22 June 2018

One Last Dance by Judith Lennox

Shortlisted for book of the month


Family Drama

One Last Dance is a family saga set between 1917 and 1974. This novel has a broad cast of characters and viewpoints and yet the author makes us care about all of them and engage with their hopes and dreams - and feel for their disasters. There is love and betrayal set around a great house in Cornwall - a sort of Mandalay for those familiar with the novel Rebecca - and it sweeps you along at a terrific pace through the first and second world wars and then through the austere fifties and swinging sixties,  yet manages to hold your attention all along.

Shy Esme is forced to compete with her beautiful sister Camilla until Camilla rejects Devlin, the handsome owner of Rosindell. Esme has secretly been in love with Devlin for years and so accepts the bargain in the hope of winning his heart. But Camilla plays games and in one of many plot twists Camilla challenges Esme's marriage with consequences for the next two generations. There are twists and turns, there are moments of heartbreak. It's astonishing an author can lead us through so much history and yet hold our attention. Could barely reach for another chocolate as I read on and on...

© Jeffrey Manton

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21 June 2018

Roman Games by Bruce MacBain

Amazon.co.uk: alas, this title appears to be only available second-hand in the UK - but try your local library
Amazon.com $14.95
Amazon.ca $ n/a


Sextus Verpa, a hated informer to the paranoid Emperor Domitian, is found stabbed to death and Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus – Pliny the Younger to you and me – is called to investigate. Well, not so much to investigate, but to ascertain the guilt of one of Verpa's Jewish slaves – 'traitors and atheists, as they are'.  On the basis that if one is guilty then all of the others must have known about it and are therefore complicit in the murder, their fate is to be burned alive in the arena once the Roman Games have been completed. Pliny has fifteen days to find the truth.

It soon becomes apparent that the main suspect was innocent, but Pliny's task isn't made any easier when the slave is murdered whilst in confinement.

It's all in here: body in a locked room, suspects and motives, people not being who they appear to be, a drunken bawdy poet who finds himself assisting Pliny, a mysterious man with his arm in a sling, religious overtones and political plots.

Poor Pliny; knowing he is inadequate in terms of detection, he stumbles from conclusion to conclusion, all of which prove to be part of the solution but not all of it.

I thoroughly enjoyed this romp. The characterisation of Pliny was excellent, wise, naïve and very, very fallible. Those of a squeamish nature may not like some of the methods of torture and execution that the Romans employed, but fortunately they are not too gruesome – merely matter of fact. There is quite a lot of sexual activity and innuendo but nothing that we might not expect from those 'decadent' times.

Infamy, infamy! They've all got it in for me....”
Very enjoyable.

© Richard Tearle

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20 June 2018

The Merest Loss by Steven Neil

AMAZON UK £2.99 £7.88
AMAZON US $4.29 $13.17

Biographical fiction 
1830s - 1860s
England / France

A young man, Martin, walks into the stable yard of Tom Olliver, a racehorse trainer and former jockey, asking for help in identifying his father. Then begins the true story of Harriet Howard, an original 'wild child' at school, a promising actress and a woman coerced into befriending and sponsoring the British Government's plans to support Louis Napoleon in his attempts to rule the French.

The love of Harriet's life is Jem Mason, a successful jockey, rival and friend of Olliver's. But Jem and Harriet's relationship is as stormy as it is passionate. Enter the villain of the piece, Nicholas Sly. His orders are to recruit Harriet for her role as courtesan. Harriet refuses, but suddenly there are no roles for her to play and Jem's career plunges as well. They split up and, following more threats from Sly, she agrees to do what she has been asked. In a very short space of time she acquires many lovers, at least five of whom might be the boy's father – for she never reveals who it is.

The majority of the book is written in the present tense, which I often find off-putting. However, in the hands Mr Neil it is easy to overcome such prejudice, for I found myself imagining that I was in a theatre, listening to an unseen narrator setting the scenes for the audience, whilst the players made their entrances to present the dialogue. And whilst the narration presents the facts in a simple, matter-of-fact style, there are moments of beautiful description.

In content, style and prose, I cannot find fault anywhere. Yet I have to make mention of a couple of things. Before I had even opened the book, I believed I was getting a Romance to read – a genre I admit that I am not enamoured of. The author no doubt has his reasons for the title (or did I miss something?) yet I feel that it is too nondescript nor memorable enough. The cover would be absolutely perfect for a book of a different genre for it is an excellent piece of work, even down to an accurate illustration of the Chateau de Beauregarde which was Harriet's  home – a gift from Louis Napoleon. Yet for me it does not  convey the political intrigue, the glitz of London and France, the evidence that mounts up  as Martin tries to uncover the mystery of his sire nor the thrill of the steeplechase so vividly described within the text.

Those small things aside, I thoroughly enjoyed every chapter of what I feel is a quite remarkable book with its unknown narrator and easy to read style. I believe Mr Neil has a good career in front of him.


© Richard Tearle

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19 June 2018

In Spite of Lions by Scarlette Pike

Shortlisted for book of the month

AMAZON UK £5.25 £12.69
AMAZON US $7.53 $12.63

Family drama / adventure
19th century
London & Africa

Anna is running away. From whom or what? She has changed her name and takes passage on a ship bound for anywhere. She doesn’t care, doesn’t even want to know. She is determined to shed the constraints of her society and live independently somewhere far away from England. The captain of the ship turns out to be a man from her past, the husband of a late and dear friend. He too has changed his name. Why? He is a very menacing and mysterious character and Anna is wary of him. Could he possibly be the love interest? To add a little more spice to the pot, also on the ship are Mrs. David Livingstone and children who are going to meet Mr. Livingstone. Yes, Anna’s destination turns out to be Africa.

By this time – the third chapter – I was so firmly hooked, I could hardly move from my chair. Nothing could be a greater contrast to Anna’s previous experience than the lifestyle of the Livingstones and the culture of Africa. We observe this young, well-bred English lady as she rides for days in the back of a wagon, watches an animal being butchered, learns to pluck a fowl, lives through a drought, a lion attack and a war… and yet loves Africa. Meanwhile she suffers nightmares of her past life and struggles to come to terms with the person she was.

Anna is a bit of a trope – a woman trying to live according to the mores of a later time – but because of the author’s excellent writing and story-telling, she rises above such clichés. All the main characters are interesting and well-presented, but my favourite is the Chief - also a real person - as colourful and delightful a character as you could hope to meet. The relationship between him and the Livingstones is heartwarming.

Judging by the ending, I feel sure there will be another book.
Heartily recommended

© Susan Appleyard

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