Strange Meeting by Susan Hill

strange meeting.jpgTitle: Strange Meeting

Author: Susan Hill

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Allen and Unwin/Profile Books

Published: 23rd May 2018

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 260

Price: $22.99

Synopsis: A story of love and loss in wartime from master storyteller Susan Hill.

Returning to his battalion in France after a period of medical leave in England, John Hilliard, a young officer, finds his division almost unrecognisable. His commanding officer is an alcoholic, there is a new adjutant and several of his close friends have been killed.

But there is David Barton. As yet untouched and unsullied by war, fresh-faced and radiating charm. As the pair approach the front line, bloodied by the deaths of their fellow soldiers, their friendship deepens. But as the reality of the violence sets in, the men know that they will soon be separated…

A poignant novel on human love as war and the pity of war.

~*~

Upon his return to his battalion in France during World War One, or as it was known then, The War to End All Wars, John Hilliard finds those he has fought have changed: several friends are dead, there is a new adjutant he needs to get used to, and his commanding officer has become an alcoholic. As the horrors of war close in, John and his friends have to face the reality of being separated by the violence and the death that starts to suffocate and invade the battlefields and trenches of France. It is a war that they hope will never be repeated, yet it is also a war that they know will happen again – because they know there’s little chance of this war ending all wars to come in the decades after the closure of World War One, or as it was known then, The Great War.

Throughout the novel, it is known that there are battles waging in the trenches of France, and battles of the mind and soul within the soldiers fighting. It is a look at how the war affected a specific person and his specific surroundings – illustrating one of the kinds of experiences that soldiers in the trenches had. It is poignant, especially as 2018 marks the 100th anniversary since the end of World War One.

Hilliard’s interactions with the new arrival, David Barton, who has not been disillusioned by what was known as the excitement of war at the time, he radiates a charm that Hilliard will find hard to let go of – knowing that at some stage, the war will separate them and cast their lives aside.

Strange Meeting is a war novel that is about war, and at the same time, about the humans involved in war, and what is lost both physically and emotionally – the cost of life, and the cost of self as war ravages these young men as they venture into the unknown, with only the hope that they will survive and return home in one piece – and if not in one piece, then at least alive, to their families.

Strange Meeting is a novel that is more literary, and character driven – all we know of the settings is that they are the theatres of World War One in France, and my guess, around 1916-1917, perhaps the Battle of the Somme or Ypres. What is known though, is how these events and all other events of the war have impacted on the men such as Hilliard, and this is what makes it a powerful and poignant novel.

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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

The Beast’s Heart by Liefe Shallcross

the beasts heart.jpgTitle: The Beast’s Heart

Author: Leife Shallcross

Genre: Fantasy

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton/Hachette Australia

Published:  24th April 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 342

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: A richly magical retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, from the point of view of the Beast.

A sumptuously magical, brand new take on a tale as old as time – read the Beast’s side of the story at long last.

My beast’s nose scented cold, and earth, and the faintest tang of magic. Not the same magic that pervaded the house, or even the forest. This was something older and wilder, filled with sadness and decay. Yet at its core was something pure and clear, like the peal of a bell or the heat of a burning ember. Or the colour of a crimson rose.

 

I am neither monster nor man – yet I am both.

I am the Beast.

I know why I was cursed; I know the legacy of evil I carry in my tainted blood. So how could she ever love me?

My Isabeau. She opened my eyes, my mind and my heart when I was struggling just to be human.

And now I might lose her forever.

~*~

Most retellings of the French fairy tale, written in 1740, by Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve, and influenced by the literary fairy tales of authors such as Charles Perrault and Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy. Unlike the fairy tales collected by The Brothers Grimm, which include a similar tale known as The Singing, Springing Lark, Beauty and the Beast was one of the first literary fairy tales recorded, though the specific tale that many retellings are based on oral tales over many years beforehand.

Where many retellings of this tale focus on the perspective of the Beauty – the girl who will break the spell, told in first or third person with this focus, Leife Shallcross’s debut novel takes the traditional fairy tale, and gives it new life, writing it from the perspective of the Beast, and how he deals with his situation and the beautiful girl – named Isabeau in this story – living in his house.

AWW-2018-badge-roseAt the start of the story, the Beast, whom we know to be a prince or at least, a noble from the original and previous retellings, is lonely, and losing track of time. He mentions a Fairy and the curse, and the invisible servants – who see to his every need. When Isabeau’s father, Monsieur de la Noue stumbles across his wintry castle, where seasons don’t occur as they do outside the gates, the Beast and his invisible servants extend hospitality towards him – until he plucks a rise from the rose garden for Isabeau – and a deal is struck: Isabeau must come and stay with the Beast for a year in exchange for her father not being killed. Isabeau agrees, and whilst she is at the castle, the Beast watches her family thrive with gifts he sends them magically, and their fortunes change. As the year goes by, the Beast and Isabeau become friends – but the Beast – as in other reincarnations – begins to fall in love, seeking for her to save him from the curse.

