Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Guest Book Review: Debbie Rix - Secrets of the Tower

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

Two women, centuries apart, bound together by the secrets of one of the most iconic buildings ever created.

Pisa, 1999
Sam Campbell sits by her husband’s hospital bed. Far from home and her children, she must care for Michael who is recovering from a stroke. A man she loves deeply. A man who has been unfaithful to her. Alone and in need of distraction, Sam decides to pick up Michael’s research into the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Immersing herself in the ancient city, she begins to piece together the mystery behind the creation of the tower, and discovers the woman that history forgot… 

Pisa, 1171 
Berta di Bernardo, the wife of a rich merchant, sits in her chamber, dressing for a dinner party. A gathering that will change the course of her life and that of a young master mason, Gerardo, forever. 

A strong, intelligent woman, Berta’s passion for architecture draws her to Gerardo. As she embarks on a love affair, her maid Aurelia also becomes spellbound by the same man. Yet for Berta, her heart’s desire is to see the Tower built, and her determination knows no bounds… 

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Bookouture are fast becoming one of my favourite publishers due to the wide variety of genres on offer. I don't think I have yet been disappointed with anything I have read by this innovative publisher. The Poet's Wife and The Small Fortune of Dorothea Q having been just two of their brilliant reads released in the past few months that I thoroughly enjoyed. So I looked forward to reading this debut historical fiction novel by Debbie Rix – Secrets of the Tower. This is a time slip novel and as I have said on numerous occasions previously I am a huge fan of books that use this method so before I had even started reading this book I was already sold. Too say I was hooked from the word go would be an understatement, even from reading the prologue despite how short it was I knew I was in for a seriously excitingly good read. Debbie Rix is a hugely talented writer and it's hard to believe this is her first novel as she writes with such confidence and assurance of her time and place. The characters and setting just leap off the pages and it evident the author thoroughly enjoyed the research and writing of Secrets of the Tower.

Even though the prologue to this story was only a page it was instantly gripping through such a mysterious description of an unnamed man falling from the half built Leaning Tower of Pisa. From here on we move between Pisa in 1999 and old Pisa in 1171. In the modern day setting Sam gets a phone call to say her husband Michael has fallen seriously ill when shooting a documentary on the history of the tower. Things had not been good between the pair but Sam puts this all aside to fly to her husbands side. Initially I was confused whether the couple were still together as the writing implied they weren’t due to a girl named Carrie. Sam had confronted Michael with her doubts but they had never been fully confirmed. I thought it was admirable of Sam to go to her husband when he needs her the most despite not fully trusting him. It showed she still cared for him and that she is a strong woman. Michael has had a stroke so at the loss of what to do except sit by his bedside with the help of Dario (a man she met at the airport and whose father has a bookshop) Sam begins research into the tower and its surprising history. Just who did build the tower and why?

In Pisa in 1171 we met Berta married to a wealthy trader, there is big age gap between them and in spite of initial years of love she is longing for more. There are no children which is an obvious bone of contention so Berta looks to something else to fill her endless days. She indulges her love for architecture and the arts and encourages up and coming artists and sculptors. Here she meets Gerardo and she is instantly smitten, she wants the best for the young stonemason and will do anything to achieve this for him. She wants a tower built (like so many at the time) but one that will rival all the others and she uses her wealth to make her ambitions come true.So begins a story of a romantic love triangle, mystery and suspense. So much happens that at times it was hard to keep track of who was who and what was happening as Aurelia (Berta's maid) also fell in love with Gerardo. It was interesting how the situations the characters (both in the past and present) found themselves in in terms of their personal relationships mirrored each other. At times I felt Geradro never revealed his true self, he never knew what he wanted (in fact I didn't know who he would end up with) but he was always thinking of his future and what he could gain.

Both elements of the story were as equally interesting as the other. This can be hard to achieve as sometimes the past can be stronger than the present or the contrasting characters and eras bounce off of one another instead of blending but here the writing and transitions flowed effortlessly. Although I do think I preferred the characters of Berta, Auerlia and Gerardo even though they lived so long ago their issues of their love triangle mirrored those of Sam and her husband. They were brought to life so well that I identified with them more and had more compassion for Aurelia the further the book progressed. In the present Sam annoyed me at times it was like she was pandering to Michael to fulfil his every need even though he was the one who was meant to have had the affair. Michael came across as arrogant, self-centred and selfish. Surely it was him who should have been doing his best to make it up to Sam? Their ending was a bit disappointing it felt like a bit of a cop out and I had hoped for something different.

Debbie Rix through her wonderfully sharp writing evokes a clear strong picture of all the sights and sounds of Pisa both in the modern day and in the past. It's rare that I really feel as if I am alongside the characters as they negotiate the ups and downs of the story but with this book the sights, sounds, smells and inhabitants of Pisa were so vividly brought to life. I instantly felt as if I was with each character every step of the way in a time of great importance, creativity and discovery in the history of Italy. The Tower itself is like a fully formed character that holds so many secrets that have a profound influence on the overall storyline. It is always there in the background watching and observing waiting for someone to discover what is hidden behind its meaning.

What fun the author must have had researching all historical aspects of the time and visiting such a beautiful and interesting city. Debbie's enthusiasm for her subject just leaps from the pages as she achieves the right balance between historical fact and fiction. Too often books can books can become bogged down into historical details that leave the reader feeling overwhelmed and the essence of the story can be lost under all this. Not so in this case there is just the right amount of detail to inform but being a lover of history anyway (having studied it as part of my degree) I was fascinated reading about Italy and Pisa at this time. Previous to this I had never read anything set in Italy except a book by Marina Fiorato so it was a welcome change to read of a different era apart from the influx of World War Two books I have read recently.

This is a multi layered novel with a lot going on but it held my interest right until the very end as in even in the epilogue a few surprises were in store for the reader. Secrets of the Tower is epic in scale and length but all the more enjoyable for it. If you are looking for a historic read that's just that little bit different you can't go wrong with this wonderful d├ębut from Debbie Rix. I for one will be keen to see where this extremely promising author will take us next. I'm already looking forward to the journey Debbie will take us on.

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