I love a good historical fiction novel as I find it a really interesting and engaging way to learn more about periods and people in history. While The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is an historical fiction novel, it is one with a difference. There is a touch of magic in this one, which really appealed to me.
The story takes place in Victorian London in the 1880s. We are introduced to Thaniel who one day inexplicably finds an intricately and beautifully made gold pocket watch in his small rented apartment. Fast-forward six months, and this pocket watch mysteriously and inexplicably saves him from a fatal bomb blast that completely destroys Scotland Yard. Wanting answers, Thaniel goes in search of the maker of the watch. He discovers its maker is Keita Mori, a solitary Japanese immigrant. He forms a close friendship with Mori, although Thaniel feels as though Mori is deliberately keeping something from him. When Thaniel meets Grace Carrow, an eccentric physicist, he starts to question his friendship with Mori.
This novel was an absolute beauty to read. The atmosphere the author creates really puts you right into the heart of the story, and she expertly blends real historical happenings with little bits of fantasy and magic. The biggest strengths in this novel are the two main characters, Thaniel and Mori. They end up not feeling like characters, but like real people from an age gone by. Thaniel starts out as the typical polite, proper Englishman, and Mori the quirky, odd foreigner. As the story progresses, and as their relationship develops, each of them reveals more of their character, and soon they start to change and affect one another. They jump off the page with their complexities and their personalities.
I listened to this novel as an audiobook, and it was definitely they best way I could have consumed this story as it made everything seem so much more alive and realistic, despite the magical element in the tale.
This novel felt like what a steampunk-style novel done right should look like. I normally do not enjoy reading steampunk, but this book was right up my alley. A light hand and restraint from the author definitely made this a trope-free, Victorian fiction novel that has quickly become one of my favourites. Ultimately an examination of how much chance, coincidence and luck play a part in our lives, this novel is charming, beautiful, profound and simply a joy to read.
In Mao’s Last Dancer Li Cunxin tells us the story of his life in China under the Communist regime of Chairman Mao. At a young age he is taken from his poor village and relocated to Beijing in order to study ballet as part of the Mao Cultural Revolution. As part of a cultural exchange trip, Li visits America in the late 1970s and begins to realise that the anti-American propaganda fed to them by the Chinese Communist Party may not in fact be true. He eventually defects to America – although not without drama – and later moves to and settles in Australia.
Much like Forty Autumns, one of the things that I think makes this a must-read is the fact that we don’t really know what life was like under these cruel regimes until you hear about it from a person who lived through it. We all know about these periods in history, and often study them in school, but you never really comprehend how it was until you read books like this one.
One of the themes that really struck a chord with me in this book was the struggle between individuality and conformity that Li experiences throughout his life. Often times, these struggles are illustrated through confronting scenes that Li witnesses, such as the public executions of counter–revolutionaries by firing squad. The turning point for Li is when he is initially denied permission to return to America to further improve his ballet training. He says “My beliefs were now completely altered after my experience with the ministry of culture and after having time to think about what I had seen in the West. Now I knew with absolute certainty, that I had been manipulated by Chairman Mao’s communist propaganda for many years.”
Having visited China myself, this book has had a particular impact on me. Even though things in China have vastly improved since Chairman Mao’s reign, there is still an element of terror, control and conformity imposed by the current Chinese Communist Party leaders. For example, when we visited Tiananmen Square, we were told not to mention anything about the 1989 Massacre when we were in the square because the government has cameras and microphones installed in order to deter any potential repeat of 1989. We were also told that if we mentioned it and were caught, we would likely be arrested, as the Chinese government still publicly maintain that the 1989 massacre never happened.
The book is emotional, heart-breaking, eye opening and inspiring. To have lived the life Li has, and to have ended up where he did is absolutely astounding. There were many times through my reading of the book where I got so angry at the treatment of the Chinese people by their leaders, and many more where I got goose bumps. This is one of the most evocative books I have ever read.
