Friday, 24 September 2021

Lost Lady by Michael Reidy

Lost Lady by Michael Reidy
shortlisted for Book Of The Month


Fictional Drama
Paris
1920s

"Set against the glamour and excitement of 1920s Paris, the events of Lost Lady shadow the life of a young émigré to reveal a microcosm of Russian history. Natasha ekes out a living as an artist's model, sewing costumes for the ballet and playing the piano for Mme Duflot's notorious establishment. Befriended by the young Charles Boivet, still finding his feet after the Great War, the girl he knows only as Natasha draws him out and introduces him to the cultural life of les annes folles. However, the complex social and political entanglements of the Russian communities threaten her safety and his. Intrigue, conspiracies and rivalries begin to dominate Natasha's life in this sub-culture and Charles can only watch as she is sucked in."

I have often observed that writing a book is like making a cake. If you put in all the right ingredients, it is not entirely a guaranteed success, but if you miss one out, it will surely fail.  Imagine a book that lacks a basic ingredient and yet still manages to be a wonderful, intoxicating read.

The missing ingredient concerns the two main characters, Charles and Danielle, very good friends who wine and dine together, attend art galleries and concerts, and believe they can maintain a platonic relationship. We do not know what they look like: the colour of eyes and hair, how tall they are, good-looking or otherwise. We don’t even know their ages except that they are young-ish. Their mode of dress is never related. Most authors expend great effort to describe the main characters. But here, the author’s skill is such that we know them intimately despite not knowing their personal details. They are a blank slate upon which we can paint our own impressions.

Another unusual thing is the antagonist. At first I thought there wasn’t one. The Okhrana lurks menacingly in the background, but doesn’t impact the lives of the two main characters. I came to the conclusion it was Natasha, who doesn’t fit the mold because she is a good person, but she is the one who prevents the two friends from resolving their conflict.

Natasha is a young girl who works as a model and sleeps with artists in exchange for a place to stay. She introduces the two friends to Russian emigres who escaped the revolution and yet are still in fear for their lives, and before long the two find themselves steeped in Russian culture. From the beginning, Natasha is an enigma. She appears to be a malnourished and penniless waif, who cadges drinks and dinners and leaves before they can find out much about her. But she has refined manners, can quote Tolstoy and knows some aristocratic Russians. She is a mystery the two friends are determined to solve.

Paris in the 1920s is in the process of change, trying to shake off the post-war gloom and rediscover itself. The Russians, on the other hand, are desperate to hold onto the past, its culture and privileged society. Charles and Danielle both have shadows from the past standing in the way of present happiness. For Charles, it is his experiences in the Great War. For Danielle, it is the death of her fiancé in the same war. They too make a conscious effort to leave the past behind and enter the post-war world.

This is an excellent book, rich in the culture of a place and time, with three unforgettable characters who bring out the best in each other. I thoroughly enjoyed it and didn’t want it to end.

I must also note the cover. So simple, and so evocative of the era. 

Very highly recommended
Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Susan Appleyard
 e-version reviewed
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Thursday, 23 September 2021

A Discovering Diamonds Review of Under a Gravid Sky - Angela MacRae Shanks

1700s
Scotland

"The north-eastern Highlands, 1747. In the weeks following Culloden, a victorious Hanoverian army rampages through the glens, committing atrocities, intent on crushing the rebellious Highland clans. In occupied Strathavon, persecuted families struggle under repressive new laws and rent rises. Five-year-old Rowena loses her mother, while Duncan witnesses the brutal events that make him an orphan.
A sensitive child told she must harden herself, Rowena turns to Morna, the green woman, who takes her on a journey of discovery into the magic of the natural world, passing on her healing skills. But as she blossoms into a woman, Rowena catches the eye of Hugh McBeath, a ruthless exciseman sent to extinguish the scourge of whisky smuggling from the Duke of Gordon’s lands. Beguiled, McBeath believes her a witch. Nevertheless, he must have her for his wife.
Smuggling illicit whisky has long been a tradition in Strathavon; the fiery spirit brings coin for paying rents. Now smuggling is deemed a traitorous act that helped fund the Jacobite Rising. Duncan is the best smuggler the glen has ever seen, but having hidden while his family burned, how can he ever be worthy of tender-hearted Rowena?"

