Reviews Revue

Sue Barnard, The Missing Years, Heathcliff

Inspired Historical Fiction

Despised by his beloved Catherine, uneducated Heathcliff goes to Liverpool. There he finds his way to riches and achieves knowledge of the world.

In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff is an almost diabolical enigma. No doubt, he is a tempting subject to analyse in literary form. No doubt, Sue Barnard has built a believable universe for him to develop in. Her writing is impeccable, even if she may not quite match Emily Brontë’s passion. Still, the book left me wondering if it is better to leave the enigma and concentrate on creating other characters.

For my part, and this is a minor element, it occurred to me that the different cast members, who tell their stories and views on the action, all speak in the same voice. Still, Heathcliff remains the proverbial anti-hero, and his descent into perdition comes alive.

Certainly, this was a novel to make you think. About ghosts and what they mean, seen with modern eyes. About the psychology of abused and or abusing persons. About the differences between the seventeenth, nineteenth, and twenty-first centuries. Isn’t that exactly what historical fiction should do – at its best?

***

SE Shepherd, Swindled

Thriller with Humour and a Deep Insight in Human Behaviour

Lottie doesn’t know what hit her. A little spoilt, but with tenacity, she seeks a way to deal with her unwanted and detestable stepfather and regain her fortune.

Hannah – failed police officer transformed into a PI finds herself in the right place at the right time for once. Seeking clients, she meets Lottie and takes on her case.

Vincent Rocchino lets greed and egomania lead his life.

These three characters form a triangle that will be whirled into extraordinary events.

All have vivid backgrounds, and they encounter traumas to deal with in this insightful thriller that unveils Shepherd’s understanding of humanity. The writing is crisp and spellbinding, the pace breath-taking and Shepherd’s wit is peppery. What’s not to love about the first instalment of The Sandling PI series?

***

Juliette Douglas, Miss Birgit’s Dilemma: Mail Order Bride

A Feisty Heroine in the Wilderness

Birgit Andersson doesn’t know what she’s let herself in for when she travels to the Rocky Mountains to marry Johan Svensson. Leaving the relative safety of Minnesota, she trusts herself to an unknown man and – her fate.

Miss Birgit’s dilemma becomes all too obvious when she arrives in Sinking Springs, a small settlement at the foot of the mountains. In the course of her venture, she meets mountain lions, bears, bizarre characters, storms, wildfires, and red Indians. Still, she doesn’t back down and develops into a strong and determined heroine.

Reading Miss Birgit’s Dilemma made me wonder about Swedish immigrants, and I did some research on this. Most of the settlers came from Southern Sweden and may not have had the chance to encounter the Swedish wilderness. Still, it is fair to assume that some of the Viking spirit may have remained in the blood of the Nordic people. A spirit of adventure and fortitude that would have benefited every single person going to a new world.

Ms Douglas tells the fate of a mail order bride with panache and gusto. You believe in Birgit’s grit and her ability to overcome the difficulties of being away from everything she’s known – in Sweden and Minnesota.

***

Brenda Davies, The Girl Behind the Gates

Via Dolorosa of a Delicate Soul

The Girl Behind the Gates points to the fear of mental difficulties and what was deemed moral deficiency that affected everybody and often sent unwed and pregnant women to mental institutions. The law was clear and stayed unchanged until 1959. The perspective is shocking, and, in my opinion, it is important to remember that this happened less than seventy years ago.

Nora Jennings is a seventeen-year-old who gets to feel the consequences of a single night of passion. Labelled as morally defective and incarcerated in the local mental hospital, she lives through years of brutal conditions.

Sister Cummings, a proverbial Nurse Ratched (of Cuckoo’s Nest fame), is the nemesis who knows how to make her patients, especially the young and hopeful, suffer.

Janet Humphreys is a psychiatrist that arrives on the scene much later, but her insight and humanity bring hope to some patients.

The blend of traumatic experiences, imperious nurses, horrifying treatments, and evolving friendships blend in a compelling document that will leave the reader pondering how easy it is to destroy the human spirit. Yet, Ms Davies manages to convey hope – even for institutionalised individuals.

For me, the highlight was the deft use of the healing power of music. This is a book that will stay with you and make you think.

***

Eichin Chang-Lim, Love A Tangled Knot

A Touching Love Story

Kayla has ideas about what she wants to do with her life. Her friend Breeana’s head is full of boys. Then Russel turns up and turns Kayla’s world upside down.

Kayla falls in love and everything else goes out of her head. Russel is as infatuated, and the result is predictable.

From then on everything goes wrong for the two hapless lovers. Imprisonment, Infatuation leads to love, an unplanned pregnancy, and finally Russel’s wish to please his Kayla results in a long prison sentence.

The reader must suffer with the young pair through the tangled knot of their love story. Eichin Chang-Lim presents a coming-of-age story that touches as well as infuriates. With deep insight into human nature, and with compassion, Ms Chang-Lim convinces her readers that life is unpredictable but still worth the struggle.

***

Ellie Midwood, The Girl Who Survived

WWII. An Unsuspected Love Story

The Crystal Night ended any hope that German Jews could fit into the Nazi system.

Ilse Stein and her family, originally from Nidda near Frankfurt, are resettled to Minsk, becoming stateless enemies of the government. In the Minsk ghetto, the German Jews are separated from the Russian Jews to keep them from fraternising. The fit and healthy must work like slaves in the armament factory. All the others become eliminated.

This is the scene that Ellie Midwood rolls out for her readers. It wouldn’t be right to present the plot here, but among the Germans, one officer stands out through his humanity and integrity. This is Wilhelm Schulz, failed Pilot, unhappily married, and assigned to run the Minsk factory office.

Despite harrowing scenes of slaughter and resistance, Midwood weaves a convincing love story. Her characters are fully-fledged believable humans or just as believable Nazi fiends.

Dehumanising people will always be a danger as so aptly demonstrated in The Girl Who Survived.

***

Caleb Pirtle, Secrets of the Dead

A Murky and Terrifying Study of War and Humanity

A dead man walks through a life of war and assassinations. His name is Ambrose Lincoln: he is a man without a past, although the novel begins at his wife’s burial. Why has he no memory? He could have been brainwashed, or maybe he had an operation.

“He lives in a world where there is no sanity, not here, not there, not home, not anywhere,” the woman said. “For him, the whole world is an asylum, and he is the only inmate who cannot and does not want to escape.”

A Psychiatrist attempts to help him. Her name is Dr Rachel Sloane: her task is to find out if he is a human weapon, or if he is responsible for his actions.

Ambrose goes to Baden-Baden to locate some damning photos and meets the photographer’s daughter, Rachel Gruner. His travel plan is unusual, from Washington to Katowice, over Strasbourg to Baden-Baden. Not by choice though. Other people decide where Ambrose must go and how. Is it for strategic reasons or is it Pirtle’s way of throwing out red herrings?

The novel is peopled by historical characters, spanning from Hitler to Roosevelt and from renowned guitarist Django (here called Dijango) Reinhardt to ‘the men of the shadows’. It is also notable that the two important women Dr Rachel Sloane and Rachel Gruner share the same Christian name. What am I getting at? It seems that Secrets of the Dead takes place in a parallel universe, where the historical events have been reorganised.

The writing is dexterous, Pirtle is a master of deception, the perfect unreliable narrator.

***

©HMH,2021

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