In this memoir, Nina Willner tells the true story of her family who were separated from each other by the Iron Curtain for over forty years, and who were reunited upon the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Hanna, the author’s mother, left her parents and seven (later, eight) siblings and escaped from East Germany into the West at the age of twenty. Eventually Hanna married and moved to America, where she had her own children, including Nina. Nina joined the intelligence services and, in a twist of fate, was posted to West Berlin as the first female Army Intelligence officer to lead intelligence operations into East Berlin at the height of the Cold War.
I am not a big reader of non-fiction or biographical books. I may read one or two a year, and often I find them average at best. But I found this story a captivating read. I know it’s only early January, but I feel like it may make it to my Top 5 Books Read in 2017.
The story would be heartbreaking as a work of fiction, but is absolutely devastating as a recount of fact. The depth of description of the events and horrors that were experienced by the author’s East German family during the Cold War was absolutely chilling to read about. The black and white family photographs that appear throughout the book also make the story that much more real, and that much more enthralling. The author gives us the big picture world events that were happening both in the West and in the Eastern Bloc throughout the decades of the Cold War.
I felt every single emotion this family felt. I felt like I had lived it with them. And in a rather roundabout way, I have.
My own grandparents, my Oma and Opa, along with my aunt and uncle (then in their early teens), fled East Germany in the mid 1950s before eventually emigrating to Australia. Through Nina Willner’s recounting of her family’s struggle living in the East and her mother’s frightening escape to the West, I feel like I now better understand my grandparents and their experiences in East Germany at that time, as well as the reasons for their terrifying escape into the West. I think this emotional connection to the story definitely enhanced my reading of the book. However, regardless, I still think this is a book that is a must-read. I haven’t before come across this level of factual detail and first hand account of life in East Germany during this time. This is an excellent novel that really hits home as to how things really were for the people who lived through this period of history.
It is going to take all my willpower and skills to give a relatively succinct synopsis of this book.
So, here it goes…
With her family torn apart by the powers that be, Mia Corvere is alone and afraid with only her gift of talking to the shadows to keep her company. It is this gift that leads her to a retired killer who takes her in and teaches her his trade. Years later, Mia has vowed vengeance for her family and she becomes an apprentice with the Red Church – the deadliest, most devious group of assassins that exist. She and her fellow students are put to the test, all of them vying for the ultimate honour of becoming a Blade of the Church. But soon someone in their midst starts killing off the apprentices, and Mia discovers that finding a murderer in an institution filled with assassins is not an easy task.
Wowza! Where do I even start? As a fan of fantasy novels, I absolutely LOVED this book! This novel is definitely in my favourite of all that I read in 2016. Kristoff’s attention to detail in his world building transports you into the universe he has created, so much so that at times I completely forgot I was reading a novel. His characterisation is likewise just as brilliant, complex and well thought out as his world building. Kristoff presents us with a fantastic cast of individual personalities taking part in the story, some of which you love, some of which you hate and some of which you underestimate!
While the main character is of young adult age, and struggled with/experiences issues and emotions typical of a young adult, I would definitely NOT class this book as a ‘young adult’ fiction novel. This novel has an abundance of coarse language – f-words are frequent and c-bombs make many notable appearances. It also contains several rather explicit and descriptive sex scenes. And of course, there is all the blood, stabbing, killing and general violence.
That’s not to say that I think we should censor the reading habits of teens or that I don’t think young adults should read this. However, since the publication and worldwide success of the ‘Illuminae’ series – a series Kristoff co-authored that is targeted at young adults and therefore means many of his fans are of young adult age – I do think it is worth mentioning that there are definitely adult themes and adult language present in this novel. As always when choosing a novel to read, regardless of the reader’s age, it depends on the individual reader and what they do and don’t like in a book.
The Elevator Pitch
Think Harry Potter but sexier, and with assassins. And vengeance. And stabbing. And death. Lots and lots of stabbing and death. #stabstabstab