Book Review: The Good Doctor of Warsaw by Elisabeth Gifford

The Good Doctor of WarsawAbout the Book

‘You do not leave a sick child alone to face the dark and you do not leave a child at a time like this.’

Deeply in love and about to marry, students Misha and Sophia flee a Warsaw under Nazi occupation for a chance at freedom. Forced to return to the Warsaw ghetto, they help Misha’s mentor, Dr Korczak, care for the two hundred children in his orphanage. As Korczak struggles to uphold the rights of even the smallest child in the face of unimaginable conditions, he becomes a beacon of hope for the thousands who live behind the walls.  As the noose tightens around the ghetto Misha and Sophia are torn from one another, forcing them to face their worst fears alone. They can only hope to find each other again one day…  Meanwhile, refusing to leave the children unprotected, Korczak must confront a terrible darkness.

This novel is based on the true accounts of Misha and Sophia, and on the life of one of Poland’s greatest men, Dr Janusz Korczak.

Format: ebook, paperback (368 pp.)      Publisher: Corvus
Published in UK : 1st February 2018     Genre: Historical Fiction

Pre-order/Purchase Links*
Amazon.co.uk ǀ  Amazon.com
*links provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme

 

Find The Good Doctor of Warsaw on Goodreads


My Review

I’ll be honest and say that when I read Elisabeth Gifford’s previous book, Secrets of the Sea House, I found the story line set in the past much more compelling than that set in the present.  So, I was delighted to learn about this book set entirely in the period of the Second World War.  The subject matter, well, that’s very far from delightful but the author delivers a powerful, compelling account of the fate of those who struggled for survival in the Warsaw ghetto.  Sadly, most of them failed in that struggle.  Of the half a million people who lived in the Warsaw ghetto, less than one percent survived to tell their story.

With the benefit of hindsight, one reads about the unfolding events in the ghetto with a mounting sense of horror.    I’ll give you an example that sums this up and which sent shivers down my spine.  News comes that some of the men imprisoned by the Nazis are to be released to carry out construction work at a site close to Warsaw. ‘It’s a new work camp called Treblinka.’

The inhabitants of the ghetto greet each new atrocity with shock; they simply cannot believe that human beings could do such things to other human beings (and who can blame them).  ‘So this is the ghetto, a square mile of hell containing half a million people slowly dying of hunger.’ Gradually the Jewish community begin to realise the objective of the Nazis is their total elimination and their focus switches to trying to ensure the survival of their children at the very least, those who represent their future.   ‘Our highest and holiest duty is to ensure that our children survive these tragic times.’

Each day becomes a daily struggle to find food with only goods smuggled in from outside the ghetto keeping people alive – and barely, at that.  Diseases, such as typhus, are rife in such squalid conditions.   Grotesquely, the presence of disease is welcomed by the Nazi regime because it will do the work of eliminating the Jews more quickly than starvation and deter any contact from the areas of Warsaw outside the ghetto.  It also feeds into their appalling belief in the Jewish people as tainted.

However, behind the harrowing depiction of the grotesque treatment meted out to the Jewish community of Warsaw, there is the wonderful love story of Misha and Sophia. ‘If he has Sophia, then he has everything.’  Despite personal tragedies and enforced separation lasting years, they never give up their belief that they will one day build a home together.

The Good Doctor of Warsaw is also a story of courage and dedication.  Those qualities are personified in Dr Janusz Korczak.  “All I can tell you is that a beautiful life is always a difficult life.”  Just when you think nothing can be worse than what you’ve already read, the children of the ghetto are rounded up and taken to the railway station.  ‘The march of the children pulls a dark cloud across the sky behind it.  Finally, the ghetto understands what the Germans intend.  If they can take the children, they will take everybody.’  Dr Korczak remains committed to the welfare of the children under his care to the very end, passing up opportunities to escape himself.  As he says, “You do not leave a child alone to face the dark.”

