Sunday, 4 December 2016

Lands Beyond the Sea by Tamara McKinley

Lands Beyond the Sea

A thoroughly absorbing read until I got to the end and realised it was part of Tamara McKinley's Oceana Trilogy.  Serves me right for thinking I’d found another story that I didn’t want to end.

This historical saga begins with a prologue …  long before the ghost-men “discovered” the Great Southern land full of riches and resources, the indigenous peoples lived in harmony with the land…

Tamara McKinley successfully mixes fact and fiction as she embarks upon an epic romantic saga entwining the lives of wealthy Cornish landowner Jonathan Cadwallader and poor fisher girl Susan Penhalligan. 

When Cadwallader sets off on Captain Cook’s ship, Endeavour, eager for adventure, events back home force his sweetheart, Susan, to forget about him for the sake of her family. However, their paths are destined to cross again with serious repercussions.

Their story commences in 1768, in the Cornish village of Mousehole and leaves us in Sydney in 1793.  Following Susan’s fortunes as one of the first pioneering families to settle in New South Wales, it is a story of love, loss, hardship and some shocking events. Her brother Billy, is one of the first convicts sent to the colony and we follow his fortunes as he transforms himself from a Cornish smuggler into a prospective sheep farmer.  Woven into the story and transformational events are the Tahitian and Aboriginal families whose lives are changed forever by those first explorers, settlers and convicts that journeyed to their lands.

This is an ambitious story which no doubt will continue to unfold in the sequel:  “A Kingdom for the Brave”. 

Lands Beyond the Sea includes a map of the Great Southern Land and handy historical timeline of events in the first few pages.

The sequel:
A Kingdom for the Brave

Thursday, 24 November 2016

The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies

The Fortunes
via fishpond

An fascinating read.

Four short stories about four Chinese Americans.  Not Chinese and not American. All four characters are struggling with their identities.  The stories span from the1860s to present day and draw on some real historical situations and characters. The writer's own thoughts and experiences are woven into events.

The first story, Gold, features Ah Ling and is set in 1860 California during the Gold Rush and era of the great railroads.  The son of a prostitute and a "white ghost", through hard work and tenacity, Ah Ling finds himself in the "high" position of valet to a white man but not accepted by anyone:

"He had felt ashamed to come before them in his Western garb and haircut, but something else too: a freak."

The second story or more of an account, Silver, features Anna May Wong, the first Chinese star of Hollywood's "Silver Screen".  Through it we discover how the film world viewed China and treated Chinese "stars".  Again, Anna strived hard to become a successful actress but it removed her so far from her Chinese roots that she appears alienated and alone:

"If Americans think her Chinese and Chinese think her American, the British understand her as Eurasian."

Vincent Chin  was killed in 1982 by Detroit auto workers.  They thought he was Japanese.  This third story, Jade, comes from the perspective of his friend who ran away. 

"the blow to the chest broke a jade charm, a little carved elephant that had been his mother's that Vincent wore on his chain - a bad omen to Chinese, though you hardly needed an omen to foretell what was coming next."

The final story, Pearl, focuses on John Ling Smith,  and appears to draws from many of the writer's own experiences. He and his Irish wife are adopting a Chinese baby girl, Pearl, and are part of a group in China on "Gotcha Day".  This story cleverly captures some aspects of the other stories.

"and you've never been to China before? they ask him at least once a day, as if in amazement, as if waiting for him to change his story."

Littered with bad Chinese jokes, stupid questions and assumptions made by others.  It will make you stop and think how many times you have said or heard these things.  You'll also experience a roller coaster of emotions too.

Definitely a book to make you stop and think.  Excellent material for discussion.

Monday, 14 November 2016

"The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense."  Tom Clancy

Given up on Blood Magick by Nora Roberts and onto The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies instead ... I think China is calling me for a while....

