Category Archives: Book of the Week

Book Review – The Locksmith’s Daughter

Standard

Karen Brooks. The Locksmith’s Daughter. Sydney: Harlequin Mira, 2016.

This is the second of Karen Brooks’ mega-sized historical romances but her tenth published work of fiction. As with The Brewer’s Tale, research is her forte.

Brooks is a writer who brings her streetscapes to bustling, stinking, frantic and slippery life. In Elizabethan England, we walk in narrow alleys and in wide streets and, all the while, animals and crowds and washing and people pouring out of small spaces move with us. Just here is food left to rot. Brushing and shoving past us are the reeking, unwashed and underfed poor people of this huge city.

Along with her skills at creating her settings, Brooks has perfected the dark art of manipulating emotions and making us care about her characters.

However, I have a slight conflict of interest. Possibly two. I’m only going to confess to one.

The main protagonist of this novel, Mallory Bright is a young woman who has been trained to perfection as a lock smith by her father, but when it becomes necessary for her to leave his house, it is to the home of Sir Francis Walsingham that she is sent.

Here is my conflict.

Mallory, for many chapters, deeply admires and is fiercely loyal to this dark, spy master and fanatical protector of Queen Elizabeth. But who was he?

I don’t want to overstate my case but he was the piece of Protestant trash who tortured my favourite ancestor to death. That’s who he was.

My ancestor, Thomas Belson was a wonderful brave young man. He was a Catholic Martyr. You can google him. He was beatified in 1984 and became a saint. Rightly so!

A son of a wealthy Catholic family in Buckinghamshire, born in the mid-1560s, he went to Oxford, part of Oriel College and then off to the Catholic seminary in Reims. In his early-twenties, despite the extraordinary risk, he returned to England where he was caught and arrested and imprisoned. He was released. Maybe his family’s wealth produced the connections to save his life but he didn’t leave the country. He headed back to Buckinghamshire to help his friends, one of whom was a priest and there he was found, hiding in a priest hole (obviously not a very effective one) and this time Mallory Bright’s kindly employer stepped in and personally tortured him for weeks, until he was executed.

So, don’t you tell me that grim, streak of misery was a good thing, Mallory Bright!

Okay, I’ve got that out of my system. Possibly.

Mallory’s eyes are opened to the honourable gent and the story turns and she goes from being a master spy to an imprisoned traitor and, all the while, her gigantic-framed, enchanting (and Scarlet Pimpernel-like) suitor – did I mention he’s Catholic? – Lord Nathaniel walks close by, often in her shadow.

Historical romance is not my favourite genre but stories written by authors who can yank my emotions like Karen Brooks can, are my favourite books to read. I think it’s a bit patchy. I think it’s a bit long. But if you look on Good Reads, you’ll see that I’m in a minority who have any criticisms at all. It is holding hundreds and hundreds of reviewers in thrall, so go ahead, let your emotions be tugged, engage with the spy and locksmith, Mallory in her dangerous world.

Book Review – Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See

Standard

Undersized, snowy-haired German orphan Werner, is a genius with radios. He and his feisty little sister Jutta are wards in Frau Elena’s children’s home. At night they listen to a radio receiver that Werner found and restored and, sometimes, the enchanting feathery voice of a French man talking about light makes them dream that anything is possible.

Blind French girl Marie-Laure is growing up in Paris, where her father, who guards the keys in the Museum of Natural History, has made a model of Paris to help her feel her way around the streets.

The war is pressing down on all of them. It will provide Werner with the unexpected opportunity to attend an elite, but brutal, school from where he will be dragged, too young and too small, into the conflict. Marie-Laure will find herself under the roof of her reclusive, damaged uncle in the ancient walled city of Saint-Malo.

The story opens with the walled city under heavy bombardment. Werner is trapped in a hotel basement in Saint-Malo and Marie-Laure is alone in her uncle’s house as the German army makes the old city the final German stronghold on the Breton coast during the dying weeks of the war.

Like the light we cannot see, there is a luminosity to Doerr’s prose, a glow of innate goodness in people forced to do evil, a pulse of energy in the folding timeline that doubles back on itself.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2015, a New York Times best seller, a finalist of other book awards, The Light We Cannot See took Doerr ten years to write. It was worth the wait and will always be in my top ten of all-time favourite books.

Book Review – Wild Light by Robyn Mundy

Standard

wild light

Robyn Mundy’s seamless prose doesn’t hit a single discordant note throughout this story of coming of age and regret.

When teenage Stephanie West is pulled into her mother’s dream of returning to her childhood home on Maatsuyker Island, it’s a wrench from Steph’s life in Sydney during her final year at high school.

The island and its basic, lighthouse-keeper house holds little charm for Steph until she meets a young fisherman Tom and until the mutton birds swarm in like giants oil slicks. Just as her mother promised, Steph sees ‘the real Maatsuyker’.

Mundy crafts the tale with a gracious hand, with drift dive pacing. The characters have no more control of their growing enchantment, with the island, with each other, with the great heaving ocean and the stormy sky than puppets on a string. Increasingly Steph doesn’t mind. But then everything changes.

There’s a sixteen year jump and the third act is another beautiful tale as Steph and Tom try to get back to the people they were in 1999. It’s beautiful. The prose is engaging. The setting is so skilfully painted and the gentle way this author crafts troubled but good people is so satisfying. A wonderful, wonderful novel.

George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones.

Standard

♪♪♪♪

The first book of the Ice and Fire series (dramatized by HBO as A Game of Thrones) had me entranced from the first page. I had to overcome a deep prejudice against the fantasy genre to read this book but I need not have worried as a powerful writer immediately took me into a world that might have been about 400 years ago, to a continent that might be located somewhere near Mongolia, to a time when summers and winters span decades and the land is divided between the seven kingdoms inside the vast wall and the world beyond the wall. In this book Lord Ned Stark is called by his old friend, King Robert to leave his northern castle and travel to the south to be his Hand, or second in command. Robert has married into the dangerous Lannister family and no one is more dangerous than his beautiful wife, Cersei. The court of King Robert is a nest of vipers and intrigue and very quickly all of Ned’s children (the two girls he took with him to court and the four sons he left behind with his wife) are all in deep danger. I bought a seven-book boxset of Martin’s books and I’m trying (unsuccessfully) not to race through them because then they’ll be finished and I won’t have them to look forward to any more. Martin writes beautifully and poetically. There are a lot of characters to follow, with each chapter following the next stage in  the lives of three Lannisters, eight Starks, as well as Dani, the daughter of the deposed “Mad King”. I didn’t get lost because I’d seen the first two seasons of the HBO dramatization but I suspect it would be a good idea to put the book aside for holiday reading, just in case the enormous cast is confusing. I loved it and the next three and I’m happily consuming book four as I write this.