At times, the events in the book are almost unbearably distressing to read but then the book should be uncomfortable reading because it bears witness to one of the greatest atrocities of the Second World War.  I praise the author for shining a light on this story of, yes, cruelty and barbarism, but also of courage, resilience and hope.   As well as the history of a persecuted community, it’s also the story of real individuals.  The author’s website has fascinating photographs of Misha, Sophia, Dr Korczak and the children.

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers, Atlantic Books/Corvus, in return for an honest review.

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In three words: Emotional, powerful, compelling

Try something similar…When It’s Over by Barbara Ridley (click here to read my review)


Elisabeth GiffordAbout the Author

Elisabeth Gifford studied French literature and world religions at Leeds University. She worked as a dyslexia specialist for several years while raising a family. After studying for a Diploma in Creative Writing from Oxford OUDCE and a Masters degree in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway College she was asked to write The House of Hope, a biography of Dr Joyce Hill who opened a rescue centre for abandoned babies in China, published by Monarch Press. She was taken on by literary agent Jenny Hewson and three historical novels followed, published by Corvus.  Secrets of the Sea House is set in the Hebrides and is a dark mystery that explores at the very real events behind the frequent mermaid sightings reported in Scotland a century ago. Return to Fourwinds is a sweeping family saga set between England and Spain between the wars. The Good Doctor of Warsaw is the shocking and ultimately inspiring true story of some of the rare survivors of the Warsaw ghetto during WW2, and features the inspiring story of Dr Janusz Korczak who defied the Nazi brutality by creating an oasis of kindness and happiness for children. A sort of Polish-Jewish Dr Barnardo, Dr Korczak helped draft the first international children’s bill of rights and his teaching on how to raise children with love and respect is still widely followed today, and where it is, it makes children’s lives happier.

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Book Review: Oliver Loving by Stefan Merrill Block

Oliver LovingAbout the Book

One warm, West Texas November night, a shy boy named Oliver Loving joins his classmates at Bliss County Day School’s annual dance, hoping for a glimpse of the object of his unrequited affections, an enigmatic Junior named Rebekkah Sterling. But as the music plays, a troubled young man sneaks in through the school’s back door. The dire choices this man makes that evening – and the unspoken story he carries – will tear the town of Bliss, Texas apart.

Nearly ten years later, Oliver Loving still lies wordless and paralyzed at Crockett State Assisted Care Facility, the fate of his mind unclear. Orbiting the still point of Oliver’s hospital bed is a family transformed: Oliver’s mother, Eve, who keeps desperate vigil; Oliver’s brother, Charlie, who has fled for New York City only to discover he cannot escape the gravity of his shattered family; Oliver’s father, Jed, who tries to erase his memories with bourbon. And then there is Rebekkah Sterling, Oliver’s teenage love, who left Texas long ago and still refuses to speak about her own part in that tragic night.

When a new medical test promises a key to unlock Oliver’s trapped mind, the town’s unanswered questions resurface with new urgency, as Oliver’s doctors and his family fight for a way for Oliver to finally communicate – and so also to tell the truth of what really happened that fateful night.

Format: Hardback (400 pp.)             Publisher: Flatiron Books/Atlantic Books
Published: 16th January 2018          Genre: Literary Fiction

Purchase Links*
Amazon.co.uk  ǀ  Amazon.com
*links provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme

 

Find Oliver Loving on Goodreads


My Review

‘Once upon a time there was a boy who fell through a crack in time but he didn’t fall all the way.’

Following the momentous events at his school’s annual dance, Oliver lies in a coma – neither here nor gone but ‘suspended’ somewhere in between.  ‘By your twentieth birthday, you had become a dimming hive of neurological data, a mute oracle, an obsession, a regret, a prayer, a vegetative patient in Bed Four at Crockett State Care Facility; the last hope your mother lived inside.’

