#Friday Favourites: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

 

The Night CircusDeep in the middle of the world I am building in “City of Secrets” I was drawn to this novel    by its promise of magic and enchantment.

“The circus arrives without warning” it begins, pulling the reader into to its dark and convoluted world where nothing is what it seems, either for those who come to the Night Circus, or the performers themselves. Everything is a game within a game, a labyrinth of stories that weave and merge together. Time is fractured adding to the sense of unreality as we move backwards and forwards through the years of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Also known as “Le Cirque des Reves” is the circus nothing more than a dream? It can only be entered at night, in the morning it disappears as mysteriously as it arrived and its most dedicated followers, who spend their lives attending its shows, if shows they can be called, because many, like the Ice Garden, are more of an installation, are known as reveurs. This a question posed, but never answered.

I love the strangeness of it all: the vivid depiction of the circus with its black and white big top, the smaller tents within it, each containing its own illusion and the performers who use magic and illusion to beguile and dazzle.

The novel is also a love story and for me this is where it did not quite hold its spell as I was never totally convinced by the two lovers. The characters I enjoyed most, were the twins Poppet and Widget, the red-haired twins who were born on the opening night and whose fate was inextricably linked with that of the circus and Bailey, the farm boy, who sneaks in one night and from then on is part of their world.

On the whole, however, I was fascinated by this book and having read it once might well go back to relive the experience of “The Night Circus.”

 

 

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#Friday Favourites: 20 Letters to a Friend by Svetlana Alliluyeva

20 Letters to a friend

These letters were written in the summer of 1963 by Svetlana the daughter of daughter Josef Stalin. They took her thirty five days and she chose the form of a letter to a friend because “I should like the reader of these letters to feel they were written to him.”

Svetlana lived through some of the most turbulent and horrific events of the twentieth century in Russia. What is fascinating however is that she considers that “the life I’ve led has been unusually dull and monotonous for one of my generation.” She explains that this is so because she took no part in WW2 and was too young to be involved in the revolution of 1918. Her life in the Kremlin was a sheltered one. Even when she managed to go to university she was shadowed by her bodyguard until finally she complained to her father and was allowed a measure of independence.

What I find most interesting about this book, is the picture she paints of her father. As a child she was his favourite, petted and spoiled while her mother was the strict parent with rigid standards that had to be adhered too. In spite of this, however, Svetlana acknowledges his faults and what comes across most chillingly is the way that once Stalin made up his mind, there was no swaying him. Even if a friend or family member was accused, with no evidence to back up the accusation, if Stalin decided that was true, the accused would be executed or imprisoned without any hope of mercy and justice.

In this grim world, it was difficult to believe that the communists had started with such idealism and high hopes for a better society. There was a real belief, the early days, in freedom, education and equality, but as time went on the author charts how this was eroded by the rise of a powerful elite and how Stalin’s close friends, associates and members of his family paid the price for their beliefs.

Unexpectedly, the book ends on a positive note “Everything on our tormented earth that is alive and breathes, that blossoms and bears fruit, live only by virtue of and in the name of Reason and Good.”

I found “Twenty Letters to a Friend” on the bookshelf at Mum’s and was keen to read about a period in history that I had written about in “Shadows on the Grass.” Part of that novel is set in Poland in WW2 when the Russians invaded the city of Lwow.

Svetlana Alliluyeva’s account of that era in Russia is one most of us know little about and

and I highly recommend this book.

 

#Friday Favourites: War in the Val d’Orcia by Iris Origo

War in Val d'Orcia

 

I’d never heard of this book or the author and am indebted to my friend Heather for introducing me to both.  Looking at the title and reading “An Italian Diary 1943-1944” I was half inclined to leaving it on my to-be-read pile. I’ve read enough harrowing accounts of war not to be particularly inclined to start on another, but there was something about Italian landscape on the cover which drew in me.

I was also intrigued to read that the book was a factual account of those years and had been hidden buried in tin boxes along with the writer’s jewellery to hide it from the retreating German army.

