The Trial of Lotta Rae by Siobhan MacGowan

Sometimes the books that are the most difficult to read are also the most compelling. This was one of those books; although I was horrified by what I was reading, I was so engrossed in the story I didn’t want to put it down.

Charlotte Rae – known to her family and friends as Lotta – is an ordinary young woman working in the office of a London brewery in the early 1900s. After an argument with her boyfriend at the brewery Halloween party, Lotta wanders outside for some fresh air, where she is approached by an older man, Henry Allen Griffiths. Pretending that he has come to comfort her, Griffiths takes her arm, leads her down a secluded street and then rapes her. With the support of her parents, who report the crime to the police, Lotta decides to testify against her attacker in court. She has faith in the justice system and is sure her lawyer, William Linden, will do his best to defend her.

Once the trial is over and a verdict has been reached, Lotta tries to move on with her life, joining the Suffragette movement and working towards fairness and equality for women. Then she makes the unpleasant discovery that William Linden had betrayed her during the trial and her world falls apart again. Unable to forgive William for what he has done, Lotta begins to search for a way to take her revenge.

Although Lotta Rae, as far as I can tell, is a fictitious character, the description of her trial seemed so real I was convinced it must have been a true story! I have rarely felt so angry and frustrated when reading a novel as I did here; all the odds are stacked against Lotta from the beginning and some of the developments in court are disgusting and shocking to read about, even if not entirely surprising. During and after the trial things go from bad to worse for poor Lotta and her story is truly heartbreaking.

I found the second half of the book slightly weaker than the first, which is understandable after such a powerful opening. It does provide some fascinating insights into the suffragette movement, particularly as we see this partly through the involvement of William Linden’s son, Raff, one of a group of men actively campaigning for women’s suffrage. Lotta’s feelings for Raff are complicated because she loves him for the person he is, but hates the fact that he is the son of her corrupt lawyer, and this adds another interesting angle to the story.

There’s a supernatural element that feels a bit out of place and I wished the story could have ended in a different way, but otherwise I loved this book, despite it being so sad and infuriating! I wasn’t aware until after I’d finished the book that Siobhan MacGowan is the sister of Shane MacGowan from The Pogues, as well as a successful journalist and musician in her own right. This is her first novel and I hope she’ll be writing more.

This is book 32/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Still Life by Sarah Winman

I picked up Sarah Winman’s new novel, Still Life, with vague memories of enjoying one of her earlier books, When God Was a Rabbit. That was ten years ago and although she has had two other books published since then, I never got round to reading either of them. The pretty cover of Still Life caught my eye and the Italian setting sounded appealing, so I thought I would give this one a try.

The novel opens in wartime Tuscany in 1944 with a chance meeting between two very different people: Evelyn Skinner, almost sixty-four years old, is an art historian who has come to Italy to try to salvage important works of art; Ulysses Temper is a young British soldier, formerly a globe-maker from London. As the Allies advance across Italy, a brief friendship forms between Evelyn and Ulysses before they are parted and return to their separate lives.

For most of the novel, we follow Ulysses and his friends, first back at home in London and later in Florence, where some of them decide to relocate after the war. There’s Ulysses’ ex-wife, the talented but troubled Peg and her young daughter, Alys; Col who runs the Stoat and Parrot pub and Pete the pianist; Old Cress, who talks to trees and has visions which have a habit of coming true; and a Shakespeare-quoting blue parrot called Claude. It took me a while to warm to these characters, but eventually I became quite fond of some of them, particularly Cress and Alys. None of them are perfect – they all have their flaws and all make mistakes – but they feel like real and believable human beings.

Evelyn, though, appears only occasionally after that opening scene and we have to wait almost until the end of the novel to hear her story – by which time I found I’d lost interest in her and would have preferred to continue reading about Ulysses and the others. Evelyn’s story, which should have been fascinating as it involved a meeting with EM Forster and a pre-war romance with an Italian maid, felt as if it had been squeezed into the end of the book as an afterthought and in my opinion would have worked better if it had unfolded gradually alongside the other storylines.

