#BookReview: At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

at the edge of the orchard

From internationally bestselling author Tracy Chevalier, At the Edge of the Orchard is a riveting drama of a pioneer family on the American frontier

1838: James and Sadie Goodenough have settled where their wagon got stuck – in the muddy, stagnant swamps of northwest Ohio. They and their five children work relentlessly to tame their patch of land, buying saplings from a local tree man known as John Appleseed so they can cultivate the fifty apple trees required to stake their claim on the property. But the orchard they plant sows the seeds of a long battle. James loves the apples, reminders of an easier life back in Connecticut; while Sadie prefers the applejack they make, an alcoholic refuge from brutal frontier life.
1853: Their youngest child Robert is wandering through Gold Rush California. Restless and haunted by the broken family he left behind, he has made his way alone across the country. In the redwood and giant sequoia groves he finds some solace, collecting seeds for a naturalist who sells plants from the new world to the gardeners of England. But you can run only so far, even in America, and when Robert’s past makes an unexpected appearance he must decide whether to strike out again or stake his own claim to a home at last.

I received At the Edge of the Orchard from the Publishers (Penguin Random House), via Edelweiss, in exchange for a review.

This is told in multiple voices about the Goodenough family, where we initially find them living in the Black Swamp trying to make a space for themselves. James is trying to grow trees, especially the Pitmaston that he remembers his father and grandfather growing. Sadie, his wife, hates the swamp and frontier life, and it becomes a battleground – Sadie the drunken slut who has lost most of her children, and hates the man she’s with and the trees that he looks after more than his wife.

The story jumps back and forth between 1838 and 1853, when the youngest son, Robert, ends up on the west coast of the US, near San Francisco, having been roaming and doing odd jobs for the previous 18 years. It’s a long time before we get to find out what he’s been running from, and what happened to his family since he left the Black Swamp (much of which is told in the form of his letters to his family and from his sister Martha).

In working his way west, Robert has done many a job, including mining for gold, and doing building work for the railroads, but he always seems to come back to trees – a source of fascination for him as a person, and for the British people specifically, who are going through their mania of collecting the unusual plants from all over the world. It’s only in Martha’s letters to Robert that we find out what happened to the family after he left, and we get an inkling of who the father of Martha’s baby is (and what Really Happened to brother Caleb).

After nearly 20 years of separation, Martha tracks Robert down – no mean feat in a country where there is no internet, phone, telegraph, cars, planes etc and where information can be years out of date. There is no Panama Canal, so it can take months to get from one side of the US to the other, never mind the other side of the Ocean.

Robert gets to be astounded by the strength of character of not only his sister Martha but of his part-time girlfriend Molly, both of whom are willing to travel across country (and internationally) no matter the cost.  In his part time landlady Mrs B., we also get an indication of the strength of character of businesswomen who have taken their own life into their hands and live it on their own terms.

Having spent so much time alone and wondering around the country, it is the arrival of both Martha and Molly to see Robert – each with their own surprise – that makes Robert reconsider what he’s been doing the last few decades and where he wants to go next. Suddenly he realises the whole world is available to him.

With Robert and Martha’s parents, we also get to see how harsh Frontier life can be, especially for women who don’t want to be there, and will do everything – bar actually leaving – to make their life worthwhile, even if it makes them and everyone around them miserable.

The multiple voices and narrative mechanisms were employed well and stopped the book from dropping into a dark despair (the family unit was not a good place to grow up in, and both Robert and Martha did well to get away).

I have read several books by Tracy Chevalier before in particular: The Last RunawayThe Lady and the Unicorn, The Virgin Blue

Additional Reviews of this book from around the web

The Independent Newspaper

The Jewish Chronicle Online

Historical Novel Society

Kirkus Reviews

About this author

Having been born in Washington DC, USA, Chevalier moved to London after graduating from Oberlin in 1984. She’d studied for a semester in London and thought it was a great place, so came over for fun, expecting to go back to the US after 6 months to get serious, but is still in London, and still not entirely serious.


