Robyn Reviews: La Belle Sauvage

La Belle Sauvage is the first book in Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust trilogy – the prequel trilogy to his ever-popular His Dark Materials. As someone who grew up with His Dark Materials, I was excited to return to the world of daemons and magic – but also wary. Spinoff series are famed for never being as good as the originals. Given that, La Belle Sauvage was a pleasant surprise.

The book follows Malcolm Polstead, the eleven-year-old only child of a pub landlord. Malcolm is an intelligent and inquisitive child, well-mannered and keen to help everyone he comes across. He goes to school but understands that education is not really an option for him – he’ll take over the pub from his father or go into a trade instead. When he can, Malcolm volunteers at the local priory, helping the nuns in the kitchen and catching them up on all the news he overhears at the pub. However, his life is turned upside down by the sudden arrival of a baby at the priory – Lyra, the daughter of Lord Asriel, hidden away for her own safety.

La Belle Sauvage is split into two parts, unevenly weighted. The first follows Malcolm’s life in Oxford – his friendship with the nuns, his work at the pub, and the growing influence of a mysterious branch of the Church at his school. In my opinion, this is the stronger part. There’s less otherworldly fantasy, with the focus instead on building the characters and community setting. Malcolm is an absolute sweetheart, fiercely intelligent but completely naïve in the ways of the world. It’s a pleasure spending time with such a nice character. His relationship with the nuns – especially Sister Fenella – was heartwarming, and I loved his interactions with Dr Relf. There are regular cameos from characters we know from His Dark Materials – Lord Asriel, Marisa Coulter – but no real knowledge of the original trilogy is required. The feel is very different, and it’s all the stronger for it.

The second part is shorter, faster, and action-packed. This is where the fantasy element really comes into play, with witches and fairies and hidden lands. Despite being a huge fantasy fan, I thought this was the weaker part of the book. Malcolm continued to be a delight, and his evolving relationship with his companion, Alice, was interesting and well-handled, but the additional elements after such a slow, steady start were confusing and almost felt rushed. The writing was as great as ever, but the switch of pace was jarring and disconnected me from the story – I wasn’t as invested in some of the dramatic moments as I should have been. This would have worked better as an entirely slower book – stretched out like an epic fantasy – or an entirely faster book, with less of the build-up in Oxford and a tauter overall feel.

That being said, I enjoyed reading, and I think it’s a strong addition to the canon. Philip Pullman is undoubtedly a fantastic writer and he’s managed to create a collection of new characters that I care about just as much as the originals – a difficult feat in a spinoff series. I’m excited to see what happens to Malcolm and Alice – and, of course, their daemons Asta and Ben – next. (After all, we already know what happens to Lyra).

 

Published by David Fickling Books (Penguin)
Hardback: 19 October 2017
Paperback: 6 September 2018

Gig Review: #Cornerstone2020 New Writing Showcase in Bristol

On Thursday of last week I travelled to The Tobacco Factory in Bristol for Penguin’s #Cornerstone2020 new writing showcase. The Snug was packed with booksellers, bloggers, authors and publicists all eager to mingle and enjoy the generous hospitality. Drinks and snacks were provided; and then there were the books. By the end of the evening the overflowing table above was bare and emails were being exchanged to ensure that eager early readers could be provided with copies direct from London on the organiser’s return.

I am always delighted when book people leave their bases to tour other parts of the country. Prior to the Bristol event, much of this group had been to Edinburgh and Manchester. I had read on Twitter that these events were enjoyed by bloggers who attended.

So, what was the format of the evening?

To enable everyone to settle in and imbibe there was a chance to chat amongst ourselves. I honed in on Eley Williams who was deep in conversation with Matt, a bookseller I had met previously from Toppings Bookshop in Bath. I also chose to join a circle as a young lady there was carrying the Girly Swot tote from Galley Beggars so I thought they would be my sort of people. They turned out to be fellow book bloggers and we traded reading recommendations.

Susan Sandon, Managing Director of Cornerstone (a Penguin imprint), then brought the room to order and introduced the six authors who each gave a three minute pitch for their book.

Neil Blackmore introduced The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle as a seductive, sensuous novel. In it, two brothers embark on a Grand Tour of Europe where they plan to make connections and establish themselves in high society. Then they meet the beautiful and charismatic Edward Lavelle. The direction their lives are taking alters inexorably. The book will be published on 30 April.