The novel is beautifully written, there are some lovely descriptions of Florence and the influence of Forster’s A Room With a View can be seen in several different ways throughout the story. With a timespan of several decades, Winman also writes about various historical events that take place during that period; for example, there’s a memorable section set during the devastating flood of the Arno river in 1966. Unfortunately, there was one thing I really disliked about Winman’s writing in this book – and that was the lack of speech marks. I’m never sure what authors are trying to achieve in leaving out basic punctuation. A more ‘literary’ style? A stream of consciousness feel? Whatever it is, it never works for me and I end up just finding it distracting and annoying.

Still Life wasn’t completely successful with me, then, but I did enjoy getting to know the characters and spending some time in Italy in virtual form, which is the closest I will get to a holiday abroad this year!

Thanks to 4th Estate for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 28/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Book 1/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021

Dreamland by Nancy Bilyeau

I loved this! I have read all of Nancy Bilyeau’s previous novels – The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry, set in Tudor England, and The Blue, about an 18th century porcelain painter – and enjoyed them all, but I think Dreamland, her new historical thriller, is her best yet.

It’s the summer of 1911 and twenty-year-old Peggy Batternberg, one of America’s wealthiest heiresses, has just started an unpaid job at New York’s Moonrise Bookstore. Her family disapprove, but Peggy has been feeling uncomfortable with her sheltered, privileged lifestyle and is enjoying the experience of doing something useful for a change and getting to know people from different backgrounds. However, she has hardly had time to settle into her new job when she is ordered to join the rest of her family at the Oriental Hotel near Coney Island to spend the summer there at the invitation of her sister’s fiancé, Henry Taul.

Peggy is disappointed and angry. She resents having to leave her position at the Moonrise and she dislikes Henry, so it is with a lot of reluctance that she agrees to change her plans. Shortly after her arrival at the hotel, she slips away from her Batternberg relatives and ventures through the gates of Dreamland, the newest and most impressive of Coney Island’s three huge amusement parks. It is here that she meets and falls in love with Stefan, a Serbian artist who sells hot dogs from a cart – definitely not the sort of man considered suitable company for a Batternberg heiress! Her family would be even more shocked if they knew that she had become mixed up in a murder investigation, but that’s exactly what happens when the body of a young woman is found on the beach near the hotel…

There was so much to enjoy about this book. First, the setting. I have never been to Coney Island but Nancy Bilyeau describes it all so well – the luxurious hotels, the beach and, most importantly, the rides, shows and other attractions of Dreamland itself – that I could form a clear picture of everything in my mind. In reality, the events that take place towards the end of the novel happened in May 1911, but Bilyeau plays around slightly with the dates so that the story unfolds during the summer heatwave instead, adding even more atmosphere to the novel.

Although Peggy is a fictional character, she is loosely based on the real American heiress and art collector, Peggy Guggenheim. It was interesting to follow her personal development over the course of that summer at Coney Island as she becomes increasingly aware of the disparity between the world in which she has grown up and the world populated by those who are less advantaged. Her visits to Dreamland open her eyes to a whole different way of life and her relationship with Stefan shows her the difficulties faced by immigrants in a society where they are viewed with suspicion and distrust.

I think the mystery aspect of the novel was actually my least favourite part of the book. There were only a few suspects and the eventual solution didn’t surprise me. What interested me more was the prejudiced way in which the investigation was handled by the police and the assumptions they made about various people based on factors such as name, nationality, gender and level of wealth.

The way Dreamland ended seemed to leave things open for another book about these characters; I would love to read a sequel, but if there’s not going to be one then I’m sure Nancy Bilyeau will find another equally fascinating setting and time period to write about next!

Thanks to Endeavour Quill for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

One of the things I love about reading is that it gives me the opportunity to learn about places and cultures I would otherwise be likely to go through life knowing little or nothing about. Before reading Lisa See’s latest novel, The Island of Sea Women, I had never heard of the haenyeo communities of Jeju in South Korea, but now I have been enlightened!

The haenyeo, for anyone else who doesn’t know, are female divers who gather seafood such as abalone, octopus and conch from the waters surrounding the island of Jeju. The Island of Sea Women is narrated by Young-sook, a haenyeo whom we follow over a period of many years, from the 1930s to 2008. It’s a story of friendship and betrayal, war and suffering, and the importance of forgiveness – but most of all, it’s a fascinating study of a society of ‘sea women’ and how their way of life changes as the decades go by.

