The Muse by Jessie Burton

Published: 26th July 2016 (print)/26th July 2016 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
 Picador/HarperAudio
Pages: 445/1 disc – 12hrs (MP3)
Narrator: Cathy Tyson
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Historical Fiction
★   ★   ★  – 3 Stars

A picture hides a thousand words…

On a hot July day in 1967, Odelle Bastien climbs the stone steps of the Skelton gallery in London, knowing that her life is about to change forever. Having struggled to find her place in the city since she arrived from Trinidad five years ago, she has been offered a job as a typist under the tutelage of the glamorous and enigmatic Marjorie Quick. But though Quick takes Odelle into her confidence, and unlocks a potential she didn’t know she had, she remains a mystery – no more so than when a lost masterpiece with a secret history is delivered to the gallery.

The truth about the painting lies in 1936 and a large house in rural Spain, where Olive Schloss, the daughter of a renowned art dealer, is harbouring ambitions of her own. Into this fragile paradise come artist and revolutionary Isaac Robles and his half-sister Teresa, who immediately insinuate themselves into the Schloss family, with explosive and devastating consequences. 

I actually read this before I read The Miniaturist and since I didn’t like that, I wonder if I would have picked this up. But since I read it before I eagerly took it up and actually rather enjoyed it. It was steady, not obviously exciting or adventurous, but it was interesting and dramatic in its own way. There was a lot of focus on the characters and their interactions with others to create the drama rather than needing too much outside influence, despite the civil war looming in the background in the 30s, which I must say did add its own tension and a wonderful historical reality.

The story has a dual timeline which switches between 1960s London and 1930’s Spain, a connection between the two we’re not sure of until a painting arrives at the gallery where Odelle Bastien has begun working. Burton switches between the 1960s and the 1930s beautifully, mixing the stories together and revealing what needs to be told at the right times, holding back when needed.

I liked that Burton gave us a few intriguing mysteries to ponder. I had theories about them and changed and altered them based on what happened in the story. Of course, some were predictable in hindsight, but there was always a slight chance that I was wrong, and I guess when I had a bet on either side I was going to right either way. I loved Odelle as narrator. I listened to the audiobook so Tyson did a beautiful accent which brought Odelle to life. But even without that, Odelle is a great character, she is a smart, sensible woman, she has pride and respect for herself and while she is a bit timid at times, she is also loyal and curious. This curiosity gets her involved with her employer and starts her on her own investigation into why there are so many unanswered questions and mysteries surrounding not only her employer but also this new, important painting.

There are many intriguing characters in this story. Isaac Robles and Olive Schloss are complicated in their own ways, as is Teresa. The pressure of their era and the secrets that they must keep haunt them and Burton brings this out in their words and their actions, making each one complex and full. The tone changes between each era are subtle but make a huge difference. Burton doesn’t just tell us we’re in the different decade, her writing has a different tone to it that feels freer or more confined, depending what is needed.

I enjoyed where this story went, I became more invested as it went along in both Odelle and Olive’s storylines. I wanted to know the answers as much as Odelle did and I was curious how Burton would approach their reveal. What resulted was a captivating story with twists and turns that actually did surprise me at times. I loved the chaos of the characters and the human motives behind decisions that alter paths completely.

I found myself wanting to keep going, I looked forward to getting back into the story, and with a curiosity of my own I wanted to see how it ended. Burton has created a story that will delight and surprise you in a multitude of ways. It has great a great historical presence across two defining eras of the 20th century, which has been coupled with fascinating characters that bring their own dramas to the page. Even if you weren’t a fan of Burton’s other work (as I wasn’t), give this story a go because it might just surprise you.

You can purchase The Muse via the following

QBD | Booktopia
Amazon | Wordery
Book Depository | Dymocks

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Published: 3rd July 2014 (print)/26th August 2014 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
 Ecco/HarperAudio
Pages: 416/1 disc
Narrator: Jessie Burton
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Historical Fiction/ Magical Realism
★   ★  – 2 Stars

On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office–leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.

But Nella’s life changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist–an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways…

Johannes’s gift helps Nella pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand–and fear–the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation…or the architect of their destruction?

I’ve given it two stars, but by the end of it I wanted to give it 1.5. I was told this was a brilliant read, I did not find this. I persevered and hoped for something to come of it. And not only did I get no real answers, the ending was unsatisfactory and I feel a bit cheated. I don’t know whether this has to do with the magical realism side of the story, but I wasn’t a fan.

The beginning started out ok, after a prologue from an unknown voice we’re introduced to Nella and her arrival at her new life. We’re thrust into Amsterdam in the 1600s and all its glory. Burton makes it easy to understand while still having the gravitas it needed and the seriousness to understand Nella’s predicament, and her style of writing feels like it suits the era and is easy to comprehend.