Abbie Greaves introduced The Silent Treatment as a story inspired by a true situation she read about where a married couple hadn’t spoken for decades. In her tale, the couple live and sleep together but haven’t spoken for six months. Another blogger at the event had read an early proof and assured me it was brilliant and I must read it. The book will be published on 2 April.

Will MacLean introduced The Apparition Phase as a ghost story. Two children fake a photo to try to frighten an unpopular pupil at their school triggering a deadly chain of events. As a television scriptwriter, the author has focused on comedy and assured us that the book also has lighter elements, but it is what is lurking in the shadows that has always fascinated him. The book will be published on 15 October.

Andrew Hunter Murray’s The Last Day is a dystopian thriller based on the premise that the world has stopped turning. Parts of the planet are parched by constant sunlight while on the other side never ending darkness engulfs those who remain. Only certain areas remain habitable – including Britain – and are fiercely guarded. The book will be launched this coming week, on 6 February.

Nick Pettigrew has only just been outed as the author of Anti-Social, the single non fiction title in the showcase. He has written a year long diary detailing cases he dealt with as an Anti-Social Behaviour officer – a job he has recently left. Described as wickedly funny it touches on many of contemporary society’s urgent yet neglected and widely ignored issues. The book will be published on 25 June.

Eley Williams was the hook that initially persuaded me to attend the evening. Her short story collection, Attrib., won the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Influx Press in the year that I (and Matt from Toppings) was on the judging panel. The Liar’s Dictionary is her first novel and explores the world of the  lexicographer and their mountweazels – false entries inserted within dictionaries and other works of reference. In the present day, a young intern is required to weed these out. In Victorian times, a disaffected employee inserts them. I find this premise delicious and can’t wait to read Eley’s creative celebration of the rigidity and absurdity of language.

Having heard from each of the authors about their books there was then time to mingle once again. Guests were eager to chat further and some wished to have their proofs signed which somewhat disrupted certain conversations. I managed to chat to four of the six authors before it was time for me to leave to catch my train home. I had made sure early on to pick up proofs and was pleased to find a tote provided.

Thank you to Lydia at Penguin for my invitation. I am delighted with my generous goody bag and look forward to some quality reading. The event was indeed enjoyable and well worth attending.

As an aside, the Tobacco Factory has a book swap corner and I now think this should be de rigueur in all pubs and cafés. From the reaction to my photo on Twitter, many readers agree.

Book Review: Turtles All the Way Down

Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green, tells a story riddled with scenarios that appear implausible yet is still satisfying to read. Set in Indianapolis, the protagonist is sixteen year old Aza who is plagued by OCD. Her best friend, Daisy, works an after school job at Chuck E. Cheese to enable her to save money towards college. When she hears the news that a local billionaire businessman has gone missing, and there is a large reward on offer for anyone who can help locate him, she decides that Aza and she should investigate. Several years previously Aza attended a camp – aimed at children who had lost a parent – with the man’s son, Davis. Despite living just across the river, Aza has not been in touch with Davis since.

Daisy writes popular Star Wars fan fiction and Aza is forever scouring the internet for information on the infections she fears. They put their collective on line skills together to find out all they can about the case. Daisy also hatches a plan to bring Aza and Davis back together. Despite his clear understanding of what is behind this sudden reunion, the lonely boy is drawn to Aza and they start to date. Meanwhile, Daisy gets together with Mychal, a talented arty student, which changes the dynamic of the girls’ friendship.

What we have then is a story of American teenagers and the troubles they each face. Daisy is portrayed as poor while Davis is incredibly wealthy yet each is seeking some of what the other has but cannot enjoy fully. Aza is so self absorbed by her serious mental health issues, she struggles to interact with anyone meaningfully. The strength of the story is in the multi-dimensional portrayal of lives, dreams and attitudes – the study of what a person actually is.

“I look into myself, there’s no actual me – just a bunch of thoughts and behaviors and circumstances. And a lot of them don’t feel like they’re mine. They’re not things I want to think or do or whatever.”

Davis copes with his loneliness by reaching out to the world through his writing. Aza finds solace in his blog posts – she is more comfortable connecting on line than in real life. She wants them to have a relationship but struggles to get past her obsessive fears. However unlikely certain aspects that frame the story may be, the author writes vividly of how his characters’ think and feel. The problems faced by both those who suffer with OCD and those who care about their wellbeing are painfully evocative in their clarity.

