The Long Forgotten by David Whitehouse

I couldn’t help but be seduced by the stunning cover (by @saraharnett) of David Whitehouse’s The Long Forgotten. The cover shows a number of rare flower blooms and the embossed outline of a whale.

Apart from being a brilliant, unputdownable read, I continuously referred back to that image on the cover with total pleasure trying to deduce which flower it was we were tracking down next.

The Long Forgotten refers to a flight that disappeared 30 years ago, and it could also refer to the list of flowers Peter Manyweathers discovered in a love letter that fell out of a botany book he was reading that lead him on an obsessive quest to find six exotic flowers that bloom in unusual and rare circumstances.

I know you think I give botany short shrift in favour of my own more lively pursuits…but you’d be wrong! I’ve done my research (you can stop laughing now) and found six flowers so unique, so fantastic that when I think of them, they could only ever remind me of you. Here to prove it is a list.

The Gibraltar Campion
Sheep-eating plant
Kadupul flower
The living fossil
The Udumbara
The Death Flower

The story opens as a man in an underwater capsule has lost communication with his research station and he has 18 minutes of oxygen left, it’s an intense opening and provides a connection within the story that isn’t fully revealed until the end.

We then meet Dove, a young man living in London, a university dropout working in an ambulance call centre. Raised as a foster child, we learn of his relationship with his foster parents and an extreme fear of abandonment. He is plagued by headaches that precede the invasive memories of the rare flower-hunter, a man he never knew, leading him on his own quest to find out whose thoughts have invaded his own, and what they have to do with him.

The Kadupul Flower

Each time Dove gets a headache, we are plunged into the story of Peter Manyweather, a man who cleans houses for a living – houses of the dead. After finding the love letter, he joins a botanical etchings class, in the hope of meeting other enthusiasts and there meets and befriends a Danish academic, Dr Hens Berg, who suggests he get on a plane and go to find the flowers.

The old man snatches back his arm and presses his knuckles hard into the front of his skull, while at his feet Dove does the same. The pain is more intense than before, sharper, faster, a blade carving open the space inside him, splaying it out, and filling it with something new.

A memory of his mother.

Much of the novel occurs on these journeys, pursuing these rare blooms, and slowly uncovering the mystery of Dove’s true identity.

She pointed to a bright pink bloom, with so many petals it looked like a hundred camellias in one flower.

‘The Middlemist’s Red. They say there is just one in the world now, in an English country garden. There is not a single one left in China, even though it is Chinese. I think it is proof that we do not belong to a certain place, but that we belong to the world. It is a flower I cannot die until I have seen.’

Rafflesia arnoldii, the corpse flower

It’s both a mystery and an adventure story, though not in the usual sense, we’re not aware of the mystery until it begins to reveal itself to Dove, he’s not in search of himself consciously, he’s plagued by memories that are impacting his day-to-day life and by following clues to their origin, he’s hoping for relief.

Speaking about his inspiration for the story, the author shares how he came across the raffelsia – sometimes referred to as the corpse flower – fifteen years ago and how it intrigued him. This and other threads relating to the disappearance of  MH370 and an obsession with memory came together to create the novel.

It took me a long time to find a story where a corpse flower might be of use. I suppose it needed a mystery, but I didn’t have one until Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 went missing between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing, in March 2014. I wondered how long it would be before people who weren’t directly connected to MH370 forgot about it, even though it was out there, in the ocean, somewhere.

I loved the book and its many layers, the way they slowly unravel and at the same time, we are taken on a unique quest to hard to get to places, in search of these exotic flowers. It also puts an interesting spin on the idea of shared memories, of stolen memories, of things we may have heard that later we believe to be our own memories.

Middlemist Red

Click Here to Buy a Copy of

The Long Forgotten via BookDepository

Note: This book was provided as a review copy, thank you to Pan Macmillan for providing a copy.

