Irex by Carl Rackman #TuesdayBookBlog #RBRT

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Set in the late Victorian era in the claustrophobic environment of a sailing ship, this dark tale of passion, blackmail and murder is intensified by the onslaught of a savage storm and the threat of mutiny. The inevitable shipwreck must be investigated by an honest coroner, Frederick Blake, who arrives on the Isle of Wight, seeking the truth although thwarted, apparently, by government intervention. While Blake is ably assisted by Mr Rennie, a canny Scottish journalist, we read of the true events on board the Irex, in parallel to the investigation.

After a false start when the newly built craft set out from Greenock in Scotland, Captain Will Hutton had to return the ship to port, due to the badly laden cargo of iron pipes. Eventually they were able to set sail for Rio de Janeiro with a sound crew and three unusual passengers. A married couple, George and Elizabeth Barstow, were Salvation Army missionaries, while the third passenger, Edward Clarence, a strange, arrogant man. Captain Hutton and many of his crew were captivated by the young Elizabeth Barstow, but as Clarence bribed the crew to do his will, Hutton felt increasing antipathy for him. The weather on their voyage went from bad to worse throughout the Irish Sea, and in the Bay of Biscay they were forced to return to the south of England.

Frederick Blake is expecting a straightforward case of a wreck caused by the Captain’s error since the surviving crewmembers report Will Hutton’s irrational behaviour and obsession with Elizabeth Barstow, but why have two survivors disappeared on the island and who is the mysterious Mr Thornthwaite who has turned up to interfere with the enquiries?

This tortuous tale is effectively described with excellent characterisation and I could not decide whether I wished to read more of the investigation or to return to the stifling atmosphere on board ship. Perhaps slightly long-winded in places, this thrilling story based on a real shipwreck with an exciting twist is well worth reading.

I reviewed this book as a member of Rosie Amber’s Book Review Team.

Carl Rackman

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 Carl Rackman is a British former airline pilot turned author. From a naval military background, he has held a lifelong interest in military history and seafaring. His life spent travelling the world has given him a keen interest in other cultures, and he has drawn on his many experiences for his writing.

Carl’s writing style can best be described as the “literary thriller”, with a flair for evocative descriptions of locales and characters. Complex, absorbing storylines combine with rich, believable characters to create immersive worlds for the reader to explore.

Carl is married with two daughters and lives in Surrey, United Kingdom. Irex is his first novel, published under his own company, Rackman Books.

You can find Irex at Amazon UK  or at Amazon.com

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Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley #BookReview

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On the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen I feel beholden to return to her timeless stories, but in Lucy Worsley’s book I have been given additional insight into Jane’ character and sensitivity. “Jane Austen at Home” is assiduously well documented, showing a depth of research and most importantly, a grasp of Jane’s spirit.

At first sight, the thick book of small text seems daunting, but as you begin to read you are invited in to Steventon Rectory and soon come to know Jane’s family; her loving father, unsympathetic mother, the legion of brothers and dear sister Cassandra. From Jane’s letters and many accounts by family members, Lucy has built up a clear picture of her everyday life and the way in which her homes are reflected in her books.

It is a delight to read Lucy’s own voice as she reveals her discoveries about Jane Austen,
in her letters – “her personality is there, bold as brass, bursting with life, buoyant or recalcitrant as each day required.”
Jane’s letters were “double-voiced,” giving an entertaining account to be read aloud, but with a subtext that her nearest and dearest would understand. Lucy Worsley also parallels Jane’s letters to the tweets of J K Rowling!

It is the first time I had fully appreciated that the demands of the long Napoleonic War, raising prices and causing shortages, made middling families, such as Jane’s, experience hardship but they also brought the military officers in their dashing uniforms, both aspects being the meat for Jane’s plots.

The retirement of Reverend Austen and the family’s move to Bath are described in intricate detail, underlining the dreadful effect on Jane and Cassandra. We read of the sale of all the family’s books and of Jane’s piano and her music. Leaving her home of 25 years, they move from one rented house to another among the “pea-soup fogs in Bath.” Her father’s death causing a large drop in their income shows how much she understood the importance of money to her heroines.

The frustration of Jane Austen’s life story is how poorly she was acknowledged as an author, during her lifetime and what a pittance she received when they were published. Despite the help of her father and her brother in finding publishers, novels and women writers were not yet considered worthy of great praise.

Reaching the chapter where Jane, Cassandra and Mrs Austen move back to Hampshire and settle into Chawton Cottage, I also felt as if I was coming home. I could see her sitting by her table in the cottage window, trying to write, while others moved about the compact house. The last few years of her life show Jane as a calm, determined woman with the same purpose and energy as her heroines.
This is a book for lovers of Jane Austen’s books who wish to know more about this quiet, enigmatic person. Did she have romances, were there regrets that she remained single and had no children? Did she achieve what she wished to accomplish? I suggest you read “Jane Austen at Home” to look for those answers.

Jane Austen at Home will be published on May 18th 2017 and can be pre-ordered at Amazon UK or Amazon US

(A review copy of this book was kindly provided by the publishers, Hodder & Stoughton)

Lucy Worsley

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Dr Lucy Worsley is Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, the charity which looks after the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace and Kensington Palace.