In a way, the people around Oliver are suspended too, unable to move on from the fateful evening of the Bliss County Day School’s annual dance.  More than anything, they are obsessed by the question: Why? Why was Rebekkah unharmed?  Why was Oliver at the dance?  What motivated a troubled young man, Hector Espina, to do what he did? They cling to the belief that Oliver will someday, somehow, be able to answer those questions; that he is the only one who can provide the answers.  But is that actually the case?

The reader benefits from the gradual recounting of Oliver’s memories leading up to the evening of the dance, during which Oliver is always addressed in the second person.  Interspersed are sections told from the point of view of Oliver’s mother (Eve), his father (Jed), his brother (Charlie) and Rebekkah (the object of Oliver’s affection).  It becomes clear that they also have secrets and are weighed down by guilt: about the things they did or didn’t do; the things they did or didn’t say.  Maybe if they’d acted or spoken, things would have turned out differently.

All the characters are convincing, with human flaws, and not always likeable.  In Eve, Oliver’s mother, the reader gets an overwhelming sense of someone who wants to believe in miracles so much that it blinds her to reason, interpreting signs that others don’t see as indications of Oliver’s lucidity.  However, does her steadfastness just disguise an inability to face up to the truth and take the right decision?    Jed, Oliver’s father, is a failed artist, a disappointed man and a drunk unable to face up to what his son has become.  Oliver’s brother, Charlie, dreams of being a writer and of writing his family’s story – Oliver’s story – but is unable to start the book, to find a way into it. ‘Like unstable plutonium, he had thought he could take the annihilating power of it and transform it into an astonishing source of energy.  But at last he knew better, that he was just like the rest of his family, still pounding at the walls of an instant, now many years past.’

Then there’s Rebekkah Sterling, a rather elusive figure for much of the book, always hovering off stage but seeming to exercise a sort of gravitational pull on other characters.  Oliver is enchanted by her from the first time he sees her and Charlie becomes convinced she has the answers to what happened that night.  And others who came into her orbit prove significant as well.  Talking of orbits and gravitational pulls, the book frequently alludes to astronomy, wormholes and even parallel universes.  Does Oliver merely inhabit some ‘impassable otherworld of your memory, that place where you were still the same wholly whole Oliver’.

The tragic events at the Bliss County Day School dance have wider repercussions than just for Oliver’s family.   The tragedy and the racial background of the person involved are usurped for political capital (now why does that sound familiar?), exploiting existing tensions over immigration from Mexico, informal segregation between the Hispanic and white population of Bliss and concerns about drugs being brought across the border.  ‘It wouldn’t matter that Hector Espina had been an American-born citizen or that an Ecuadorian named Ernesto Ruiz stopped the kid that night.  The fact was that Hector was a Latino…He was a demon of white imaginings let loose.’  

And it’s as if the town died the day of the tragedy as well.  The author conjures up an evocative picture of a rundown West Texas town with its abandoned houses and closed down businesses.  In fact there is wonderful descriptive writing and use of quirky metaphors throughout the book.  As Charlie reflects on what the tragedy has done to his family: ‘Ma – the immutable icon, the implacable white colossus that had stood guard over his childhood – had been badly fissuring, and Charlie had known that only he could fill the gaps.  After all, Pa had already crumbled.’

Oliver Loving is both an examination of the impact of a tragedy on a family and a community, and an exploration of the ‘locked in’ state.  It’s also about needing answers and about clinging on to hope.  It is also a fantastic read.  I received an advance reader copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers, Atlantic Books, in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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In three words: Emotional, powerful, imaginative

Try something similar…Holding on to Hurt by Charlotte Roth (click here to read my review)


Stefan Merrill BlockAbout the Author

Stefan grew up in Plano, Texas. His first book, The Story of Forgetting, was an international bestseller and the winner of Best First Fiction at the Rome International Festival of Literature, The Ovid Prize from the Romanian Writer’s Union, the 2008 Merck Serono Literature Prize and the 2009 Fiction Award from The Writers’ League of Texas. The Story of Forgetting was also a finalist for the debut fiction awards from IndieBound, Salon du Livre and The Center for Fiction. Following the publication of his second novel, The Storm at the Door, Stefan was awarded The University of Texas Dobie-Paisano Fellowship, as well as residencies at The Santa Maddalena Foundation and Castello Malaspina di Fosdinovo in Italy. Stefan’s novels have been translated into ten languages, and his stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker Page-Turner, The Guardian, NPR’s Radiolab, GRANTA, The Los Angeles Times, and many other publications. Stefan’s third novel, Oliver Loving, is forthcoming from Macmillan/Flatiron Books. He lives in Brooklyn.