It seems that the author is a native of the land she writes about, and it shows. The descriptions of this corner of Scotland are vividly portrayed, and she is adept at describing the working lives of the poorer folk who lived there in the 18th century and of the trials they faced just to stay alive. This is a beautifully produced book, with a gorgeous cover, and there is just enough dialect in the speech to give a real flavour of time and place, without it ever being confusing. And, on that note, the history and politics are dropped in very lightly - just enough so that we know what's going on, but never too much that we get an 'info dump'.

I'd have liked to see a slightly faster-paced narrative, particularly in the opening chapters which might have benefited from the children growing up by a few years, and I also wonder whether McBeath didn't need a little more back story, which could have developed his character and made us understand why he behaves so villainously. There were also a couple of plot points which didn't ring quite true for me. A good, experienced no-nonsense technical editor would bring out the talent that this author clearly possesses by helping to tighten the plot and resolve the pacing issues - to turn a good book into a brilliant one. Good editors cost money, but a really good editor is a worthwhile investment.

This is a prequel to The Blood and the Barley, and it's clear from the author's notes that more in the series are planned. Ms MacRae Shanks has created a world where she can explore the lives of her characters at length, and which she can return to time and again, and I'm sure her story-telling will grow stronger as the series expands.


Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Lucy Townshend
 e-version reviewed


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Wednesday, 22 September 2021

Some Rise by Sin by Siôn Scott-Wilson

1800s
England

"1829 is a tough year to be a body snatcher. Burke and Hare have just been convicted of killing people to sell their bodies, to widespread outrage—but despite the bad press, doctors still need fresh corpses for medical research.
Sammy and Facey are a couple of so-called ‘resurrection men’, making a living among society's fringe-dwellers by hoisting the newly departed from the churchyards of London whilst masquerading as late-night bakers. Operating on tip-offs and rumours in the capital’s drinking dens and fighting pits, the pair find themselves in receipt of some valuable intelligence: an unusual cadaver has popped up on the market, that of a hermaphrodite. For any medic worth his salt it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—a medical curiosity and rara avis—and famous anatomist Joshua Brookes commissions the two men to obtain the body, at any cost. But some corpses hold secrets, and before long the enterprise becomes a deadlier and more complex undertaking than either man could ever have imagined."

To pick up this book and start reading is, I think, as close as you'd ever come to knowing what it would be like to suddenly find yourself in early 19th-century London. Sammy is an eloquent narrator but he speaks the language of the streets, and since he is our guide, we quickly get used to the particular speech eccentricities that these characters have.

There is so much delicious detail, from scenes inside the drinking houses, to the greasy feel of trousers. The sights and sounds of a pulsing London are vividly captured and the city is a character in its own right, playing a huge part in the story.

Sammy and Facey walk many miles, and you get the sense that London pavements were just as hard then as they are today. There is poignancy, with the two little brothers, both called John, who rely on each other and the 'ne'er-do-wells' of their acquaintance, and Rosamund's habit of always smiling behind her hand, so conscious is she of her chipped teeth.

I applaud the author's logistical skills, in corralling so many major and minor characters, all of whom burst onto the pages and make themselves known in a few brief sentences, giving us their back story, their idiosyncrasies, and often providing light humour. I especially liked the minor character who'd had a full set of the finest ebony teeth made, but wondered plaintively whether ebony should in fact splinter so easily and taste of boot polish...

The plot is a lot more intricate than the blurb suggests, and the hermaphrodite's body is not the only one that gets Sammy and Facey into trouble. Again, I have nothing but admiration for the way the author keeps track of the plot. It's easy to read, but must have been one heck of a challenge to write!

Scott-Wilson cleverly avoids making overt statements about wealth / poverty / inequality, and there are no stereotypes here. There are good and bad people on both sides of the socio-economic divide, but one thing is made clear, though again, subtly done: literacy is empowering.

Sammy is an astute young man, able accurately to assess the people who come in and out of his life, but he's equally good at showing us his own character, with all its faults and strengths. Again, hats off to the author for this achievement, something which is quite difficult to pull off when writing in the first person.

My only negative criticism is for the cover: the image is good but the title font and placing could have been better, and what a shame that the author's name is not more prominent - it can barely been seen, especially at thumb-nail size.