Her first paid employment after studying history at Oxford was at a minor stately home called Milton Manor, near Abingdon, where she fed the llamas. After that she became an Inspector of Ancient Monuments at English Heritage, doing historical research at Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire: this led to her first book, ‘Cavalier’, about a dissolute Royalist duke. Her work as a curator at Kensington Palace led to ‘Courtiers’, which was followed by ‘If Walls Could Talk’, ‘A Very British Murder’, and her first historical novel for young readers, ‘Eliza Rose’, which is set at the Tudor court.

The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls #TuesdayBookBlog

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“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening (party), when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster … She had tied rags around her shoulders to keep out the spring chill … To the people walking by, she probably looked like any of the thousands of homeless people in New York City … I was embarrassed by them, too, and ashamed of myself for wearing pearls and living on Park Avenue while my parents were busy keeping warm and finding something to eat.”

 

This is a startling memoir of a successful journalist’s journey from the deserted and dusty mining towns of the American Southwest, to an antique filled apartment on Park Avenue. Jeanette Walls narrates her nomadic and adventurous childhood with her dreaming, ‘brilliant’ but alcoholic parents.

At the age of seventeen she escapes on a Greyhound bus to New York with her older sister; her younger siblings follow later. After pursuing the education and civilisation her parents sought to escape, Jeanette eventually succeeds in her quest for the ‘mundane, middle class existence’ she had always craved. In her apartment, overlooked by ‘a portrait of someone else’s ancestor’ she recounts poignant remembered images of star watching with her father, juxtaposed with recollections of irregular meals, accidents and police-car chases and reveals her complex feelings of shame, guilt, pity and pride toward her parents.

 

I expect those of us reading Jeanette Walls’ book, who do not live in the U.S. see this story from a different perspective to those who know her as a journalist.  “The Glass Castle” instantly reminded me of Helen Forrester’s “Twopence to Cross the Mersey”; a different place, a different time but both books autobiographies about poverty and parental neglect.

 

The world in which Jeanette grew up, was not such a shock after reading Bill Bryson’s accounts of life in some parts of the U.S. but it does seem amazing that the children managed to escape being taken into care.  What is surprising is her ability to describe her upbringing in such a lucid, unemotional way.  It is clear that her dysfunctional parents were imaginative and talented and that her father, at least, cared deeply for her except when his alcoholism caused him to act despicably.  It is difficult to imagine how she could forgive him when he stole their savings and he certainly never built the glass castle, but at least he taught her how to dream.

 

Jeanette’s mother was much more difficult to empathise with.  A self-confessed “excitement addict”, she seemed to have no maternal instinct at all.  What she did have was a close bond with her husband even when he let them down, probably because of her inclination for self-destruction whenever things seemed to be going well.

 

The stories of life in the desert were fascinating but the events in cold Virginia were much more depressing.  And yet, even when being bullied, Jeanette remained positive.  The optimistic tone of the book is incredible.

 

On the back cover, a reviewer has written, “Jeannette Walls has the talent of knowing exactly how to let a story tell itself.”  How true.  You feel as if you are part of the story not just seeing it through her eyes.  A fascinating read.

 

The American Boy by Andrew Taylor

 

 

 

As Andrew Taylor’s latest book, The Ashes of London, is featured everywhere at present, I have put it on my TBR list. In the meantime, I am looking back at his earlier historical mystery, The American Boy.

Interweaving real and fictional elements, The American Boy is a literary historical crime novel in the tradition of Possession.

England 1819: Thomas Shield, a new master at a school just outside London, is tutor to a young American boy and the boy’s sensitive best friend, Charles Frant. Drawn to Frant’s beautiful, unhappy mother, Thomas becomes caught up in her family’s twisted intrigues. Then a brutal crime is committed, with consequences that threaten to destroy Thomas and all that he has come to hold dear. Despite his efforts, Shield is caught up in a deadly tangle of sex, money, murder and lies — a tangle that grips him tighter even as he tries to escape from it. And what of the strange American child, at the heart of these macabre events, yet mysterious — what is the secret of the boy named Edgar Allen Poe?

The American Boy is well researched and, for me at least, a page-turner.  It appears to be heavily influenced by Wilkie Collins writing.  I enjoyed following the developing mystery although I found the final denouement a little disappointing.

The reticence Thomas Shield shows to reveal the details of his tête-à-tête with Sophia, do perhaps carry the assumption of 18th century good taste a little too far but the romance certainly kept my interest in the fate of both characters.  His earlier confused attraction to two women was harder to believe but perhaps I don’t understand men well enough.  It is certainly true that Miss Carswell is a tantalising, enigmatic character, while Sophia seems aloof and unapproachable.

I am not happy with the chosen title and although Andrew Taylor gives his interest in the youth of Edgar Allan Poe as the raison d’être for this book, the boy seems to me to be only an incidental character and if anything is a conceit of the author.  Without great knowledge of Poe I suspect I am missing nuances in the text.

The pictures painted of the three locations, London, Gloucester and Monkshill Park are clearly delineated and atmospheric and the machinations of the plot built up convincingly.  Initially the novel adopts a leisurely pace but this gradually heats up.  In contrast to the interactions of the many characters involved in the story, there are also interludes of philosophical observation by Thomas Shield such as:-

For the first time in my life, I was about to be a man of substance.  The knowledge changed me.  Wealth may not bring happiness, but at least it has the power to avert certain causes of sorrow.  And it makes a man feel he has a place in the world,

which I particularly enjoyed.

I have read that Taylor initially wrote this story in the third person, but sensibly realised that Thomas Shield was an essential narrator to ensure the reader’s involvement.  I found him a very sympathetic character, in spite of his tendency to act like a Dr. Who heroine.