The Devil on her Tongue by Linda Holeman

The Devil on her Tongue One day in 1745, a Dutch sailor called Arie ten Brink leaves his home on the Portuguese island of Porto Santo and sets sail for Brazil where he hopes to make his fortune. His thirteen-year-old daughter, Diamantina, is heartbroken; left behind on Porto Santo with her mother, a former African slave, life is not easy and she vows to join her father in Brazil one day.

While she waits for a letter saying that he has reached his destination, Diamantina faces struggles with poverty, her mother’s reputation as a witch, and men who are ready to take advantage of a lonely, vulnerable young woman. Eventually an offer of marriage gives Diamantina a chance to escape, but the marriage is not what she would have hoped for and it seems that her ordeals are not yet over.

I love Linda Holeman’s books (I’ve read all of her adult novels apart from her first one, The Linnet Bird) so it was disappointing to find that The Devil on her Tongue was initially published only in Canada. Luckily for me, Traverse Press have now made it available as an ebook, as they did with the previous one, The Lost Souls of Angelkov, so readers in the UK and US are now able to read it as well.

There are a few things I’ve come to expect from Linda Holeman’s novels; one of them is an interesting and unusual historical setting. I know there must be other books set in 18th century Portugal, but this is the first I’ve read; it’s not a common choice for historical fiction and it made a refreshing change. There are some beautiful descriptions of Porto Santo, and later, of Madeira and Lisbon, and we are given insights into what life was like in each of these places. While the focus is on Diamantina’s personal story, it is played out against a historical background that feels well researched and believable. I particularly loved the vivid depiction of the earthquake that destroyed most of Lisbon in 1755.

Another thing I expect is a long, engrossing and emotional story – and that’s what I got from The Devil on her Tongue. But although Diamantina’s story is certainly very compelling, it’s also very sad; I couldn’t believe one person could experience so much misery and have so little luck in life. I felt so sorry for her but I also admired her resilience as she tried to build a new life for herself in the face of so much betrayal, disappointment and unhappiness. One aspect of Holeman’s novels I really like is the way they explore attitudes towards women in different time periods and cultures – in previous books we have seen how women were treated in 19th century India, Afghanistan and Russia, in 1930s Morocco, and now in a small community in Portugal during the 1700s.

I don’t think this is my favourite of Linda Holeman’s novels (that would probably be the book set in Morocco, The Saffron Gate) but it’s beautifully written and I did enjoy reading it, despite finding the story so sad.

Thank you to Traverse Press for providing a copy of this book for review.

The Lost Souls of Angelkov by Linda Holeman

The Lost Souls of Angelkov Linda Holeman is an author I discovered by chance five years ago when I picked up one of her books, The Moonlit Cage, in the library. I enjoyed it and went on to read two more of her novels, In a Far Country and The Saffron Gate, which I also loved. All three are long, engrossing historical fiction novels with fascinating settings including 19th century Afghanistan and India and 1930s Morocco. The Lost Souls of Angelkov was published in Canada in 2012 and I was disappointed to find that it was not being published in the UK…but Traverse Press came to the rescue a few weeks ago when they contacted me with the news that an ebook version is now available to UK and US readers.

The Lost Souls of Angelkov is set in Russia in 1861, the year serfdom is abolished by Tsar Alexander II. The emancipation of the serfs leads to huge changes in Russian society as the serfs try to adapt to their new freedom while their former owners struggle to manage their huge estates with nobody to work the land. One of these landowners is the fictional Count Konstantin Mitlovsky who owns the estate of Angelkov in the Province of Pskov.

