The Secret Books by Marcel Theroux

the secret books.jpgTitle: The Secret Books

Author: Marcel Theroux

Genre: Literary Fiction

Publisher: Faber Fiction

Published: 27th September, 2017

Format: Hardback

Pages: 352

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: A world on the brink of catastrophe. A two-thousand-year-old mystery. A lost gospel. Both a page-turning adventure and an examination of the stories that humans are willing to kill and die for.

Seeking adventure, a young man flees the drudgery of shopkeeping in Tsarist Russia to make a new life among the bohemians and revolutionaries of 19th century Paris.
Travelling undercover in the mountains of British India, he discovers a manuscript that transforms the world’s understanding of the historical Jesus.
Decades later, in a Europe threatened by unimaginable tragedy, he makes a despairing attempt to right a historic injustice.

This breathtaking novel by the award-winning author of Far North and Strange Bodies tells the extraordinary tale of Nicolas Notovitch and his secret gospel.

It is the epic story of a young man on the make in a turbulent world of spies and double-cross, propaganda and revolutionary violence, lost love and nascent anti-semitism – a world which eerily foreshadows our own era of post-truth politics.

Based on real events, The Secret Books is at once a page-turning adventure and an examination of the stories that humans are willing to kill and die for.

~*~

With most historical fiction novels, it is easy to delineate between the history behind the story, and the fictional elements the author has employed – whether it is characters, or integration of time travel, employed in books such as the Outlander series, or an alternate history, where elements can be changed but some aspects remain historically the same to ensure a degree of authenticity. The Secret Books by Marcel Theroux takes these aspects and turns them on their head, making the reader question what is real, and what is not, and in doing so, has written a clever piece of literary fiction that captures a figure and a moment in time linked to his family, and that interrogates the Pali Gospels, looking at the lost years of Jesus in a historical context, with a touch of spirituality thrown that illuminates the doubt that the religious scholars the main character interacted with had when he presented them with his theories.

Nicolas Notovitch was a real person, the one who looked into these lost years and tried to bring them to the attention of the world, suggesting that the gospels had somehow ignored these years in favour of spreading the message they wanted. At the same time, it explores the journey Nicolas took that led him to these gospels, and down a path of love, marriage and fatherhood, beginning during the late nineteenth century and moving forward into the early decades of the twentieth century, the First World War and eventually, the beginnings of the Second World War. Nicolas’s obsession with proving the existence of these books will cost him – he does not know what until it happens, and I felt him have his heart broken and the rug ripped from beneath his feet. In following a passion for discovering something of historical importance, he had sacrificed the passion and love of family. Prior to discovering these manuscripts and investigating them, Nicolas had escaped his dreary life in Russia for a new bohemian one in Paris, where he meets a variety of characters who introduce him to new ways of thinking such was McGahan, a female journalist in a male dominated world – one aspect that had me questioning whether this was set in current times, a time travel story or whether the author was having a bit of fun with the history – and I feel it was the latter as it left me questioning whether that would have been possible in the time period and social structure of the time.

With each section book-ended by quotes, it was an unusual yet intriguing format that questions what we know about history and what is known about Biblical history, and how these books could alter our understanding of religion and history, and how it might impact religious scholars. It interrogated how people respond to the unknown with fear, something that happens in many areas and places. It was an intriguing book, but one that needs focus to be read, and fully appreciated. It may not be the best before bed book, but it is indeed one that will have an audience out there – and one that can be appreciated by anyone with an interest in history and society.

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The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

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Title: The Bedlam Stacks

Author: Natasha Pulley

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Bloomsbury Circus

Published: 1st August, 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 352

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: An astonishing historical novel set in the shadowy, magical forests of South America, which draws on the captivating world of the international bestseller The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

Deep in uncharted Peru, the holy town of Bedlam stands at the edge of a forest. The shrine statues move, and anyone who crosses the border dies. But somewhere inside are cinchona trees, whose bark yields quinine: the only known treatment for malaria.

On the other side of the Pacific, it is 1859 and India is ravaged by the disease. The hunt for a reliable source of quinine is critical and in its desperation, the India Office searches out its last qualified expeditionary. Struggling with a terrible injury from his last mission and the strange occurrences at his family’s ruined estate, Merrick Tremayne finds himself under orders to bring back cinchona cuttings at any cost and dispatched, against his own better judgement, to Bedlam.

There he meets Raphael, a priest around whom the villagers spin unsettlingly familiar stories of impossible disappearances and living stone. Gradually, he realises that Raphael is the key to a legacy left by two generations of Tremayne explorers before him, one which will prove more dangerous and valuable than the India Office could ever have imagined.

~*~

Ex- East India smuggler, Merrick Tremayne is at home in Cornwall, recovering from an injury to his leg that inhibits activity for him when the India Office contacts him about an expedition to Peru to fetch some quinine to help treat malaria outbreaks in India. Tremayne instantly knows it is a bad idea : every able-bodied explorer has been unsuccessful, paying with their life, so he questions how he, a disabled explorer, will cope, survive and succeed. Lumped with orders to go, Tremayne is accompanied by a friend, Clem, and they venture into Bedlam, a holy town in uncharted Peru that holds many secrets of the past, and a sense of magic and history that will slowly unfold throughout the five parts of the novel, and reveal secrets about a Tremayne ancestor that Merrick had been unaware of. Accompanied by a priest, Raphael, whose presence indicates something a little out of the ordinary, lending to a sense of fantastical and magical realism within the novel.