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Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck

wolf winterSet in Swedish Lappland in 1717, Cecilia Ekbäck’s debut novel Wolf Winter follows a family of four, Maija, her husband Paavo and their daughters Frederika and Dorotea from a fishing village in their native Finland to the forested lands surrounding Sweden’s Blackåsen mountain.

They swap houses with Maija’s brother, deciding a life in the interior may be better suited to Paavo, who had developed numerous fears keeping him from earning his living at sea. However, when their daughters stumble across a dead body allegedly killed by wolves, on a route near the mountain, they begin to wonder whether they have left one dark dream for an even blacker nightmare.

Maiji suspects it was a crime and makes it her business to ask questions to an extremely reticent and unappreciative band of local settlers and itinerant Lapps. Her husband never questions her interference, even when present he plays no role and as soon as the first signs herald the approach of winter, he sets off alone for the coast, leaving the women-folk to survive the harsh physical elements and the even stranger mystical apparitions that some but not all will witness. Without a man to steer them out of trouble, the woman face many risks, not least being perceived as dabbling in witchcraft, as church records show has happened to a few others with similar inclinations who preceded them.

There is a new priest in town whom Maiji spends a few evenings shovelling snow with, holed up in her cabin, and the widow of the previous priest, who seems to know more than she is willing to pass on, brothers who steal wives, wolves whom some see and not others, and a teacher whose presence seems to awaken the angry ghosts of the departed.

Lapps or Laplanders circa 1900

Lapps or Laplanders circa 1900

Unfortunately, I couldn’t really get into this novel in the way I wanted to, though it wasn’t a difficult read.  It didn’t portray a sense of the era, it felt contemporary even though it did evoke a strong sense of place and it was clear there were no modern comforts. Perhaps it was the attitude and freedom of the protagonist that didn’t sit with the era.

The time spent with a number of the characters was so fleeting, it left too little of an impact and rendered them insufficient to develop an interest in. The storyline itself raised so many questions that went unanswered, like why did the husband go off and leave his family in such a vulnerable position when they could have gone with him and been protected. And why did the wife think she as a newcomer could become an investigator into a crime that clearly the locals were not happy about being questioned, especially when it threatened her safety. Her role was to assist in bringing new life (she was a kind of midwife) and yet at every turn she was endangering those close to her. The younger daughter nearly lost her feet to frostbite after trekking in a blizzard to ask the Lapps questions about the murder. I didn’t believe in Maiji’s intentions and relationships and the blurred line between reality and the mystical elements. I wanted to be drawn in by it, but was unable to brush off the scepticism.

So what drew me towards reading this novel in the first place?

Well the snowy winter setting was very appealing, the plot sounded intriguing and the praise of Hilary Mantel and the Library Journal, who had this to say definitely lured me in:

“The novel will appeal to readers who like their historical fiction dark and atmospheric, or mystery fans who are open to mysticism and unconventional sleuths. Readers who enjoyed the winter landscape and magical realism of Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child may also want to try this.”  Library Journal

“The story creeps up and possesses the imagination; there’s something eerie in the way half-understood and only half-seen events leave their mark. It’s a powerful feat of suggestion, visually acute, skillfully written; it won’t easily erase its tracks in the reader’s mind.” Hilary Mantel

It was an interesting concept and disappointing that it wasn’t more engaging, but for those who like a good mystery with an element of hinted at magical realism, this could be just what Hilary Mantel suggests it is.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly made available in e-book format from the publisher via NetGalley.

Death in the Vines by M.L.Longworth

Death in VinesMystery, murder and mayhem among the vineyards of Rognes, a quiet Provençal village about 15 kilometres from Aix-en-Provence and one of the settings for this third in the Verlaque and Bonnet Provençal mystery series for M.L.Longworth, one time resident of Aix-en-Provence, who has herself decamped to one of the smaller villages of Provence, no doubt set to inspire more enticing destinations in future adventures of her detecting duo.

