The Boy with Blue Trousers by Carol Jones

I love learning about the histories and cultures of different countries, so I was pleased to find that Australian author Carol Jones’ new novel, The Boy with Blue Trousers, is set in not one location but two – the mulberry groves of China and the goldfields of Australia – and introduces us to two women leading very different lives.

In 1850s China, seventeen-year-old Little Cat is growing up in a small village on the Pearl River Delta. Like the other girls in her community, she spends her days picking mulberry leaves and teasing out the threads from silkworm cocoons to produce reels of silk. It’s hard work, but it is the only life Little Cat has known and, now that she is approaching adulthood, she is growing nervous about what the future may hold. What sort of marriage will the matchmaker arrange for her? Will her husband and his family be kind? Will she have to go and live in another village far away from her own?

In the end, though, none of these things matter to Little Cat, because a disastrous encounter with the village headman, Big Wu, forces her to flee the country in fear of her life. Disguised as a boy, she embarks on a ship bound for Australia where she will join the hundreds of men heading there from China who are hoping to make their fortune in the goldfields.

Meanwhile, another young woman, Violet Hartley, has recently arrived in Australia. Violet, a governess, is trying to escape from her own past in England, and Australia seems like a place full of opportunities. When her first job, looking after two small children, proves to be not quite what she’d hoped for, she decides to accompany the Chinese immigrants on their journey – a decision that leads to her path crossing with Little Cat’s and tying the two separate threads of the story together.

The Boy with Blue Trousers is written in the form of two alternating narratives, so that we spend one or two chapters with Little Cat before switching to Violet for a while and then back again. This allows us to get to know both characters equally well and to see how, although they are living in very different environments, they face similar struggles as unconventional, independent women who don’t conform to the expectations of their respective societies. I have to admit, I didn’t like Violet at all; while I did have sympathy for her situation and the loss of her reputation following an affair with a married man in England – unfair when the man involved didn’t suffer in the same way – I just didn’t find her a very appealing character, especially in comparison to Little Cat, whom I loved.

I had a few problems with this book – apart from not liking Violet, I thought the way in which her story came together with Little Cat’s and the reaction they had to each other felt odd and unconvincing – but I was impressed by the sense of place Carol Jones creates. I particularly liked the descriptions of the mulberry trees, river banks, alleys and courtyards of Sandy Bottom Village, Little Cat’s home in the Pearl River Delta, but the coastal landscape of Robetown in South Australia is also beautifully portrayed.

Carol Jones is not an author I’ve come across until now, but I see she has written another novel, The Concubine’s Child, set in Malaysia, which also sounds interesting. If any of you have read that one, let me know what you thought.

Thanks to Head of Zeus for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Pearl Sister by Lucinda Riley

The Pearl Sister is the fourth book in Lucinda Riley’s Seven Sisters series based loosely on the mythology of the Pleiades (or ‘seven sisters’) star cluster. There will eventually be seven novels each telling the story of one of the adopted daughters of a mysterious millionaire known as Pa Salt.

The girls, who are all from very different backgrounds and who grew up together in Switzerland on Pa Salt’s Lake Geneva estate, are named after the stars in the cluster – Maia, Alycone (Ally), Asterope (Star), Celaeno (CeCe), Taygete (Tiggy) and Electra D’Aplièse. There should have been a seventh sister, whose name would have been Merope, but for some reason which has not yet been revealed only six girls were adopted rather than seven. Pa Salt dies at the beginning of the series, leaving each sister some clues to help them trace their real parents, if they wish to do so.

The books could be read in any order as they all work as standalones, with only a small amount of overlap. The first book in the series, The Seven Sisters, tells Maia’s story, the second, The Storm Sister, tells Ally’s, and the third, The Shadow Sister, concentrates on Star. This time it’s CeCe’s turn. CeCe and Star are nearly the same age, being adopted as babies just a few months apart, and have always had a very close relationship. In the previous novel we saw the shy, quiet Star stepping out from CeCe’s shadow to build a life of her own, while The Pearl Sister begins with CeCe feeling rejected and left behind as Star moves on.

