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Author:
• Saturday, December 12th, 2015

Helen Simonson was born in Slough, Berkshire in 1964 and spent her teenage years in a small village near Rye in East Sussex, England. She graduated from the London School of Economics where she met her future American husband. She worked as a travel advertising executive and completed a masters degree in creative writing from Stony Brook Southampton, New York.

She has lived in the Washington D.C. Area and Brooklyn, New York, for over twenty years with her husband and two sons.

Simonson’s first novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, published in 2010, became a New York Times bestseller and was translated and published in several countries. Her second novel, The Summer Before The War, will be published in 2016.

Edgecombe St Mary is a small village in the English countryside in East Sussex where the two main characters live. Major Ernest Pettigrew, the sixty-eight year old widower, who lost his wife six years earlier, leads a peaceful life in his rural rose-covered cottage called Rose Lodge with a beautiful climbing clematis, the envy of his neighbours. And the good-looking Pakistani widow, ten years his junior, Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the village shopkeeper who runs the business with her nephew, Abdul Wahid. Jasmina was born in Cambridge and has been bred by her learned, Anglophile father.

The story starts with the Major still in a daze after the shock following a phone call at dawn from his sister-in-law, announcing his younger brother Bertie’s death from a massive heart attack. Soon after, he answers the door-bell to find Mrs Ali who has come for the newspaper money because the paper-boy is sick. Still feeling the loss of his brother deeply, the major’s knees give way and he is about to faint but Mrs Ali props him up, takes him indoors and sits him down before fetching some water and making him tea.

Major Pettigrew is a conservative, sardonic, well-mannered gentleman who likes to live by his principles. He was born in Lahore and lived in colonial India as a child and is now a retired British Army officer who lives alone. He was happily married to his wife, Nancy, and late in life they had their only son, Roger, who was spoilt by his mother to his father’s discontent. Roger, now in his thirties, works in finance and lives in London. Throughout the novel, the author underlines the major’s disapproval of his insufferably brash son’s lack of respect, tact and bad behaviour.

There is a great cultural divide between the major and his son. The major likes to read classical English authors like Joseph Kipling, John Keats and William Wordsworth. He is a pragmatic person, values traditions, correctness and righteousness. Unlike his father, Roger is an uncultured, manipulative, superficial person, ruthlessly self-seeking, a social-climber who is always attracted to novelties and fashion in all domains. He wants his father to get rid of his beloved books in order to make room for an up-to-date wide-screen television.

The major is sentimental about what he considers his heritage, the valuable pair of heirloom antique guns which were given to his father by a maharajah as a reward for an act of bravery for saving the maharajah’s latest and youngest wife from a train full of murdering thugs. The major’s father, on his death bed, divided the prized Churchill guns between his two sons on the understanding that the two guns were to be reunited when one of the sons died. When Bertie passes away, the major is faced with the greed of his sister-in-law, Marjorie, his niece, Jemima, and his son Roger all wanting to sell the pair of guns and enjoy the money regardless of what the major feels or thinks.

Solid friendship between the major and Mrs Ali flourishes through sharing the same things, like the loss of their respective beloved spouses, their disobliging, bigoted families despite different ethnicity, their love of nature, their passion for literature, especially the works of Samuel Johnson, Joseph Kipling and others. They also have in common a sense of duty as well as being proud, polite and courteous.

The major and Mrs Ali surprise themselves by discovering that their hearts have no wrinkles, they can still feel passion and fall in love again regardless of their advanced age, different experiences in life, different cultural backgrounds and religion. All these elements constitute no barrier to common shared interests, mutual attraction and love.

Helen Simonson undertook a fair amount of research into the Pakistani community in England, the Indian Mughal Empire, shot guns and duck shooting. As for the fictitious towns of Edgecombe St. Mary and Hazelbourne-on-the-Sea, they are a combination of places that the author “knows and loves”.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a well written novel with well depicted, realistic, rich characters where women are portrayed as emancipated, strong, determined characters such as Mrs Jasmina Ali, Mrs Rasool, and Roger’s American fiancée, Sandy.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is an endearingly captivating story underlining the differences between the old and the new generation. Despite the humour one cannot help noticing the blatant fanaticism, veiled racism and the insidious link between money and corruption and how money can deteriorate, divide and destroy families. There is also the romantic story between the two protagonists with the assertion that authentic love transcends all obstacles and all ages so long as one is being true to oneself and because as long as there is life, there is hope.