But he can’t tell her this – the Fairy warns him against it and is quite malevolent in the few appearances she makes, and even when the Beast refers to her in his private musings. What I did like was that the Beast did not force Isabeau. Rather, he was hopeful and allowed her to come to him, but also, the respect and friendship they had for each other was more important. It was an exquisitely and enchantingly written story, where lessons must be learned by all, and where forgiveness becomes a large part of the plot – forgiveness of self, forgiveness of family and forgiveness of those who appear to have done the wrong thing. Set in France, in what I imagine is the eighteenth century, it has the same magic of the original and the other incarnations but an originality that no other retelling has come close to capturing. In each retelling, we always know the Beast isn’t the horrid monster some characters, such as Gaston in the Disney version – make him out to be – much like Isabeau’s father does in this novel, and her sisters, Claude and Marie, who are inclined to believe him, are the ones who at first believe their father’s claims but then begin to doubt them, hoping that Isabeau is alive – and it is Marie who is the catalyst for this.

Each character is flawed – not one is perfect, and to this end, I think this worked exceptionally well for this novel. It showed that flaws are everywhere, and that even if we see them in others, we don’t see them in ourselves all the time. Isabeau recognises her own flaws when she goes to live with the Beast and is aware of them. She can also see past his flaws. Yet it is her family she must find a way to reassure, with a father whose stubbornness would see her live at home forever, and sisters who once relied on her for everything, must recognise what they are capable of in her absence, and as a result, make their own fortunes with suitors. Each version of the story has a variance on the siblings the Beauty character has – from the six brothers and sisters of the original, to Belle as an only child in the Disney version, and in this version, the two sisters who work to pull the family through in Isabeau’s absence.

As each character begins to recognise their flaws, I could see them grow to accept what they had to deal with in life – except Monsieur de la Noue, whose resistance illustrated that not everyone adapts to change, or wishes to. Where I loved that his daughters made the best of their circumstances, I found myself wishing he would start doing the same.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. I adore fairy tale retellings, and this is a really good one. It is up there with The Beast’s Garden by Kate Forsyth, which is more of a fairy tale infused historical fiction, and other novels such as Frogkisserthat incorporate fairy tale elements. Whilst this used the traditional elements and tale, turning it around and telling the Beast’s story gave more of an insight into what it must have been like for him, living as a Beast under a curse that only love, and the promise of marriage can break, and return him to his true form. What I most enjoyed as well was that the mysteries of the castle, and magic, and Marie’s letters to Isabeau weren’t solved immediately – the answers to these and many other questions were given gradually.

The chapters where Isabeau was at home for a time were dealt with well, written from the Beast’s perspective as he watched them in his mirror – his window to the outside world. The mirror and the roses were there, as they always are – key aspects to the fairy tale that has sparked many retellings and interpretations over the years.

A delightful read, and one I hope to be able to revisit one day.

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The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

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Title: The Little Paris Bookshop

Author: Nina George

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Abacus/Hachette

Published: 22nd December, 2015

Format: Paperback

Pages: 360

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: On a beautifully restored barge on the Seine, Jean Perdu runs a bookshop; or rather a ‘literary apothecary’, for this bookseller possesses a rare gift for sensing which books will soothe the troubled souls of his customers.

The only person he is unable to cure, it seems, is himself. He has nursed a broken heart ever since the night, twenty-one years ago, when the love of his life fled Paris, leaving behind a handwritten letter that he has never dared read. His memories and his love have been gathering dust – until now. The arrival of an enigmatic new neighbour in his eccentric apartment building on Rue Montagnard inspires Jean to unlock his heart, unmoor the floating bookshop and set off for Provence, in search of the past and his beloved.

~*~

The Little Paris Bookshop takes place along the rivers of Paris and France, where Jean Perdu’s barge acts as a floating library, a literary apothecary where people come in search of words to heal their afflictions of the soul. Jean is unable to heal his own wounds though, and a letter sets him forth on a journey of healing, where he meets several people along the way who help him, including an author who starts to help him heal. It is whilst on this journey that Jean finds the courage to read the letter and seek out those that his beloved knew to find out what he wishes to know.

With a touch of romance, Nina George tells a story that utilises the physical journey of getting from Paris to the French countryside, with the emotional journey of healing after years of pain and wondering. It is a story that utilises the words of authors known and created to help the characters, and even brings a few characters together. As books become a sort of currency for a while, Perdu and his friend, Max Jordan, the author, find their way in the world they are in.

As they hit land, their journey takes them to the home of Perdu’s former lover and her family, where secrets are uncovered, and wounds begin to heal. It takes time, but Perdu hopes he will find his place and accept what he has left.

Initially, Nina George does not name Perdu’s former lover from twenty years ago, at least for a couple of chapters. In doing this, it adds to the sense of mystery about Perdu’s past, and what has led to him working on his barge, supplying his literary apothecary to people along the Seine. I enjoyed travelling to Paris, along the Seine and to Perdu’s final destination of Toulon, and the French countryside and coast. It is a well written book with a lovely story line and wonderfully round characters who have their own flaws and imperfections, which allows the reader to identify with them. Nobody is wholly good or bad, they have shades of grey, and all do and say things that may or may not be liked.

Again, a great read, not too heavy and not too light.