Pa Salt has left CeCe the name of an Australian pioneer and a black and white photograph to point her on her way, so she sets off for Australia, stopping in Thailand for a few weeks first. Following a trail which she hopes will lead to her own birth family, CeCe makes some discoveries which help her to understand who she really is.

CeCe’s story is set in the modern day, but we also follow the story of another woman and this one takes place in the early part of the twentieth century. It’s 1906 and Kitty McBride has left her home in Edinburgh to travel to Australia as a lady’s companion. Here she meets the Mercer family, who own both a pearl business and a cattle station, and becomes entangled with twin brothers Drummond and Andrew Mercer. When it becomes obvious that both of them are hoping to marry Kitty, she will have a big decision to make. Her choice will affect not only her own life but the lives of future generations as well.

Having read most of Lucinda Riley’s novels now, I think she deals with multiple time periods very well, spending long enough in each one for us to become fully immersed in the story before switching to the other. I enjoyed both of the storylines, but Kitty’s was more dramatic, filled with plot twists and surprises (as well as one or two coincidences which I thought stretched things a bit too far, although that wasn’t a big problem). I loved reading about Kitty’s involvement in the pearl industry and about her friendship with another strong and courageous woman, her maid Camira. CeCe’s storyline kept me turning the pages too. There’s a subplot involving a man she meets in Thailand which feels slightly disconnected from the rest of the story, but once she leaves Thailand and arrives in Australia things become more interesting.

Until I read this book, CeCe was one of my least favourites of the sisters; because of the way she behaved whenever we saw her together with Star, I thought she was a bossy and controlling person, but it seems I had misjudged her. In this novel, we see a very different side of CeCe and discover just how dependent she had been on Star. She has a lot of insecurities as a result of her dyslexia and her appearance – she is convinced that her sisters are all much prettier than she is – and after a bad experience at art college she has even lost confidence in her abilities as an artist. As she gets closer to discovering her roots, CeCe begins to grow as a person; she finds some independence, makes new friends and enters into new relationships. The CeCe we leave behind at the end of the book seems a much happier person than the one we met at the start!

Earlier this week I said that I wanted to incorporate more books set outside my own country into my reading this year. The Pearl Sister takes place in two: Thailand and Australia. I particularly enjoyed the Australian settings – Broome and then Alice Springs – and I was as interested as Kitty and CeCe in learning about the history and culture of the Aboriginal people.

Having had the chance to get to know four of the D’Aplièse sisters now, I’m looking forward to the next two books on Tiggy and Electra.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book for review.

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

As well as taking part in German Literature Month this November, I also wanted to read something for Brona’s Australia Reading Month. I haven’t read many Australian books or authors and this is something I want to change, as discussed in a recent Historical Musings post. Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek was one of the books I needed to read for my Walter Scott Prize project so seemed like the perfect choice.

Salt Creek is set in the 19th century and narrated by Hester Finch, who is fifteen years old as the novel opens in 1855. Having been leading a comfortable lifestyle in Adelaide, the family have fallen on hard times and Hester’s father has decided that they should move to the Coorong region of South Australia where they can try to build a new life for themselves farming the land. Arriving at Salt Creek in the Coorong, however, they find that things are not going to be easy. The landscape is beautiful but desolate, the land is difficult to tame and their Aboriginal neighbours view the newcomers with suspicion.

Hester’s mother, who has been depressed for some time, struggles to adapt and Hester, as the eldest daughter, finds herself taking on more responsibilities around the house. When the chance of freedom comes her way, will she take it or are the ties binding her to Salt Creek too strong? Meanwhile, the efforts of her father and brothers to work the land and make it suitable for farming bring them into conflict with the indigenous Ngarrindjeri people who have made the Coorong their home for generations.

Acting as a bridge between the two cultures is Tull, a boy from a local tribe who is welcomed into the Finch family and grows up with Hester and her brothers and sisters.