Book Review: Peony in Love by Lisa See

peony in love

“I finally understand what the poets have written. In spring, moved to passion; in autumn only regret.”

For young Peony, betrothed to a suitor she has never met, these lyrics from The Peony Pavilion mirror her own longings. In the garden of the Chen Family Villa, amid the scent of ginger, green tea, and jasmine, a small theatrical troupe is performing scenes from this epic opera, a live spectacle few females have ever seen. Like the heroine in the drama, Peony is the cloistered daughter of a wealthy family, trapped like a good-luck cricket in a bamboo-and-lacquer cage. Though raised to be obedient, Peony has dreams of her own.

Peony’s mother is against her daughter’s attending the production: “Unmarried girls should not be seen in public.” But Peony’s father assures his wife that proprieties will be maintained, and that the women will watch the opera from behind a screen. Yet through its cracks, Peony catches sight of an elegant, handsome man with hair as black as a cave–and is immediately overcome with emotion.

So begins Peony’s unforgettable journey of love and destiny, desire and sorrow–as Lisa See’s haunting  novel, based on actual historical events, takes readers back to seventeenth-century China, after the Manchus seize power and the Ming dynasty is crushed.

Steeped in traditions and ritual, this story brings to life another time and place–even the intricate realm of the afterworld, with its protocols, pathways, and stages of existence, a vividly imagined place where one’s soul is divided into three, ancestors offer guidance, misdeeds are punished, and hungry ghosts wander the earth. Immersed in the richness and magic of the Chinese vision of the afterlife, transcending even death, Peony in Love explores, beautifully, the many manifestations of love. Ultimately, Lisa See’s new novel addresses universal themes: the bonds of friendship, the power of words, and the age-old desire of women to be heard

From my book group in paperback format. I have read other books by this author (specifically Snow Flower and the Secret Fan – no review for some reason – and Shanghai Girls).

The book is split into three parts and roughly follows the format of The Peony Pavilion,  a 16th-century opera (http://www.kunqu.org/emdt.html).

Its central theme proclaims the significance of an ultimate triumph of ‘love’ over ‘reason’.

In the early years of the Southern Sung dynasty (1127-1279), a beautiful young lady named Du Liniang, daughter of the Governor of Nanan, was strictly educated and could not step out of her chambers without her parents’ permission. One day without her parents’ knowledge Du went into the garden with her maid. Watching the splendor of the spring at its peak, she was overcome with deep feelings. In a drowsy trance, she dreamt that she had a secret rendezvous with a young scholar under a plum tree by the side of the Peony Pavilion. Ever since returning from the garden, she was haunted by memories of her dream lover and, after seeking the dream in vain, fell ill and soon died of a broken heart. After her death, Du’s spirit kept searching for the young scholar. Her persistence won over the Judge of the Netherworld and she was allowed to be reincarnated.

Du and Liu Mengmei meet a few years later, fall in love and live happily ever after.

Section one is about Peony, the only child of a wealthy family, on the cusp of her 16th birthday. Betrothed to a man she has never met, she has lived in seclusion, never being allowed outside the family compound, and never having talked to a man besides her father. She has been pampered, being taught matters way above her station as a girl, and she has a fascination for the opera The Peony Pavilion.

Escaping on the first of three nights covering the performance her father has put on (Peony thinks it was staged to mark her birthday, but, in fact, was put on to curry favour with a local official), she meets an unnamed man, with which she has an instant connection. For the following two nights, she disappears off to meet him again and convinces herself that she’s met her soul-mate and her marriage will never live up to this ideal. She finds out that her poet and her betrothed are the same man (Ren) but it is too late – she has stopped eating and drinking and ends up starving herself to death, just like the characters in the opera.