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Author:
• Sunday, December 15th, 2013

Susanne Dunlap was born in 1943 in Buffalo, New York. After finishing school she studied mathematics major at Bucknell University before quitting for an English major. Dunlap obtained a masters degree in education from the University of North Carolina and a major in music from Smith. Then, thirteen years later, she went back to achieve an MA in musicology and finally obtained a PhD in music history from Yale University after eight years of study.

Susanne Dunlap has worked as a legal assistant, a Yoga teacher and a music history teacher. In 1986 she was a founding member and president of Sisters in Crime – an organisation that provides advice and support to mystery authors and promotes women crime writers. She has been an Associate Creative Director at a small advertising agency in Manhattan and won the Anthony and Macavity awards – a literary award for mystery writers. Dunlap has two grown-up daughters and grandchildren.

Susanne Dunlap has written several books and short stories. After reading a novel by Agatha Christie she decided to become a writer of crime and mystery fiction. The Musician’s Daughter, published in 2009, has been nominated for the Utah Beehive Award and the Missouri Gateway Readers Award.

The Musician’s Daughter is a historical fiction set in eighteenth century imperial Vienna with its opulent palaces and its Viennese and Hungarian nobilities as well as the wonderful world of Viennese music, alongside poor gypsy camps, exoticism and folklore.

On Christmas eve Theresa’s father, Antonius Schurman, the finest violinist who plays in prince Nicholas Esterhazy’s court orchestra conducted by the distinguished Kappelmeister Franz Joseph Haydn, is brought back home dead by three of his colleagues. They find that he has been killed out of town by the river Danube, near a gypsy camp.

The intelligent, fifteen-year-old, Theresa, knows that her father had no enemies and was kind to everyone. She sets her mind on unravelling this perplexing mystery, courageously, on her own. Like a detective, she spends her time gathering clues and facing several dangerous adventures and in the end she finds the culprit.

Theresa is a liberated girl ahead of her time. She refuses to comply with the tradition of accepting any suitor. She is discretely in love with the young Hungarian musician Zoltan who is involved in the same mysterious intrigues as her. She dreams of becoming a musician like her beloved father, although she knows that society at the time finds women musicians unacceptable. After her father’s death, she takes control of her mother and little brother, with the help of her God-father, Haydn, .

After the breadwinner of the family dies, Franz Joseph Haydn, who is losing his eyesight, helps his God-daughter, Theresa, financially, during this difficult period by employing her as copyist for his compositions. Theresa is very grateful, she needs the money desperately, especially with a helpless, bereaved mother at the end of her pregnancy and a brother about to start a violin maker apprenticeship lasting nine years.

Theresa decides to find her father’s murderer and retrieve her late father’s old, valuable, stolen, Italian, Amati violin – the very same violin that Theresa loved and was taught to play by her father. All she has to go by for starting her pursuit is a mysterious gold pendant that she has never seen before, found round her father’s neck.

As the story unfolds, Theresa discovers she is penetrating into a world of deceit, conspiracy and political intrigues. She will acquire information and consequently learn that her father was against injustice. He was against Hungarian serfs and against the hunting down of gypsy camps. He was spying in order to unveil the atrocious behaviour of the Hungarian lords.

She will also find out that her highly positioned rich uncle, was making money by selling young boys to become Hungarian serfs. Theresa, with the help of some of her late father’s colleagues and some gypsies will extricate her kidnapped little brother, Toby from her evil uncle’s grasp.

The Musician’s Daughter, written by an indisputable music history lover, is a pleasant, entertaining,well described, easy-read mystery adventure, abounding with action and twists. The story starts off at a slow pace before catching-up and moving at a faster steady rhythm, building up the tension until the unveiling of the last twist.

Theresa, Mirela and Danior’s characters are especially sympathetic and well portrayed. The novel has good historical insight into the non existence of women’s rights as well as social security rights and is filled with social injustice. These are some of the problems of the time in this area of the world. The author describes the abominable way the Hungarian lords obtained their serfs and how gypsy people suffered by being unfairly persecuted. Even today the plight of gypsies remains an unsolved problem in many countries of the world.

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