I'm not sure I've read a book quite like this one. It's different, it's quirky, beautifully imagined and executed, and stylised without ever becoming pretentious. 

Highly recommended.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Annie Whitehead
 e-version reviewed


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Tuesday, 21 September 2021

The Steel Rose: By Nancy Northcott

Shortlisted for Book of the Month


Amazon UK
Amazon US
Amazon CA
Amazon AU
Goodreads

Fictional Drama/ historical fantasy
14oos / Richard III / Napoleonic / multi
England

The Boar King's Honor Trilogy Book 2

Very exciting and crafted with skill.

This is a fast-paced and exciting story that fits in a number of genres – historical fiction, historical fantasy, magical fantasy, Regency, time-travel and romance. Lovers of all those genres will enjoy it, for it’s much more than any single category. Even though it’s the middle book in a trilogy, it works very well as a standalone novel. I was unaware of its ‘middle child’ status until the very end and it didn't matter.

Widowed Amelia, with very advanced magical Gifts, is seeking to lift a curse set on her family in the time of Richard III. The stakes rise – Napoleon escapes from Elba, aided by French wizards. His grand plan is to conquer England. Amelia is in grave danger from a rogue English wizard who wants to either control or neutralise her powers. He’s also a traitor to his country – aiding the French for his own nefarious purposes. Enter Julian, close friend of her now-deceased brother Adam. Julian's help is needed (he's a powerful, influential and highly Gifted wizard.) The two form an alliance. They’re assisted by Amelia’s long-deceased grandparents who, very conveniently, pop in and out of current time, reporting what’s going on in other places and training the young couple with more advanced Gifts. 

The story has a tight and well-constructed plot. Within its fantasy boundaries, the many twists and turns are believable, the characters are well-developed, and the history is well researched.

On a personal note, I delighted in the ‘About the History’ end notes, when Northcott credited Josephine Tey’s book ‘Daughter of Time’ as the trigger for her interest in the controversy over Richard III. It had the same impact on me – to be aware that accounts of historical events are written by the victor and might not be true.

I thoroughly recommend this book and look forward to the third in the trilogy.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

©  Robyn Pearce
 e-version reviewed


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Monday, 20 September 2021

A Discovering Diamonds Review of Calista by Laura Rahme

A Discov



Amazon UK
Amazon US
Amazon CA
Amazon AU
Goodreads

Gothic Thriller
England and Greece
19th century

“Colours and shapes have a habit of changing in this house. When you think you have grasped what you are seeing, you find it is all an illusion, and things take on quite another form.”

French detective Maurice Leroux is invited to look into four deaths that occurred in the space of a year at Alexandra Hall, a mansion owned by Aaron Nightingale and his Greek wife, Calista – two of the victims. The other two are Vera, Aaron’s sister, and a maid. Foul play is suspected. M. Leroux finds the atmosphere at the hall both sinister and mysterious. The housekeeper, a frightening individual, locks him in his bedroom at night ‘for his own protection’, but a locked door doesn’t allay his creeping suspicion that someone, somehow, has entered. The four maids and gardener, all owning various degrees of strangeness, act as if they have something to hide.

In such a book we might expect to read about spectral figures and things that go bump in the night. Here everyday objects take on a sinister aspect: spoons, a fountain that must never be turned off. M. Leroux’ own demons are resurrected – and none could be worse than a vicious mother – as he delves deeper into the mystery, comes to understand the relationships between the four victims and uncovers a terrible secret.

The author builds the drama very effectively to a satisfactory conclusion that will surprise. 

I am new to this genre, but I enjoyed it -- and it didn’t keep me awake at night. 

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Susan Appleyard
 e-version reviewed




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Friday, 17 September 2021

A Discovering Diamonds Review of Muskrat Ramble by Mim Eichmann



Fictional Drama / Jazz
early 20th century 
United States

The second and final installment in Mim Eichmann's saga of before-her-time free spirit, Hannah Owens, Muskrat Ramble is a tour of (a ramble through) 20th-century America, commencing on the eve of the First World War. This meticulously researched novel takes us from New Orleans on the cusp of the Jazz Age to Prohibition-era Chicago to the Front Range of Colorado. It's a breathtaking travelogue, to be sure.