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Throwback Thursday: Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars by Miranda Emmerson

ThrowbackThursday

Throwback Thursday is a weekly meme hosted by Renee at It’s Book Talk.  It’s designed as an opportunity to share old favourites as well as books that we’ve finally got around to reading that were published over a year ago.  If you decide to take part, please link back to It’s Book Talk.

Today I’m revisiting a book that I reviewed in the early days of my blog, Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars by Miranda Emmerson (published in January 2017).  I really enjoyed this period mystery set in 1965 in London’s Theatreland and gave it the full five stars.  I heard a rumour that the author is working on a sequel – I do hope so.


miss-treadwayAbout the Book

Soho, 1965.  In a tiny two-bed flat above a Turkish café on Neal Street lives Anna Treadway, a young dresser at the Galaxy Theatre.  When the American actress Iolanthe Green disappears after an evening’s performance at the Galaxy, the newspapers are wild with speculation about her fate.  But as the news grows old and the case grows colder, it seems Anna is the only person left determined to find out the truth.  Her search for the missing actress will take her into an England she did not know existed: an England of jazz clubs and prison cells, backstreet doctors and seaside ghost towns, where her carefully calibrated existence will be upended by violence but also, perhaps, by love.For in order to uncover Iolanthe’s secrets, Anna is going to have to face up to a few of her own…

Format: Hardcover, ebook (297 pp.)   Publisher: 4th Estate
Published: 12th January 2017                Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery

Purchase Links*
Amazon.co.uk  ǀ  Amazon.com
*links provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme

Find Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars on Goodreads


My Review

At first, it seems as if Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars is going to be a straightforward period detective mystery but there are a number of elements that, as you read on, raise it to another level.

Firstly, the authentic feel of the period setting.  This is the England of homes without central heating, smoke-filled bars and buses, seedy clubs, drugs, awful coffee, backstreet abortions and, most shockingly, homophobia and overt racism against black people, Irish people and basically anyone who is perceived as an outsider.

Secondly, Miranda Emmerson has created such a great cast of supplementary characters, including Ottmar, the Turkish café owner, and Aloysius, the Jamaican accountant.   It is no accident that the characters who help Anna in her search for Iolanthe are all outsiders and perhaps it’s the fact that Iolanthe is also an outsider that makes them care so much for her fate.

Lastly, this is such a multi-layered novel because underneath the simple mystery narrative are questions of identity and reinvention.   All the characters have either reinvented themselves, wish to reinvent themselves or are struggling to play a part they haven’t quite come to terms with.  There’s Anna, who admits “I tried to be someone and I failed” and is drawn to starting over anew; Sergeant Brennan Hayes, who changes his Christian name and accent to disguise his Irish origins (“His new voice commanded more respect, his new name spoke of privileged beginnings.  He didn’t belong anywhere, he was aware of this, but he looked like he belonged, sounded like he belonged”) ; his wife, Orla, who empathises with Iolanthe’s determination that “one part of your life needs to end and another to begin”  when she realises that Brennan “just wasn’t who I thought he was at all”;  and Aloysius, who has moved to London because he is “in love with the idea of England” but the England of Dickens, which turns out to be a far cry from reality he experiences.

I was really impressed with this book.  At the end, there are questions unanswered but I’d like to think these were not unintended loose ends but deliberate on the part of the author or (even better) threads to be woven into a future book.  This was a great read that would keep you entertained for hours on a train or plane journey.

