#BookReview #Ad The Girl from Simon’s Bay by Barbara Mutch

The Girl From Simon's BayAbout the Book

1937. Louise Ahrendts, daughter of a shipbuilder, is at home in Simon’s Town, a vibrant community in the Union of South Africa, with a Royal Navy port at its heart. Louise dreams of becoming a nurse and in a world of unwritten, unspoken rules about colour, she has the strength to make it a reality.

The outbreak of the Second World War brings a man into Louise’s world who she is determined to be with – despite all the obstacles life and conflict throw in their way. But when a new troubled moment of history dawns, can they find their way back to each other?

Format: Paperback (416 pages)              Publisher: Allison & Busby
Publication date: 21st September 2017  Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

Although her family are not well-off, Louise has an idyllic childhood growing up in sight of the sea where she swims most days or watches her friend, Piet, dive for shells. Located on the shores of False Bay in the shadow of the Simonsberg mountains, Simon’s Town is a fishing community and the location of a Royal Navy port that provides employment for many of the townspeople, including Louise’s father.  On the surface Simon’s Town is a multi-racial community with people of different colours and heritage living peacefully together. However, at a national level, the issue of race is never far away.

Louise’s parents see her future as finding a nice local boy and settling down to a life as wife and mother. However, Louise dreams of becoming a nurse: she wants to ‘fix’ people.  Her ambition seems doomed to failure from the beginning, not because of her educational achievements or her commitment but because she is ‘coloured’. As the Matron of False Bay Hospital to which she applies writes, ‘I must caution you that no coloured applicant from a Simon’s Town school has ever been accepted’.  However, Louise is not one to give up and eventually her persistence is rewarded. ‘Slowly, one person at a time, False Bay Hospital was learning to value my ability rather than scorning my background.’ Louise comes to believe that through the recognition of her nursing skills she has overcome the barriers of race, but as her mother cautions, ‘War has no time for a colour bar… The old ways will return in peacetime mark my words.’

Louise’s proficiency results in a secondment to the Royal Naval Hospital looking after men injured in the war, often critically. ‘This was no civilian establishment with a routine quota of tonsils and broken legs. This was nursing on the edge.’ It’s here that Louise meets Lieutenant David Horrocks with whom she instantly forms a bond as a result of their shared love of the sea and the landscape of the Cape peninsular.

Fraternisation between nurse and patient is frowned upon by the hospital establishment; a relationship between a white officer and a coloured woman is unthinkable.  As their relationship develops, Louise and David are forced to meet in secret. But fear of disclosure or the danger David faces whenever his ship goes to sea is not the only obstacle facing them, as Louise will discover. It will mean an agonising decision, the consequences of which will determine the future path of their lives, and of others too.

Two thirds of the way through the story moves to thirty years later and shifts from being predominantly a wartime romance to one about the impact of apartheid on families like Louise’s with previously mixed communities being dispersed and segregated according to colour. This was something I knew about vaguely but the author really brings to life the realities for individuals and communities. It means Louise is separated from the seascape she loves so much and which has been the backdrop to her life.  And the effective purging of non-white South Africans from official records, along with a reluctance by many to revisit events of the past, risks a connection being severed forever.

The Girl from Simon’s Bay is a moving love story set against the backdrop of war and social upheaval.

I received a review copy courtesy of Allison & Busby.

In three words: Tender, romantic, absorbing

Try something similar: Think of Me by Frances Liardet

Barbara MutchAbout the Author

Barbara was born and brought up in South Africa, the granddaughter of Irish immigrants. Before embarking on a writing career, she launched and managed a number of businesses both in South Africa and the UK. She is married and has two sons.

For most of the year the family lives in Surrey but spends time whenever possible at their home in the Cape. When not writing, Barbara is a pianist, a keen enthusiast of the Cape’s birds and landscape or fynbos.

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#BookReview Rivals of the Republic by Annelise Freisenbruch

RivalsoftheRepublicAbout the Book

Rome, 70BC. Roman high society hums with gossip about the suspicious suicide of a prominent Roman senator and the body of a Vestal Virgin is discovered in the river Tiber.

As the authorities turn a blind eye, Hortensia is moved to investigate a trail of murders that appear to lead straight to the dark heart of the Eternal City.

Format: Paperback (288 pages)          Publisher: Duckworth
Publication date: 10th August 2017  Genre: Historical Fiction, Crime

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My Review

In Rivals of the Republic the author has taken actual historical events and characters, including well-known figures such as Cicero, Pompey and even a young Julius Caesar, and used her imagination to weave an intriguing and dramatic story around them. And don’t worry about getting confused because the book includes a dramatis personae in case you need a reminder of who everyone is.

The book’s female protagonist, Hortensia, was a real person although little is known about her beyond the fact she was the daughter of renowned lawyer Hortensius Hortalus. But when it comes to historical fiction, a gap is something authors love because they can use their imagination to fill it, as Annelise Freisenbruch has done here. The author’s Hortensia is a young woman of noble birth who is intelligent, has inherited the rhetorical skills of her father and possesses an independence of spirit that makes her challenge the conventions and limitations of patriarchal Roman society. The role of a woman like Hortensia is to make a marriage that is advantageous to her family, increasing their wealth or influence. They are certainly not expected to appear in the law court as Hortensia does in one particularly entertaining scene in which her inspired defence of a wronged woman proves she is more than equal to any male opponent.

The plot is intricate without being confusing and progresses at a good pace with plenty of twists and turns as it builds to an exciting conclusion. Although many of the characters are real life figures, there are a few fictional ones, notably a ‘boo hiss’ villian complete with scarred face and ‘strange amber eyes’. There is intrigue, conspiracy and political machinations conducted by individuals driven by a lust for power and wealth. They are utterly ruthless when it comes to ridding themselves of opponents. Luckily Hortensia finds a useful ally in ex-gladiator, Lurcio, and despite the difference in their social station they make a great partnership: a winning combination of brains and brawn.

The author has clearly used her knowledge of the period to cram the book with the sort of detail – of food, dress, social and religious customs – that makes a historical novel come alive.  There’s a clear sense of the gulf between the lives of noble families such as Hortensia’s and the experiences of ordinary people. For example, in this account of Lurcio’s visit to the Subura, a lower-class area of Rome notorious as a pleasure district.

‘There was no street lighting in the damp alleyways and few of the residents could afford the cost of a lantern-bearer to illuminate their way, but the beat of footsteps, the rattle of vehicles and the screech of voices had barely abated since the sun went down. The waft of hot chickpea soup and thick sausage stew from the cook shops competed with the stench from the underground sewer, tempting the custom of those who did not dare risk a cooking fire in the precipitous, decaying tenements that teetered like crumbling cliff-faces above the narrow streets.’

Although Rivals of the Republic was intended to be the first in the ‘Blood of Rome’ historical crime series, there have been no further instalments to date. (The author now writes children’s books under the name Annelise Gray.) This is a shame because, on the strength of Rivals of the Republic, I think it had the makings of a first-rate series sure to appeal to fans of historical crime fiction. Perhaps the author may come back to it at some point.

I received a review copy courtesy of Duckworth.

In three words: Intriguing, engaging, authentic

Try something similar: The Senator’s Assignment by Joan E. Histon

Annelise GrayAbout the Author

Annelise Freisenbruch received her PhD in Classics from Cambridge University. She has worked as a researcher for the BBC and has appeared in documentaries about ancient Rome for PBS and CNN. Her first book, The First Ladies of Rome: The Women behind the Caesars, was published to much critical acclaim and has been translated into eight languages. Rivals of the Republic is her first novel. (Photo: Author Twitter profile)

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