Monday, 25 January 2016

Emma's Review: Echoes from Afar by Tamara McKinley

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

So this is Paris, she thought in awe. Spread out before her beneath a clear blue sky, it was like a precious gift after the smog and filth of London. No wonder it was called the city of love . . .

After a spiteful rumour ruins her career in London, Annabelle Blake must travel to Paris to start afresh. There she makes the acquaintance of Etienne and Henri - one a poet, the other a painter - both charming, talented and handsome. They spend their days flirting and drinking with the city's artistes and Bohemians, and soon Annabelle too is swept up in the exotic and exhilarating world of 1930s Paris. But as ever more young people are drawn to the fight against Fascism in Spain, Annabelle must wake from the dream and confront the reality of war. A lifetime later, gifted artist Eugenie Ashton falls in love with Paris the moment she sets foot outside the Gare de Lyon. Like her mother Annabelle before her, the artistic delights of the city are a bright new world to her: but Eugenie will soon find that in its shadows are hidden the secrets of her family's past.

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Despite having written more than 12 novels Tamara McKinley is yet again another new author for me but when the press release says 'certainly on a par with Lesley Pearse' that has me sitting up and taking notice. Lesley, alongside Lucinda Riley, is my favourite author and I have devoured everything she has written so to say I had high expectations would be an understatement. I always love discovering a new historical fiction author and especially one who is in the same vein as an author whom you already love so much. So when Echoes from Afar came through the door I was more than excited. 

For me the cover alone hit the nail on the head. There is an air of mystery about the woman and I was intrigued to learn more of her story in the exotic and exhilarating world of Paris in the 1930's. Also for once (not that I don't like this aspect featuring in books in this genre) the book wasn't set during World War Two so we are given a different viewpoint of the city of love before the horrors of war came knocking at the door for the Parisian citizens. Instead the Spanish Civil War does feature heavily for a section but these chapters were brilliantly written and tied in very well with the overall story line. This story focuses on two women a mother and daughter who find themselves in Paris twenty years apart. The daughter Eugenie has won a scholarship to study art for a year. But as she retraces her mother's footsteps is she about to uncover more than she bargained for or are secrets there to remain a mystery for the very reason they were created in the first place?

Echoes from Afar opens with a beguiling prologue of a man in Paris in 1956. He spots a woman on a bridge as he is gazing from his window. A woman he believes he recognises but can it really be who he thinks it is? Chapter one takes us back in time to London 1936, Anabelle Blake is at a crossroads in her life. She has been dismissed from the hospital she was nursing in and living in a run-down apartment with little money for food or clothes. Five years previously she had been banished from her home by her brute of a father and so has no one to turn to. That is until she meets her mother whom she hasn't had the best of relationships with. Her mother reveals a few surprising home truths and with a cash injection from Camille, Anabelle finds herself making her way to Paris to begin a new life with her art and culture loving Aunt Aline. Anabelle finds the city a contrast to everything she has known but soon falls in love with the cobbled streets, the sights, the sounds and the famous buildings and galleries. The house her Aline lives in is full of artists, poets, writers and musicians and is alive day and night. It is eclectic and homely, a sanctuary for all. Aline is a free spirit, serene and calm and she begins to rub off on Anabelle. But Anabelle is determined to work and continue on with her nursing. But will her lack of French hospital terminology let her down?

Henri and Etienne are friends since they were toddlers and come from the Basque region of France. They now live in Paris and are a struggling artist and a moderately successful poet. They encounter Anabelle upon a bridge and for Henri a connection is instantly established, one which will grow and develop and last for a long time. It was evident for the reader to see that Henri and Anabelle had this spark that ignited upon first sight. Their love, respect and passion for each other oozed from the pages. But you did wonder with the Spanish Civil War raging on could this love last as Henri and Etienne prepare to do battle and defend their heritage on the war front? Etienne seemed to me very jealous of his friend's deep love and happiness and I was worried he was going to be cruel, sneaky and underhand and maybe do something which would destroy Anabelle and Henri's happiness. 

The parts of the book set in Paris were interesting and engaging but the action picks up even more when the two men leave to fight. Brave Anabelle decides nursing in Spain in the field hospitals is the way to go for her. She wants to give something back and be near Henri if at all possible. The action was non stop from here on in, full of twists and turns and lots that I didn't see coming and I did wonder how it would tie in with Eugenie and what secrets would be uncovered in the future?

Echoes from Afar is rich in detail in both the areas in which it is set - Paris and Spain - and of the events occurring at the time. At no point did it become bogged down in nitty, gritty detail of the war as in battles won and the reasons for occurrence. Instead just the right amount of description of Anabelle's time in the field hospital and the conditions she endured was used. I find if a book goes into too much detail I become confused and therefore lose interest and it can also detract from the main plot. Thankfully this wasn't the case here. Tamara nailed the descriptions of the setting showing the contrast between the bohemian lifestyle Anabelle, Aline, Henri and Etienne enjoyed and then that of the hot, stifling, difficult nursing conditions. The scenes with Henri and Etienne coming under fire were raw and fast paced and vivid. 

When Henri and Anabelle return from their sojourn by the sea the next few pages were so real and intense that you could almost feel the vibrations of the planes over head as they charged towards the village. Tamara didn't hold back here. My heart was in my mouth as the buildings shook and battle commenced. By the end of this chapter my heart was torn in two. Another element which made this book so riveting was the fact that it wasn't all set in one place which made for a surprise read as you never knew what was around the corner. Moving the characters from their comfort zone allowed for a lot of development both of the characters and the plot. I feel if the setting had remained in Paris and the civil war aspect had not been introduced this would have been a very different book and not half as good as it was.

I absolutely loved Echoes from Afar and was totally engrossed from the very first chapter and really wanted the book to last for longer. Tamara McKinley has a way of sucking you in until you forget your surroundings and are actually really there with Anabelle be it on the streets of Paris or the battlefields of Spain . I loved the majority of the book but I do feel the last section when we jump forward twenty years to 1956 was the weakest aspect of the book, I fully understand why the author included it as it needed to be there to bring the story together but it seemed to have lost the flow of the rest of the book. I realise the sections are set over 18 years apart but it just seemed to stall what had up until that part been a completing mesmerising story. Yes there was that vital jaw dropping moment and I couldn't believe it could have happened yet was so glad it did. Even then the very end although very realistic was not quite the ending I wanted or maybe that's me just being very selfish. It felt as if we were rereading some of the same scenes from the very beginning of the book only with Eugenie's name inserted for Anabelle's as she discovers her Aunt Aline's house. Saying all that it didn't detract too much from what overall was a brilliant book.

So to come back to the comparison to my all time favourite author Lesley Pearse. Was it justified? Well I can absolutely see why this claim was made as Echoes from Afar is certainly as sweeping historical saga that keeps you hooked rapidly turning the pages. I enjoyed it so much I read it in two sittings. Truthfully though after reading only one book from Tamara McKinley I couldn't claim she is as good as Lesley (although she gave her a good run for her money). Personally I would have to read more by this author to come to that conclusion. But now I have a flavour of her writing style I am intent on searching out more of her books to see what other settings and themes she has used in her previous novels and whether the standard of writing is as high as it is here. Echoes from Afar is an exciting, enthralling read set against the backdrop of love,art and war. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it. One not to be missed.

Many thanks to Alainna from Quercus for my copy of Echoes from Afar to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

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