This is an emotive but never mawkish tale about friendship, the cost of love and dependency. A fluid and engaging read for those who can accept the seemingly unrealistic framing.

Turtles All the Way Down is published by Penguin.

Book Review: Funny Girl

Funny Girl, by Nick Hornby, is a gentle and percipient story about a team who create a 1960s situation comedy drama for prime time television. The protagonist is a young woman from Lancashire, Barbara Parker, who wishes to emulate her hero, Lucille Ball, and become a comic actress. To achieve her dream she travels to London where, through a series of lucky events, she meets a pair of radio writers and a producer who have been commissioned by the BBC to create a half hour show for a TV series, Comedy Playhouse. The team, including the already cast leading man, at first reject Barbara as she does not fit the look they desired for the female role. However, when they allow her a read through of the script it becomes clear there is a spark they could work with. Their decision to give Barbara the part changes all of their lives.

Barbara adopts a stage name, Sophie Straw, and adores the work she is given by her new colleagues. Their conceits, wit and education draw her into a world where she is eager to belong. They in turn value her talent, and two of the men are drawn to her looks and figure. Where most actresses are tall, straight and skinny, Sophie is buxom and curvy. With her northern accent – almost unheard of within the corridors of the BBC – and ability to cut through the affectations of certain highbrow media people, she is the root around which the sit-com grows.

Light entertainment is looked down upon by the serious critics. Amidst the many social changes of the 1960s was a wider hunger amongst the growing number of television viewers for shared enjoyment. The insufferably serious minded frown vociferously on the choices made by the millions who avidly watch popular TV shows. They believe such programming should be ‘relegated’ to the commercial channel and the BBC remain above populism.

“What a terrible thing an education was, he thought, if it produced the kind of mind that despised entertainment and the people who valued it.”

Barbara, now Sophie, remains ambitious but finds that success does not bring her the satisfaction expected.

“She began to fear that she would always be greedy, all the time. Nothing ever seemed to fill her up. Nothing ever seemed to touch the sides.”

Her co-star also develops a type of melancholy when he realises that fame in a sit-com will not propel him into the lauded parts in film and theatre that he expected and craves. Meanwhile, one of the writers is working on a novel and wishes to be taken seriously by the literati. What had initially felt like a lucky break loses its charm and momentum.

The tale takes the reader through the changes in the team as four series of their show are made. It then moves forward in time to what comes next.

The team members’ personalities lead to differing outcomes in their personal lives. These are portrayed with a light touch but offer insights that provide the depth in an otherwise benign if engaging read.

The final section depicts the characters in their old age. Even Sophie has become a product of the media: surrounded by people who want fame via the entertainment industry, removed from those with other ambitions and therefore assuming they don’t exist.

“Sometimes it seemed as though all anyone wanted to do was write television programmes, or sing, or appear in movies. Nobody wanted to make a paintbrush, or design engines, or even find a cure for cancer.”

She retains her occasionally astute observations, especially around how the aged are treated and how they regard themselves.

“people of their age wanted to think about the future, like everybody else, but what they most wanted was to live in the present, rather than the past”

The writing is easy on the reader but there are plenty of nuggets to chew over, especially on individual ambition in the arts and hierarchical conceits. Although providing a somewhat nostalgic look at what some regard as a golden era of light entertainment, there is much that is relevant in today’s climate of artistic judgement of quality and popularity. The various discontents are well rendered.

A strong addition to the author’s oeuvre, this is an enjoyable, undemanding yet satisfying tale.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Penguin.

Book Review: Thank You, Jeeves

Thank You, Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse, is one of a series of five classic Jeeves and Wooster novels being reissued by Arrow. Wodehouse was a prolific author, much admired for the gentle humour and droll sense of the ridiculous. Having last read any of his work several decades ago I was interested to see how I would react in the changed climate of contemporary care over expression. Certain terms jarred, and rightly, but the underlying wit and warmth remains.

In this tale Bertie Wooster has taken up a musical instrument, the banjolele. The noise he makes while playing sparks complaints from his London neighbours which he first hears about from a little liked acquaintance, Sir Roderick Glossop. Unwilling to countenance the idea of abandoning his art Bertie decides to move to the country where there are fewer people to annoy. He is shocked when his gentleman’s gentleman, Jeeves, declines to accompany him, going so far as to resign when it becomes clear that Bertie will continue to make his music within the confines of a small cottage. Undeterred, Bertie pursues his plan anyway.

