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Syntinen (SE England)

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by Jo Baker
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A good idea gone wrong (spoilers in the last paragraph), 3 Mar 2014
This review is from: Longbourn (Paperback)
I really wanted to like this book; I thought it was a good idea to tell the story of the Longbourn servants, showing how little their lives and concerns intersected with those of their employers. And there are some really good things in it. Even more than the note that Lizzy Bennet would have been less carefree about getting her petticoats muddy if she had had to scrub the mud out, I liked the point that in holding back the news of Mr Collins' visit till the day of his arrival just to surprise his family, Mr Bennet is quite uncaringly subjecting the servants not merely to a scramble of last-minute work but actual well-founded fear - Mr Collins will be the next owner of Longbourn, and they have only one chance to make a good enough first impression on him that he will keep them on in his employ and not turn them out.

But, some things just won't do. Jo Baker has obviously done loads of research into domestic life of the period and so she must certainly know that she has given the Bennets an impossibly small household of servants. It's canon that Mr Bennet has £2000 a year plus the interest of his wife' fortune; that they don't save any of it; that they keep a carriage and carriage horses plus at least one riding horse, they have a large garden including a fashionable 'wilderness' and they have coverts of game birds. A household of that size, with that kind of income, would have had - would have needed - at least eleven servants: Samuel and Sarah Adams' 'The Complete Servant', published only 12 years after P&P, states that the household of a gentleman with a family and an income of £1,500-£2000 would require 'A Cook, Housekeeper, two House-maids, Kitchen-Maid, and Nursery-Maid, or other female Servant; with a Coachman, Groom, Footman, Gardener, and an assistant in the Garden and Stable'. Instead, at the start of her book Baker has given the Bennets only a cook-housekeeper, two maids and one elderly manservant. That's only one maidservant more than the impoverished Dashwood ladies in Sense & Sensibility needed to run their poky cottage with 'dark narrow stairs, and a kitchen that smoked'! (And in real life, a smaller staff than Parson Woodford and his spinster niece needed in his Norfolk rectory, where they kept no carriage and sent their laundry to be done by a washerwoman, on his modest stipend of £300 a year.)

This matters, because if you're going to major on 'gritty reality', you simply have to keep it real. Yes, household work in the Regency era was hard and squalid in the extreme; but the below-stairs community of Longbourn wouldn't have been anything like as small and isolated as Baker writes it.

I do have other gripes. I've no objection(as some other reviewers seem to have) to Baker including references to sex such as JA couldn't have dreamed of discussing. However, I found the revelation of Mr Hill's love life unconvincing - not that a Regency servant couldn't have had such a love life, but the way the information was dumped on the reader as 'this is a plot point, take it or leave it' without any attempt to weave it into character. And I don't buy Wickham as a paedophile for a moment. It's canon, after all, that Wickham pursues grown-up girls for fun as well as profit, which real-life paedophiles very rarely do. (Nor, come to that, can I believe that any 12-year-old workhouse-reared Regency housemaid could possibly not have known what it meant when a gentleman told you he'd give you sweets if you 'were sweet to him'.) And Baker read two or three books on the Peninsular War but she simply hadn't made sense of the material, so the whole section dealing with James Smith's misfortunes as a soldier in the war in Spain is lamentable; it's full of errors and impossibilities.

It's very sad, because there was a good idea here, and I think Baker is talented enough as a writer to have made a better fist of it than she did.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 21, 2014 1:05 PM BST

Fitzempress' Law
Fitzempress' Law
by Diana Norman
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Better than all the 'Adelia Aguilar' books put together, 18 Nov 2013
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This review is from: Fitzempress' Law (Hardcover)
This was Diana Norman's first published novel, and copies of it are extremely rare and usually very expensive. I'd always wanted to check it out, so when a careless bookseller posted an only slightly imperfect copy on Abebooks at about a tenth of the going rate, I pounced on it.

It has the same setting and a good deal of the same subject matter - Henry II (Norman's great hero), the predicament of medieval Jews - as the dismal 'Mistress of the Art of Death' series that she started writing a quarter of a century later. The difference is, that it's actually damn good.

