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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Monsieur Ka by Vesna Goldsworthy

Title:  Monsieur Ka
Author: Vesna Goldsworthy
Publisher: 22nd February 2018 by Random House UK, Vintage Publishing
Pages: 288 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: historical fiction
My Rating: 3 crowns

‘Without quite realising that I would do it until it happened, I raised myself on my toes and kissed his frozen cheek. In Paris, it would have been an unremarkable gesture. In Alexandria, an invitation. I still had no idea about London.'
The London winter of 1947. As cold as St Petersburg during the Revolution. The Karenins keep their vodka under the layers of snow in their suburban garden, in bottles entombed like their Russian past. But when a young Frenchwoman arrives to work as a companion to the aged 'Monsieur Ka' he begins to tell his story...
Albertine is the wife of a British army officer who is often abroad on covert government business. Lonely, yet eager to work, she begins to write Monsieur Ka’s life story a as a secret gift to him, and even learns his mother tongue. To her ear it is like 'the sound of falling snow'. As she is drawn into Ka’s dramatic past, her own life is shaken to its foundations. For in this family of former princes, there are present temptations which could profoundly affect her future.
My Thoughts

This is an interesting little book, seeking to cover quite an array of themes and stories. And, if I am completely honest, a few too many irons were in this fire for me; at times, I am found myself unsure of the essence of this book - what was it really all about? I have walked away from it a little unsure and a feeling like it’s unfinished.

‘Toska is one of those Russian words,’ Monsieur Carr had said, ‘which have no English equivalents. It means “a dull ache of the soul”.’

Firstly, you have Albertine and her story (along with others in the book) which is most likely the strongest theme, that being, one of displacement and the struggles - not only after a war in her case, but generally the upheaval of leaving.  This theme can also be linked to that of her husband and the Russians she encounters throughout. I think the author did a good job of conveying the loneliness and isolation felt, especially considering how frequently Albertine was left alone while her husband traveled throughout postwar Europe.

‘I came to hate her (Anna Karenina) because, when she couldn’t have us both, she wanted that other man, my father’s rival and namesake, more than she wanted me.’

The story I probably enjoyed most was that of Sergei Alexandrovich, whos original surname was Karenin, thus making him the son of Anna from the famous Tolstoy story. The creative inclusion of Anna Karenina's story is truly very clever, helping to interweave the major themes of love and family throughout history - Albertine’s family, her husband Albert’s family and of course, Sergei (Monsieur Ka). I also really appreciated the inclusion of Sergei’s later life - marriage and imprisonment - and the decline of the Old Russian order.

“Prague, Paris, Berlin: they were all full of homeless Russians, once princes and generals, now taxi drivers and doormen in fashionable hotels.”

It was interesting to witness the production of Alexander Korda's film version of the Tolstoy book in which Sergei had a consultation role. Cameo appearances by Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier made it seem that much more real - once again, that clever combination of fact and fiction.

“The fictional lives we read about –your Anna, your Emma Bovary here –are so much more authentic than ours, and not just in the sense that they leave a deeper, more permanent mark on the world, while we, so-called real people, vanish without a trace.”

So you can see, there is quite a deal going on here and I think I would have appreciated a more singular focus on one of the above outlined aspects. All up, it’s about the stories we are told, or tell ourselves, but I just feel the delivery could have been a little smoother. That is not to say that the writing suffers - it is clearly evident that Goldsworthy is a serious writer.

‘We harm no one but ourselves by feeling slighted; we carry acid in our soul even when it eats nothing but the vessel it is stored in.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Memories That Make Us

Title: The Memories That Make Us
Author: Vanessa Carnevale
Publisher: 19 February 2018 by Harlequin (Australia), TEEN / MIRA
Pages: 384 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: women's fiction, contemporary
My Rating: 5 crowns


Gracie Ashcroft is supposed to marry Blake Beaumont in three months’ time. The trouble is, she doesn’t know who he is…

After an accident leaves Gracie with severe amnesia, she’s forced to decide: live a life that is made up of other people’s memories of who she was, or start a new life on her own. Leaving her fiancĂ© Blake behind, she moves to the country where she takes on the task of reviving her family’s abandoned flower farm.

While attempting to restart a business with an uncertain future, she tries to come to terms with the grief of losing a mother she can’t remember and a fiancĂ© she so badly wants to fall in love with again. What she doesn’t count on is developing a deep connection with Flynn, a local vet. Worst of all is having to confront the fact that she might lose either chance at love.

Forced to examine the person she has become, Gracie confronts the question: if you had your time over, would you live the same life twice?

My Thoughts

I read Vanessa’s first book, ‘The Florentine Bridge’ (review HERE) and loved it - would her second novel be equally as compelling? Let me just say, I have only now come up for air - finished it in a day - beautifully compelling, I could not put it down. What not to love - the delectable cover, my home state setting (love Daylesford), the storytelling and the twist - yup, this is one special book to lose yourself in for a weekend.

‘Somehow, even if not by choice, you’ve been given a clean slate, a way to create a life you want that’s free from all the baggage and the drama that most people spend their whole lives trying to escape.’

Where to start? Well, how about at the beginning. What’s this book really all about, the blurb states it outright: ‘if you had your time over, would you live the same life twice?’ So very interesting and Gracie’s story here really gets you thinking what would you have done if in her shoes? Written in the first person throughout, you are totally aligned with all Gracie is going through with her amnesia. I love her decision to remove herself to her late mother’s flower farm for perspective and reflection.

‘I don’t want to be told stories about how things were and what I felt. I want to know it and feel it myself. Otherwise, how am I going to know if what I feel is real?’

Secondly, I have to make note of the setting - a small country town, Daylesford, in my home state of Victoria (Australia). This is a beautiful part of the world and Vanessa really captures everything about it - from the main street, to the local pub to the past glory of her mother’s flower farm. An area full of natural beauty and on this occasion, the perfect setting for all the reflection and memories that were to unfold. Next, let’s talk about flowers - my gosh! Has Vanessa done her homework here and how interesting is it! Without being overly burdened with facts, you are provided with an honest introduction to many things involved with not only flower farming but also individual flower meaning and significance (I loved the character of Tilly!)

Finally the characters - both primary and secondary - are so well thought out. You feel for Gracie and what her obvious frustrations must be. You understand her best friend Scarlett trying so hard to help remind her of all she once was. Even the likes of Charlie and his wife Maggie (suffering alzheimer's) have their part to play. Then there is the romance and Flynn ... sigh ... no words - just read the book.

‘But isn’t it our past that shapes our future?’
‘To a degree …’
‘Exactly,’ I say. ‘It’s our memories that make us who we are.’

This is just a really beautifully told story full of heartbreak, fear and ultimately, trying to discover who one really is, especially when all seems lost. I feel like I have been on a real emotional journey and that is just how one wants to walk away from a book of this nature. Considering, just how much does our past shape our future? Or ....

‘Maybe what matters is simply how I feel about you all, now.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.