I received an advance review copy courtesy of NetGalley and HarperCollins UK/4th Estate in return for an honest review.

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In three words: Authentic, engaging, satisfying

Try something similar… Curtain Call by Anthony Quinn

Miranda EmmersonAbout the Author

Miranda Emmerson is a playwright and author.  She grew up in south-west London before studying English at Oxford and Playwriting Studies at Birmingham. In her twenties she edited and wrote for charity and magazine websites, and scripted audio magazines for people with a learning disability. She has travelled extensively in Europe, North America and Asia. She lives in Wales with her husband and their two daughters.

She’s a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio 4 Extra (sometimes as Miranda Davies) where she specialises in adapting books for dramatic serialisation.

She is currently undertaking a PhD at Cardiff University looking at the history of BBC radio adaptation examining the dramatic adaptation of un-English writing for an Anglocentric medium.  She has published one work of non fiction – the travelogue Fragrant Heart – and one work of fiction – the novel Miss Treadway & the Field of Stars.

Connect with Miranda

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WWW Wednesdays – 17th January ’18

WWWWednesdays

Hosted by Taking on a World of Words, this meme is all about the three Ws:

  • What are you currently reading?
  • What did you recently finish reading?
  • What do you think you’ll read next?

Why not join in too?  Leave a comment with your link at Taking on a World of Words and then go blog hopping!


Currently reading

Nucleus BookpostNucleus (Tom Wilde #2) by Rory Clements (ARC, courtesy of Bonnier Zaffre)

The eve of war: a secret so deadly, nothing and no one is safe.

June 1939. England is partying like there is no tomorrow, gas masks at the ready. In Cambridge the May Balls are played out with a frantic intensity – but the good times won’t last… In Europe, the Nazis have invaded Czechoslovakia, and in Germany he persecution of the Jews is now so widespread that desperate Jewish parents send their children to safety in Britain aboard the Kindertransport. Closer to home, the IRA’s S-Plan bombing campaign has resulted in more than 100 terrorist outrages around England.  But perhaps the most far-reaching event of all goes largely unreported: in Germany, Otto Hahn has produced the first man-made fission and an atomic device is now a very real possibility. The Nazis set up the Uranverein group of physicists: its task is to build a super-bomb. The German High Command is aware that British and US scientists are working on similar line. Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory is where the atom was split in 1932. Might the Cambridge men now win the race for a nuclear bomb? Hitler’s generals need to be sure they know all the Cavendish’s secrets. Only then will it be safe for Germany to wage war.

When one of the Cavendish’s finest brains is murdered, Professor Tom Wilde is once more drawn into an intrigue from which there seems no escape. In a conspiracy that stretches from Cambridge to Berlin and from Washington DC to the west coast of Ireland, he faces deadly forces that threaten the fate of the world.

Olive KitteridgeOlive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (ebook)

Olive Kitteridge might be described by some as a battle axe or as brilliantly pushy, by others as the kindest person they had ever met. Olive herself has always been certain that she is 100% correct about everything – although, lately, her certitude has been shaken. This indomitable character appears at the centre of these narratives that comprise Olive Kitteridge. In each of them, we watch Olive, a retired schoolteacher, as she struggles to make sense of the changes in her life and the lives of those around her – always with brutal honesty, if sometimes painfully. Olive will make you laugh, nod in recognition, as well as wince in pain or shed a tear or two. We meet her stoic husband, bound to her in a marriage both broken and strong, and her own son, tyrannised by Olive’s overbearing sensitivities. The reader comes away, amazed by this author’s ability to conjure this formidable heroine and her deep humanity that infiltrates every page.


Recently finished (click on title for review)

Beautiful StarBeautiful Star & Other Stories by Andrew Swanston (ARC, courtesy of The Dome Press)

History is brought alive by the people it affects, rather than those who created it.

Beautiful Star is a moving and affecting journey through time, bringing a new perspective to the defence of Corfe Castle, the battle of Waterloo, the siege of Toulon and, in the title story, the devastating dangers of the life of the sea in 1875.