Reading a diary, the expectation is of an emotional life laid bare. “War in the Val d’Orcia” is not like that. The style is sparse, very matter of fact. Talking about a very sick young man Iris Origo writes

“We discuss what is best for him. What he needs is proper nursing at the clinic, but he is at the crossroads, the first place the Germans would search. In the end we decide to leave him where he is.

“And so I go to bed, my heart full of the murdered workmen and the young partisan, who soon must die.”

If this sounds dry, then it belies the courage it took to harbour wounded soldiers, escaped prisoners as well as over twenty refugee children, all the time knowing that if they were caught Iris and her husband could be shot. But even though they had two very young daughters they felt they could not abandon anyone who came to them for help. Together Iris and her husband, Antonio, fed, clothed and interceded with the Germans on behalf of desperate people, who had nowhere else to turn.

Throughout it all, Iris is conscious of how the Italians are being perceived by the rest of the allies and is keen to put the record straight. This and the history of that part of WW2 was new to me.

Shadows On The GrassAlthough I had a lot of research into that period for “Shadows on the Grass” I knew next to nothing about the war in southern Europe. I had no idea, for example,  about the number of political factions and their various stances on surrendering to the allied forces, or continuing to fight with their Nazi allies, nor of the complete exhaustion of the general population who could only hope that the long drawn out campaign would soon be over.

The book was a fascinating insight into a short period of history. More diaries have recently been discovered and I look forward to reading them too.

Thank you Heather.

 

Friday Favourites: Earthly Remains #Donna Leon

Earthly remains“Granted leave from the Questura, Commissario Guido Brunetti decides to finally take a well-earned break and visit Sant’Erasmo, one of the largest islands in the Venetian laguna.

The recuperative satay goes according to play until Davide Casati, the mysterious caretaker of the villa Brunetti has been staying in, goes missing following a sudden storm. Nobody can find him….

Convinced that this was no accident, Brunetti feels compelled to set aside his holiday and discover what happened to the man who had recently become his friend.”

Donna Leon is one of my favourite crime writers. If indeed she can be categorised as such. In my opinion her books are literary novels. There is always a crime, but that is secondary to the depiction of character, the themes of the book and her portrayal of Venice. We see the city in all its moods, whether at the height of summer, when it is thronged by tourists, as in “Earthly remains”, or in winter when aqua alta means that the inhabitants have to make their way over duckboards to avoid being swamped by the rising water.

Because the books are written from Brunetti’s point of view, you can see and smell and hear the city, its food and the people who live there.

Brunetti is not your usual angst ridden detective with a dysfunctional private life. He is a man who enjoys living and has a good relationship with his wife Paola and his teenage children. Family life is not always smooth, but Brunetti knows how important his family is to him and he to them.

You also get a keen sense of the hierarchy of the city, Paola comes from an aristocratic family while Brunetti is solidly working class, and of the corruption of Italian politics, both local and national.

Increasingly too Donna Leon has dealt with environmental issues, such as the polluting of the laguna and rising of sea levels that threaten the very existence of her beloved city.

If you don’t know her books, then I cannot recommend them strongly enough. Go buy, read and enjoy.

#Friday Favourites: Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

Birdcage Walk.“Birdcage Walk” is a novel I have wanted to read it since it came out. Then my mum lent me her copy and a few days later, when Mike was shopping, he rang me from the supermarket to ask if I wanted him to buy it for me.

I wish now that I had said yes, as this is a book that I would definitely want to keep. Not only is it set in Bristol, one of my favourite cities, but I know Birdcage walk well, as it is close to where I went to school. The path through the disused graveyard sparked my short story “Angels’ Wings” and like Helen Dunmore, the city and its history, have inspired a number of my novels, particularly “House of Shadows”.

“Birdcage Walk”, however, has a depth and quality to which I can only aspire. It tells the story of an unknown woman writer, Julia Fawkes, well known in her lifetime for her radical views, but now completely unknown. Nothing she wrote has survived, which gives rise to the question of what writers, especially women, can expect to leave behind them.