I reviewed her first mystery Death at the Château Bremont last year, when the author visited the book club I participate in. Since then there has been a second book Murder in the Rue Dumas and now we pick up with Judge Verlaque and his law professor amoureuse Marine Bonnet, in the third book, with as many gourmet references as we have come to expect previously.

CIMG3088

Château Paradis, Puy Sainte Reparade

The story begins in Rognes, with a wine theft and a missing persons report, a suspected walkabout. Some of the Bonnard winery’s best wines have disappeared, although the key to the cellar remains where it has always been and tensions are running high among family members, all of whom have become potential suspects.

Back in Aix, Madame Pauline d’Arras appears to have gone walkabout without her dog, most unusual according to her fretting husband Gilles, who has never gone a day in forty-two years of marriage without his wife preparing lunch for him by twelve-thirty. He is concerned as she has been exhibiting signs of possible early dementia.

In the village of Éguilles, a young woman leaves work early and is found later by a colleague in a bad state having been assaulted, she is taken to hospital and will soon become the subject of a suspected murder investigation.

Longworth has fun with not one, but three mysterious incidents and in particular some of the false leads which allow the Judge and us readers to go on various jaunts around the countryside, cross a famous bridge and dine in celebrated locations  he would otherwise have had to wait to indulge in his own time.

Knowing the routes they take, this book offers more than just a tale of mild suspense, it is like an invitation to explore more of Provence, to imagine sampling its wines, observe its pastimes (boules) and picture the lives of its villagers and long-established wine cultivating families.

TGVtrainJust as the region itself is changing, the TGV(train à grande vitesse or high-speed train) line attracting more Parisian commuters and foreigners wishing to invest in the continuation of artisan expertise in the French vineyards; so too is the city of Aix changing, an entire new quartier of modern buildings housing cultural centres of opera, dance, music, a new shopping area, an upgraded bus station with Europe’s longest living wall, showing off the architectural stamp of Kengo Kuma, a name more at home in Tokyo, New York or Beijing. This town is ensuring it will continue to attract visitors interested not just in its intriguing and ancient past, but that it can show itself worthy of contemporary interest also.

However the long-established, multi-generation residents don’t always embrace the new and Longworth allows her characters to despise the new developments in the way of a local population and national character that loves nothing more than a good long debate, although she doesn’t indulge them quite that far.

The Mayoress of aix en Provence  Maryse Joissains-Masini

The Mayoress of Aix-en-Provence
Maryse Joissains-Masini

The changes reflect a 21st century renewal and political statement, the creation of a legacy by a Mayoress who isn’t afraid to spend big on infrastructure during a recession and to court the popular vote. She spends with the frenzy of a woman who sees the finishing line in her sights. Will she survive the mayoral elections in 2014? It will be an interesting campaign to watch.

Overall, an entertaining and enjoyable light read that is all the better for allowing the reader to dwell among the vines and villages of a beautiful region.

Any book that allows one to travel when circumstances dictate that it not possible to physically go there, is the next best thing in my book.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Patasana: Murder at an Archaeological Dig

PatasanaVisiting another country is an opportunity to be introduced to new authors, to read outside one’s preferred genre and to gain new historical perspectives. So while I am already a fan of the more well-known in the English language writers, Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak, Ahmet Ümit was completely unknown to me and while mystery isn’t my preferred genre, a book that introduces us to new places and offers insights into other cultures and their way of life is certainly appealing.

I asked in the bookshop in Istanbul for A Memento of Istanbul, another book written by Ahmet Ümit, but it wasn’t available. The only book they had in English by him, had to be retrieved from the basement. I’m not sure if that is significant or not, although having got to the end of the book and knowing the controversy surrounding the treatment of the Armenian population within Turkey, allowing his characters to thrash out their opposing views,may have courted controversy.

In 2012 France tried to make denial of the Armenian Genocide a criminal offence, souring relations between the two countries, however the draft law was struck down.

