Lords of St Thomas by Jackson Ellis

Published: 10th April 2018Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Green Writers Press
Pages: 180
Format: ebook
Genre: Historical Fiction
★   ★   ★   ★ – 4 Stars

In the Mojave Desert, at the southern end of the isolated Moapa Valley, sat the town of St. Thomas, Nevada. A small community that thrived despite scorching temperatures and scarce water, St. Thomas was home to hardy railroad workers, farmers, shopkeepers, teachers, and a lone auto mechanic named Henry Lord.

Born and raised in St. Thomas, Lord lived in a small home beside his garage with his son, Thomas, his daughter-in-law, Ellen, and his grandson, “Little” Henry. All lived happily until the stroke of a pen by President Coolidge authorizing the construction of the Boulder (Hoover) Dam. Within a decade, more than 250 square miles of desert floor would become flooded by the waters of the Colorado River, and St. Thomas would be no more.

In the early 1930s, the federal government began buying out the residents of St. Thomas, yet the hardheaded Henry Lord, believing the water would never reach his home, refused to sell. It was a mistake that would cost him―and his family―dearly.

Note: I was provided with a copy of this book for review

This may only be a quick read but it is an engaging and captivating story. It crosses two points in time, when our narrator Henry is a young boy and when he is an old man. These two points in time alternate but the story mainly focuses on the earlier time period. I enjoyed this change because from the opening I was expecting the story to go another way and I am glad it went in the direction it did.

The story is about home and the past. It is also about family. Ellis has written a fascinating story that questions all of this and weaves it together with style and seamlessness. The two periods rest side by side and Ellis uses the narrator’s voice to give us all the information we need without heavy exposition. Instead it is woven through and details are revealed at intervals when they are pertinent. Little Henry tells the story of his childhood living in St Thomas and the changes that come about when there is a threat to the town with the construction of the new dam. As a non-American I was interested in the history the story shows about the development of the dam and even though Ellis has fictionalised it, there are pictures included at the end that show where his inspiration came from.

This story could easily have been longer but I am glad Ellis has kept it short. It has a lot more power and through the narrative and dialogue all the information we need has been included without it become too wordy. The character development is all there and through Henry’s reflections and observations we gain more insight into characters whose voices we don’t often get to hear. Ellis shows well and doesn’t often tell and even with his few observations there is a lot said in a few words. The imagery is also wonderfully vivid and I could picture everything Henry is telling us, from the small run down school room to the encroaching water and hard dry desert.

There is heartache and mystery but there is also a bittersweet reality that I really liked. The hardships the family endures and the drama around their lives takes it toil but there is also strong family bonds. The novel takes place across the decades of the 20th century and seeing the changes from the 1930s to the 1990s and beyond not only shows to contrast in the environment, but also in the progress of humanity and it is a reminder of what life was like in those early years. It certainly has a lot of poignancy and intrigue and to capture all that in 180 pages is a wonderful feat.

You can purchase Lords of St Thomas via the following

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Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Published: 1st May 2007 (print)/3 December 2015 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Algonquin Books/Lamplight Audio
Pages: 335/11 hrs and 26 mins
Narrator: David LeDoux, John Randolph Jones
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Historical
★   ★   ★ – 3 Stars

When Jacob Jankowski, recently orphaned and suddenly adrift, jumps onto a passing train, he enters a world of freaks, drifters, and misfits, a second-rate circus struggling to survive during the Great Depression, making one-night stands in town after endless town. A veterinary student who almost earned his degree, Jacob is put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It is there that he meets Marlena, the beautiful young star of the equestrian act, who is married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. He also meets Rosie, an elephant who seems untrainable until he discovers a way to reach her. 

After years of having this book on my shelf and after even more years of wanting to read it. I have finally read Water for Elephants! I actually chose the audiobook and it was a good listen. There are two narrators, one for young Jacob and one for elderly Jacob and both gentleman did a great job.

The story jumps through time from the present day to Jacob’s early life in the 1930s when he runs away and joins the circus. While the present day begins the story, most of it is told by Jacob’s younger self but there is a constant back and forward, especially in the early chapters. I loved present day Jacob, his thoughts are sardonic and admittedly a bit depressing but there is hope and it is so easy to fall in love with him. He worries about his mind, his memory and while a lot frustrates him, he is a darling.

It was definitely a curious contrast because I loved present day Jacob but twenty three year old Jacob annoyed me a few times. He is a fool but I guess that what comes from being young and naïve, especially in a world he knows nothing about.