Thursday, 10 November 2016

The Cloud Leopard's Daughter by Deborah Challinor

The Cloud Leopard's Daughter

Deborah Challinor's stories might not have the "romanticism" of Belinda Alexandra's historical sagas.  Instead they focus on action and the rough living conditions of late nineteenth century, New Zealand, Australia and this time, China too.  Her stories describe the sea-faring exploits of sailors, traders, goldminers and the like.  Deborah Challinor seems to enjoy depicting the conditions, delighting the reader with numerous ways of describing the stinking harbours and streets  (she does seem a little obsessed with "shit" ).  However there's probably no way of dressing up the lives and times of a group of sailors aboard the schooner Katipo III in 1863.

Although this story can stand alone, it features some characters from previous books.  The story revolves around Captain Farrell, his wife Kitty and adopted daughter Amber and their crew aboard the Kapito III.  Told in three parts the story has a couple of main storylines - involving kidnap and deceit against the backdrop of the Gold Rush and Opium wars. One of Amber's friends, Bao, has been kidnapped and taken to China for a forced marriage, the other situation is much closer to home.

Having read Challinor's Tattooed Heart, I particularly enjoyed the brief section revisiting Friday Woolfe, now a Brothel Owner, and her friends repaying her "debt" to Captain Farrell and his crew for their help.  I also enjoyed the sections with crew member Israel, and the pirate Longwei who I suspect we will see more of.

What I did struggle with, was the Chinese names, and I guess some non antipodean readers might struggle with the Maori words and names too. Although Challinor provides some good notes at the end explaining some of the Chinese naming conventions and the situation around the Opium trade, it still requires a little more effort to read this story rather that the more "escapist" Alexandra sagas.  This is one book that might have benefited from a cast-list and glossary.

On the whole, an enjoyable read with some great characters and an insight into our past.

Have you come across any other novels that have successfully sparked your interest in a topic or era?

You may also like:

A Tattooed Heart (Convict Girls)

Monday, 7 November 2016

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Southern Ruby by Belinda Alexandra

Southern Ruby

Although Belinda Alexandra's stories do have a bit of a "formula"  (i.e. abandoned/orphaned girl in an interesting yet dangerous historical setting, plus tiny "mystical" element),  I don't care because a quarter into her typically thick books I am usually engrossed.  Southern Ruby was no exception.  New Orleans has always fascinated me with its architecture, jazz and turbulent history, so what a great setting for a novel.

Southern Ruby is a tale in two halves. One is about Amanda (abandoned/orphan "Amandine") who needs to find her place in the world. The other is about Grandmother Ruby's double life in 1950's New Orleans. The stories collide in the present, when Hurricane Katrina blows into the city during 2005.

After Amandine's parents were killed in a car crash, she was brought up in Australia by her nan.  When nan dies, Amandine learns she has other family in New Orleans so travels to the Big Easy to reunite. She meets her paternal grandmother and over the next few nights learns about Grandmother Ruby's amazing life and also about her own father, the talented jazz musician who Amandine's nan held responsible for the crash.

Ruby's tale is fascinating. It captures the spirit of New Orleans perfectly and set in the 1950s brings the terrible stories about segregation to the fore.  Progressing through the story, which includes details of Ruby Nell Bridges - the first black child to attend an all white school there,  huge strides appear to have been made, joining black and white peoples together. However, as Ruby laments after the traumatic events of Hurricane Katrina :

" Everything changes in fifty years and nothing changes too".

Initially, I didn't warm to "Amanda" but the more she discovered her "New Orlean's side" and history, the more I was hooked.

Great characters and tale of love, loss, New Orleans history, jazz, segregation, determination and courage....what more could you ask for in a book?

Southern Ruby  

There are also some topics and questions for discussion included at the back of the book.

You might also be interested in

The Marrowbone Marble Company

The Help

And other Belinda Alexandra's novels I have enjoyed:

Have you been prompted to look up or research any historical details in a novel?

Monday, 31 October 2016

"The only important thing in a book is the meaning that it has for you."

W. Somerset Maugham

I am currently deep in New Orleans with Belinda Alexandra's "Southern Ruby"