Monday, March 12, 2012

The Valley of Heaven and Hell / Susie Kelly

Reviewed by: BigAl

Genre: Non-Fiction/Travel

Approximate word count: 80-85,000 words

Kindle US:
YES UK: YES Nook: NO Smashwords: NO Paper: YES
Click on a YES above to go to appropriate page in Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords store


Originally from England, Susie Kelly lived in East Africa and now makes her home in France. Her first three books were published by a division of Random House. One of those, Best Foot Forward, was re-published by Blackbird Digital Books, as was this one. For more, visit the author’s blog.


The author and her husband retrace on bicyles the route Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI took in an escape attempt during the French Revolution.


One of my favorite non-fiction genres is the travel narrative. They aren’t an efficient way for planning a trip. Guidebooks are much better for that kind of detail. But for the armchair traveler looking for a vicarious experience, or to get the flavor of an area before visiting, they’re perfect. The travel narrative needs everything any other story has. A rote recitation of what the author did isn’t enough. To create a readable story out of the author’s experience, there needs to be conflict, to hold the reader’s attention, and an overriding theme. There are many options to do this.

The subtitle, Cycling in the Shadow of Marie-Antoinette, gives a clue to how this book deals with the issue. The trip covers the route taken by Marie-Antoinette and her family in first trying to escape France and the route used after their capture to return them to Paris. Interwoven with the actual travel, as Kelly and her husband cycle the route and visit sites along the way, is historical background. Buried within the story of Kelly’s trip, which has plenty of conflict of its own, is a mini-biography of the French Monarch, which is full of conflict while providing the theme.

This approach, of combining history in a travel lesson, is one I’ve seen before and like. Just as history can come alive when you travel to historical sites, doing it by proxy can do the same. If you’re like me, your knowledge doesn’t go much beyond what you learned about Marie-Antoinette and the French Revolution while reading A Tale of Two Cities years ago in school. It turns out that the whole “let them eat cake” thing was a small and possibly misleading part of the story.

While Marie-Antoinette provides a story, there is also the story thread of the actual trip. Kelly not only cycled the entire trip, but did so with her husband, camping most nights. That provides plenty of fuel for conflict as well. This was a trip I enjoyed taking through Susie Kelly’s eyes, both for what I learned about the area of France she traveled, and the history involved. My backside and the muscles in my legs were much happier doing it this way, too.


The author is English and uses UK spelling conventions.

Format/Typo Issues:

No significant issues.

Rating: **** Four stars


tmso said...

That sounds like a fascinating read. I'll check it out. Thanks for the great review.

Joansz said...

I too will have to look at this book. I think next to writing a memoir, this is the hardest type of book for me to consider writing. I think I'll leave both to others. So many kudos to Susie Kelly.

BooksAndPals said...

That's interesting, Joan. I'm exactly the opposite. If I ever gave serious consideration to writing a book it would be non-fiction of some kind with a travel narrative being one of the most likely. Trying to take an existing story and tell it in an entertaining way doesn't seem nearly as intimidating to me as making up a story in its entirety. Logically I'm not sure my view makes sense, because something fictional isn't constrained by needing to stay close to the truth.

Joansz said...

"Logically I'm not sure my view makes sense, because something fictional isn't constrained by needing to stay close to the truth."

Unless it's historical fiction--at least the historical parts, IMO.

BooksAndPals said...

I should have thought about who I was saying that to. :)

I guess all fiction has some truth they have to remain true to. Even science fiction and fantasy which could have a world that is close to 100% the imagination of the author need to at least be internally consistent. I guess I should say there is more flexibility in what the truth can be in much fiction. Some genres more than others. :/