HIttites

Ancient Hittites

Patasana was the son and grandson of a palace scribe, who wrote his story and that of his father and grandfather onto tablets that were then sealed and are now being uncovered 2700 years later.

Each alternate chapter is a translation of one of the tablets, so while we follow the contemporary story of the archaeological dig of an antique Hittite settlement in southeast Anatolia and it’s team members, we also learn what Patasana lived through, the confessions of a young scribe, his life, love and regrets.

Hittite Chariot

Hittite Chariot

“He was the chief scribe of the palace, a very important government position among the Hittites. These men were extremely well-educated. They knew several languages. Their duty was to compose texts as dictated by the king, not to write down their own feelings, thoughts and memories. But that didn’t keep the scribe Patasana from writing down his own story. That’s why the tablets are so important….We believe what we have here is the earliest documentation of humankind’s non-official history….We think he’s telling the story of the ancient city’s final days. And together with the history of the city, his own personal history as well.”

Unsure whether it is related to the dig or not, a local elder is discovered dead, having fallen, or been pushed from the minaret of the mosque, a man in monks clothes seen fleeing the scene. Esra, the leader of the team is paranoid about upsetting locals and having her first dig cancelled before they have uncovered all the tablets and participated in an important press conference being held to satisfy their funders. Her insistence on knowing everything and getting close to the police captain makes her just as suspicious as virtually every character who at one time or other she imagines as a suspect.

Euphrates River, Anatolia

Euphrates River, Anatolia

Whilst it could have done with some editing down, it is an enjoyable and I believe popular book. It is interesting that the author was born in Gaziantep, southern Antolia and while on a family picnic near the Euphrates River saw an excavation site, an old Hittite city, prompting him to immerse himself in researching the area, its people and customs and then write this book.

Ahmet Ümit himself sounds like an interesting character straight from a novel and it is clear that his own life has inspired many of the stories and characters he has written. As a young man he was a revolutionary political activist and a member of the Turkish Communist Party and he illegally attended the Academy for Social Science for a while in Moscow.

In an interview with Maria Eliades in Time Out Istanbul in 2011 he said:

“In this land, there’s a problem with history. The Turks came here 1,000 years ago but the land has a history that is 200,000 years old. Generally, the government believes that history began 1,000 years ago. They do not count the history of people who were not Muslim. In my novels, I’m trying to show how these people influenced the history and where their position was. I’m trying to emphasize how the Hittites, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Armenians, Greeks and all the different groups affected it. Turkey needs this: an independent view of people, regardless of their race or religion. That’s the basis of my books. The detective part of the story is a catalyst for explaining the untold part of the stories.”

Death at the Château Bremont

There is a shelf in our local bookstore dedicated to books crossing numerous genres that have a connection with France, you will find nonfiction travelogues such as Sarah Turnbull’s ‘Almost French’ or David Sedaris’ vignettes in ‘Me Talk Pretty One Day’, funny, true, yet never denigrating the country that has become like a second home to him. You will also find English translations of popular French authors like Jean Giono and Michel Houellebecq and novels set in France.

Death at the Château Bremont fits into latter, not only set in France, but here in Aix-en-Provence. I first became aware of the title thanks to a review by Lynne at Aixcentric, an excellent and informative blog I read regularly to know what’s happening in and around the area where I live.

Just yesterday I read that tonight is the annual Nuit des Musées when the town’s museums are free and open from 8pm until 1am. We love this annual late night out.

Not long after that mention, the book-club that I read along with nominated it as their May read and the author M.L.Longworth who lives here in Aix-en-Provence, was invited to join us. So, a fascinating insight into the gestation of this, first in the ‘Verlaque and Bonnet Mystery’ series, which follows the lives, dramas and intrigues of Judge Antoine Verlaque and Professor Marine Bonnet, his sometime amoureuse.