At the beginning of the novel, we see Young-sook joining her village’s diving collective, of which her mother is the leader, and starting to learn the skills she will need in her career as a haenyeo. Although she is excited about taking her first dives with the other women, she is also nervous about the many dangers lurking in the depths of the sea. Fortunately for Young-sook, she has a friend the same age – a girl called Mi-ja – with whom to share her experiences.

Mi-ja is the daughter of a ‘Japanese-collaborator’, at a time when Japanese colonists are disliked and resented across Jeju, but Young-sook loves and trusts her and is closer to her than to her own brothers and sisters. The friendship between Mi-ja and Young-sook endures through loss and tragedy and political turmoil, through marriage and motherhood, through times of peace and times of war, until the day comes when one of the women is faced with a difficult choice – and the decision she makes that day means that nothing will be the same again.

I enjoyed The Island of Sea Women, but it wasn’t always an easy or pleasant book to read – Young-sook and her family live through a very eventful and turbulent period of Korea’s history, including Japanese colonialism, World War II and the Korean War, and Jeju’s strategic location means it is often at the heart of the action. The most memorable part of the book for me was the section covering the ‘4.3 Incident’, the horrific massacre of protesters by police and government forces that took place in April 1948. Although I’d felt that for the first half of the book, the balance between fact and fiction wasn’t quite right and that we were being given a lot of information and detail at the expense of characterisation and plot, from the 4.3 Incident onwards, the story became much more compelling and the characters began to feel very real to me.

Lisa See writes so well about female friendships. Like Pearl and May in Shanghai Girls, Lily and Snow Flower in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and the three girls in China Dolls, Young-sook and Mi-ja have a special, unbreakable bond, yet they also go through some very dark and difficult times that stretch their bond to its limits. As I read, I kept thinking about how important perspective is; we only see things from Young-sook’s point of view in this novel, but had we been given Mi-ja’s side of the story it would have become a different book entirely.

The haenyeo culture is fascinating to read about and See weaves several of their myths, legends and proverbs into the story, showing us the importance haenyeo place on praying to the goddess of the wind and attending religious rituals led by their female shaman. It is in many ways a matriarchal society where the women are the ones who go out to work and provide for their household, while the men stay at home to look after the children. In the haenyeo community, the birth of a girl is welcomed as much as a boy because she will eventually be able to earn money and feed the family, yet it is only men who can perform the ritual of ‘ancestor-worship’ and who are allowed to inherit property.

I thought it was interesting that Young-sook’s husband is insistent that their daughters should be sent to school and given the same opportunities as their sons, while Young-sook, illiterate herself, can’t see the need for female education because it won’t be necessary for a life spent diving into the sea. There is logic behind her viewpoint, because when the story comes up to date in the 21st century, we see that with improvements in education, many of the island’s young women are leaving Jeju for less dangerous jobs on the mainland. Most of the remaining haenyeo are aged over fifty-five – and some are in their seventies and eighties, still spending hours each day submerged in cold water, holding their breath for more than two minutes at a time.

If you would like to find out more about these amazing women and their work, Lisa See has a collection of photographs and videos of the haenyeo on her website.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 1/20 of my 20 Books of Summer

The Love Letter by Lucinda Riley

I have been enjoying following Lucinda Riley’s Seven Sisters series over the last few years and am looking forward to starting the newest book, The Moon Sister, which is due to be published later this year. The Love Letter is not part of that series, though – it’s a reissue of one of her earlier novels, first published in 2000 as Seeing Double under the name of Lucinda Edmonds. As explained in the brief Author’s Note which opens the novel, Seeing Double was not a success on its original release, probably because of poor timing – it wasn’t long since the death of Princess Diana in 1997 and the plot involves a scandal within a fictional British royal family. Lucinda and her publisher obviously feel that enough time has now passed to give the book a second chance and a new look and title.

