Saturday, 31 May 2014

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

This book was recommended to me by my cousin as it is about quilting and I loved it. It is set in 1850 and about Honor Bright who leaves England for America to accompany her sister Grace, who is to marry Adam Cox,  who had emigrated earlier. They are Quakers and although she is excited to be starting a new life, the sea journey leaves her exhausted from sea sickness. Then when they arrive tragedy strikes and her sister is stuck down with yellow fever and dies. Honor is alone in a strange land and has to rely on her sister’s intended husband.
But it all does not fare well for her. She makes her way to the small settlement of Oberlin to join Adam Cox and his recently bereaved sister-in-law Abigail. It becomes clear to Honor that she is not truly welcomed by Abigail, and that Adam Cox finds the situation both awkward and difficult to deal with. Honor marries a local man, Jack Haymaker and goes to live with him and his family.

Honor finds a true friend in milliner Belle, although her slave-catcher brother Donovan is not such an ally and displays a unhealthy amount of interest in this quiet and modest Quaker girl. Through her friendship with Belle, Honor soon finds herself involved with the Underground Railroad - a network of people who were sympathetic to runaway slaves who were trying to find freedom in North America or Canada.. The Fugitive Slave Act had been passed and it was illegal to assist a runaway slave, there were heavy penalties to be paid if caught. Quakers were anti-slavery and wanted to assist the runaways, but their moral dilemma was that to do so would be to break the laws of the land. The Haymaker family forbid Honor to assist the runaways, and this is the start of the breakdown in their relationship. Throughout these times, Honor finds some comfort in her quilt-making, she is a fine seamstress and putting together these small pieces of material bring her some peace and make memories for her.

This is not a fast-moving story by any means, it is gently drawn out and each character is formed steadily. Honor, although the lead character, is not the most interesting, she can sometimes appear holier-than-thou and often is portrayed as appearing superior to those around her. Belle, the milliner, on the other hand is a strong, feisty character, a woman who is colourful and interesting with firm principles and morals. Belle's slave-catcher brother Donovan is something of an enigma - on the one hand he is a cruel man, and every now and again, he shows a little vulnerability.

But I thoroughly enjoyed it and couldn't wait to pick it up each day.

I shall read something else by this author, perhaps her most famous, 'Girl with a Pearl Earing'

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Under a Blood Red Sky by Kate Furnivall

In 2013 I  read 75 books!!

Kate Furnivall is a new author to me and so I started reading this book with some trepidations, but I loved it And even better she has written lots more so that pleases me no end. I see a year ahead with loads of good books to read

This was a tale of romance, magic and struggle against tyranny, set in Russia in the mid-1930s. Sofia and Anna have both been imprisoned in a Siberian Labour camp: Anna for her aristocratic background, Sofia for being the daughter of a priest and the niece of a farmer who did too well and thus incurred the State's suspicion. Early in their acquaintance, Anna saves Sofia's life and Sofia vows to do the same for her if needed. So when Anna becomes seriously ill with tuberculosis, Sofia decides to do what seems impossible - to escape the labour camp, and find the one person she believes can bring Anna back to health: Vassily, Anna's childhood sweetheart, who she last saw the day that her father and his parents were shot by the Bolsheviks, many years before. Being blessed with incredible good luck, Sofia escapes the camp and survives a long tramp with virtually no food, until she reaches the small village of Tivil, where she has been tipped off that Vassily is living under an assumed name. She is taken in by a gypsy, Rafik, who has the extraordinary gift of being able to influence people's thoughts and hypnotize them into doing his bidding, and who trusts her from the start. Settled in Rafik's home, Sofia begins to search for Vassily. And thus begins a complicated tale of treachery, mistaken identity, betrayal, true love and magic.

All credit to Furnival, she can tell a 'rattling good yarn', and keep her reader's interest going from start to finish. There was also some interesting material about life in Russia under the Communists . But I wondered if Furnival softened some of the horrors of the Stalinist regime. However, it's not a book that I found bore thinking about too much - if one did try to read it with much concentration, or pondered much on the plot, it began to seem very implausible. For example, if Anna was dying of tuberculosis at the start of the novel, how did she survive for so long (and manage to carry on working, and at one point have strength to attack and kill someone)? If Sofia had been starving in Siberia for so long, would everyone really have been taken aback by her beauty and composure? Why wasn't Sofia more frightened, after all she'd been through? Why did she and Mikhail fall so quickly in love? Why did Mikhail suddenly become so swashbuckling? What was Fomenko actually up to? And I felt that Rafik the hypnotizing gypsy tended to turn up in the nick of time rather too often, and that the supernatural elements in the novel seemed to sit slightly uneasily with the rest - I know that superstition and belief in magic are very much part of Russian folk culture, but it was rather clumsily handled here, particularly the material about 'the magic stone' But in spite of these short comings it was a good read and I liked it a lot, so much so that I am now reading another book by her, this time set in Malaya.