The cottage is rented from his old school friend, Lord Chuffnell, who resides at his stately pile nearby. On hearing that Bertie has let Jeeves go, Chuffy has snapped him up having cleared this course of action with his pride-deflated friend. Bertie discovers that Chuffy has fallen head over heels in love with an American heiress, Pauline Stoker, who unbeknown to Chuffy was once engage to Bertie. Pauline’s father put a swift end to their planned nuptials on hearing tales of Bertie’s exploits from Sir Roderick. All of these characters are now, for a variety of reasons, visiting Chuffnell Regis, and the comedy of errors may begin.

The language is over the top in its expression and inventive wit, which fits perfectly with the characters and their misadventures. Added to the mix are a pair of zealous policemen, and two young boys who could be loved only by their mothers. Bertie concocts various plans to bring his friends together, only to have them backfire. The tale includes a kidnapping on a luxury yacht, a devastating fire, and Bertie being forced to go without breakfast. Throughout it all Jeeves remains calm, offering information and advice to save the day.

This is escapist reading for those happy to immerse themselves in a privileged world without worrying about the wider implications. It is fun and easy within that freedom. In today’s censorious climate some of the humour could draw ire, although given the caustic nature of much modern comedy this is gentle. That I am afraid to laugh too loudly for fear someone will condemn me suggests I feel shackled. Wodehouse’s world may be anachronistic but his writing can be enjoyed if read in the context of its creation.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Arrow Books.

Book Review: The Silk Merchant’s Daughter

silkmerchant

The Silk Merchant’s Daughter, by Dinah Jefferies, is set in and around Hanoi during the first Indochina War. At this time America was providing support to the French forces in an attempt to prevent the spread of communism, which they feared would result should the native Vietnamese population, who had the support of China and the USSR, succeed in overthrowing the colonial government.

The story starts at Nicole Duval’s eighteenth birthday party where her older sister, Sylvie, introduces her to a handsome American silk trader named Mark Jenson. He is not all he seems. Nicole and Sylvie are métisse having been born of a French father and a Vietnamese mother. Their father is a wealthy silk merchant who also holds a secretive position within the colonial government. Their mother died in childbirth.

Nicole lives in the shadow of her sister. She has inherited her mother’s Vietnamese looks and considers herself clumsy and ugly beside Sylvie’s French features and elegance. Their father, a fierce supporter of the benefits of French rule, has always favoured his elder daughter. When he transfers the running of the family business to Sylvie, giving Nicole only an abandoned shop to revitalise, she feels shunned by them both.

Nicole finds that she enjoys working in her shop, which is located in the ancient quarter of the city, and is excited by the feelings Mark is awakening within her. Then she sees her father commit a heinous act to which Mark and Sylvie appear complicit. With her new Vietnamese friends discussing the cruelties inflicted by the French in their attempts to maintain control of the country her loyalties are tested. In an attempt to find her place in this changing world she makes a difficult choice.

As with her previous two books the author takes the reader into the heart of the story’s setting with all its colour, heat, smells and tastes. However, I found this quite different in style and scope. The effects of the war on the cast of characters caused significant hardship and there is no attempt to shy away from the brutality inflicted by individuals embroiled in the conflict. Nicole and Sylvie brought to mind the sisters in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’. Their actions were explicable but frustrating and I struggled to empathise.

I also struggled with a few aspects of Nicole’s story: why she had a part in the play; the sudden onset of claustrophobia. I wondered how she was capable of successfully reopening and running a shop when she appeared flighty and foolish in so many other ways.

However, I wanted to know what happened next and the ongoing story flowed. There was romance but also recognition of loneliness, desire and the confusion jealousy can cause. The insurgent Tran’s expectations of what Nicole would want helped to emphasis her cultural difference, however much of an outcast she may have felt within the circle of her family and their French acquaintances. The backdrop of war allowed for an exploration of the effects of anarchy on man, how some will behave “once civilising restraints were no longer in place”. The bleakness of war was well evoked.

The denouement is nicely done and should engender sympathy for the current refugee crisis in Europe. Politics and history are complex beasts however black and white governments like to paint their propaganda. It is hard to comment further without dropping spoilers. I will simply say that the tension of the final fifty pages provided a gratifying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: The Tea Planter’s Wife

teaplanters

The Tea Planter’s Wife, by Dinah Jefferies, is a mesmerising tale of the damage that secrets can cause within even the most loving of marriages. Set in Ceylon (now the nation of Sri Lanka) between the first and second world wars it portrays the differing attitudes of the colonists and natives during the final decades of British rule. However, whilst the politics simmer in the background, this is a story of people, of the precarious nature of relationships, and of the tragedies resulting from entrenched prejudices.