The Good Doctor of WarsawThe Good Doctor of Warsaw by Elisabeth Gifford (eARC, NetGalley)

Set in the ghettos of wartime Warsaw, this is a sweeping, poignant and heartbreaking tale, based on the true story of one of World War II’s quiet heroes – Dr Janusz Korczak.

Deeply in love and about to marry, students Misha and Sophia flee a Warsaw under Nazi occupation for a chance at freedom. Forced to return to the Warsaw ghetto, they help Misha’s mentor, Dr Korczak, care for the two hundred children in his orphanage. As Korczak struggles to uphold the rights of even the smallest child in the face of unimaginable conditions, he becomes a beacon of hope for the thousands who live behind the walls.  As the noose tightens around the ghetto Misha and Sophia are torn from one another, forcing them to face their worst fears alone. They can only hope to find each other again one day…

Meanwhile, refusing to leave the children unprotected, Korczak must confront a terrible darkness.  Half a million people lived in the Warsaw ghetto. Less than one percent survived to tell their story. This novel is based on the true accounts of Misha and Sophia, and on the life of one of Poland’s greatest men, Dr Janusz Korczak. (Review to follow 19th January)


What Cathy (will) Read Next

The Mermaid & Mrs HancockThe Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar (eARC, NetGalley)

This voyage is special. It will change everything…

One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid. As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee shops, parlours and brothels, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel. Its arrival spins him out of his ordinary existence and through the doors of high society. At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on… and a courtesan of great accomplishment. This meeting will steer both their lives onto a dangerous new course, on which they will learn that priceless things come at the greatest cost.

Where will their ambitions lead? And will they be able to escape the destructive power mermaids are said to possess?

The Moral CompassThe Moral Compass (Shaking the Tree #1) by K A Servian (ebook, review copy courtesy of Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours)

Florence has a charmed life. The filth and poverty of Victorian London are beyond her notice as she attends dinners, balls and parties. But when her father suffers a spectacular fall from grace, Florence’s world comes crashing down around her. She must abandon her life of luxury and sail to the far side of the world where compromise and suffering beyond anything she can imagine await her.  When she is offered the opportunity to regain some of what she has lost, she takes it, but soon discovers that the offer is not all it seems. The choice she made has a high price attached and she must live with the heart-breaking consequences of her decision.

Blog Tour: Beautiful Star & Other Stories by Andrew Swanston

Beautiful Star 2I’m thrilled to be hosting today’s stop on the blog tour for Beautiful Star & Other Stories by Andrew Swanston.   Andrew is the author of the exciting Thomas Hill series (The King’s Spy, The King’s Exile and The King’s Return) set in the English Civil War.  Incendium, the first in a new series set in the 1570s featuring lawyer and spy Christopher Ratcliff, was published in February 2017 (as A. D. Swanston).

As well as my review of Beautiful Star & Other Stories, I’m delighted to bring you a fascinating interview with Andrew.  Among other things, he talks about the most productive time for writing, the importance of detail to create historical authenticity and the benefits of ‘feet on the ground’ research.


Beautiful StarAbout the Book

History is brought alive by the people it affects, rather than those who created it.

In Beautiful Star we meet Eilmer, a monk in 1010 with Icarus-like dreams; Charles II, hiding in 1651, and befriended by a small boy; and Jane Wenham, the Witch of Walkern, seen through the eyes of her grand-daughter.  This moving and affecting journey through time brings a new perspective to the defence of Corfe Castle, the battle of Waterloo, the siege of Toulon and, in the title story, the devastating dangers of a fisherman’s life in 1875.

In Beautiful Star & Other Stories Andrew Swanston brings history to life, giving voices to the previously silent – the bystanders and observers, the poor and the peripheral – and bringing us a rich and refreshing perspective on the past.