Section two has Peony in the afterlife, still believing that she was loved by all and that Ren is the love of her life, and that the two of them will be reunited on one plane or another. The author makes great use of the Chinese belief of the afterlife (so different to the Christian West’s), where offerings of food, money, clothes etc need to be burnt to ensure an easier movement through the afterlife. Since the family doesn’t perform the correct rites and provide the right offerings, Peony is unable to progress to the next step of reincarnation or release. Her grandmother is also in the same section of the afterlife, and after 7 years loitering in limbo, Peony is beginning to grow up and realise that life was not as rosy as she thought.  For example: her father is not the idealist that Peony had believed him to be, and did not pamper her as much as she believed; her mother had a lot more freedom when younger, being able to travel outside with her mother in law, talking to other women, producing their own writings etc; Peony finds out that her Grandmother is nothing like she was portrayed in the Ancestor worship – and there was a reason why her death during the Cataclysm (where the Qing Dynasty was violently replaced by the Ming Dynasty) was never discussed.  Peony comes to learn about the suffering both her mother and grandmother experienced during the fighting and that the sternness her mother treated her with as a girl was only her attempt to protect her daughter from the evils of the outside world.

Peony also meets other girls of around her own age who have also died, believing in an ideal dream love, usually as a result of The Peony Pavilion. She comes to realise that there is an alternative reason the funeral rites have not been performed – as an unwed daughter, an only child no less, she is not worthy of the rites that would have been afforded a son (married or not).

Peony is is shocked when she finds a new woman arrive as a bride for Ren, and even more so when she finds out who it is…Ze was a child of 9 when the opera was staged and she had also set her cap at Ren. Ze had insisted that she marry Ren but when she got what she wanted realised that she didn’t love him. During the marriage, Peony uses her skills as an Angry Ghost to manipulate Ze to come closer to Ren, whilst continuing her work on a commentary of The Peony Palace so that Ren would not forget her.

However Ze gets the upper hand in the end, allowing Ren to take credit for the work when it’s found…..women being of such low standing they couldn’t have produced such work. Ze also becomes pregnant but starves herself to death rather than take the unwanted baby to term.

Part 3 is all about exile. After the death of Ze, Peony hides away, only to emerge years later. She has found that her mother has died and joined her in the afterlife. Peony has identified a high-born woman who has ended up marrying well below her station. Peony takes an interest in the youngest daughter, ensuring that her feet are bound, even though it makes her worthless to her farmer father. When 16 (and Ren in his 40s), Peony manipulates things so that Ren gets married for the second time. Yi is much more willing and compliant and because of her, the work of all three women on The Peony Pavilion commentary comes to the fore and the women start getting the recognition they deserve.  Meanwhile, Ren finds out that the ancestor worship for Peony hasn’t been completed, so works on getting this done, so releasing Peony to complete her journey.

This is a very interesting take on the nature of grief, love and personal growth and it is only with Peony learning to be selfless in her love for Ren and looking out for ultimately what would make him happy that she gets the release that she needs.

Additional Resources

Reading Guide notes and Questions

Wikipedia page

About this author

Lisa See is a Chinese-American author. Her books include Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005), Dragon Bones, and On Gold Mountain. She was named the 2001 National Woman of the Year, by the Organization of Chinese American Women. She lives in Los Angeles and can be found on Twitter.




Book Review: Under the Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda

Under the Tripoli SkyA fascinating portrait of a pre-Gaddafi society on the verge of change.

1960s Tripoli. A sweltering, segregated society. Hadachinou is a lonely boy. His mother shares secrets with her best friend Jamila while his father prays at the mosque. Sneaking through the sun-drenched streets of Tripoli, he listens to the whispered stories of the women. He turns into an invisible witness to their repressed desires while becoming aware of his own.

Received from Peirene Press publishers, after taking part in one of their twitter competitions, this is one of the books from their “coming of age” collection.  Originally published in French, this has been translated into English for Peirene who have published it in their imprint.

The book is structured into short chapters, with sections often being under a page long (which oddly, made me take longer to read this book than I normally would for a book at 100 pages). Very little actually happens and it is Hadachinou telling us about the relationships he has with the people around him and the things he hears.

Whilst Hadachinou’s father spends much of his time at the mosque (he is barely mentioned in the book),  Hadachinou spends most of his time either on his own or in the company of women, where he picks up on their lives otherwise hidden from their men.  In a pre-Gaddafi time, there is a certain freedom being displayed by the women, considering the enclosed environment they find themselves in.