Eichmann has remarkable skill with historical setting and a musician's easy fluency with the intricacies of the early development of American jazz. It's an immersive experience for readers, surrounding us with the rich sounds and smells of New Orleans, the languid sultriness of Louisiana's sugar plantations, and the bone-chilling cold of Chicago winters. The author paints with a refined brush that renders her settings in lush and textured colors. The book is probably worth the price for the author's settings alone.

I didn't find the protagonist, Hannah, particularly likable. And I don't necessarily count this a negative. It was frankly refreshing to encounter a female protagonist in a historical novel that wasn't immediately likable. Hannah is self-indulgent, with a recurrent indifference to the effects on others of her often selfish decisions. This includes Hannah's blithely entering into a sexual relationship with Edouard "Kid" Ory, the great New Orleans jazz trombonist who Eichmann co-opts as the lover of Hannah's teenage daughter whom he subsequently impregnates. This was irresistibly tawdry and rollicking good fun. Rather than rooting for Hannah, I found myself awaiting her next train-wreck life choice, which included ending up cross-wise with Al Capone's Southside Gang. In the end, Hannah does right (no spoilers), but it's a circuitous route getting there.

The primary weakness of this book lies with the unevenness and herky-jerky pacing of the storyline. Much of this is a result of the author's impulse to show too much of her extraordinary research, forgetting that in historical novels research should, like an iceberg, remain 90% below the surface. This is most manifest in the final chapters, wherein the story moves across three decades recounting the development of jazz and the subsequent lives of the too-many musicians introduced earlier in the book, stitched together with the thinnest connections to the aging protagonist. Indeed, the book would have been improved by ending earlier. However, Ms Eichmann has the mechanics, and talent, to become a fine historical novelist, with discipline gained through experience for her future books.

Readers interested in jazz and its development will enjoy the detail in this novel.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Jeffrey K. Walker
 e-version reviewed



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Thursday, 16 September 2021

Fiery Girls: a novel of the 1911 Triangle Waist Company Fire by Heather Wardell

New York

Seamstresses Rosie, a Jewish girl from Russia, and Maria, a Catholic girl from Italy, are sent to New York to financially assist their families. Their individual stories run parallel until eventually the two girls meet. They become best friends, united by their concern about the working conditions of female workers in the garment industry. Excitable Maria becomes a powerful speaker for the unions; Rosie wishes to be like her friend but speaking in public terrifies her. Instead, she works tirelessly in quiet ways to help fellow immigrants and fellow workers.

Very cleverly, we follow the development of the girls’ identities in this new land. How they coped with the freedoms they never would have known in their home countries. How they managed their money. How they found work and friends. The entertainments they enjoyed. All is very skilfully portrayed through the eyes of the girls and their friends.

The author paints a vivid picture of the unsafe and abusive conditions suffered by workers in pre–union days, told through the eyes and experiences of the two young women. The description of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire (when 146 people died) is terrifying and deeply moving. The historical details never intrude but a skilfully woven into the story, and the fictional central characters are well-developed and believable. 

It’s a powerful story and reminds us not to take for granted the freedoms and safety standards we now expect as of right. Very well researched and a gripping page-turner. I highly recommend it.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Robyn Pearce
 e-version reviewed


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Wednesday, 15 September 2021

The Fort byAdrien Goldsworthy

shortlisted for Book of the Month


AD 105
Rome
#City of Victory #1

This is war – the Romans vs. the Dacians. And it took three goes to settle it. The first was by Domitian in AD 87-8 and second and third under Emperor Trajan. The conflicts were triggered by the constant Dacian threat to the Danubian province of Moesia plus the increasing need for the Romans’ need for economic resources.

Truces were made and broken by the Dacians. Trajan recommenced hostilities against Dacia and eventually defeated the Dacian king, Decebalus, at the second battle of Tapae in AD 101. But as we see in The Fort, Decebalus’s resentment grew and simmered. This is where the story starts, in AD 105, inside the head of Brasus, who will become one of the secondary level Dacian war leaders. 

When I took on reviewing The Fort, I was rather nervous. Adrian Goldsworthy is an eminent historian of the Roman world; his Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor is the definitive history of Rome’s first emperor and sits in a prominent place on my bookshelf. But this anxiety evaporated as I quickly became absorbed in the story.