I settled into the story and got used to Nella and the other characters. I was intrigued, I was curious. It does start to go a bit stale and as part two hit I was weary but something finally seemed to be happening. This didn’t last though and the story dragged on. I think Burton tried to include too much. There’s the historical story happening with sugar, plus a lot of religious elements and political components. On top of that is Nella’s place and the mystery of the miniaturist. It makes for a heavy story and one that takes a lot of pages to tell.

Some parts were predictable and it was a case of waiting for the book to catch up with what you already suspected. Other times it felt like every second chapter had a typical twist of some kind and it got to the point it was just “Oh, another twist, sure, why not’. I will give Burton some credit, she actually followed through on a few things I thought she wouldn’t, that impressed me. But in doing that she also added to the unsatisfactory feeling and the sense that while some things appeared to be resolved, nothing felt like it was. We’re left hanging, not even with a sense that we understand how things would keep going, an abrupt finish that doesn’t answer anything.

I found that I wanted to get to the end without reading the middle. I figured I could ignore this middle part and just see what happens and get the answers to the big questions that Burton keeps raising. I wanted to get to the end to find out what the whole point of it was and found nothing but disappointment. It was anticlimactic after the [supposed] build up and it felt flat.

I’d been looking forward to reading this for months and had it praised and recommended to me by a few people so I was eager to see what it was like. Not to mention the beautiful cover. To come out the other end with meagre enthusiasm is a sorry state to be in.

You can purchase The Miniaturist via the following

QBD | Booktopia

Amazon | Wordery

Book Depository | Dymocks

Riot: A 1960’s Love Story by Charles S. Isaacs

Published: 8th September 2015 Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Harpers Ferry Press
Pages: 458
Format: ebook
Genre: Historical fiction
★   ★  – 2 Stars

It’s September 1967. As the Vietnam War and a militant Antiwar Movement hurtle toward explosive confrontation, Steve Harris – white, idealistic, and naïve — begins his freshman year. During that year, he will fight to end the war, fall in love, confront painful truths about his family, and be jailed and beaten by police. Through this crucible, he emerges with a transformed consciousness, of the world and of himself.

The change begins with a rousing antiwar speech delivered by Emma Gold, a Depression-era radical. When Emma introduces him to young Cat Crawford — inter-racial, brilliant and exotically beautiful – his bewitching is complete. The two students’ instant friendship blossoms before long into a passionate love affair. Their bond is tested, though, by the mounting demands of the Antiwar and Black Power Movements, and by their own deep-seated psychological issues.

1968 is marked by campus unrest, urban rebellion, assassinations, and political violence that leads the two into clashes with the Chicago Police and the National Guard. The story builds to a heartrending climax during the street battles surrounding the Democratic National Convention.

This is a complex, fast-paced journey on an emotional roller coaster, punctuated by flashes of self-discovery, and bursting with political and sexual passions. 

Note: I was provided with a copy of this book by the author for review.

I have mixed feelings about this story. The content was interesting; I learnt a few things and felt I was reading through history, but at the same time I didn’t really connect with the characters or their story. I am fully prepared to accept it may have been me so don’t let that deter you, there is no denying the effort and creativity Isaacs has gone to to bring this story to life and pack it with so much history.

Described as a 1960s love story there is a blossoming love but romance isn’t the sole focus of the novel. Steve is a college student who finds love and friendship during a critical time in late 1960s America; the Vietnam War has begun and the civil rights movement is underway. These important moments of history get embroiled with his life and Isaacs tells a story about the life of students and regular Americans who are trying to stop a war no one wanted and survive the tensions between black and white America.

After being fairly oblivious and uninterested in politics and racial conflicts, Steve has his eyes opened when he befriends bookshop owner Emma and fellow student Cat and soon he discovers the world of anti-war protests, boycotts, and the civil rights movement. In doing so you see Steve find his feet and a sense of purpose, he jumps at the chance to become involved.

Steve, Emma, and Cat are the three central characters, detailed and complicated enough which makes them well rounded. Steve is naive but willing to learn, and his eagerness to contribute is admirable. When he meets Emma and Cat you begin to see him grow and become more aware, which in turn affects other aspects of his life and the decisions he makes. Emma is a fiery, strong willed woman who is passionate and willing to fight for what she believes in, she goes out of her way to help people and her generosity and good nature compliments her fierceness really well. Cat is similar in her own way, though her past holds her back and she wavers between fighting for what’s right and holding back. Throughout the story you see the stress of fighting a war affect everyone, especially Steve and Cat, and the strain adds drama to their relationship.