The story is heartbreaking at times and tough in terms of content. With an audiobook I definitely had to turn the volume down while I was driving on occasion with some of the animal abuse but thankfully you could tell it was coming and Gruen is restrained in her descriptions so they don’t last long. A lot of it reinforces character development and while it is tough, it was also a reality of the time and the treatment of animals in the circus.

There is diversity of the characters and Gruen sets up the class system well for the train layout and the circus employees. And while it was not essentially part of Jacob’s story, I enjoyed that Gruen manages to casually slip in the prejudices against the African-Americans and other folk as they travelled the various American towns.

There’s hope and triumph through the story but there’s a bittersweet reality to it as well. The stories have always been around about the reality of circuses in those days and while the circumstances were rough, it is also fascinating when you see how many were in operation and makes you realise how amazing it is for those that survived.

This isn’t a history of circuses, but it is a good story about the life of being on a circus, and especially one that isn’t real. The ending was the crowning glory. After hearing Jacob’s life story and seeing his present day circumstances Gruen concludes this story in the best way possible. I barely remember the movie but I know it was a bit different to the book. There is a lot of padding and I was surprised when it was revealed a lot takes place over a few months because it felt like a lot longer as the story was happening. I’m glad I finally read it and while it was enjoyable, I will admit a small part of me found it a tad underwhelming.

You can purchase Water for Elephant via the following

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Dymocks | WorderyAngus and Robinson

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Beauty in Thorns by Kate Forsyth

Published: 3 July 2017 (print)/ August 2017 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
 Vintage Australia/Wavesound Audio
Pages: 464/19 hours
Narrator: Juliette Burton
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Historical Fiction
★   ★   ★   ★   ★  – 5 Stars

The Pre-Raphaelites were determined to liberate art and love from the shackles of convention. 

Ned Burne-Jones had never had a painting lesson and his family wanted him to be a parson. Only young Georgie Macdonald – the daughter of a Methodist minister – understood. She put aside her own dreams to support him, only to be confronted by many years of gossip and scandal.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was smitten with his favourite model, Lizzie Siddal. She wanted to be an artist herself, but was seduced by the irresistible lure of laudanum. 

William Morris fell head-over-heels for a ‘stunner’ from the slums, Janey Burden. Discovered by Ned, married to William, she embarked on a passionate affair with Gabriel that led inexorably to tragedy.

Margot Burne-Jones had become her father’s muse. He painted her as Briar Rose, the focus of his most renowned series of paintings, based on the fairy-tale that haunted him all his life. Yet Margot longed to be awakened to love. 

Bringing to life the dramatic true story of love, obsession and heartbreak that lies behind the Victorian era’s most famous paintings, Beauty in Thorns is the story of awakenings of all kinds.

Once again Forsyth has written a beautiful book that is filled with beauty, history, and heartache. I had been looking forward to reading this book and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The lives of the Pre-Raphaelites is tragic and inspiring, and to be swept up into their world was a vivid adventure.

This retelling of Sleeping Beauty explores the life of the famous artists who called themselves the Pre-Raphaelites. It was an area of history and art I knew little to nothing about but discovering their story thorugh this book was delightful.

Forsyth brings their stories to life with such detail and expression, and I marvelled at how these characters are more than character, they are people from history who contributed to the world and who brought their art and passion to the public.

What I found absolutely marvellous is that I could look up the halls of the Oxford Union Debating Chamber and see the murals in their completion whilst listening to the story about their creation. Seeing the completed works of these historical figures and putting real faces to the names is a delight that historical fiction can bring, especially when Forsyth does such a wonderful job keeping it as close to historically accurate as possible, with her own fairy tale mastery woven through.

The narration shifts between all of the character offering up a rounded perspective of their experiences and characters. The passion of Rossetti and the tragedy of Lizzie, as well as the brilliant and fascinating men and women who surrounded them is fascinating to read about. The story moves slowly but not dully, the exploration of character and the creation of art is fulfilling. With multiple characters to explore Forsyth balances their introductions and their voices very well, each having depth and complications that make you understand who they are and who they were.

I was fascinated about how so many known people from history connected to these characters, Kipling and Bernard Shaw all connect with these artists and Forsyth has blended their stories together beautifully. This is a wonderful skill I have noticed in all of Forsyth’s books. She seamlessly includes a range of information into the story that act like natural conversation and narrative without ever falling into the exposition chunk trap, which makes for a wonderful read but also help define the period and inform readers of the historical aspects of the story. Details about the movements of characters and filling in events that occur during the skipped time fall into place. I often got caught up in the story that when a character mentions people passed away years ago or were married for a certain amount of years I realised how much time had passed and it amazed me that it felt so right to just go on this journey with these character across their entire lives.