Format: Paperback (256 pp.)         Publisher: The Dome Press
Published: 11th January 2018        Genre: Historical Fiction, Short Stories

Purchase Links*
Amazon.co.uk ǀ  Amazon.com
*links provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme

Find Beautiful Star & Other Stories on Goodreads


Interview with Andrew Swanston

The stories in Beautiful Star involve both real and imaginary characters.  Which do you find the more difficult to write?

Interesting question. Imaginary characters are easier in that, within the historical framework of the story, they can do and say and think and look like whatever one wants them to. Real characters are easier in that they bring their personalities and their stories with them.  Mixing the two is the most difficult task and what I like best.

What do you like about the short story format?  What are its challenges?

In Beautiful Star, Julia Paterson tells her friend Willy Miller that flowers are neither wild nor tame, they are just flowers. So it is, for me, with stories – some longer, others shorter, but all just stories with plots and characters, beginnings, middles and endings. As a boy I loved the Sherlock Holmes stories. Strong characters, fast-moving plots, atmospheric but not very descriptive.  Excellent examples of the art.

I’m sure that asking which of the stories in Beautiful Star you like best would be like asking you to choose a favourite child.  Instead, I’ll ask which was the ‘naughtiest child’- the story you found most challenging to write, and why?

I think ‘A Witch and a Bitch’ was the most difficult because in making Jane Wenham’s imaginary grand-daughter the narrator I had to try to imagine the feelings of a teenage girl seeing her grandmother absurdly condemned to death in cruel circumstances three hundred years ago.

If you could be transported back in time to a period of history when and where would it be?

The seventeenth century – a time of conflict and change – has always appealed to me, which is why I wrote the Thomas Hill stories.  During the War of the Three Kingdoms, I would have been a royalist and would have hoped to survive until the Restoration when the king and his court set a splendid example of debauchery and excess. Lovely.

You’ve written books set in the English Civil War (the Thomas Hill series), the Battle of Waterloo and, in your latest book Incendium, the reign of Elizabeth I.   What attracts you to a particular historical period?

I am most interested in how major events such as the massacre of the Huguenots, the execution of Charles I or the return of Napoleon from Elba would have affected the daily lives of the people of the time. What would they have been thinking?  Catholic retaliation in London, a republican tyranny, a French invasion? Poverty, starvation, disease?

What do you think is the key to creating an authentic picture of a particular historical period?

Detail, detail and more detail. Food, clothes, money, transport, anything and everything that enables the reader to ‘see’ a picture without its having to be described.

How do you approach the research for your books? Do you enjoy the process of research?

I love the research, especially meeting and talking to experts, who, without exception, I have found to be generous and supportive.  I also love libraries, most of all The British Library. Best of all, though, is what I call ‘tramping the streets’ – visits to Malmesbury, Romsey, Waterloo, Stationers’ Hall, St Monans and elsewhere, often accompanied by my willing assistant (wife).

Do you have a special place to write or any writing rituals?

I write in my little study, usually with the door closed. That tells everyone that I am working and should only be disturbed if war has been declared. I have no particular rituals but am most productive in the pre-drinks hours of three to six.

What other writers of historical fiction do you admire?

At the head of a long and distinguished list of ‘auto-buys’ are C J Sansom, Robert Harris and Rory Clements.  There are many others. [I agree.  Those are some of my favourites too!]

What are you working on next?

The sequel to Incendium, set in 1574.  I would very much like also to write another collection of shorter stories.

Thank you, Andrew, for those fascinating answers to my questions.  Now, read on for my review of Beautiful Star & Other Stories….

My Review

In Beautiful Star, the author has taken what might have been considered footnotes in history and fashioned them into compelling, character-driven stories.   I felt the stories really came alive when the author unleashed his writer’s imagination to conjure up the sights, sounds and smells of the period and to populate the historical fact with believable characters.

I simply devoured the stories in Beautiful Star and found something to enjoy, wonder at or be intrigued by in each of them.