That winter I began to notice how differently he saw almost everything compared to us. Mama might say that the colours of winter reminded her of the highlands of Scotland, and I might say that the sky was sapphire or that the washing lines were like cobwebs on a cold morning. Hearing these things perplexed him, as did so much else – the encumbrances of our clothing, our impractical hair, our heavy boots, the fences that we built – which he made apparent by his stillness or his incredulity…

Tull’s relationship with the Finches is one of the most interesting aspects of the story. They come from such different worlds, yet find shared ground and common interests, giving hope that the wider groups they represent – the Aboriginal people and the white settlers – may be able to cooperate and work together. However, it is through Tull that Hester becomes aware of the harm the arrival of her family is doing to the Ngarrindjeri and to the environment.

The story itself has a bleakness to match the harshness of the landscape. Most of the characters experience little or no happiness, enduring poverty, the death and loss of loved ones, prejudice, betrayal and the breakdown of trust. It’s such a sad and tragic story – and yet I didn’t feel quite the emotional connection to Hester that I would have liked. I’m not sure why that should be, but I didn’t become fully invested in Hester’s personal story until I was well into the second half of the book. I don’t think it helped that the author chose to write part of the novel from the perspective of an older Hester living in England and looking back on her life. A more linear timeline might have worked better for me.

Still, Salt Creek is a beautifully written novel, with some lovely, vivid descriptions of the Coorong. Here is Hester having her first glimpse of her new home:

There was little enough to see – dry grasses and low shrubs in sweeps down to the lagoon, an arm of contorted trees hugging the slope from the low ridge and modest folds of land – a bed risen from like my own and its covers pushed back to hold the warmth of night. The colours were not intrinsic. A dry grass stem in shadow could be as drab as sightless eyes or gold in sunlight or silver in moonlight, but I did not know that then.

This was a good choice for the Reading Month; I loved the blend of fact and fiction (Lucy Treloar explains this in her author’s note) and the insights it gave me into life in South Australia, a place I knew very little about until now. I’m sure I’ll be picking up more Australian fiction soon!

Historical Musings #30: Exploring Australia

In a comment on my last Historical Musings post – on the subject of nautical fiction – Yvonne mentioned that books set in Australia often feature a sea voyage, which is understandable as transportation (the relocation of prisoners) played such a big part in Australian history. I hadn’t read any of the books Yvonne referred to – and this made me think of how few historical fiction novels set in Australia I have actually read!

I have searched through my blog archives and it seems that the only Australian historical novels I have reviewed are The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally, about two sisters from the Macleay Valley who serve with the Australian Army Nursing Service during the First World War, and The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman, the story of a lighthouse keeper and his wife living on a remote island off the coast of Australia in the 1920s. There’s also The Ghost Writer by John Harwood, but that book is only partially set in Australia and not entirely historical either, although it does include some wonderful 19th century ghost stories!

Thinking of books that I read in the years before I started blogging, the only ones that come to mind are Colleen McCullough’s family saga, The Thorn Birds, and All the Rivers Run by Nancy Cato (of which I can remember nothing other than that I enjoyed it at the time). I obviously need to read more Australian novels! I found an interesting list at Goodreads but I’ve only heard of a few of those books…so where should I start?

Can you recommend any good historical fiction set in Australia?


New to my historical fiction shelves since last month’s post:

* The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin
* The Autumn Throne by Elizabeth Chadwick
* The Snow Globe by Judith Kinghorn
* The Crow Garden by Alison Littlewood
* Snowdrift and Other Stories by Georgette Heyer
* The Last Hours by Minette Walters
* The Pearl Sister by Lucinda Riley
* The Stolen Marriage by Diane Chamberlain

Have you added any new historical fiction to your TBR recently?

The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally

The Daughters of Mars Until I picked up The Daughters of Mars in the library I was only really aware of Thomas Keneally as the author of Schindler’s Ark (which I haven’t read), the book on which the film Schindler’s List was based. I was surprised to find that he has written more than forty other books (both fiction and non-fiction) and I’m pleased that I’ve finally read one. The Daughters of Mars is the story of two Australian sisters, Naomi and Sally Durance, who serve as nurses with the Australian Army Nursing Service during the First World War. I had a few problems with the book, mainly due to the unusual writing style, but it gave me lots of fascinating insights into the challenges facing wartime nurses.