It’s a mystery and in order to keep the mystery alive, I will only reveal that Étienne de Bremont falls to his death from a Château window, an investigation is requested and after some drama involving clandestine affairs, jealous siblings, polo players, Russian millionaires and a New York suicide, all will slowly be revealed.

What makes Longworth’s mystery unique is the journey. It is far from dark and gory, realms she has no apparent appetite for, however she will take you on a gastronomic excursion through the towns, vineyards and countryside of the region, visiting suspects while piecing together the connections and clues to the lives of those involved in this conspiracy. So not just a book for aficionados of mystery’s, but one for food and wine lovers and anyone who has ever dreamed of living and working in a city of culture and gastronomy in the South of France.

M.L.Longworth with Claire McAlpine

No tourist visit, this literary journey is the real thing and so agreed the group of eight women who were present to discuss the book, all sharing their favourite parts, confirming the locations the book visits and even suggesting others for the third book, which the author is working on, all suggestions were gratefully received and noted.

M.L. Longworth’s second book in the series, ‘Murder in the Rue Dumas’ will be published on 25 September 2012.

The Book of Lost Fragrances

A family steeped in the history and tradition of fragrance and essences, the son Robbie desperate to keep the flailing ‘House of l’Etoile’ alive, though he lacks the natural olfactory talent of his sister Jac, who is busy chasing the origins of myths (though unlike her brother does not believe in them), while trying to forget her one great love, the archeologist Griffin.

“Jac wanted to help people understand that stories existed as metaphors, lessons and maps – but not as truths.”

M.J.Rose’s The Book of Lost Fragrances’, brings all three to Paris on the trail of an elusive scent that may have the power to provoke memories of past lives, a holy grail for Buddhist’s whom Robbie is determined will have the fragments of a piece of pottery that retains some remnant of the transporting blend, at a time when there is the threat of Chinese regulations mandating the registration of all reincarnates. And it just happens that the Dalai Lama is in town on a low key visit, as is Xie, the kidnapped Panchen Lama.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

Through episodes that take us from past through to present, we begin to understand what connects the l’Etoile family with Cleopatra, a French nun named Marie-Geneviève and discover what secrets lie beneath the city, navigating the catacombs of Paris.

I can well imagine it as a film, instant travel to some stunning, majestic locations many only dream of visiting, overlaid with suspense, adventure and exotic travel back in time, however for me the book skimmed hurriedly through passages, even to the point of multiple sentences beginning with past verb tenses, as if they were to be fixed later, I found this annoying and it interrupted the flow.

“He’d been moved from the intensive care unit to a regular room. Was sleeping. Had been since she’d arrived a half hour before. She was waiting for him to wake up. Because she needed him to do something.”

All the elements are there, it just didn’t engage me as much as I had hoped it would, also due to a tendency to over explain, it is an historical account but may have worked better if the characters had informed us of some of that history rather than the narrator.

After revelling recently in the joy of Eowyn Ivey’s exquisitely constructed sentences and reading Jhumpha Lahiri’s excellent essay on Sunday entitled ‘My Life’s Sentences’ which I wholeheartedly concur with, it could just be that I had unreasonably high expectations of this exotic historical, biographical mystery. That recent foray into the realm of magical literary realism with its own excellent dose of believable suspense, did mean that next reads were likely to suffer the after effect. The snowy wilderness of Alaska, Faina, Mabel and Jack and The Snow Child’ remain indelibly marked on my reading brain.

My Magic Elixir's on Show

I did love finding out what was in the mysterious elixirs, being someone who likes to mix and make essential oil potions myself in my work, I have an intense interest in essences, aromas, their energetic, spiritual, chemical and healing properties and the synergy of a personalised blend. Just like Cleopatra!

One of my Flairesse Personal Blends

Finding the perfect blend to help an individual maintain their equilibrium is one of my specialties. Past life regressions? No one has asked me yet and if they do, I may just refer them to a hypnotherapist.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.