Julia is mourned by her daughter Lizzie and it is through her eyes that we see the world of radical thinkers to which Julia and her circle belong and the way in which they struggle with the moral and ethical consequences of the French Revolution.

Lizzie has removed herself form their circle, to marry a man, whose values are in complete opposition of her mother and stepfather. At first totally in love with Diver, she gradually begins to see that there is a darkness in her husband, which will threaten everything she knows and loves.

The gradually rise in tension is almost unbearable. The details of eighteenth century life vivid, yet unobtrusive, the images of the terrace of houses rising up above the Gorge, symbolic of the themes of the novel.

The book is at once a psychological thriller, a historical novel and a treatise on legacy and loss. What makes it all the more poignant is that this is Helen Dunmore’s last novel. In the Afterword, she writes,

“The question of what is left behind by a life haunts the novel. While I finished and edited it I was already seriously ill, but not yet aware of this. I suppose that a writer’s creative self must have access to knowledge of which the conscious mind and the emotions are still ignorant, and that a novel written at such a time, under such a growing shadow, cannot help being full of a sharper light, rather as a landscape becomes brilliantly distinct in the last sunlight before a story.”

Helen Dunmore died in June 2017.

 

 

 

#Friday Favourites: The Riddle-Master’s Game by Patricia A McKillip

The Riddle-Master's GameMy choice this week is by an author who is new to me. To my shame I’d never heard of Patricia A. McKillip, nor of her trilogy “The Riddle-Master’s Game.”

The first of the three books “The Riddle Master of Hed” was published in 1976 and the other two novels “Heir of Sea and Fire” and “Harpist in the Wind”, followed in 1977 and 1979. I, however, read all three in the same volume and what a treat that was.

The writing is beautiful; both vivid and poetic, it creates a totally believable world, where magic exists in parallel to mundane daily life, cattle are milked, pigs herded and shape changed, by those who have the power.

With a rich layer of myth and legend, which harks back to Celtic origins the novels explore the truth of things, the importance of knowing who you are and following your destiny. Hence the part that riddles play in the plot, because riddle can conceal and reveal meaning and decoding them is a gift which brings with it unknown dangers.

To question, is to upset the balance of things, but Morgon, Prince of Hed, is a riddle master and cannot help but seek to find the truth, even though it leads him where he does not want to go.

The Princess Raederle is also in conflict with what she knows and what she fears. The two are destined to be together. There is a prophecy that they will marry, but how and when is far from clear.

The first book follows Morgon’s story, the second Raederle’s and they come together in the last volume, where they face far more fundamental questions about the nature and very existence of the High One on whom the survival of the world appears to rely.

I love this mix of seriousness with domestic scenes and the mysterious beauty of the white vesta and the depiction of the court of the wolf king where wild animals come to shelter from the winter.

What also appeals are the strong women characters, Raederle herself and Morgon’s

Friday Favourites: Fables and Fabrications by Jan Edwards

Fables and Fabrications

I love spooky stories, the shiver that slides up my back at any hint of the supernatural, the feeling of unease that lingers long after the film is over, or the book has been closed. Given the popularity of the genre, I know I am not alone, but it sometimes hard to find a good anthology of ghost/weird tales, which is why “Fables and Fabrications” by Jan Edwards, is one my favourite collections.

Jan is a subtle writer. No sudden shock horror in her books, just a gradual built up of tension that leads, inevitably, to an ending that might surprise, but which always feels right. Her stories often have an undertone of myth or legend that add depth to the narrative. Norse, in the case of “Grey Magic for Cat Lovers,” Classical, for “Mayday Come Askew,” and Celtic in “Winter Eve.”

My favourite story in the collection, however, references Eastern Mythology. “Pet Therapy” is truly chilling. It deals with death and sprits who steal souls and is one of those stories that, even having read it a number of times, I still wish, for the sake of the main character, had ended differently.

But then, if it had, it would not have been included in this collection.

If you want a good read for October, “Fables and Fabrications” is on special offer on Amazon. To get it while you can, click here