When we first meet the Durance sisters, they are leading very different lives: Naomi has left home and has gone to work at a hospital in Sydney, while Sally has remained on the family dairy farm in the Macleay Valley and is caring for their sick mother. The two girls have little in common other than a love of nursing but an unwelcome bond is formed between them when their mother dies under tragic circumstances. Deciding to get away for a while from Australia and the memories it holds, they enlist on the hospital ship Archimedes. Sailing first to Egypt and then to the Dardanelles, the sisters are kept busy treating casualties of the Gallipoli Campaign and as the war progresses, they find themselves in separate hospitals on the Western Front where they face the horrors of trench warfare and gas attacks.

The work is demanding, dangerous and emotionally draining, but also very rewarding. As well as learning new skills, both girls find new friends among the other young nurses and meet the men they hope to spend the rest of their lives with. Of course, nothing is certain in times of war and there’s no guarantee that either they or the men they love will survive long enough for marriage to become a possibility. And the most important relationship of all – the one between Naomi and Sally – will remain tense and strained until the sisters can find a way to put the past behind them.

I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed reading The Daughters of Mars, but I did find it interesting to learn about the work of the Australian nurses, which is something I haven’t read about before. Most of what we hear about the Great War involves stories of men fighting on the front lines, but it’s important to remember the important contribution of these brave women who also played their part in helping the war effort. While I have read British author Vera Brittain’s first-hand account of life as a wartime nurse, Testament of Youth (which I highly recommend), this is the first time I’ve read about the same subject from an Australian perspective. It was fascinating, although if you’re squeamish I should warn you that Sally and Naomi are faced with all kinds of gruesome battle wounds, injuries and illnesses – and they are described in a lot of detail, along with the medical procedures and surgical operations that are used to treat them.

Now I need to explain what I didn’t like about this book and it’s something that’s really a matter of personal taste. In his author’s note, Keneally tells us that if the use of punctuation in the novel sometimes seems unusual it’s because he has taken inspiration from ‘the forgotten private journals of the Great War, written by men and women who frequently favoured dashes rather than commas’. The dashes didn’t bother me, but the lack of quotation marks did! We use punctuation to indicate speech for a reason and because it wasn’t there I found that the text didn’t flow properly, which made it unnecessarily difficult to read. I felt that I was viewing the events of the story from a distance and never fully engaged with either Durance sister. In fact, I found most of the characters quite bland and difficult to tell apart. There was none of the passion and emotion that I would have expected from a book like this.

I can’t comment on the accuracy of the book (as I said, wartime nursing is not a subject I know much about) but it does seem to have been very well researched and covers almost every aspect of the war you can think of from conscription and conscientious objectors to shell shock and the Spanish flu. Despite the problems I had with Keneally’s writing, I found the story interesting enough to keep reading until I reached the end. And what an intriguing ending it was! Unfortunately I can’t tell you what was so special about it, but it was completely unexpected and I’m still not sure whether I liked it or not – it’s the sort of ending that will leave you wondering why the author chose to end the book in that way and what message he wanted us to take from it.

If anyone has read any other Thomas Keneally books, let me know if you think I should try another one. Are his other books written in a more conventional style?

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

The Light Between Oceans is the story of Tom and Isabel Sherbourne, a young couple living on the remote island of Janus Rock, off the coast of Australia. Tom, who has recently returned physically unharmed from fighting in the Great War, has taken a job as lighthouse keeper on the island.

One day in 1926, a boat is washed up on the shore of Janus, with a baby girl and a dead man inside. Isabel, who has just suffered the latest in a series of miscarriages and stillbirths, sees this as a second chance and is determined to keep the baby. Tom is not so sure, but he loves his wife and she convinces him that it’s the right thing to do. Raising Lucy as their own child, it’s not long before Tom and Isabel can’t imagine life without her, but their decision to keep her leads to other important choices that have to be made and could have heartbreaking consequences for everybody involved. What if the baby’s real mother is still alive somewhere, wondering what has happened to her daughter? And how will Tom cope with his feelings of guilt over what they’ve done?