Forsyth covers numerous decades over the lives of these artists and their families. Even in the short space of reading this book I felt nostalgic, as these great figures entered their older age and they themselves were reminiscing about their youth. I recalled the chapters when they were young and carefree. I felt like I had gone on this journey with these artists and I empathised with them and pitied them.

When characters like Georgie and Ned reminisce about being young I thought back to the chapters where they were so carefree and idealistic, painting the mural and found myself becoming wistful sad and nostalgic alongside them. It hadn’t been 30 years for me, but I had been on this journey of their lives and seen their struggles and achievements and I wanted to mourn for them and celebrate them in a small way.

Burton does a wonderful job narrating the audiobook. I could picture everything with Forsyth’s words and Burton distinguishes these characters and brings their personalities off the page. Listening to the audio also gave the sensation of storytelling, I was being told a story about these grand artists from long ago and I loved listening to Burton tell me about their lives.

I implore you to look up their artwork when you have finished reading this book, I loved that I could see the finished product of a piece I’d only read about, or see the models that Forsyth describes in her story. It is a benefit of historical fiction and with a wonderful historical fairytale as beautiful as this it was a delight to relive it in a new way.

You can purchase Beauty in Thorns via the following

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Angus and Robinson | Dymocks

Fishpond | Amazon Aust | Amazon | Audible

The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club by Sophie Green

Published: 8th August 2017 (print) / 2nd January 2018 (audio)Goodreads badge
Publisher:
 Hachette Australia / W F Howes
Pages: 418 / 12 hrs and 44 mins
Narrator: Fiona Macleod
Format:
 Audio
Genre: Realistic Fiction/ Historical
★   ★   ★  – 3.5 Stars

Books bring them together – but friendship will transform all of their lives. Five very different women come together in the Northern Territory of the 1970s by an exceptional new Australian author

In 1978 the Northern Territory has begun to self-govern. Cyclone Tracy is a recent memory and telephones not yet a fixture on the cattle stations dominating the rugged outback. Life is hard and people are isolated. But they find ways to connect.

Sybil is the matriarch of Fairvale Station, run by her husband, Joe. Their eldest son, Lachlan, was Joe’s designated successor but he has left the Territory – for good. It is up to their second son, Ben, to take his brother’s place. But that doesn’t stop Sybil grieving the absence of her child.

With her oldest friend, Rita, now living in Alice Springs and working for the Royal Flying Doctor Service, and Ben’s English wife, Kate, finding it difficult to adjust to life at Fairvale, Sybil comes up with a way to give them all companionship and purpose: they all love to read, and she forms a book club.

Mother-of-three Sallyanne is invited to join them. Sallyanne dreams of a life far removed from the dusty town of Katherine where she lives with her difficult husband, Mick.

Completing the group is Della, who left Texas for Australia looking for adventure and work on the land.

Five different women united by one need: to overcome the vast distances of Australia’s Top End with friendship, tears, laughter, books and love.

I’m not sure what I was expecting from this book, but I know it wasn’t what I got. The title leads you to believe there is a bigger focus on the bookclub, but it is a small part really. It does kick start the events in the novel essentially. It brings together these five women and starts to interlock their lives over the next few years. So it does make sense if you think of it like that.

As a whole I enjoyed it. I liked the old fashioned rural aspect to it and in a way you forgot it was set in the 1970s. So much of it just spoke of country life and female friendships that the era was no barrier. When I remembered that it was set in the past it made me think a bit more about it. Green shows us what it was like on a farm back then, how isolating it was when there were no internet to connect properties to the outside world, when flying or driving for an hour got you to the nearest town and other human contact. Of course the same is true for rural properties now, but there is a lot of focus on how when the weather turned, you really could be cut off from the outside world for months with no news or contact.

The characters are what really drive this story. Each of their lives and the conflicts within them are the focus of the story and are what keep you reading; finding out if they’ll be ok, whether their anxieties will be relieved and how their lives will change through the course of their actions and the actions of others. Their friendship is inspiring and Green uses their bookclub catch ups to connect their stories and enhance these friendship connections further.

Green balances the story nicely between making it an easy read, and making it realistic. There are dramas and heartbreak, social issues and personal triumph and tragedy. It was warm and showed the importance and value of female friendships but had complexities and anguish as well. Crossing over multiple years helps explore these issues as well. Green jumps ahead in time, using the wet and dry seasons as a timeframe as a lot of the story takes place of Fairvale and often skipping over months. I liked that the story covers so much ground because it allows the story to be told properly, never really feeling drawn out or slow, and adding that realism factor and preventing Green from rushing any of the emotional journey to fit into a shorter timeframe.