Isaacs mentions at the end that only a very small part of the book is fiction, many names, events, books, and songs mentioned are real and historically accurate, something which helps to bring the late 1960s to life. As you read you recognise key moments in history like protest marches, Martin Luther King Jr’s speech, flowers in rifles, and the fight for civil rights. If you love history then this would probably be a fascinating account of American history to dive into. At almost 500 pages there is a lot of detail and Isaacs paces it accordingly. Things follow at a realistic pace, day by day almost rather than large jumps and in doing so it shows how much actually happened in such a short period of time and the ongoing effort people did behind the scenes before grand demonstrations. This does make it a slow read when nothing seems to happen for a long time, but this  is where the romance and personal relationship elements balance with historical events.

There are a lot of positives about this book, the research is incredible, the detailed exploration of key historical moments, and the subject is interesting, but despite that I found that I couldn’t get into the story. It wasn’t the length, being an ebook I didn’t actually notice it until much later, I just found I wasn’t connecting with the characters or their lives and the writing style was hard to get into. I say this of course contrasted with the fact that it was interesting to read about all the protests and the effort students and people went to show their disapproval of the war, and the campaigns they ran to boycott products. I did enjoy reading about the civil rights, the reactions to King’s speech and the fight for equality. But aside from recognising these moments and learning the details I still couldn’t connect.

There are surprises and a few unexpected moments that add emotion and drama as Isaacs links history with the romance and the fiction, and seeing the everyday person react and interact with history offers great insight away from it being simply a past event. I’m disappointed I didn’t love this book more, but there is no denying that it was an interesting read.

You can purchase Riot via the following

Amazon

Amazon Aust

A Plum Job by Cenarth Fox

Published: 4th August 2015Goodreads badge
Publisher:
 Fox Plays
Pages: 249
Format: ebook
Genre: Historical Thriller
★   ★   ★   ★  – 4 Stars

It’s 1940. Germany’s military might is smashing through the Low Countries and the British, Belgian and French forces are trapped at Dunkirk. The Nazis will soon be in Gay Paree. 

Louise Wellesley is a gorgeous and aristocratic young Englishwoman desperate to become an actress. But her upbringing demands that young women of her class go to finishing school, the Buckingham Palace debutante ball and then remain at home until the right chap comes along. Such young ladies most definitely do not cavort semi-naked upon the wicked stage. 

But war brings change. People tell lies. Rules are broken. So when you’re in a foreign country and living by your wits while facing arrest, torture and death from the French police, Resistance, Gestapo and a double-agent, you bloody well better remember your lines, act out of your skin and never ever bump into the furniture. 

Oh and it helps if your new best friend is Edith Piaf. 

Note: I was provided with a copy of this book from the author for review.

This is a great story that has been slotted into the folds of history. From innocent beginnings into the throws of World War Two Fox tells a captivating story about young Louise Wellesley.

The narrative perspectives of Louise plus cousins Max and Kurt Hartmann provide different sides of the events and opens up new perspectives. Fox connects the trio’s stories creatively and with style, and brings their humble origins into the dangers of a world war. Louise is not innocent nor is she entirely naive. She is determined and brave, and is quick thinking. Kurt and Max also have their own agenda’s and ambitions, their differences coming to light on the page and through their actions.

Louise is a character to admire even before her assistance to the war. She is fiercely loyal and a wonderful friend, she adores her family and wants to do right by them. But she is also ambitious, something she’s not supposed to be, but with her determination she gets what she wants and becomes who she wants to be. There is still a hint of that young inexperienced girl inside her, but that doesn’t stop her from doing what needs to be done.

The more you read of Louise’s time in Paris it’s hard to imagine her as the simple actress from England, but Louise has not forgotten her acting roots, nor those who guided her, and as she finds herself in times of trouble she reflects on what she’s been taught, faking confidence, suave, and bravery she keeps herself alive and out of danger for the most part.

Knowing a little but not a lot about the early days in Paris, I enjoyed the references to historical events and figures. The reactions and responses by those close to Hitler and those who suffered because of distant orders was interesting and it told of the gradual yet seemingly well organised invasion by Hitler’s forces.

A Plum Job is about passion and perseverance, about missed opportunities and great losses. Against the backdrop of a fresh world war and suspicion on both sides it is more than just a tale of a wannabe actress. The fictional tale Fox has woven through historical events is captivating and filled with drama and excitement, it’s even a little bit heartbreaking to be honest.

It’s not 100% historically accurate but it is hard to put down all the same with a story that’s filled with drama, excitement, and suspense. There are numerous surprises and unexpected things that keep you interested and engaged and it’s a compelling story, you’re never quite sure where it is heading but you don’t mind the journey getting there.