One day the Count and his young son, Mikhail (Misha), are out riding when they are attacked by a group of Cossack horsemen. Ten-year-old Misha is kidnapped and Konstantin himself is wounded. As the Count’s health deteriorates, it is left to his wife, Antonina, to take control of the situation and continue the search for their missing child. Antonina, however, is an alcoholic and seeks comfort in drink, finding it difficult to cope with what has happened. And so she turns to the only two people she feels she can trust – her maid, Lilya, and the estate steward, Grisha, neither of whom are quite what they seem…

I’m so pleased that I’ve now had the opportunity to read The Lost Souls of Angelkov, because I enjoyed it as much as the other Linda Holeman books I’ve read. I wasn’t sure I was going to like it at first, though. Antonina is a very flawed character (as are most of the others in the novel) and I found her reactions to her son’s kidnapping very frustrating! On the other hand, people don’t always behave the way we would like or expect them to and as the story progressed I started to become aware of the reasons for Antonina’s behaviour. In an arranged marriage to a man old enough to be her father, her married life has been unhappy and lonely, and because of the lack of freedom available to women of her time she is unable to pursue her dream of playing the piano professionally. As I learned more about Antonina’s background I began to understand and have sympathy.

The stories of not only Antonina but also Grisha and Lilya unfold gradually through flashbacks and this helps to explain the complex relationships between the three of them. I think getting to know these three characters and discovering the truth about their pasts was actually a lot more interesting than the storyline of Misha’s kidnapping! There were a few coincidences that I couldn’t quite believe and I also found the ending a bit dissatisfying (not all of the characters had the happy endings I was hoping for), but The Lost Souls of Angelkov was still a great read. I didn’t have much previous knowledge of Russian serfdom and the challenges facing the serfs and landowners after emancipation, so I loved that aspect of the story.

I hope I won’t have to wait too long for a chance to read Linda Holeman’s next book, but meanwhile I should go back and read The Linnet Bird, the only one of her earlier novels I haven’t read yet.

Thanks to Traverse Press for sending me a copy of this book for review.

Review: The Saffron Gate by Linda Holeman

Linda Holeman’s books are perfect comfort reading for me. She writes the kind of historical fiction I love, with just the right combination of romance, history and adventure. One of the things I like about her books is the way she chooses such interesting settings (19th century Afghanistan in The Moonlit Cage, for example, or British-ruled India in In a Far Country). The Saffron Gate is set in 1930s Morocco, a time and place I know very little about, but Holeman really makes the setting come alive, from the noise and bustle of the souks in Marrakesh, the taste of hot couscous and mint tea, the vibrant colours of the trees and flowers.

But Morocco in the 1930s can be a dangerous place for a woman on her own, as our narrator soon discovers. Her name is Sidonie O’Shea and she’s travelling to North Africa from her home in Albany, New York in search of her fiancé Etienne Duverger, who disappeared without word, leaving behind a mysterious letter from his sister in Marrakesh. When Sidonie arrives in Morocco she realises the enormity of her task – she has no idea where to start looking for Etienne and it seems that certain people are determined to stop her from finding him at all costs. As Sidonie continues to search, she begins to fall in love with Morocco and at the same time uncovers some important truths about both Etienne and herself.

There were times when I wanted to throw this book across the room in disgust, not because it was badly written, but because one of the characters was just so horrible and so cruel to Sidonie I didn’t think I could bear to read any more. Not only that, but Sidonie is far too innocent and trusting, which started to frustrate me after a while. Somewhere in the middle of the book though, the story began to go in a different direction to what I was expecting and I started to feel more hopeful of a happy ending. Whether I got one or not I’ll leave you to find out for yourself.

I learned a lot from this book about the role of women in 1930s Morocco, how they lived, and how they were scorned and looked down upon if they didn’t have a husband. There was also a lot of information about their fashions, customs, superstitions – and some fascinating details, such as the rituals of the hammam (public baths).

I’ve enjoyed all of the Linda Holeman books that I’ve read, but I think this one has been my favourite so far. I would highly recommend The Saffron Gate to anyone who likes to read long historical fiction novels that allow you to immerse yourself in another culture for a while.

Review: In a Far Country by Linda Holeman

Linda Holeman really deserves to be better known. Her books seem to be difficult to find outside the UK and Canada which is sad because she’s such a good writer. Last year I read The Moonlit Cage and enjoyed it so much I couldn’t wait to read another of her historical fiction novels. In a Far Country is part of a trilogy with The Linnet Bird and The Moonlit Cage, but they are all stand-alone books and can be read in any order.

