Reading Group Guides
1. Isabella Berotti admires the architecture in Bellina, but Davide Francolini, the architect responsible for using inferior building materials, believes Bellina is “based on lies and pretence with its fake Roman architecture and its fake farms.” What is your perception of Bellina? Is it a beautiful town or a symbol of Mussolini’s power and corruption – or both?
2. What compels Isabella to investigate the murder of her husband, Luigi? Do you think she finds peace after learning the truth about the circumstances of his murder?
3. Dr Marco Cantini, Carlo Olivera, and the would-be farmer Gabriele Caldarone are fathers who make sacrifices for their children. Do you sympathise with the difficult decisions they make to protect them?
4. According to Mussolini, a woman’s place is to tend to her husband and have a house full of bambini.In what ways do the women in the novel – Isabella, Allegra Bianchi, Francesca Chitti and the nuns from the convent – adhere to the traditional female values in Mussolini’s Italy? In what ways are they subversive?
5. One of the most shocking scenes in the novel is the assassination attempt on Benito Mussolini’s life. Did you expect this twist in the novel? What did you think about the rebels’ extreme method to assassinate Mussolini?
6. Based on what you know from history, what did you think of the novel’s portrayal of Mussolini?
7. How do Rosa and Roberto help Isabella to open up and care for others? Do you think Isabella impacts their lives as well?
8. Why does Isabella choose to stay in Bellina at the end of the novel? Do you think there is hope for the town of Bellina to thrive under Mussolini’s totalitarian state?
9. How does Isabella change from the beginning of the novel to the end of the novel? Do you feel that her transformation at the end of the novel is a positive one?
10. What do you think you’ll take away from this novel? What aspect of the novel will leave the greatest impression on you?
1. The island presents a unique setting for the story, as it is both a paradise and an escape, and also in the midst of political turmoil. How do you think this environment impacts the behaviour of the characters?
2. Across the island there is tension between the white people and the black Bahamians. Emerald is an interesting character as she has her foot in both camps. When push comes to shove, where do you think Emerald’s loyalties truly lie?
3. Throughout the novel Tilly presents herself as a self-assured good friend to Ella. But when Dodie speaks with her, she catches a “glimpse of a loneliness that tugged at something in her”. Do you pity Tilly at all? What about Hector, who goes to extreme lengths to protect his wife?
4. At various points throughout the novel, love is equated with gold. Hector says, ‘Everything is always about money …. or love.” We are led to believe throughout the novel that the killings are all in pursuit of gold, but that doesn’t turn out to be the case. Do you think the decisions people make out of financial greed are similar to the irrational decisions people make when they are in love?
5. Throughout the novel, Reggie is described as a good and decent man. At the end of the novel, he seems clearly to have forgiven Ella for her infidelity, even though they don’t speak of it. Do you respect Reggie for this decision? Why or why not?
6. Ella says, “As the wife of an MP she would be able to do something positive, influence his policies. She could leave a dent in the world that said Ella Sandford was here.” Do you think that Ella and Dodie have made their mark on the world by the end of the novel?
7. What purpose does Mama Keel’s character serve in the story? What does her presence say about the island, its culture and its people?
8. When we first see Ella, she is helping Reggie with his cufflinks while wearing an evening gown, seemingly happy with her lifestyle. By the end of the novel she has thrown herself into an affair with Dan and is more outspoken in her search for truth about what happened to Morrell. Is there one particular moment, or character, in the story who you think first sparks this change in Ella?
9. Do die calls Morrell a “killer” in front of Flynn, which naturally would extend to Flynn as well. Yet Dodie has relatively few reservations about Flynn and dives headfirst into a relationship with him. Why do you think she is so trusting of this man?
10. Why do you think Dodie and Ella are so protective of each other? Is it simply because they are both women, or are there other reasons that they form such a strong bond?
1. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books play a prominent role in SHADOWS ON THE NILE. When Tim took Jessie to the British Museum, she said, “Lead on, my intimate friend and associate”. How is this Sherlock Holmes quote a theme for the book? How are the stories of Sherlock Holmes a catalyst for the plot development?
2. Timothy Kenton’s girlfriend tells Jessie that her brother considers her his uraeus, the cobra on a pharaoh’s headdress to protect him from harm. How is Jessie Tim’s protector? Are there other protectors in the story?
3. SHADOWS ON THE NILE is set in 1932. Would the story be different if it took place in the present day? If so, how?
4. Jessie and Monty witness a riot in London protesting the Means Test. Fareed and his men are rebelling against British colonialism in Egypt. How is Jessie caught in the middle of both rebellions?
5. When Jessie finds out that Tim is missing, she thinks, You have no idea that losing Timothy is like losing part of myself. Is there anyone in your life whom you would risk your life to save? Why do you think Jessie feels so strongly, and how does it affect her actions? Discuss.
6. Why do you think the author chose to include chapters from Georgie’s point of view? How does this make the book different from if it had all been in an objective voice?
7. Do you think it was right of Tim to take Georgie to Egypt?
8. Jessie’s mother says about Georgie, “That boy is incapable of love”. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
9. Did all the plot twists take you by surprise or did you see some of them coming?
10. Would you describe this book as a historical romance, a mystery, or both? Which genre do you think is most relevant? Why?
1. Who was your favourite character and why?
2. Who was your least favourite character and why?
3. Did you know much about the historical background to the novel before starting it? What did it add to the reading experience? How has the author used her research?
4. What do you think of Connie as the heroine of the novel? How does Connie change through the course of the book? Do you think she makes the right choices in her life?
5. What do the characters of Maya and Razak tell you about Malaya at this time? How did you feel about their determination to exact revenge on Connie?