There’s the Jewish Fella, who loves honey sweets, and who is the mother of  Touna (conceived through a relationship with a married, black, American Soldier who promptly moved back to the US) and who flouts convention by being a single mother.  There is Aunt Hiba who is married to the violent Uncle Said, and Aunt Zohra who is married to the  tight fisted Uncle Abdou. Meanwhile Hadachinou’s mother spends much of her time with her friend Jamilia, with whom she has a more than sisterly relationship with. Hadachinou sees this but doesn’t seem to understand the significance of what’s going on, simply being jealous of being ignored as soon as the two women are together.

I have a mixed relationship with books translated into English. For every Winemaker Detective story I enjoy, there’s probably something along the lines of The Antiquarian that I struggle with. Thankfully this book lies squarely in the former camp and certainly a publisher I look forward to reading other books they’ve brought out

Additional resources for this novel

Ben Hamida has previously lived in Libya and France, but now lives in the Netherlands. Many of the reviews to be found are not in English, so I have chosen not to include links to them (my French is appalling!)

UAE’s The National‘s review

Peirene Press’ page for the novel

Book Review: Miss Chopsticks by Xinran, tr. Esther Tyldesley

miss chopsticksXinran takes her readers to the heart of modern Chinese society in this delightful and absorbing tale of three peasant girls getting to grips with life in the big city.

The Li sisters don’t have much education, but one thing has been drummed into them: their mother is a failure because she hasn’t managed to produce a son, and they themselves only merit a number as a name. Women, their father tells them, are like chopsticks: utilitarian and easily broken. Men, on the other hand, are the strong rafters that hold up the roof of a house.

Yet when circumstances lead the sisters to seek work in distant Nanjing, the shocking new urban environment opens their eyes. While Three contributes to the success of a small restaurant, Five and Six learn new talents at a health spa and a bookshop/tearoom. And when the money they earn starts arriving back at the village, their father is forced to recognize that daughters are not so dispensable after all.

As the Li sisters discover Nanjing, so do we: its past, its customs and culture, and its future as a place where people can change their lives.

Received as a Christmas present from my bookgroup.

The story starts in 2001, and tells of three sisters (Three, Five and Six), who travel from the countryside to make their way in the big city of Nanjing.  Since their parents never had boys – despite flaunting the “one child” rule – the girls have brought shame on their family, and they only warrant being given their birth order as names. The first two children have either committed suicide or been married off, and Four is deaf and dumb, so it is Three, Five and Six who go to the city. Each girl ends up getting a job that turns out to be suited to her skills – Three works in a restaurant, Five in a spa and Six in a tea house. Each learn a level of independence, as well as gaining self respect from being in the city and earning their own way.

We are presented with a modern China, not long out of the Cultural Revolution and where external investments are taking place, not all for the better. Recent history has been wiped out by Mao’s diktats on the destruction of photos, records etc., as being anti-party, anti-Chinese sentiment.  The restaurant that Three works in has to contend with the KFC next door, and a McDonald’s near by. The street they are on used to be a red light district but has been cleared out and is now renamed in respect for the party.

In the countryside, women are described as “Chopsticks” as they are seen to be easily breakable and not reliable to support a household. However, attitudes start to change when the girls go home and bring with them the money the money they have earned in the previous year.

All three girls also look at how their mother has been treated by her husband and the community and swear that this will never happen to them. Their mother has quashed her own dreams, married the man her parents told her too, and then never produced the much desired boy-child.  She has therefore brought much shame to her husband, her family and the wider community.

Despite the apparent relaxation of rules, even in the city some things are slow to change. The corruption and bureaucracy are there; for example the tea-house gets visited by the neighbourhood committee who are miffed at the lack of a “proper” opening ceremony and that they apparently haven’t been  consulted on whether the tea-shop should be allowed to open in the first place. There are also visits from men in suits until the son of the owners makes a stand and challenges them for their own anti-party behaviour. It goes some way to demonstrate how city people react to authority differently to the country people, and how the young react differently to the previous generations.