I knew I didn’t need to worry about the authenticity of the period detail, especially every aspect of Roman military life of which Goldsworthy is a master. But it’s not a dry rehearsal of battle tactics and ‘bash and clash' scenes. Here, we live the day-to-day, logical and tough life of Roman military, and the sheer courage of the Brigante troops. Goldsworthy is a master of using the scarce information available to us and filling the rest in intelligently and vividly.

His characterisation is sharp, from the aptly named main character Centurion Ferox to historical figures such as Hadrian and Lepidina (she of the Vindolanda tablets). He cleverly mixes the known historical figures with Ferox, Claudia Enica, a Romanised Brigante queen descended from Cartimandua (and who is Ferox’s wife), Romans desperate to be relieved and go home once Ferox arrives, loyal veterans and treacherous deserters. 

Hadrian is drawn as clever and ambitious, a successful manipulator of men who has no compunction about sacrificing others for the good of the res publica of Rome.

Brasus the Dacian is dedicated to his king and to the holy task of ridding his country of the sacrilege of the presence of the ‘unbelievers’, the Romans. In between the scenes featuring Ferox, Hadrian, and occasionally other characters, we return to Brasus and see his beliefs change and his faith waver.

The author gives us no illusions about the brutality and directness of life at the start of the second century AD. We see the Roman world in tooth and claw, especially the hierarchical power plays. Yet there is wit and banter between the characters, even when under terrifying siege; anybody military will recognise this gallows humour.

My only constructive comment would be that maybe a map and a character list would be helpful for readers who might not know exactly where Dacia was, or might get confused about the large list of characters with unfamiliar names. (Although maps and character lists are not always easily accessible in e-versions.)

The Fort builds slowly but inexorably and is laced with foreboding from the beginning. The climax is inevitable, but the tension never ceases.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Alison Morton
 e-version reviewed


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Tuesday, 14 September 2021

Empire's Heir by Marian L Thorpe

shortlisted for Book of the Month


Fictional Saga/ fantasy
Book 6 of a series

"Gwenna, heir to Ésparias, is summoned by the Empress of Casil to compete for the hand of her son. Offered power and influence far beyond what her own small land can give her, Gwenna’s strategy seems clear – except she loves someone else.
Nineteen years earlier, the Empress outplayed Cillian in diplomacy and intrigue. Alone, his only living daughter has little chance to counter the Empress's experience and skill. Aging and torn by grief and worry, Cillian insists on accompanying Gwenna to Casil.
Risking a charge of treason, faced with a choice he does not want to make, Cillian must convince Gwenna her future is more important than his – while Gwenna plans her moves to keep her father safe. Both are playing a dangerous game. Which one will concede – or sacrifice?"

This is the sixth book in the Empire's Legacy series, and by now these characters (I've read all the books) feel very familiar to me. Marian Thorpe has invented a complete world, drawing on extensive research of ancient civilisations, so that we have languages that are based on Old Norse, societies that are based on Roman history, etc, but she brings all those elements together and creates something entirely new, but which also feels like real, ancient history. After having read the five preceding books it was, for me, a little like picking up a book set, say, in Tudor England, in the way that the backdrop, the languages, the geography, all feel completely real and recognisable. Just as we can all imagine ourselves in the court of Henry VIII, so I can now just as easily imagine myself within the walls of Casil, or at Linrathe. 

Does this mean that you can't read this book as a standalone? Absolutely not. The author helpfully gives a round-up of the story so far, explains the languages and everything else you need to know, and Empire's Heir has a solid, satisfying ending, with all threads neatly tied.
Gwenna has grown up a great deal, and is one of the narrators of the story (the other being her father, Cillian). This isn't really historical fantasy, it's just set in an alternate world, and the characters are all very real, and very human. The plot is full of twists and turns, there is intrigue especially, and incredibly clever politics. There is high drama, plenty of jeopardy, and yet this, like all the previous books, is character driven. The relationship between Gwenna's parents, the relationship between Sorley and Druise, and how the four interact, would not be so affecting were the characters not so beautifully drawn and developed. In this story, with Druise back where he grew up, another element - that of his old family life - is introduced. I won't say any more, for risk of spoilers.

