with a yellow cover: Tin Man by Sarah Winman

A book by an author you’ve never read before: The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge by Kali Napier – AWW2018

A non-fiction book: Spinning Tops & Gum Drops: A Portrait of Colonial Childhood by Edwin Barnard

A collection of short stories: Australia Day by Melanie Cheng – AWW2018

A book with themes of culture: The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

Row #3:  BINGO

A book written by an Australian woman:The Tides Between by Elizabeth Jane Corbett – AWW2018

A book written by an Australian man: The Opal Dragonfly by Julian Leatherdale

A prize-winning book: Miles Franklin: A Short Biography by Jill Roe – AWW

A book that scares you: The Good Doctor of Warsaw by Elisabeth Gifford

A book with a mystery: Olmec Obituary by LJM Owen – AWW2018

And one row down, Row three, the middle row:

Row #3: – BINGO

A memoir: Skin in the Game: The Pleasure and Pain of Telling True Stories by Sonya Voumard

A non-fiction book:Spinning Tops & Gum Drops: A Portrait of Colonial Childhood by Edwin Barnard

A prize-winning book: Miles Franklin: A Short Biography by Jill Roe

A book with non-human characters: Monty the Sad Puppy by Holly Webb

A book everyone is talking about: The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris – AWW2018

Australia DayThe square for a book of Short Stories in row three across and down, was filled by one that is also an award winner and has a yellow cover – but that I had not read in time to fill the yellow cover square, is Australia Day by Melanie Cheng. It won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards this year for the fiction category. It is a series of short stories about Australians from various backgrounds and walks of life, full of diversity and difference, and the attitudes towards people in each of these groups. It is a reflection on who we are as a nation as well, digging into the Australia that is perhaps less laidback, more complex and at times, not as ideal as the image of Australia we want everyone to have is – whether it is race, gender, socioeconomic status or a combination of those. It is bookended by two stories that take place on Australia Day itself and the clashing of cultures and ideas about the day and the nation that illustrate the day is not the same for everyone, in a myriad of ways.

Miles Franklin Short BioMy second, and 23rd book of this book bingo card, is an award-winning book. Miles Franklin: A Short Biography by Jill Roe – an abridged version of her longer one, which won three awards in nine and eight years ago:

Queensland Premier’s Literary Award – 2009

South Australian Prize for Non-Fiction – 2010

Australian Historical Association Magarey Medal for Biography – 2010

The interesting story of Miles Franklin’s life fills this category, because I thought it was rather fitting that the biography of a woman who has two literary prizes named for her – one endowed upon her death in her Will – The Miles Franklin Literary Award, and the Stella Prize for Australian women’s writing, which was inaugurated in 2013. Miles Franklin is primarily known for her literary prowess and the awards named for her – and for being a feminist. This biography shows much more of her life and what she did over her lifetime for literature and politics.

I’ve been enjoying doing this book bingo with Mrs B and Theresa Smith – I perhaps let my enthusiasm get away with me in marking off squares but in doing a second round, I at least will have some of the books read already and can space them out a bit more.

Until next time!

Booktopia

Miles Franklin: A Short Biography by Jill Roe

Miles Franklin Short BioTitle: Miles Franklin: A Short Biography

Author: Jill Roe

Genre: Non-fiction, biography

Publisher: HarperCollins, 4th Estate

Published: 23rd April 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 432

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: Author, union organiser, WW1 volunteer, agitator, nationalist, Miles Franklin dedicated her life to many causes, none more passionately than Australian literature. Propelled to fame aged only twenty-one in the wake of her bestselling novel, My Brilliant Career, she never achieved the same literary success, but her life was rich and productive. She rose to the position of secretary of the National Women’s Trade Union League of America; served in a medical unit in the Balkans; was a first wave feminist in the US, Britain and Australia; published sixteen novels as well as numerous non-fiction books and articles; and maintained friendships and correspondences with a who’s who of poets, novelists, publishers, activists and artists.

If her extraordinary achievements in life were not enough, her endowment of the Miles Franklin Literary Award on her death ensured she would never be forgotten. In 2013, the Stella Prize for Australian Women’s Writing, named in honour of Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin was awarded for the first time, enhancing her reputation further.

This abridged edition of Jill Rowe’s award-winning biography introduces a new generation of readers to the indominable Miles Franklin – a pioneer of Australian Literature whose legacy founded our most prestigious literary prize.

Prizes won since the original was published in 2008:

Queensland Premier’s Literary Award – 2009

South Australian Prize for Non-Fiction – 2010

Australian Historical Association Magarey Medal for Biography – 2010

Jill Rowe passed away in 2014 and is honoured with the Jill Rowe Prize.

~*~

AWW-2018-badge-roseBorn in 1879, twenty-two years before the states and territories federated as the Commonwealth of Australia, and twenty-three years before suffrage became a reality for many Australian women in 1902, Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin would grow up to become one of Australia’s best-known and one of the most celebrated Australian women writers. She lived a remarkable life across Australia, Britain, Europe and the US, was always busy, and always involved in unions and activism. She was brave, and headstrong, and Jill Roe’s biography captured her willingness to follow her dreams and stand up for what she believed in. Her life was fascinating and diverse, from writing to involvement in war, and in unions and first wave feminism in three countries, working to bring women the vote.