Written initially in Chinese and translated by Esther Tyldesley, there is an introduction that highlights how hard it is to translate such a book for audiences who dont know much of what it’s like to live in such a secretive place as China without coming over heavy handed. Thankfully it’s done with a light touch, which some may think as lacking a certain complexity, but  I find it all the nicer to read for that.

Book Review: The Eyes by Edith Wharton

the eyesPhil, my dear boy, really — what’s the matter? Why don’t you answer? Have you seen the eyes?’ Frenham’s face was still hidden, and from where I stood behind Culwin I saw the latter, as if under the rebuff of this unaccountable attitude, draw back slowly from his friend. As he did so, the light of the lamp on the table fell full on his congested face, and I caught its reflection in the mirror behind Frenham’s head. 

Given to me as a Christmas present in 2014, this is a lovely little book (sub 60 pages), with a delicious cover and heavy paper inside.

A group of men gather to tell each other ghost stories. Upon urging by Frenham (the current favourite and one of the youngest in the group), Culwin, who has played the host of the evening, shares his own story to Frenham and the unnamed narrator. In doing so, he inadvertently reveals more about himself, and the things he regrets about his past.

In his story, Culwin is staying with an ageing Aunt, and spends time with his cousin Anna Newell. Despite finding women unattractive generally – and his Aunt and Cousin in particular – Culwin finds himself proposing marriage to Anna, with the event to take place after his suddenly decided upon visit to Europe. That night, Culwin wakes up in darkness to be haunted by a pair of eyes at the foot of his bed.  He is unable to sleep and escapes to town and finally to Europe, where he thinks he has escaped the eyes.

His time in Europe expands from a few months to several years, and soon a young man (Gilbert Noyes) presents himself to Culwin, with a letter of introduction from Anna. Culwin’s interest is piqued – here is a figure of beauty, and sexuality, even with his lack of writing talent. Culwin mentors him for the best part of a year, hoping that the writing talent will become evident. It’s when Culwin lies about Noyes’ future that the eyes return haunting Culwin until he tells the truth.

For such a short book, there are lots of questions….At the purest level, Culwin had formed with Noyes one of those non-sexual intense friendships between two men that is evident across much Victorian literature. However the choice of words used imply that Culwin’s interest is deeper, possibly sexual, whether or not it was acted upon. Is his relationship with the current favourite Frenham at the same point? Does either relationship explain the rather ambiguous ending? Are the eyes a subconcious representation of his guilty concious for telling lies or is he really being haunted?


#BookReview: Deeds not Words by Katharine D’Souza

deeds not words #'birmingham #suffragettesMuseum curator Caroline thinks history is safely in the past, until a century-old family secret collides with problems at work and upsets her plans for a quiet life in Birmingham. Why has nobody mentioned Great Aunt Susannah before? What does Caroline’s old flame want from her? And are any of the paintings really what they appear to be? As she battles professional rivalries, attempts to contain family dramas, and searches for historical treasure amongst the clutter, Caroline is forced to decide what she holds most valuable and exactly what she’s going to do to protect it. Deeds Not Words. Because actions speak louder.

Katharine is a Birmingham based author who enjoys writing about her home town (which is also where I live!). Her website can be found here.

Caroline has returned to Birmingham after her marriage has failed (her husband being offered a job in New York, which was too much of a risk for Caroline – something she begins to realise is a recurring theme in her life). The job she has at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is not exactly satisfying and challenging, and the office politics eats away at her – especially when someone comes in with a potentially ground breaking piece, that could challenge anything the recent Staffordshire Hoard could present.

Meanwhile her grandmother, Beth, ends up in hospital with a broken hip after a fall, and Caroline has to tread carefully. Caroline has her own issues with Alice (her mother, Beth’s daughter) and Beth doesnt want Alice to know about her looking to change her will, or the appearance of previously unknown cousin Richard.  Ray, Caroline’s father, only makes the occasional appearance, but Caroline begins to appreciate his quiet dependancy when things come to ahead and her mother seems to fall apart.