I liked the device whereby Gwenna and her father take turns with the chapters, so the point of view switches with alternate chapters. And so we see the story from the father's eyes, and the daughter's eyes. 

Honestly, I think this book has it all: tight plotting, strong characters, action, danger, drama, and pathos.

Another great offering from a skilful hand.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Annie Whitehead
 e-version reviewed


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Monday, 13 September 2021

The Flower Boat Girl by Larry Feign



Amazon UK
Amazon US
Amazon CA
Amazon AU
Goodreads

Fictional Drama / Fictional Biography
19th Century 
China

"South China coast, 1801. Sold as a child to a floating brothel, 26-year-old Yang has finally bought her freedom, only to be kidnapped by a brutal pirate gang and forced to marry their leader. Dragged through stormy seas and lawless bandit havens, Yang must stay scrappy to survive. She embeds herself in the dark business of piracy, carving out her role against the resistance of powerful pirate leaders and Cheung Po Tsai, her husband's flamboyant male concubine. As she is caught between bitter rivals fighting for mastery over the pirates-and for her heart-Yang faces a choice between two things she never dreamed might be hers: power or love. Based on a true story that has never been fully told until now, The Flower Boat Girl is the tale of a woman who, against all odds, shaped history on her own terms."

Set in the early 19th century, The Flower Boat Girl is the story of Shek Yang (Cheng Yat Sou), who rises from being sold into the sex trade as a young girl to becoming the most powerful female pirate known to sail the South China Sea. Soon after the death of her newborn brother and her mother, Shek Yang’s father sells her into prostitution where she finds herself working on a Flower Boat, a floating brothel. It is here that she meets her future husband, Cheng Yat. The two have a violent encounter and he declares, “Beautiful as a butterfly, fierce as a tiger”. After he kisses Shek Yang, he continues, “Tell the crew I’m taking a wife”. 

When Larry Feign first learned about Cheng Yat Sou, he became fascinated with this woman whom he believed was strong, sharp, and a force to be reckoned with. After some research, he told his wife, Dr. Cathy Tsang-Feign, PhD, that he wished he could find a book about this notorious pirate queen. His wife’s response was "Write the book", and this he did. Feign dove deeper into his research focusing on local folklore, ship technology, and the culture. The result is this fictional biography based on the true story of Cheng Yat Sou.

Initially, the harsh and violent culture of the 19th-century pirate life that was depicted through vivid, and sometimes unrefined, language was surprising. However, as I took into account the true risks and perils of the pirate lifestyle, I realized that Feign did an outstanding job painting what was the genuine culture. Once I realized this, I was able to pick up the rhythm and the beat of the story. I was able to grasp a deeper understanding of what it took for Cheng Yat Sou to rise to the status of Pirate Queen. 

Feign, as a master storyteller, tells a gripping tale of genuine pain and how one woman’s pain helped her to find the inner strength to not only survive, but to find a life that she, and others, would never have imagined for a lowly flower boat girl. While reading the novel, I became absorbed in Cheng Yat Sou’s story. Like Feign, I found the need and desire to learn more about this woman. And, like Feign, I discovered that there were only bits and pieces of information, mostly legend, with the most interesting being that the character Mistress Ching from the film Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End was based on the life of the real Cheng Yat Sou (or at least her legend). 

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Cathy Smith
 e-version reviewed


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Friday, 10 September 2021

In A Town Called Paradox by Miriam Murcutt and Richard Starks

shortlisted for Book of the Month


1950s
Utah

“I wasn’t looking for Marilyn Monroe… even though I knew she was in town filming River of No Return. So begins In A Town Called Paradox – set in Utah during the 1950s when the Big Five Hollywood studios arrived to film their blockbuster movies. Corin Dunbar – banished to live with her aunt Jessie, an obsessively religious spinster who runs a failing cattle ranch in Utah – hates her new life until Hollywood transforms the rural backwater of Paradox into a playground for glamorous stars. Seduced by the glitz, Corin finds work with the studios, but after a brush with the casting couch, channels her growing ambition into saving the ranch—the jewel of the Dunbar family for three generations. When Corin falls for Ark Stevenson – a charismatic stranger drawn to Paradox by his fascination with the movies that are filmed there – her future seems bright. That’s not the outlook facing Yiska Begay, a Navajo on the run from prison. These three different lives unexpectedly collide as each of them seeks their own kind of freedom: Corin is determined to break free from the restrictions imposed on her by society; Ark yearns for a spiritual freedom after he suffers a horrific accident; and Yiska is desperate to regain the physical freedom he unjustly lost. In a gripping climax, Corin is faced with an agonizing decision: should she win them the freedoms they crave; and if so, how will she bear the heartbreaking cost? Told mainly by Corin—now a middle-aged woman still haunted by her dilemma—In A Town Called Paradox is a compelling read that redefines the meaning of love as it asks the question: If each of us has a life story, then who determines how it unfolds, and how it should end?"

