Teresa's Book Reviews Site


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I write book reviews for a number of publications, including the Historical Novels Review, Ricardian Register and Napoleon Journal. Sometimes, though, I find I have more to say about the books than space allowed in the magazines, so I've decided to post longer versions here, along with information on where you can find the original.

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A Far Better Rest
Susanne Alleyn

"To-day they guillotined Danton; and with him died the fragile dream of Clemency, and all my hopes and prayers."

So opens Susanne Alleyn's debut novel A Far Better Rest, described on the back cover as "A reimagining of Charles Dickens' classic novel A Tale of Two Cities." In the hands of a less skilled writer, this book could have been a disappointment or worse, yet Ms. Alleyn succeeds admirably.

Told from Sydney Carton's point of view in a journal written during the weeks before his execution, the novel tells the same story as the Dickens original, but on an intensely more personal level. One by one Carton introduces the reader to the main characters as he reflects on his life's journey from Georgian England to Revolutionary Paris.

This novel is engrossing right from the start. The author uses a slightly archaic form of English that is easy to understand and read, yet evocative of the turbulent period in which the story is set.

Though we only see the characters through Carton's eyes, they are nevertheless well-rounded and thoroughly captivating. Of special interest to this reviewer were the brief glimpses of Charlotte Corday and her eventual victim, Jean-Paul Marat. Meeting these and other historical figures in such an informal setting was an added pleasure. Among the most appealing of the fictional characters were Carton's friend Molly, Darnay's daughter Lucie-Anne and Darnay's cousin, Eléonore. They lived, breathed and touched the heart.

As for setting, Ms Alleyn brings the period to life, especially those scenes set on the streets of Paris during the key events of the Revolution such as the attack on the Bastille and the preparations for the Festival of Federation. The readers sees, hears and smells the past and is, in effect, transported back in time.

I highly recommend A Far Better Rest, not only for fans of Dickens wanting to see the story told in a different way, but for anyone interested in the French Revolution and how it affected the lives of so many people. Though literary in nature, this novel appeals to the heart and soul and left this reader haunted by its wonderful characters, most notably its hero, Sydney Carton.

© Teresa Eckford, 2000/2001

-- First published in The Historical Novels Review, Issue #13 (Historical Novel Society, August 2000)

The Last Great Dance on Earth
Sandra Gulland

The Last Great Dance on Earth completes Sandra Gulland's Josephine B trilogy, picking up where Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe left off - the night of Napoleon and Josephine's Imperial coronation. As with the previous entries in the series, the reader witnesses the many triumphs, tragedies and difficulties of the brilliant Corsican who dominated much of nineteenth century Europe through Josephine's diary entries. But more than that, we learn about the private man, the one who loves Josephine and her children while constantly juggling the demands of his large, ambitious family.

Still, Josephine remains the heart of this book, recounting the events of her life. They are overshadowed by the internal anguish of her unresolved fertility problems that threaten the stability of Napoleon's Empire, leading them to make a painful decision.

With her spare yet elegant prose, Ms Gulland transports the reader back in time. The characters are so well defined they seem ready to step from the book, not an easy feat when writing in first person point-of-view. The author's years of research into the period are evident in the minutiae of daily life sprinkled through the narrative, enough to provide a realistic background without overwhelming the story. The pace never lags, urging reader onwards as the plot unfolds.

As a conclusion to the trilogy, this book wraps up not only the lives of its central characters, but those of the secondary ones. Political intrigue, love, hate and jealousy, both private and public, pervade the novel, yet never does it seem melodramatic, a testament to the author's skill for integrating character and plot.

This book is for anyone who loves history, fiction and a satisfying read. Fans of the Napoleonic era will find it especially enjoyable. Though it is strong enough to stand on its own I recommend starting at the beginning with The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. as the rich tapestry of this trilogy is not to be missed. A last note - Ms. Gulland appeared as an expert in a recent documentary about Napoleon and her books have been equally well received in France.

© Teresa Eckford, 2000/2001

-- First published in The Historical Novels Review, Issue #14 (Historical Novel Society, December 2000)

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams
Wayne Johnston

This is a difficult book to review. A fictionalized life of Joey Smallwood, the last Father of Confederation in Canada, it has many merits, but some significant weaknesses too. I certainly enjoyed reading it, but a number of things niggled at me as I did so.

The story is told mostly in the first person, from either Smallwood's point-of-view (the main narrative) or that of his friend and rival Sheilagh Fielding (her journal entries.) It follows Joey's life from his boyhood in St. John's, Newfoundland to the aftermath of Confederation in the 1950s and beyond.

The writing itself is very good. Johnston knows how to hook and involve the reader and I admit to being pulled in from page one. His descriptions are wonderful. Though I've never been to St. Johns I could taste the salt air and feel the damp chill of an Atlantic fog. Despite the use of the first person, I felt I knew the secondary characters as well, so skillfully were they depicted by the chief protagonists. Smallwood's father stands out in particular.

A mystery is thrown into the mix early on, one that is not solved until close to the end of the book - it adds an interesting dimension to the story. Each time the reader thinks it has been resolved, Johnston throws in another twist.

The plot progresses nicely for the first half of the book, then bogs down in the middle before building steam towards the end.

Smallwood is a fascinating character, but not an entirely likeable one. Sometimes his stubborn pride comes across more as stupidity. Some readers may find that the interruption of the main narrative by Fielding's journal entries, newspaper columns, letters and excerpts from her fictional history of Newfoundland to be more and more annoying. Though some of these devices add depth to the story, others merely slow the pace.

The ending, however, is the biggest disappointment of all. Rather than tying up loose ends, it left me wondering if I was missing a chapter. An Author's Note explaining that Fielding was fictional would have been a good idea - I only learned this by cruising the Internet for background information.

Lest you think I either disliked this book or would not recommend it, this is untrue. Despite the structural problems and the less than stellar ending, it is well worth picking up. The 500 odd pages passed quickly for the most part and proved an enjoyable way to brush up on an oft overlooked area of Canadian and Newfoundland history.

© Teresa Eckford, 2000/2001

-- First published in The Historical Novels Review, Issue # 14 (Historical Novel Society, December 2000)