Gwendolyn Cooper is nineteen years old when she travels alone to Ceylon following her marriage to Laurence, a widower who owns and runs a vast tea plantation in the hills. They are deeply in love but have only known each other for a few months. As Gwen explores her new home she discovers clues to a past that Laurence has not disclosed. His friends in the colony include an American widow, Christina, who treats Laurence with a proprietal air. His sister Verity’s passive aggression undermines Gwen’s attempts to establish herself as mistress of their home at every turn.

When Gwen discovers that she is pregnant all appear to be delighted. Gwen desires nothing more than to be a good wife and mother. However, complications during the birth mean that she must make a heart-breaking choice which she cannot reveal to her husband. This moment changes her life, threatens her status in society, and takes a terrible toll on her health.

In the years that follow Gwen must learn to live with the consequences of her decision. Laurence has been badly affected by the western world’s financial problems, and the local population’s growing discontent with colonial rule threatens their comfortable way of life. The dour estate manager is struggling to deal with these changes and appears to blame Gwen for her unwillingness to condone the societal hierarchies he imposes. Verity and Christina continue to be thorns in her side.

As the secrets that Gwen and Laurence keep begin to unravel, Gwen questions if the price she has paid to hold her marriage together has been too high.

Stories of love, marriage and secrets are not my usual fare but this author’s writing raises her books above the crowd. Her settings are brought vividly to life with her descriptions of the sounds, smells and colour of the country and its people. In reading her words I was transported to Ceylon. Likewise each of her characters, main and supporting, are presented fully rounded. I empathised with their desires and fears. However appalling, I could understand not just their dilemmas but their reasoning.

I had guessed at the denouement early on but it was still poignant. Reading this book felt like living Gwen’s life, it was the journey through the pages that I enjoyed. I can understand why this book has become a best seller.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: Only We Know

onlyweknow

Only We Know, by Karen Perry, tells the story of three childhood friends who harbour a dreadful secret. They were complicit in the death of another child, but what exactly happened must on no account be shared. Their parents, now dead, made them promise never to tell anyone for fear of repercussions. The guilt they carry has haunted them for more than thirty years.

The story opens in Kenya, in the summer of 1982. Eight year old Katie has befriended Luke and Nick, the similarly aged sons of her mother’s friend who they have spent the summer with. Before they return home to Ireland a three day safari to the Masai Mara is arranged. On the last day, as the children play by a river close to the families’ campsite, a tragedy unfolds.

The story jumps to 2013. Katie is a journalist and has been asked to write about Luke, now a successful businessman who has recently captured the public’s interest. Katie has seen little of him over the years, a state encouraged by their parents. Whilst at university Katie briefly rekindled her friendship with Nick, but he has now returned to Nairobi where he plays piano in the clubs and bars.

The tale is told from each of the protagonists point of view, moving between 1982 and 2013. On several key points the reader is led to think one thing only to have it revealed as incorrect. This is clever but somewhat confusing at times.

The slow reveal of what happened on that day by the river is well done, with the impact of the parents’ actions shown to be the catalyst for subsequent events. I did question why, as they matured, the childhood trio didn’t challenge the continued need for secrecy, but am aware that family foibles and feelings can be a tricky minefield to navigate.

In both time periods the development of the characters was believable, their flaws recognisable and sympathetically presented. The denouement, however, stretched this and felt somewhat contrived.

It is a slickly written tale with a compelling plot that I read easily in a day. Looking back though I am left feeling somewhat ambivalent. I suspect it is a book that would be enjoyed most by fans of classic whodunnits. Personally, I prefer a little more depth and challenge.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the Curtis Brown Book Group.

Review: Literary Afternoon Tea at Bowood with Dinah Jefferies

teabowood

Traditional afternoon teas have become quite the thing at luxury hotels of late, and Bowood Hotel in Wiltshire does them with aplomb. Taken in the library, which overlooks a part of the estate’s beautiful park and woodland, one can easily feel transported back to an age of elegance and refinement. The range of fine teas served with a surprisingly generous selection of delicate sandwiches, delicious scones and tempting cakes, is attractively presented and impressive. An experience to be savoured.