The Love Letter is set in 1996 and begins with young journalist Joanna Haslam reporting on the funeral of Sir James Harrison, one of the most famous actors of his generation, who has died at the age of ninety-five. The funeral is a star-studded affair, attended by celebrities including Harrison’s granddaughter Zoe, a successful actress in her own right, and his film-producer grandson Marcus. The service has only just begun when Rose, an elderly woman sitting beside Joanna, is suddenly taken ill. Joanna offers to accompany the old lady home in a taxi, unaware that by doing so she is taking the first step in a sequence of events that could destroy the British establishment. Within days Rose is dead, but not before sending Joanna a letter, the contents of which hold clues to a shocking secret that some very powerful people will stop at nothing to keep concealed.

This is a very different sort of book from Lucinda Riley…a combination of spy thriller, mystery and romance. I have to admit, I found the plot a bit far-fetched and not always very plausible, but it’s certainly a page-turner – it was difficult to stop reading until I had found out what the letter meant and what the secret was. I did manage to work some of it out for myself (especially as we are told in the Author’s Note before we even start reading that the story is going to involve members of the royal family), but not all of it, because new pieces of the puzzle are being revealed right up to the end of the novel. For a book with six hundred pages, it’s a quicker read than you might expect and a lot of fun to read too, with some surprising plot twists and characters who aren’t quite what they seem.

Unlike the Seven Sisters novels with their dual timeline stories, The Love Letter is set entirely in the modern day (although events from the past provide the answers to the mystery). Having said that, I suppose 1996 is not exactly the ‘modern day’ anymore and the absence of recent technology from the characters’ lives does set the story firmly in its time period. As for the implications for the royal family, I don’t think people would be too bothered by a novel like this today, but I can see why it might have been controversial on publication eighteen years ago.

I think one of Lucinda Riley’s strengths as a writer is in creating characters the reader can really care about and like – and there are several of those in this novel. I loved Joanna from the beginning; she’s such an ordinary, down-to-earth person with the sort of hopes, ambitions and problems that are easy to identify with. I also liked Zoe, who is embroiled in a secret and possibly dangerous love affair, and I became very fond of her brother Marcus too. The only one of the main characters I didn’t warm to was Simon, Joanna’s best friend, although I did have some sympathy with the internal conflicts he faced in trying to choose between his job and his friendships.

The developments towards the end of the book became a bit too dramatic for me, but I was happy with the final few twists which led to the conclusion I’d been hoping for. I’m looking forward to getting back to the Seven Sisters – I have a copy of The Moon Sister which I’m planning to read soon – but The Love Letter made an interesting change.

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for providing a copy of this book for review.

Early Warning by Jane Smiley

This is the second in Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy which follows the lives of one American family across a period of a century. The first book, Some Luck, took us from 1920 to the end of 1952, and this one, Early Warning, covers 1953 to 1986.

It had been almost two years since I read Some Luck, so I was worried that I would struggle to remember who the characters were and how they were related to each other. On beginning Early Warning, then, I was relieved to see that Jane Smiley addresses this problem by beginning the novel with a family gathering – the funeral of Walter Langdon, the man who, with his wife Rosanna, had been at the heart of the previous novel. The funeral is attended by all of his adult children – Frank, Joe, Lillian, Henry and Claire – some of whom are now married and have children of their own. As the family sit around a table reminiscing about the past, this gives the reader a chance to get reacquainted with the characters.

So far so good, but once the different branches of the family depart and go back to their own homes, things quickly become much more confusing! In the previous book, the action revolved around the Langdon farm in Iowa, but now that the children have grown up, some of them have moved away and there are now Langdons scattered all over America, in different towns and different states. As the years and decades go by, moving from the 1950s to the 60s, 70s and finally the 80s, the grandchildren grow up too and build lives of their own, bringing even more characters into the story. I was constantly referring to the family tree at the beginning of the book and can’t imagine how I would have coped if I’d been reading it as an ebook!

The novel follows the same structure as the first one, with one chapter devoted to each year. As I mentioned in my Some Luck review, this means that, although it keeps the story moving forward, we are also left with some big gaps. When we leave the characters behind at the end of one chapter, we leap straight into the middle of the following year with the next chapter and haven’t ‘seen’ everything that happened in the meantime. It’s an unusual way to structure a novel and while it’s successful in the sense that it makes the trilogy feel different and memorable, it’s too restrictive and I’m glad not all books are written like this!