It's a time-travel novel, and all time-travel novels have to start with a more-or-less ludicrous contrivance to get the story moving; you just have to hold your nose and swallow it. In this case, three young hooligans assault an old woman, who hexes them so that their motorbike crashes and their bodies lie in a coma in hospital while their personalities are transported into the bodies of three young 12th-century Hertfordshire people, each of whom has a major difficulty that can only be solved by recourse to 12th-century law - Henry FitzEmpress' law. Okay: so far, so hokey. But Norman had really immersed herself in re-imagining 12th-century life in Hertfordshire (she set much of the action in the village where she lived, and it's clear she researched it intensively) and trying to create a mind-set for its inhabitants. You might or might not like the choices she made: for example, she, like Alfred Duggan, found a parallel between the Anglo-Norman knightly mindset and that of public school, colonial Englishmen, and gave her above-the-salt characters dialogue to match; and her Jewish characters talk like New York Yiddisher Jews (Reuben the moneylender of Cambridge says to his wife, 'Momma, today we entertain a goy to dinner'). But they are honest and coherent choices. And it's full of the flavour of real medieval life - asides like a note on not only the rarity of hedges in pre-enclosure England, but their edibility (hazels! rosehips! haws! crab apples! Yum!), and characters with genuinely non-modern attitudes. I would seriously recommend it.

How on earth did Norman simply forget everything she had known back in 1980, when she came to write the character and milieu of 'Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar' - who is far less convincing in a medieval setting than the time-travelling heroes of this book? And why isn't it getting a reprint?

I Want My Hat Back
I Want My Hat Back
by J. Klassen
Edition: Hardcover

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Irresistible! (slight spoiler), 10 Aug 2012
This review is from: I Want My Hat Back (Hardcover)
I walked into the shop to buy an X-rated T-shirt, and found myself walking out with this children's book instead. I had no possible excuse - all my nephews and nieces are in their teens - but I was just so in love with it I couldn't bear to put it back on the shelf.

The artistry of the illustrations and the text working in unison is so perfect I really can't analyse how it works its magic; I only know it has me captivated.

BTW, I'd advise anybody who, like one solitary reviewer here, is worried by the dénouement being scary or morally bad for children, to read Bruno Bettelheim's 'The Uses of Enchantment' and relax. Or just relax. Kids know the difference between real life and fairytales and fables, even if not all adults do, and this book will not give them nightmares or encourage them to eat their schoolmates any more than reading 'Hansel and Gretel' will induce them to push old ladies into ovens.

If Walls Could Talk: An intimate history of the home
If Walls Could Talk: An intimate history of the home
by Lucy Worsley
Edition: Hardcover

19 of 52 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars "Tour-guide etymology" spoils its credibility, 5 May 2011
I was really enjoying this book, which seemed full of fascinating information, until I reached the bit where the author states that the saying "sleep tight" derives from the need to tighten the cords that supported the mattress of a Tudor bed.

Now, the origins of phrases is one of my subjects, and I know that this is one of the classic "tour-guide etymologies" - that is, fantasies that tour guides dream up, or hear in pubs, or read on the internet, and busily tell to amuse tourists. It is a complete invention; the saying "sleep tight" originated in the USA in the late 19th century (when one of the meanings of "tight" was "soundly, properly"). Dr Worsley would only have had to pick up a good dictionary to find that out.

Once you find that a book is telling complete porkies in an area you know about, it's impossible to trust anything in it. Which is a great pity, as the idea of the book is excellent, and Lucy Worsley certainly could have made it a great book if she had only taken care that the things she wrote in it were all true.
Comment Comments (16) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 29, 2014 7:12 PM BST

Ryba - Czech Christmas Mass
Ryba - Czech Christmas Mass
Price: £11.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best recording of a wonderful piece, 14 Jan 2011
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This is my all-time favourite recording of my all-time favourite piece of classical Christmas music. Ryba, the schoolmaster in a small Bohemian town, wrote it for performance in the local church in 1796. The text isn't the Latin of the mass, but a kind of Nativity-play dialogue in Czech written by Ryba himself. A farmhand wakes up his master to tell him about a strange heavenly light; the master is bit grumpy at first about being woken, but eventually gets up to have a look and sees the night sky over Bethlehem lit by radiance... Ryba's music is a naïve, folkloric kind of Baroque that perfectly matches the text.