One thing that stood out was that I did think it ended very abruptly. There was a sense of wrapping up and Green does impart a concluding style to her writing, but when it did end, I was a bit surprised. There are a few quick fixes and easy solutions which felt jarring and strange, often coming from nowhere and feeling out of place, even for the 1980s. It was also strange having gone through a whole book of well laid out storyline only to have a fast resolution it was a noticeable difference.

The historical connections are there with a list of key events for each passing year listed breaking up the novel, another thing that helps demonstrate the passing of time. But they play such a little part in the grand scheme of things that it was easy to forget that this was set in the past.

I’m glad I picked up this book even if I’m still in two minds about the level of my enjoyment. I think Green has done a wonderful thing with her writing because I could easily see this being a very literary novel but she has managed to keep it a normal story but weaving in dramas and that raise it above being a light hearted and fluffy read as well.

You can purchase The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club via the following

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Angus & Robertson | Dymocks

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The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

Published: 8th February 2018 (print) / 1st March 2018 (audio)Goodreads badge
Publisher:
 Raven Book / Bolinda/Audible
Pages: 512 / 16 hrs and 41 mins
Narrator: Jot Davies
Format:
 Audio
Genre: Historical/Crime
★   ★   ★   ★   ★  – 5 Stars

How do you stop a murder that’s already happened?

At a gala party thrown by her parents, Evelyn Hardcastle will be killed–again. She’s been murdered hundreds of times, and each day, Aiden Bishop is too late to save her. Doomed to repeat the same day over and over, Aiden’s only escape is to solve Evelyn Hardcastle’s murder and conquer the shadows of an enemy he struggles to even comprehend–but nothing and no one are quite what they seem.

Deeply atmospheric and ingeniously plotted, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a highly original debut that will appeal to fans of Kate Atkinson and Agatha Christie.

I loved this book. I loved that I was confused, intrigued, amazed, perplexed. I loved that my brain nearly short circuited as I tried to get my head around what I knew, what clues I should be picking up on, weaving together this story told in fractures and out of order and yet happening all at the same time.

Turton takes you on a journey unlike any before to help solve a mystery like you’ve never seen, I cannot believe this is his debut novel. What he has done is incredibly complicated but brilliant. It’s the desire of every detective to see everyone’s perspective of the moments before a murder and with a mystery and a loop trapping the participants, it is the opportune moment to piece together clues and motives. Don’t let the 500 pages daunt you, it’s an intricately woven puzzle that makes use of the space and has the feel of an old fashion mystery, information obtained through observing and questioning, lurking and snooping, and secret meetings in the library.

I loved the loop. I love anything that has a loop factor. Turton plays with this notion creatively and in an odd way it reminds me of playing a computer game and playing the same levels over and over. The first time around you don’t pick the fruit from the tree and you go on but fail. The second time you pick the fruit and can trade it for information with a villager. Turton has done an exceptionally clever job piecing this together so that the reader has no idea what is going on just like our narrator, but as he learns, we learn and it allows us to start piecing together our own theories and suspect lists.

The benefits of knowing how much longer there is in this book is you are almost giddy with anticipation at what could possibly be left to happen. There is even a moment when you think it’s finally solved but there are 3 hours left on the audiobook and then all hell breaks loose again. It’s divine! I listened to this riveted to my seat, unable to do anything else much because I was captured by this story. I couldn’t even try and figure anything out until a moment before I was told I was wrong because of the beautiful chaos and complexities and intricacies that are seamlessly making up this story that here’s no time to do anything except listen dutifully in astonishment.

Turton makes use of every one of these 500 pages and right up until the final moment there is perfect pacing that is just the right speed and intensity that the scene or the character needed. You could feel what these characters felt, you understood who they were. The ongoing stress and impact of these loops is shown believably and cleverly within the novel in a way that affects the story, it can’t even just be an inconsequential act, Turton makes sure every act that is taken has meaning and an affect somewhere within this house and for its occupants.

I basically stopped doing anything so I could focus on this story, I listened with intensity for the final third of the book unable to stop listening such was the fascination I had developed. I have never read anything quite like this before, similar stories exist for sure, but what Turton has done, mixing these styles together is genius and unique and I loved every second of it. I genuinely cannot believe this is a debut novel and I certainly wait with anticipation what Turton will come up with next.

You can purchase The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle via the following

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Amazon | Amazon Aust | Wordery

Angus & Robertson | Dymocks

 Fishpond | QBD

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