There is really very little more that I can say about Early Warning. There are some dramas, of course – births, deaths, marriages, divorces, affairs, house moves and changes of career – but there is no real plot, any more than anybody’s life ‘has a plot’. With so many characters, I couldn’t keep track of everything that was happening, but some of the things that stood out for me in this book were the exploration of Frank’s wife Andy’s mental state and the therapy she undergoes, the rivalry between their twin sons, Michael and Richie, and the pressure Lillian’s husband Arthur find himself under as a result of his job with the CIA. I was also particularly intrigued by the introduction of a new character, Charlie, whom we first meet as a small child and who appears to be unconnected to anyone else in the book. Smiley writes very convincingly from a child’s perspective and I really enjoyed reading these sections and guessing how Charlie would eventually fit into the story.

Some of the major events of the period are featured too, including the Vietnam War and the Cold War, and whereas in Some Luck the family on their Iowa farm were largely sheltered from the outside world, this time, because the geographical scale of the story has broadened, there are family members affected in some way by almost all of the world events touched on in the novel.

I have now started the third book, Golden Age, but with yet another generation of characters to get to know, I’m anticipating an even more confusing read than this one!

The Savage Brood by Martha Rofheart

Having read two of Martha Rofheart’s other books, Lionheart and Burning Sappho (about Richard I and the poet Sappho, respectively), I decided to try her 1978 novel The Savage Brood next. It sounded different from the others, being a multi-generational family saga and concentrating on fictional characters rather than real historical ones. I liked it enough to finish it but, as I so often find with this kind of book, the earlier sections were the best and I struggled to stay interested as the action moved closer towards the modern day.

The novel follows the fortunes of the Savage family, who have a long history as actors of one sort or another. It is divided into three sections which are set in different periods and work almost as self-contained novellas. We begin in Tudor England where we meet one branch of the family, a group of travelling players who make their living moving from town to town in a horse-drawn wagon and putting on performances for the local people. Finding English law too restrictive, the troupe move to Italy where, under the patronage of Cosimo I de’ Medici, they learn the skills of Commedia dell’Arte.

After a short ‘interval’, the story then jumps forward to 1752 where some of the Italian Savages (or Savaggi, as they have become known in the intervening years), return to London’s Drury Lane to work with the great English actor and producer, David Garrick. Garrick identifies young Miranda Savage as a special talent, but loses her when she moves to America – just in time for the Revolution.

There’s another interval and then we skip forward again, this time to San Francisco in 1906. The Savages have now made a name for themselves as vaudeville entertainers, but this form of theatre is in its final days as the first silent films begin to make their appearance. This section of the novel takes us right through both world wars and follows the careers of comic actor Sammy Savage, showboat musician Solange Sauvage, and Hollywood star JP Savage.

As I said, the first two sections were the most enjoyable, at least in my opinion. The third dragged on for too long, and except for the wartime parts, when the action moves to France for a while, I found the storyline much less interesting. The characters were unlikeable and self-obsessed, lacking the charisma of some of their earlier ancestors and little more than stereotypes of early Hollywood stars. By contrast, I loved the eighteenth century section and was particularly fond of Miranda Savage’s cousin Beau, who rises from humble beginnings to become a stage and fashion icon. Taken as a whole, though, I found the saga of the Savages unconvincing, with too many chance encounters between people who turn out to be distant Savage cousins.

Although Rofheart does acknowledge that women couldn’t act on stage in England until the Restoration, she does depict some of her sixteenth century female characters as acting with a travelling troupe. I didn’t think women were allowed to perform at all during that period (apart from in Italy), so that bothered me while I was reading, although I have since discovered a book on Women Players in England, 1500–1660, which suggests that women may have had more opportunities to act in sixteenth century England than I had imagined, at least on an amateur basis. I really don’t know enough about the subject to comment any further on Rofheart’s historical accuracy.

Despite the problems I had with The Savage Brood, I think it will be a fascinating read for anyone interested in the theatre, incorporating almost every type of acting you can think of – Commedia dell’Arte, Shakespeare, vaudeville, film and more – set against a backdrop of major historical events. I’m not really in any hurry to read the rest of Martha Rofheart’s books, but if anyone has read The Alexandrian, Cry God for Glendower and Fortune Made His Sword I would like to know if you enjoyed them and if you think they’re better than this one?