The Light Between Oceans is a very impressive debut novel from M.L. Stedman. I loved the island setting and I was given a real sense of the isolation of Tom and Isabel’s lives. The Sherbournes are completely alone on Janus Rock, apart from a few times a year when supplies are brought by boat from the mainland. It sounded like a beautiful place to live but also a very lonely, solitary existence not without its difficulties and hardships. There are a few occasions when they visit Partageuse, the closest mainland town, and this setting is also brought to life through characters such as Isabel’s parents, Bill and Violet Graysmark, and the businessman Septimus Potts. Reading this book made me aware of how few novels I have actually read that are set in Australia, which is something I would like to change.

The First World War, the long term effects on the men who fought in it and the experiences of the many people who lost their loved ones forms a small but very important part of this novel. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything about Australia’s involvement in the war and so I really liked this aspect of the book. I also found it interesting to read about the role of a lighthouse keeper and what it involved. There are some quite detailed descriptions of the various parts of the job, but none of it was too difficult to understand.

But what I loved most about this book was the way the author allowed us to sympathise with all of the main characters; it wasn’t a case of one person being entirely in the right and another in the wrong. I could see why Isabel wanted so desperately to keep Lucy but I could also understand why Tom was struggling with his conscience and how the baby’s biological mother might have felt. The novel raises so many questions…If you know that you’ve done something wrong should you try to put it right even if doing so could cause even more heartbreak? Will trying to make amends actually make things better or worse? And most importantly, what will be best for Lucy herself? These questions are difficult to answer but they are what made this book such an interesting and thought-provoking read.

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

Kate Morton’s latest book, The Distant Hours, is getting a lot of attention at the moment but I thought that before I decided whether to buy it I should really read the previous two books of hers that have been sitting on my shelf unread for a long time. I’m so glad I finally decided to pick up The Forgotten Garden because, although it wasn’t perfect, I loved it overall.

In 1913, just before the beginning of World War I, a port master finds a little girl with a suitcase sitting alone on the docks at Maryborough, Australia. With no sign of the child’s parents and no clue to her identity, he takes the girl home with him, where he and his wife name her Nell and raise her as their own daughter. But what was Nell doing in Australia? Who were her real parents? And what is her connection with the mysterious Eliza Makepeace, writer of fairy tales?

When Nell dies in 2005, she leaves everything to her granddaughter, Cassandra – including a cottage in Cornwall, England. When Cassandra travels to Cornwall to investigate, she begins to uncover some secrets about her grandmother’s identity and attempts to solve the mystery of Cliff Cottage.

At first I thought I was going to have a problem with Kate Morton’s writing style. She has quite a flowery, descriptive style which you’ll either love or hate. For example:

Was it always this way? Did those with passage booked on death’s silent ship always scan the dock for faces of the long-departed?

As the book went on though, the writing bothered me less, because I was becoming so absorbed in the story. It had a wonderful atmosphere and was very reminiscent of The Secret Garden in places (the manor house, the invalid cousin, the walled garden – and Frances Hodgson Burnett even makes a brief appearance!) It also felt a bit like a Daphne du Maurier book in places (particularly the Cornwall scenes) and the Swindell family whom Eliza lives with in turn-of-the-century London could have come straight from a Dickens novel. Some of Eliza’s fairy tales are even included in the book which I thought was a nice touch although I wasn’t too impressed with the stories themselves.

The biggest problem I had with this book was the constant jumping around in time and place. One chapter would be set in London in 1900, the next in Brisbane in 2005 and the next in Cornwall in 1975, which disrupted the flow of the story and made it difficult to follow. We also switch narrator with every chapter, which made me even more confused, particularly as there was almost nothing to differentiate between the voices of Cassandra, Nell and Eliza. It was too easy to forget who I was reading about. Eliza’s storyline was by far the most interesting of the three though and I think it would probably have worked on its own as a straight historical fiction novel.

The solution to the mystery was made very obvious to the reader from early on in the book, so when it was finally revealed it came as an anti-climax. This didn’t really spoil the story for me but it was slightly frustrating to watch Cassandra trying to solve the mystery and knowing that she was getting it completely wrong. I would have appreciated it if some of the clues could have been kept from the reader until nearer the end.

Other than those few points, I loved this book, which was great because I really hadn’t expected to. For such a long and complex book it was surprisingly quick to read.

Those of you who have read all of Kate Morton’s books, how does this one compare to The House at Riverton or The Distant Hours?