I have cherished my ancient scratched LP of this recording, conducted by Václav Smetacek, for decades. I have bought other recordings, but for me Smetacek's deliberately naïve approach, and intentional slight roughness in performance, reaches the heart of the piece in a way that smoother recordings don't. Christmas isn't Christmas in our house without this recording being played at least once, so I was thrilled to find it finally available on CD.

by Ross King
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.33

2 of 6 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Odd and unsatisfactory, 2 Jun 2010
This review is from: Domino (Paperback)
Halfway through Domino I was seriously beginning to wonder whether the author was visually impaired, not a native speaker of English, or both. Even allowing for the strain of writing in a pastiche of eighteenth-century English, the language is just odd - is there any native English-speaker who doesn't feel the word "waggle" to be inherently silly? It is used here in passages of high drama. And the "evocative descriptions of the sights, sounds, smells and society of eighteenth-century London" which are promised on the back cover, and do indeed fill the book, persistently give the impression that the author had never seen the things he is describing - very odd in a novel about a painter! It's not only the descriptions of historical details that are out of kilter (surely anyone who has ever looked at Hogarth's pictures of London low-life would have noticed that the women don't wear buttoned blouses? - or that it would be impossible for them to "unbutton the tops of their petticoats" in the street to attract custom?) - everyday things are misdescribed in odd ways; as when the face of a character who chokes goes "the colour of Rhenish wine" - pale yellow - despite wearing thick heavy make-up.

The behaviour and manners of the characters is quite improbable for the period. A threadbare would-be painter could not possibly mix in society with a rich lord as a social equal, and could certainly not address or refer to him by a nickname. Nor would a fashionable portraitist demand that a stranger visiting him would dress up in the clothes of a wealthy lady client so he could go on painting her portrait - a life-size lay figure for that purpose was a basic piece of an artists equipment. And so on, and so forth. This might not matter if the characters and the story were interesting, but they aren't. I would call this book a failure on every level.

Mistress Of The Art Of Death (Mistress of the Art of Death 1)
Mistress Of The Art Of Death (Mistress of the Art of Death 1)
by Ariana Franklin
Edition: Paperback

5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A sad disappointment, 20 Jun 2008
I thought the idea of this book had real promise but I feel very disappointed by it, not to say downright cheated.

Okay, the basic premise of the medical faculty at Salerno studying forensic science is a bit far-fetched, and the idea that even the most naïve professor would despatch a female representative to England even more so. But I was prepared to suspend my disbelief for the interest of seeing how a 12th-century medical scientist might have operated, dealt with an epidemic, solved a forensic conundrum, and all the rest of it. But that's precisely what Ariana Franklin doesn't give us; all her heroine's principles, attitudes and medical knowledge are utterly 20th-century. Her theories "do not accord with that of Galen or any other medical influences in vogue" - no, she knows modern medicine! She takes for granted that astrology as applied to medicine is sheer quackery. She believes in eating salad for health, and she has worked out that boiling water makes it safe to drink, a mere seven centuries before the next person (Louis Pasteur) was going to. And her attitudes to woman's role in society are just utterly implausible. Really she might as well be a time-traveller from the 21st century, and for me that takes all the potential interest out of her and anything she does.

There are clangers dropped in the setting, too. I've read a couple of Diana Norman's previous historical novels and enjoyed them, so it surprised me that, for example, she hasn't thought her way enough into a mostly-non-literate period to realise that a pilgrimage destination would not inform visitors of available accommodation by tacking a written list of inns to the gate, and that two maidservants with the same baptismal name could not be differentiated by calling them Matilda B and Matilda W (even if there had been a such a thing as the letter W in 12th-century England, which there wasn't!)

There are a few good things in it - the characterisation of Henry II is excellent and funny. But overall it's so radically less good than the novels Diana Norman has published over her own name, I seriously wonder if she is cynically punting out potboilers, and using a nom de plume for this series to distance them from the stuff she's proud of?

ANTIGUA: The Land of Fairies Wizards and Heroes (Part 1)
ANTIGUA: The Land of Fairies Wizards and Heroes (Part 1)
by Denise Ellis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.92

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars I can't believe this book isn't a spoof, 2 May 2008
Either this book was written by a 7-year-old (and not a particularly talented one at that) or it is a spoof written by a creative writing student or English teacher (or a group of them?), enraged by the rubbish that passes muster as "fantasy novels for young readers" these days, as an experiment to see just how ludicrous a fantasy novel can be and still have people buy it and post up good reviews of it. The grammar is atrocious (e.g. "there" for "they're", and "villager's" for "villagers'"; the over-use of exclamation marks (as many as ten in a row) could give a reader migraine, and the sheer repetition of simple statements has the same effect as being repeatedly hit over the head with a hammer. Consider these passages, all relating to the same incident, within a passage of 25 lines:

"The Dragon...burned down the entire village!

Every business and cottage in the village was destroyed! They had nothing left!