As Caroline begins to check out the history behind Richard’s family and what he could possibly want with her grandmother, she becomes focussed on Susannah, whose paintings are on Beth’s walls, and who seems to have the strength of character (and ability to take risks) that Caroline fears she is missing. It also highlights a part of womens’ history left very much undiscovered.

Olly – with who she had a short fling when they were much younger – is back on the scene, expecting to pick up where things were left off. It presents Caroline with another safe harbour after her divorce, and his knowledge and contacts in the antiques world allows Caroline to investigate Susannah and her paintings more.

In the end, Caroline has the chance to make certain decisions that could affect her life forever, both personally and professionally.

I don’t always like books set in places I know fairly well, as sometimes there are glaring errors that could have been easily avoided with a little research. However, I had no issues with this book – probably because Katharine lives in Birmingham (and what artistic licence she took still made things fairly realistic).

I seem to have come late to reading this book, and I know of at least two other reviews, one by heavenali, the other by Liz over at librofulltime.

The title “Deeds not Words” is taken from the motto of the more militant Suffragettes.  The National Portrait Gallery has some additional information here.

Print copies of this book can be ordered through Waterstones here

Book Review: The Angel of Hever Castle by Kim Wright

Angel of Hever Castle #historical #mysteryThe Christmas of 1889 is fast approaching and the members of the Thursday Night Murder Games Club are settling in for some much-deserved relaxation, beginning with a cozy meal at the home of their patroness, Geraldine Bainbridge. But a frantic knock at the door changes everything. Geraldine’s friend Tess has come to beg for their help, explaining that her eighteen year old daughter Anna has run off with a portrait painter named LaRusse Chapman. The two of them have escaped to the countryside of Kent, where LaRusse presides over a colony of gypsy-like and half-starving artists. The group – which espouses any number of shockingly liberal causes, including “free love” – has taken up residence in the dilapidated Hever Castle, the abandoned childhood home of Queen Anne Boleyn.

Within hours, Scotland Yard detectives Trevor Welles and Rayley Abrams are headed south on an unofficial mission to bring Anna at least back to London, if not to her senses. But they are scarcely within the crumbling walls of the castle when they realize that the place if far more sinister than they expected. LaRusse Chapman is not merely a seducer of young girls, but a man teetering on the brink of madness. His painting in process, The Angel of Hever Castle, seems to magically change itself each night, with the face of the Madonna morphing from one woman to another. And when Trevor and Rayley encounter a ghostly figure in white on the meadows surrounding the castle, they begin to question their own sanity. Has the spell of Hever Castle engulfed them as well?

This is a novella rather than a full novel and as such is classed as “4.5” in the Thursday Night Murder Games Club series. It’s just before Christmas in 1889, and some of the members of the club are round at Geraldine’s house, decorating it in the latest Christmas fashion – a tree in the hall with candles on it, which most of the men see as a fire hazard. This cozy group is interrupted by the arrival of Tess, with a plea to rescue her daughter Anna, who has disappeared off to Hever Castle with a bohemian portrait painter who may well have already compromised her reputation.

Within 24 hours, Trevor and Rayley are on their way to Hever Castle, where they find a disturbing set up – LaRusse clearly has a dominating hold over everyone in the group, but especially the women, who are all at the mercy (sexually and otherwise) of any and all men in the group. The two men undertake their own investigations, and during the solstice party (when the rest of the community are getting drunk), the two investigate LaRusse’s living quarters. There they find a portrait that is, to all intents and purposes, of Anna, but has the face of someone else.   Their investigations are interrupted by doors slamming, lights going out, and a figure in white disappearing into the distance.

There is much to learn with regards to the painter’s work, including the processes of mixing their own paints (including the use of the madness inducing lead when making white), whilst in town Geraldine makes investigations of her own…..

It’s a novella, so by definition rather short. Some situations and characterisation is shortened, and this is the 4.5 in the series, so many of the characters will/should have been already established. The tale itself was a much stronger story than I thought it would be, considering the length and position (.5 books are often short fillers between their bigger siblings and are therefore usually light to the touch).  I have not read others in the series, but would certainly consider reading more, in order to see if the standard is even higher than this!