Sometimes, one stumbles upon a gem. It doesn’t take more than a couple of pages before I realise  In A Town Called Paradox is one of those rare, glittering reads that somehow traps the reader immediately and does not let go until the end. 

Allow me to introduce you to Corin Dunbar. She is twelve, angry, hurt and confused. Her mother has recently died and for some inexplicable reason the father she adores and idolises has packed her off to be brought up by his sister—in Utah. To Corin, that’s like being exiled to the moon. Plus, she has no idea what she’s done to have her father abandon her like this—and especially in a dump like Paradox.

But Paradox isn’t that much of a dump. Despite being in the middle of nowhere, Paradox sees a steady stream of visitors—people come all the way from Hollywood to shoot one successful Western movie after the other. The intrepid mayor of Paradox has invested heavily in creating the settings required to attract the film industry. Hollywood stars add a certain sizzle to life, and more or less every inhabitant in Paradox is at one time or another roped in to be an extra. 

As the years pass, Corin’s emotional wounds heal—at least on the surface. She finds solace in the  magnificent Utah landscape and in the life on the ranch her aunt owns. We are now in the early 1960s and girls are generally expected to grow up, marry and have babies. Corin has moments when she wants more out of life, and one day, she’s invited to come along to a star party—a party that will change her life forever. 

Time to introduce Noah “Ark” Stevenson. When we first meet him, he is nine, angry, hurt and confused when his missionary parents decide to uproot him from the Amazon village he calls home and send him to England for adequate schooling. Where his parents detest the jungle, Ark loves it—except for the fact that he cannot see the stars from below the Amazonian canopy. And stars are Ark’s consuming passion—together with Western movies—which is why, many, many years later, he arrives in Paradox to teach the locals about the stars by arranging “star parties”.

Except in Paradox, a star party is a party with Hollywood stars.

Corin is entranced by this young Brit who speaks so passionately about the stars. Stardust, he tells her, we’re all made of stardust. And then he explains how the stars we see are ancient, ancient things, separated from the Earth by so many lightyears they may well have fizzled and died eons ago. But when a star dies, it emits matter—stardust—and this fine dust is in every atom, every particle. When we breathe, we ingest stardust. When we drink water, we swallow it down, thereby binding us to all the people who have lived before us and all who will come after. 

His theories resonate with Corin, and soon enough these two young people are sharing all their secrets, all their pains and losses with each other. They fit together, somehow, and in a matter of months they marry. Happily Ever After awaits. Or not.

In a vivid prose that recreates the stunning Utah landscape, the damp green Amazonian jungle and the interiors of an English boarding school with similar ease, the authors deliver a story about life, about the brevity of it, and the sheer magnificence of it, no matter how short our  allotted lifespan. It is also a story about love and how this complicated, tangled emotion can demand that we do things we did not believe ourselves capable of.  

This is a book in which astronomical theory jostles for space with information about everything from the sad fate of the Navajo Nation to how to milk a bull of his semen. Not once does all this imparting of knowledge come close to a dreaded info-dump; it is all done so elegantly this reader merely absorbs. Add to this an impressive cast of extras—all the way from Corin’s aunt Jessie, burdened with secrets of her own, to the distinctly dislikeable and racist town sheriff, to the Navajo Yiska—and you have a story that just gives and gives. Yes, there are tears, but ultimately, In A Town Called Paradox is about hope.  

After reading In A Town Called Paradox, I will never look at the stars again without thinking of Ark Stevenson—and the stardust that lives within each and everyone of us.

Thank you, Ms Murcutt and Mr Starks, for an emotional, gripping an utterly rewarding read! 

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Anna Belfrage
 e-version reviewed


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