In the title story, ‘Beautiful Star’, set in a Fife fishing village in 1875, the reader gets a wonderful insight into the lives of the fishermen and their families.  There is fascinating detail about the craft of ship building (including the local boats known as Fifies), the seasonal nature of life in the village driven by the movement of shoals of fish and the colourful itinerant workers who flock to St Monans during ‘the Drave’, when the herring shoals congregate in the Forth of Fife.   My favourite amongst these were the ‘fisher lassies’, who arrive to gut, sort and pack the herring.  Spending most of their time up to their elbows in fish guts and salt, the leisure time of these tough, hardworking women is spent knitting, often while going for an evening stroll.

The fisherman prove to be superstitious folk with intriguing customs like starting every voyage with dry feet (prepare to be amazed by how this is achieved).    But then, if you were setting sail in small boats for long periods of time then you’d probably be superstitious as well.  In fact, the dangers of the sea and the potential impact on individual families and the whole village of disaster become all too clearly revealed.  The story may be set in 1875, before satellite tracking and modern safety rules, but it still made me think of fisherman today and the perils they face on the open sea.

In ‘The Flying Monk’ we learn that experimentation with manned flight goes back further than you might think and did not start with the Wright Brothers.  The protagonist of this story, a monk called Eilmer, also witnesses two sightings of Halley’s Comet.  Such astronomical events were often viewed as harbingers of disaster. Observing the comet in 1066, the author has Eilmer remark, ‘It is a sign from God.  Mark it well and be prepared.  England’s enemies will come soon.’  He wasn’t wrong, was he?

A few highlights from other stories.  In ‘HMS Association’, set in 1708, instinctive, local knowledge of the sea is dismissed resulting in tragedy, emphasising the limitations of navigation in inclement weather at the time.  In ‘A Witch and a Bitch’, set in 1730, there is a reminder of how accusations of witchcraft were often directed at women viewed as ‘different’.  As the accused woman remarks, “If they want to hang me, they will.  An old woman on her own, they’ll find reasons enough if they choose.”   In ‘The Castle’, set in the latter part of the English Civil War, the chatelaine of Corfe Castle steadfastly tries to carry out a vow made to her dead husband to defend the castle from Parliament’s forces.  In the end, her future is determined by a man who thinks he knows better what’s good for her.  No change there then.    I particularly liked ‘A Tree’ set in 1651, probably the most impressionistic of the stories.  In it, events of the Restoration are seen through the eyes of a 7-year-old boy who has a chance encounter with a mysterious stranger whilst perched in a tree.

The book’s description states that ‘history is brought alive by the people it affects’.  I think the final story in the collection, ‘The Button Seller and the Drummer Boy’, set at the Battle of Waterloo, illustrates this really well.   It’s easy to forget that war, as well as bringing death and destruction, is also a source of business opportunity for some.  Such is the case for our button seller, whose travels through France and Belgium in search of orders for his company’s buttons for military uniforms, brings him to the site of the battle as it rages.  He is confronted by the realities of war; that smart uniforms bearing the correct regimental buttons mean nothing in the face of bullets, sabres and cannon fire and will ultimately end up being valued only by those plundering bodies.

I really loved Beautiful Star & Other Stories and would recommend the collection for any lover of history (I think it might even convert some people who think history is dull) and those for whom the lives of the people who fought in a battle are more interesting than the battle itself.  I really hope Andrew is true to his answer to my final interview question and writes another collection soon.

My grateful thanks to The Dome Press for my review copy, in return for my honest and unbiased review.

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In three words: Fascinating, intimate, thought-provoking

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Andrew SwanstonAbout the Author

Andrew read a little law and a lot of sport at Cambridge University, and held various positions in the book trade, including being a director of Waterstone & Co and Chairman of Methven’s plc, before turning to writing.  Inspired by a lifelong interest in early modern history, his Thomas Hill novels are set during the English Civil War and the early period of the Restoration.  Andrew’s novel Incendium was published in February 2017 and is the first of two thrillers featuring Dr. Christopher Radcliff, an intelligencer for the Earl of Leicester, and is set in 1572 at the time of the massacre of the Huguenots in France.

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