6. What do you feel are the main themes in The White Pearl?
7. What are the differences, and similarities, between Connie and Maya?
8. How would you describe the atmosphere on the boat?
9. Did you trust Fitz, as Connie does, through the book?
10. Did the ending take you by surprise and do you think Connie made the right choice?
1. Why do you think Valentina’s father chooses to blame her for her sister’s injury?
2. Despite working with the rebels, Arkin still can’t help but feel compassion for the Ivanov women. Discuss the disparate nature of his behavior throughout the novel. Why do you think the Ivanov women affect him the way they do?
3. Why do you think, after their initial meeting, Valentina continues to visit Varenka and give her aid, despite her Bolshevik ties?
4. How do you believe Valentina’s desire to become a nurse is informed by her guilt over both her sister’s injuries and the death of Madam Davidova in the mine explosion? Do you think she would have still made the bargain with her father had Madam not died in the mine?
5. Discuss the relationship between Valentina and her mother. Why do you think Elizaveta acquiesces so readily to her husband’s demands, while Valentina rebels against him?
6. Despite their opposing political views, Arkin and Valentina do on occasion see eye to eye. Discuss the similarities between the two characters.
7. The Ivanovs are injured and tormented by the revolutionaries throughout the novel. What do you think it is about their family specifically that makes them constant targets?
8. Do you believe that Valentina should simply have allowed Jens to kill Arkin following Katya’s death?
9. Discuss Minister Ivanov. What about him makes him so ruthless in his pursuit of power and money? Had he allowed Valentina to simply make her own choices in life, do you think things may have turned out differently for the family?
10. When Valentina finds the box of explosives in her family’s shed, she chooses to warn Arkin through Father Morozov instead of turning him in. Why do you think she made that decision?
11. Discuss the relationship between Elizaveta and Arkin. Do you think the tumultuous climate of the time informed her decision to be unfaithful after so many years of marriage? What do you believe it is about Elizaveta that draws Arkin to her, and vice-versa?
1. In her girlhood Anna looks up to Vasily, seeing him as a hero – even if she doesn’t fully understand his cause. How do you think the novel addresses the idea of heroism; of fighting for the things that are important?
2. What do you think drives Sofia to escape the camp and find Vasily? Do you think her motivations change as the novel progresses?
3. Throughout the novel Anna remains convinced that Sofia will come back for her, even when the other prisoners doubt her return. Do you think this conviction stems more from a deep binding trust between the two friends, or from desperation and blind hope?
4. Work is an Act of Honour, Courage and Heroism. Stalin’s words are emblazoned over the gates of the Davinsky labor camp. How does the reality of prison life for Sofia, Anna and their friends differ from this idea? What do you think the Communist regime was trying to encourage – or discourage – with this statement?
5. At the end of the novel Sofia resolves to stay in Tivil and accept her part in its future. Would you have made the same decision?
6. Do you think Sofia really believes in the magical powers of Rafik, or is she just going along with it because it gives her a sense of belonging?
7. What do you think the relationship is between Sofia and Pyotr? How do you think he feels about her by the end of the novel?
8. The tangle of misunderstandings surrounding Vasily, Alexei and Mikhail springs from something quite incidental: a forgetful moment on Maria’s part. Do you think Under A Blood Red Sky is a novel about the individual, or a novel about the collective? Do the actions of the individual carry repercussions for the whole, or is it the other way round? How does this relate to the novel’s exploration of Communism?
9. The end of Under a Blood Red Sky sees Anna and Vasily/Fomenko reunited. Do you think he would eventually forsake his Communist ideals and become a leader of resistance to Stalinist terror?
10. Can Mikhail adapt to his new role in the village or will his refusal to conform bring more danger to the people of Tivil?
1. Despite her being a European girl, and therefore less than nothing to his people, Chang saves Lydia’s life at the beginning of the novel. Why do you think he does so?
2. Lydia’s stubborn bravery at the beginning of The Russian Concubine is described as foolhardy by many of the people she encounters. Do you agree with this assessment? Do you think that other people’s opinion of her changes by the end of the book? Why?
3. How does Theo serve as a bridge between the Chinese and Western worlds he lives in? How does acting in that capacity take its toll on him towards the end of the novel?
4. Discuss the sacrifices and moral compromises that each character makes for what he or she believes is the greater good. For example, Theo becomes an opium runner in order to earn money to keep his school open, educating the European children in China. Do you think that the characters’ actions in their respective situations help make them stronger people, or do their actions lessen them as humans?
5. Lydia and Chang get caught up in the turmoil of the political situation in the 1920s. Do you think that the poverty levels in China made it easy for young men to become Communists? Did the presence of the expatriate Russians make a difference in their political leanings? Discuss how Chang’s Communist beliefs war with his love for Lydia.
6. Toward the end of the novel, Valentina reveals the secret of Lydia’s scholarship to the Willoughby Academy. Do you think that her sacrifice for her daughter is an example of her strength as a mother, or her weakness as a woman?
7. When Lydia first meets Liev Popkov, she’s facing him at a line-up after her lie regarding the stolen necklace at the Ulysses Club gets him arrested. Later, she hires him as her bodyguard, but their relationship develops into a friendship beyond employer/employee. Why do you think that Liev becomes so protective of Lydia after he meets her?
8. In many ways, Alfred is the first stable male influence in Lydia’s life. What kind of life do you think Lydia would have led had Alfred entered her life earlier? Do you feel his nature/personality was as influential as his money? Does his money play a positive or a negative role in shaping their relationship?
9. The theme of freedom is prevalent throughout the novel. In what ways are Lydia and Chang caged, even before they are kidnapped by the Black Snakes? How does their love for each other help to set them free? Do you think that their relationship mirrors the political situation in China at all?