...their village had been charred and burnt down to the ground...

...all their worldly possessions were gone in an instant! They had nothing left!

She had destroyed everything! There was absolutely nothing left! The villagers had lost everything that meant anything to them. There [sic] homes and lives were gone! There was nothing left ..."

The proper names are also bizarre. Some are genuine names from different languages and cultures, ludicrously jumbled together ("Bernardo who was a lumberjack and the husband of Belinda and the father of ten year old Sharif and twelve year old Molly"; "the Knight Sir Larry"). Others are slightly bastardised versions of Arthurian names (King Aurthorr, Sorceress Gwendiviere). Oddest of all is the title name "Antigua" - is the author really unaware that Antigua is a real place? Or, indeed, that one cannot take a train from Britain to England?

The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Crusades (Complete Idiot's Guides (Lifestyle Paperback))
The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Crusades (Complete Idiot's Guides (Lifestyle Paperback))
by Paul L. Williams
Edition: Paperback

13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Material for a Monty Python sketch, 2 Nov 2005
I read the introductory chapter of this book and couldn’t bring myself to continue; it’s a total fantasy of mediaeval life. There are ludicrously wild generalisations, such as the assertion that mediaeval meat, even the most prestigious kinds, was "poorly prepared and undercooked", and that "the huts of the peasants are one-room hovels constructed of rough wood or sod" (really? That's in the whole of Europe, then, from Denmark to Sicily?) and plain untruths, such as that the peasants were deformed by rickets caused by malnutrition on a diet that included "grass as a principal staple". (Not only was there no part of Europe where grass was a normal food, but rickets is actually caused by a lack of sunlight, calcium and phosphorus - so anybody who did farm work and ate greens would be very unlikely to get it! Rickets only became common in the heavily-polluted cities of the Industrial Revolution.) The author also asserts that the “jus primae noctis” existed in England, something that no historian has ever claimed (in fact historians agree that the “jus primae noctis” is a fantasy which didn't exist anywhere in Europe). He goes on to say that the peasant farming was so inefficient that they couldn't grow enough food; "without iron tools, they can't plough the land". Tripe! Archaeology has shown that the farming technology of early mediaeval Europe was perfectly capable of sustaining good levels of production.
Then there are wild bits of Grand Guignol such as the idea that when people bit into blood sausages "the blood spurts from your mouth. You can't wipe it away." Rubbish: it’s actually impossible to produce a sausage that does this, because when blood is cooked it rapidly becomes dense, solid, dark in colour, highly nutritious and delicious. (It's called black pudding).
If this extract is typical of the rest, then this book might make a good Monty Python sketch but can't possibly call itself history.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 24, 2009 3:55 PM BST

Crusader King: A Novel of Baldwin IV and the Crusades
Crusader King: A Novel of Baldwin IV and the Crusades
by Susan Peek
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.61

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Good for moral uplift, not so good for history, 19 Aug 2005
The author and publisher make clear that this book is intended primarily as a piece of improving Christian literature, rather than as history. Even so, the reader is still entitled to expect it to be reasonably true to known historical facts; sadly, it isn't.
For example, it states that at Baldwin's coronation his leprosy was still a secret; in fact it had already been common knowledge for years. Baldwin is described as fighting his great victory at Montgisard alone with no experienced advisers, at the head of only 300 men; in fact he had 500 knights, several thousand infantry and at least three senior barons. At another battle the author describes all Baldwin's nobles running away and scuttling back to Jerusalem assuming that Baldwin has been killed without bothering to check or look for his body, then wrangling over the succession until Baldwin limps in alive, found by his fictional best friend. Nothing like this ever happened at any of Baldwin's battles. Nor is it even a plausible invention - feudal kings were important, you didn't simply lose your king and not go looking for him.
The book does serious injustice to Raymond of Tripoli, portrayed as a cowardly greedy traitor plotting with Saladin to destroy the Crusader Kingdom. In her Afterword the author says: "whether or not he had at one time been a traitor, as history strongly suggests, is known only to God." Not true; no serious historian believes that Raymond wanted the kingdom destroyed, if only because his own County of Tripoli would certainly have been the next Christian state to go!
In addition to the bad history, Baldwin and his best friend talk and behave like exceptionally clean-living American teenagers ("Hey, Dwin! I thought I was your friend!") ; the author has failed dismally to give them any convincingly mediaeval mind-set or dialogue.
The life of Baldwin IV is certainly a heroic and uplifting story, but it is not told well or accurately in this book.

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