21 May 2018

A Discovering Diamonds review of In a Time Never Known by Kat Michels

AMAZON UK £3.60 £7.10
AMAZON US $8.00 

Family Drama
American Civil War

In a Time Never Known is a fictional account of different people’s lives during the American Civil War. Author Kat Michels presents the reader with characters from differing walks of life and with differing attitudes to the war and its outcome. Woven within their stories is a web of espionage: within this web are complex threads of conflicting loyalties and romantic love. The story begins in a somewhat light manner, but then, as characters develop the story deepens and broadens.

Anna, a young woman from the North, is married against her will to a plantation owner, Andrew Bell. He is the stereotypical white Southern male of the period; he abuses his slaves and his wife, and shows no affection for anyone or anything save his spoilt daughter Kady, who grows into a crinoline princess of the worst kind. Anna, however, finds a meaning for her life when the man with whom she is secretly (very dangerously) conducting an affair recruits her into a spy ring for the North. The novel wobbles a little here, for Anna seems oblivious to the risks she is running and when her daughter insists she too become a spy there are long and loud conversations about it in Bell’s house. But from this point on the story becomes more convincing. We see Kady’s growth, firstly into a reckless do-gooder, then a brave woman risking her life to get messages to Union generals, as a means of ending the tragedy of this war.

The story is not just about Anna and Kady, however, it is also about Kady’s two husbands (no explanation here for it would be a spoiler), especially Thomas Henry, who is a complex Southern soldier, tormented by the deaths he has caused. We also follow Emma, who sees Thomas Henry saving her baby brother and initially believes him to be a hero. When she learns it was he who killed her family she sets out to get revenge.

Along with these characters there are numerous others, all of whom have inter-connected stories. In this respect, Michels’ novel is compelling reading, but it does get a little confusing at times and a list of characters at the beginning would have helped. Confusion is also caused by similar sounding names, and a slightly random use of first and second names: Thomas Henry is called both Thomas and Henry by his wife, and he has a companion called Tom; at another point I mixed up Anna and Emma, too.

Nevertheless, this is an intriguing account of the lives slaves and plantation owners, unexpected spies and long-suffering, always hungry, soldiers. Ultimately, one hopes there will be a happy ending for them but Michels has stuck to real events and the regrettable outcome of all wars, and while there is closure and a better future for some, nobody escapes unscathed.

In a time Never Known is a well-written, well-researched historical novel and I recommend it to anyone interested in the American Civil War, and those who enjoy a family saga. This novel is not set against the panoramic background of Gone With the Wind – indeed, a lot of the action occurs in the Dismal Swamp, which is crawling with all manner of venomous snakes – but it is a ‘big book’ and a satisfying, albeit not always easy read. Kat Michels is an author to follow.

© J.G. Harlond 

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19 May 2018

It is the Weekend

No reviews over the weekend 
but did you miss...

The May Mid-Month Extra with Joan Fallon

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Have you seen our

where you will find all sorts of interesting things
 to amuse, entertain and inform!

18 May 2018

Syncopation: A Novel of Adèle Hugo by Elizabeth Caulfield Felt

Syncopation is published by Cornerstone Press and is available through their 
online ordering $13.90

Family Drama
19th century
France, Nova Scotia, Barbados

Syncopation according to Webster: (music) to shift the regular accent (in a composition) to a normally unaccented beat.

Adèle is born into a perfect family: beautiful mother, two handsome brothers, a sister who is the epitome of a generous spirit and of course a famous father. For the first few chapters, we watch Adèle growing and interacting with her family until the unthinkable happens: the tragic death of a beloved member of the family. A half-beat has been missed; the harmony has been interrupted and can never be the same again.

Adèle emerges from the tragedy with a determination never to marry and to live life as she chooses. She comes to resent her domineering father, and she does not respect her mother’s imperatives. No longer is she the darling of the perfect family. While being treated as a pariah by her family, she enjoys a delicious and illicit sex life. Eventually, she escapes the clutches of convention by following a lover to Canada.

Adèle is the kind of spunky, liberated woman we admire so much in our heroines. No matter how desperate her circumstances become, she refuses to live the kind of life her family and society try to impose on her. Yet the author doesn’t attempt to hide her warts. As for Victor Hugo, I expected a more progressive man but he is as rigid in his views about women as his daughter is non-conforming.

This is an engrossing story, flawlessly told and with characters that come to life and fill our imaginations to the brim. 

© Susan Appleyard

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17 May 2018

Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar by Olga Wotjas

shortlisted for Book of the Month

Amazon UK £8.99  £4.99
AMAZON US $6.61 $20.67
AMAZON CA $8.09 $15.24

humour / time travel
19th Century
Russia/modern Scotland 

Olga Wotjas is a former work colleague who remains a friend, so of course I wanted to like her first novel. But, while allowing for that bias, this book would have been enjoyable if presented in proof form, with the author un-named. It is smart, funny and engaging, drawing on a considerable range of reference and allusion, but without ever taking them, or itself, too seriously.

Among those references, timely in Muriel Spark’s centenary year, is the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which protagonist Shona McMonagle dislikes so much that, in her day job as an Edinburgh librarian, she spirits copies off the shelves and hides them. Herself (like the author) a former member of the ‘crème de la crème’, she is confronted by school founder Marcia Blaine, a time traveller who despatches former pupils on time-bending missions to right wrongs.

Which is how Shona finds herself in nineteenth-century Russia. That she is not wholly sure of the exact nature of her assignment typifies the confusion and incomprehension which run through this story and its humour.

Not least of these is a fine running gag about the year in which she has landed. Shona, while clearly historically literate, is persistently thwarted as she asks to be told, or tries to work out, which it is. The guessing game this creates should keep many readers as happy as Shona is exasperated.

She is sufficiently exotic and baffling to her Russian hosts that a combination of bluff and luck gets her admitted to the high levels of an extremely hierarchical society. But much of that incomprehension is mutual, as she continues to grasp the wrong end of the stick and – given her expertise in martial arts – to contemplate hitting people with it.

Among those she meets, it is particularly easy to warm to Old Vatrushkin -  a family retainer whose Chekhovian nomenclature belies his true age, an educated and intelligent serf who is nevertheless acutely deferential and lives in terror of the possibility of emancipation - and Tresorka, a lap-cum-attack dog first encountered as ‘an animated floormop’.

Linda Cracknell, in a back-cover quote, was put in mind of ‘Anna Karenina written by PG Wodehouse’. And Old Vatrushkin’s intellect has something of Jeeves about it, while the author – who thanks Tolstoy along with Muriel Spark in her acknowledgements –  has a fine ear for wordplay and the telling simile.

But a more contemporary comparison might envisage Boris Akunin’s Erast Fandorin stories, which combine historic Russian settings with wit, crossed with the warmth, humour and lightness of touch of Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street stories.

All good writers also read, and inevitably take on some influences from their reading. But good writing is also always sui generis. Echoes rarely resound. If they did, Jacqueline Wilson would presumably still be writing the highly competent Patricia Highsmith pastiches of her early days rather than having become a wholly original children’s writer.

There are echoes here, but so too is a distinctive and engaging voice. An author’s note happily hints at ‘future missions’ for Shona. While the challenge will be finding another setting as rich in possibilities as Tsarist Russia, there is little doubt that both Shona and her creator are up to it.

© Huw Richards 
(Guest Reviewer)

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