You can purchase A Plum Job via the following

Amazon

Amazon Au

Amazon UK

The Beast’s Garden by Kate Forsyth

Published: 3rd August 2015
Goodreads badgePublisher: Random House Australia
Pages: 512
Format: Paperback
Genre: Historical Fiction/Fairytale retelling
★   ★   ★  ★   ★  – 5 Stars

The Grimm Brothers published a beautiful version of the Beauty & the Beast tale called ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ in 1819. It combines the well-known story of a daughter who marries a beast in order to save her father with another key fairy tale motif, the search for the lost bridegroom. In ‘The Singing, Springing Lark,’ the daughter grows to love her beast but unwittingly betrays him and he is turned into a dove. She follows the trail of blood and white feathers he leaves behind him for seven years, and, when she loses the trail, seeks help from the sun, the moon, and the four winds. Eventually she battles an evil enchantress and saves her husband, breaking the enchantment and turning him back into a man.

Kate Forsyth retells this German fairy tale as an historical novel set in Germany during the Nazi regime. A young woman marries a Nazi officer in order to save her father, but hates and fears her new husband. Gradually she comes to realise that he is a good man at heart, and part of an underground resistance movement in Berlin called the Red Orchestra. However, her realisation comes too late. She has unwittingly betrayed him, and must find some way to rescue him and smuggle him out of the country before he is killed.

The Red Orchestra was a real-life organisation in Berlin, made up of artists, writers, diplomats and journalists, who passed on intelligence to the American embassy, distributed leaflets encouraging opposition to Hitler, and helped people in danger from the Nazis to escape the country. They were betrayed in 1942, and many of their number were executed.

The Beast’s Garden is a compelling and beautiful love story, filled with drama and intrigue and heartbreak, taking place between 1938 and 1943, in Berlin, Germany. 

The Beast’s Garden is the kind of story that appears to be a simple fairy tale retelling, a classic tale woven through history; but in actual fact it is a powerful and important story, filled with bold thoughts and acts of defiance, bringing history to life under the guise of a mere fairy tale. It is brutal and honest, yet told so wonderfully that amongst the horror of war and the raw subject, you are captivated and amazed at what happens, real or otherwise.

From the first pages Forsyth holds nothing back, showing off the beauty and danger early on, something that remains until the very last page. The combination and close proximity beauty and danger has in this novel is wonderful, the way Forsyth shows how both existed side by side for so long also adds a lot of meaning. The fact day to day life coexisted with such horror, especially in the early years, is incredible to discover, even more so in novel form.

As you read you are immersed in a fascinating yet brutal part of history and the past comes to life revealing Forsyth’s immaculate research skills. According to Forsyth the only created characters are Ava, Leo, Jutta and their families, everyone else is taken from history. The Beast’s Garden includes important and historic figures such as the Goebbels, Mildred Harnack, members of the Abwehr, as well as numerous others on both sides. Through Forsyth’s flawless and bold narrative their stories and movements during Hitler’s reign are brought to life again in a spectacular tale about war, love, strength, and music.

Though a few characters are created, they fit perfectly into the history. Forsyth blends the actions of the real with the desires of the fictional and manages to excel and telling both stories. Real events are woven meticulously and elegantly with the lives of her characters creating a personal and unique perspective on some of the people and key moments during World War Two.

Aside from the historical elements, the detail and style of the narrative is wonderful to read. Nothing is included that isn’t of some importance and everything has meaning in some form or another. Ava is strong and resilient and watching her grow over the course of the story is incredible, truly an example of not knowing what you’re capable of until you have no other choice. Each created character brings something to the story, whether it is the perspective of the Jewish, the resistance, or those caught in between,

Ava’s story is not the sole one being told with many other figures having their stories explored as well, including members of the resistance, Libertas and Harro Schulze-Boysen. Forsyth has woven Ava into history marvellously and with the perspective of others included it brings a lot more intensity to the story than if the events and historic figures were merely background noise to Ava’s own life. Forsyth treats each of her characters with respect, and those taken from history have become as true and honest as they are able with actions, opinions, and fates reflecting what happened.

Forsyth combines the fairy tale and the real together stylishly and with skill. There are quotes from The Singing, Springing Lark opening each section and Ava reads and draws strength from the story of the lark herself, through all its torments and triumphs, each action reflected in her own story.

Coupled with the story of The Singing, Springing Lark and the facts and truths of World War Two, Forsyth’s incredible creativity and ability to mix together what is real and what is not is to be admired. The story spans seven years, from 1938 to 1945, and through Ava’s story you see the world change around her and see it change herself. Through her story and others an understanding is gained about the effect Hitler had on not just the outside world but Berlin and the German people too.

This is a story that is riddled with real faces and real events, connected and combined with characters that are filled with bravery, bold opinions, and incredible strengths. It is a novel told against the backdrop not only of history but of a fairytale, and one that demonstrates the power Germany had shown the world, but it also shows the power hidden within Germany itself. A spectacular story.

You can purchase The Beast’s Garden via the following

Amazon | Amazon Aust

Booktopia | Dymocks

Bookworld | QBD

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