Sidetracked as I was by the good company, I did not do the array of goodies on offer justice. I was at the hotel to attend what has become a regular and popular event in their busy calendar, a Literary Afternoon Tea. These occasions combine the delights of this stylish treat with the chance to meet and listen to a visiting author as they talk about their latest book and how it came to be written. The ambience of the library was perfect for author Dinah Jefferies, who started her talk by sharing some of her experiences growing up in 1950’s colonial Malaya where her debut novel, The Separation, is set.

Writing is essentially a solitary pursuit. However, the rules of the game are changing all the time. Where once an author could have expected to live a quiet life, creating their imaginary worlds for all to enjoy in print, they are now required to promote their work on numerous social media sites and at the increasingly popular Literary Festivals, bookshop visits, and events such as this one at Bowood.  If Dinah finds these public appearances a challenge then it did not show.

Her talk offered attendees an insight into her writing process, inspirations and the issues faced by a successful author. The Separation is her debut novel; her second book, The Tea Planter’s Wife, is due to be published in the spring of next year; she is currently writing her third book and is already considering ideas for her fourth. With all of these imaginary worlds and their characters swirling around inside her head she is required to move seamlessly between them: to talk of one, edit another, create a third and develop a fourth. For someone who claims not to have a good memory this must be quite an ask!

Dinah likened writing a book to a sculptor creating a work of art. If many people have a book inside them then this would be the block of stone. The quality of this base product will vary, as will the ability of the artist to produce something worthwhile. Creativity requires skill and dedication. What emerges may not be exactly what was envisaged when the writer first started chipping away at their idea.

Each of Dinah’s books has started with a setting, a place and time, and a plot that has been developed through extensive research. She decides how the book is to feel initially, its structure and key events. The detail of the story emerges as she writes, with editing ensuring continuity and a flow that will engage the reader throughout. She explained that she tries to avoid long, descriptive sections, aiming to offer sensory stimulation, showing rather than telling.

Dinah attended this event with her husband, who I had the privilege of talking to as Dinah signed the books that were offered for sale after her engaging question and answer session with the receptive audience. Richard exuded justifiable pride in his wife’s achievements. I would imagine her job is made easier by having such a supportive partner.

The couple of hours that I spent at Bowood flew by, filled as it was with pleasant company, interesting conversation and the ambience of a delightful setting. I hope that, after I left, Dinah and Richard were able to relax and enjoy the tempting treats offered.

I would recommend an event such as this as an appealing indulgence for all with an interest in books. I am grateful to Dinah and to Charlotte at Bowood for adding me to their guest list.

 

Book Review: The Separation

separation

The Separation, by Dinah Jefferies, is a book filled with love and loss. Set in 1950’s Malaya and England, it tells its tale from two points of view: a mother separated from her children by a vindictive husband, and their young daughter who is torn from everything she holds dear without explanation. It is a story filled with tragedy and longing, of the misuse of power and the inner strength that can be found in times of crisis.

The descriptions of Malaya are colourful and evocative throughout, placing the reader firmly within the mindset of post war colonialists living a gilded, threatened  lifestyle in a country being torn apart by war. With danger and unrest a part of everyday life, the British drink and party, conduct affairs and look on the wide variety of locals as a sea of coloured faces to be subdued, used and feared. The immigrant men are arrogant, the women decorative, the risk of death an accepted part of life.

The pictures painted of the Malayan towns and countryside convey a place of great beauty filled with underlying danger, of natural and man made oppression in keeping with the times. For the adult incomers there were fortunes to be made, for the children there was a freedom and magic unimaginable to those in England.

The lifestyle in England provided contrast with its damp greyness and cramped conditions. The attitude of so many of the adults seemed alien to modern day thinking. With demands for control and dogmatic mind sets, the children were cowed into a submission they had no option but to accept. It made for painful reading.

The author though writes beautifully. The story has depth, passion, fear and longing yet it is presented with a light touch that suggests as much as it describes. The tale is so much more than an historical account of family misadventures from days gone by. It transports the reader back in time to experience the lives and emotions as they were lived. I felt impotent loss and anger as I read, despair at the lies, pain at the tragedies, a glimmer of hope as the truth finally emerged.

The scale of the story is breathtaking. The scope of the wrongs done to so many would have made for difficult reading had it not been for the skill of the storyteller. I enjoyed this book immensely.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author at my request.