Growing up near Tumut, with a large family, Miles, unlike her sisters, never married and never had children. Instead, she embarked on a career and in activities that were unexpected of women at that time, but that she found herself drawn to, and put her energies into these efforts. A prolific writer whose most famous book remains My Brilliant Career, she wrote another series under a nom de plume that she wouldn’t give anything away about and was able to keep up the charade for many years, up until her death.

Reading this biography, I learnt many things about Miles Franklin that I had not known beyond her impact on the literary world in Australia. She ensured that Australian literature would always be recognised through the Miles Franklin Literary Award, and championed an Australian literary culture, that, perhaps without her passion for it, we may not have around to enjoy so thoroughly today. It was a rich and fascinating life, and one that is far more than just one of Australia’s most celebrated novelists. What she achieved and worked towards in her lifetime was amazing and even in this abridged edition, the essence of her life and Jill Roe’s words still exist wholly and the reader can still enjoy it and gain an understanding of Miles Franklin as a whole person and not just a novelist.

The Book of Colours by Robyn Cadwallader

book of colpursTitle:  The Book of Colours

Author: Robyn Cadwallader

Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Publisher: HarperCollins/4th Estate

Published: 1st May 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 368

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: From Robyn Cadwallader, author of the internationally acclaimed novel The Anchoress, comes a deeply profound and moving novel of the importance of creativity and the power of connection, told through the story of the commissioning of a gorgeously decorated medieval manuscript, a Book of Hours.

London, 1321: In a small shop in Paternoster Row, three people are drawn together around the creation of a magnificent book, an illuminated manuscript of prayers, a book of hours. Even though the commission seems to answer the aspirations of each one of them, their own desires and ambitions threaten its completion. As each struggles to see the book come into being, it will change everything they have understood about their place in the world. In many ways, this is a story about power – it is also a novel about the place of women in the roiling and turbulent world of the early fourteenth century; what power they have, how they wield it, and just how temporary and conditional it is.

Rich, deep, sensuous and full of life, Book of Colours is also, most movingly, a profoundly beautiful story about creativity and connection, and our instinctive need to understand our world and communicate with others through the pages of a book.

~*~

AWW-2018-badge-roseIn the fourteenth century, bookmaking was an art, a combination of trades, where a scribe or scrivener, would write the manuscript, a limner would illuminate the text, and finally, the book binder, who would bring the parchment pages together within leather bindings.  In 1321, Will Asshe is an apprentice to a small shop that creates illuminated religious texts for wealthy clients, under John, and his wife Gemma, who have their own secrets about who really decorates the manuscripts of the books of hours that Wat Scrivener delivers to them, ordered by noblemen for their families and prayer purposes. Will is an apprentice to John, and he watches Gemma as she paints and writes a book calledThe Art of Illuminationto pass down her son – each chapter begins with a section from the book Gemma is working on. As each person works on their own section in preparation for the book binder, they realise that they each have to find a way to work together and not let their own ideas of power or what the book should be take-over – it is a commission for Lady Mathilda, whose story is woven throughout the book, with her sections in 1322, when she has the book, and is sharing it with her daughters – interspersed with the intriguing and complex process that had delivered the book to her and the risks that those who created it took, with a backdrop of famine, and war that divided loyalties and affected businesses and the dealings they had with Lady Mathilda.

As the mysteries thicken and loyalties are questioned. those working on the book will find themselves questioning what they are doing and why, and what will happen if their secrets are revealed.

The Middle Ages are a period where religion was a strong, often defining force in people’s lives, and where the classes were often more defined, as were expectations of what men and women could do. As in this book, it is the male limners given the credit, though Gemma certainly had an important role to play – it is possible she represents the female limners who were never accepted into the guilds for the profession but nonetheless undertook limner work on valued manuscripts such as a book of hours.

What I enjoyed about this book was the way the book of hours being created for Lady Mathilda reflected the personalities of Will, Wat and Gemma, and John – whose contributions to the book and hushed secrets about its creation and why things happened as they did have to be kept for as long as possible from Southflete, the head of the guild, and the worry of what would happen if he found out. The plot and the characters flowed together effectively and the power that they each exercised – not just over the book and their duties, but over each other, and family.

I also enjoyed the prominence of the role of women – Lady Mathilda as a noblewoman, and Gemma as a wife, mother and limner, who had been taught to paint and read by her father as a child. The power these women have is temporary and can be taken away in an instant, but when they have power, they hold onto it and yield it to garner the best outcomes for themselves, their duties and their families. At the same time, they use the power within the confines of their time and place, and to their advantage, whilst maintaining the subordinate position expected of them by those around them.

Throughout the book, the characters are linked by the creativity they exhibit – through words, through painting and through using the pictures to tell a story if they can’t read, and the marginalia that decorated the book alongside the larger, religious images, and the communication of ideas through an image that to all but those in the know, might not understand the meaning behind it.

Overall, it is a book of creativity and mystery, set against a backdrop of uncertainty for all, and where a manuscript such as the one created in this book had immense value and hid the secrets of its creators and those who ordered it.

An interesting book for those who enjoy stories about power and history, and where the relationships weave in and out of the story, but don’t define every aspect of it.

Booktopia