The Bedlam Stacks is steeped in history and colonialist ideas and expectations of “The Other”, typically seen through Tremayne’s companion, Clem, whose ignorance and the sense that he felt his knowledge was superior came through at times, in contrast to Tremayne, who I felt made the efforts to understand and communicate effectively with Raphael and show his appreciation for what Raphael was doing for him. In 1860, when disability and injury might be more likely to inhibit what one is able to do, Tremayne copes, albeit with help when he needs it, and in what felt realistic, he is shown to struggle, but readers also get to see what he is capable of, in all areas of his person. It is a travel story with a difference, where the explorers are faced with the harsh realities of an unknown world that challenges their sense of being and self, and shows them just how human and vulnerable they are. They need rescuing by locals, and at times, they are shown to be imperfect, punctures to their egos that their upbringing might have inflated.

I liked Merrick’s sense of humility, and ability to stand back and let Raphael talk. It was refreshing to see this move towards equal standing of characters of vastly different backgrounds, much of which are extrapolated through flashbacks, cleverly inserted into the text without disrupting the flow of the story, and the vast majority is told in first person, with the exception of one chapter towards the end that gives the reader insight into Raphael and his past. Raphael’s absences of long periods of time are explained as catalepsy – by Merrick, who hears of Raphael’s symptoms and urges him to see a doctor – perhaps a marker of how he sees the world, juxtaposed with Raphael’s acceptance of things being the way they are. In doing so, Pulley has illustrated how two different worlds collide, and through this collision, have attempted to find a way to communicate.

Throughout the novel, odd things happen at different times, marking this as more than just an expedition into history and unexplored, uncharted areas of the world as they would have been in the 1860s. These instances hint at elements of fantasy and magical realism, and this makes it a very intriguing novel, as the layers of each chapter and part are revealed slowly to bring the story to it’s conclusion and the wrapping up of the characters and their lives, but at the same time, leaving some aspects open for interpretation and maybe another novel.

It was a enjoyable novel, and has made me want to read Natasha’s first novel. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. An enjoyable novel, and highly recommended for fans of historical fiction, mysteries and novels with that little bit of a difference that make them stand out.

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Caraval by Stephanie Garber

Caraval .jpg

Title: Caraval

Author: Stephanie Garber

Genre: Fantasy/YA

Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton

Published: 31 January 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 402

Price: $24.99

Synopsis: Welcome to Caraval, where nothing is quite what it seems.

Scarlett has never left the tiny isle of Trisda, pining from afar for the wonder of Caraval, a once-a-year week-long performance where the audience participates in the show.

Caraval is Magic. Mystery. Adventure. And for Scarlett and her beloved sister Tella it represents freedom and an escape from their ruthless, abusive father.

When the sisters’ long-awaited invitations to Caraval finally arrive, it seems their dreams have come true. But no sooner have they arrived than Tella vanishes, kidnapped by the show’s mastermind organiser, Legend.

Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. But nonetheless she quickly becomes enmeshed in a dangerous game of love, magic and heartbreak. And real or not, she must find Tella before the game is over, and her sister disappears forever.

~*~

Caraval begins with a series of letters between Scarlett and Legend, the owner of Caraval over several years. Trapped on Trisda, one of the Occupied Isles, Scarlett’s only chance of escape, and her sister’s only chance – is the marriage her father, Governor Dragna – has arranged. Scarlett only has letters from her betrothed to go on, and so believes he is a kind man, yet she does not know his name. Scarlett’s mother disappeared many years ago, a mystery that nobody has solved. Scarlett and Tella long to get out from under the control of their father. When tickets arrive from Master Legend they see their chance and, Julian, a sailor, agrees to take them. Little do they know that everyone heading to Caraval will have ulterior motives, and things won’t be what they seem at Caraval.

Set in a fantasy world where dresses change colour and style, and where people are simply actors in a game, controlled by someone with strange powers, Caraval holds back as much as it delivers to the reader. Some secrets are kept secret, and it is not clear who can be trusted – can anyone be trusted? It is a game where participants follow the clues to win a coveted prize – one that some might even kill for – the dangers of Caraval and to Scarlett and her sister, Tella are everywhere, even at Caraval. Scarlett must work out if she can trust Julian – is he who he says he is, or does he know more about the journey to Caraval and her fiancé than he lets on?

Caraval had a nice balance of the fantasy, the adventure, and love – between sisters, and other kinds of love that develop throughout the story. Scarlett’s drive to find her sister is at first driven by her need to get home for her wedding, and is therefore her participation in the game takes time to evolve. Given that she has lived in fear of her father, her change in tactic and self-sacrifice soon comes through and she is caught up in the game, hurtling towards a disastrous series of events she could never see coming – it surprised me, as did the ending. The intrigue carried through the entire novel, and I hope there is a follow-up, because the ending felt complete in some ways but not in others.

A great read for fans of fantasy, Young Adult and a touch of genre blending that creates a storyline that kept me reading for hours. It is a delightful first novel from a debut writer, Stephanie Garber.