In a Far Country is set in British-ruled India in the late 19th century and tells the story of Pree Fincastle, the daughter of two British missionaries living on an isolated mission near Lahore. Left alone and penniless after her parents’ tragic deaths, Pree sets off to look for her childhood friend, Kai, the only person she can turn to for help.

I found this book difficult to get into at first. Holeman spent a lot of time setting the scene and introducing us to Pree and her parents, so that the story didn’t really begin until around 150 pages into the book. From this point onwards, though, the pace picked up and I was hooked. I really liked the character of Pree. Since the book is told in the first person from her point of view, we get to experience all her emotions as she grows up at the lonely, impoverished mission house and as her life is turned upside down by the deaths of her parents.

The only criticism I have of both this book and The Moonlit Cage is that I just don’t feel enough connection to the male characters. I think Linda Holeman writes female characters much better than she does male. I found that Kai remained cold and aloof throughout the entire book and considering Pree loved and trusted him enough to turn to him when she was in trouble, I didn’t feel much warmth, passion or humour coming from him at all. This was almost exactly the same reaction I had to David Ingram in The Moonlit Cage.

However, one of Holeman’s strengths is in her wonderfully evocative and colourful descriptions of the places she’s writing about. She chooses just the right words to convey the sights, sounds and smells of India. If you had never read a book set in India before, this would probably be a good introduction.

Despite the length of this book, it was surprisingly quick to read. Perfect if you’re looking for a big, heartbreaking historical fiction novel to lose yourself in for a few days.

Highly Recommended

Genre: Historical Fiction/Pages: 640/Publisher: Headline Review/Year: 2008/Source: My own copy bought used

Review: The Moonlit Cage by Linda Holeman

“I have always been told I was wicked…”

This is the first book I’ve read by Linda Holeman and it was good enough to make me want to read more of her work.
I love books that help me to learn about other times and other places: in The Moonlit Cage, Holeman introduces us to life in 19th century Afghanistan. Not being an expert in Afghan history or culture, I have no idea how accurate her descriptions are, but the book seems very well-researched to me. A glossary of unfamiliar Dari and Pashto words is included at the back of the book, but I didn’t feel the need to refer to this very often as most of the words were explained as we encountered them in the text.
 The story is narrated by Darya, a young Afghan girl. All her life Darya has refused to conform to others’ expectations and secretly dreams of one day finding freedom. When her father’s second wife, Sulima, puts a curse on her, Darya is forced to leave her village and is sold into marriage with the son of a nomadic chief. However, when her husband learns about the curse and threatens to kill her, she runs away again. As she escapes through the Hindu Kush mountains, she meets David Ingram and begins a journey which takes her first to India and then to London.

I really enjoyed this book and found it difficult to put down. The first two thirds, which took place in Afghanistan and India, were fascinating, though I didn’t like the way the storyline developed after Darya’s arrival in England. The only other problem I had with the book was that while Darya was an interesting, likeable character, I found David Ingram, as the hero of the story, quite boring and two-dimensional.I admired the way Darya’s strength and courage helped her to survive all kinds of pain and abuse.

After reading the first couple of chapters I decided that this book would count towards the Women Unbound reading challenge. Throughout the entire story, Darya constantly questions why she has to behave in a certain way just because she’s a woman and challenges the belief that daughters are worthless and only sons are of value.
I knew nothing about this book until I found it in the library (on the “H” shelf next to Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner which coincidentally is also set in Afghanistan) so I was surprised by how good it was. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys long historical fiction novels…but you can prepare to be saddened and shocked by Darya’s story.
Genre: Historical Fiction/Pages: 544/Publisher: Headline Review/Year: 2006/Source: Library book

Teaser Tuesday: The Moonlit Cage

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly meme hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. The rules:

* Grab your current read
* Open to a random page
* Share two teaser sentences from somewhere on that page (avoiding spoilers)

One day as I ground roots, putting all my anger into the satisfying crunch of the stone against stone, she put her hand on my arm, and I stopped.

“Sometimes, Darya, a curse may be a blessing,” she said.

p. 114 “The Moonlit Cage” by Linda Holeman