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Mrs Ames (The Bloomsbury Group)
Mrs Ames (The Bloomsbury Group)
by E. F. Benson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful!, 9 Sept. 2010
I first heard about this book from another blogger, who mentioned that the Bloomsbury Group would be reprinting four more books this summer, of which Mrs. Ames is one. EF Benson wrote dozens of novels, of which his Mapp and Lucia series is most famous. Mrs. Ames is very similar to Mapp and Lucia; it concerns the social life of the town of Riseborough and several ladies' attempts to be Queen Bee there. Mrs. Ames is the reigning queen of middle-upper class Riseborough, but her position is threatened by the arrival of Mrs. Evans.

The novel starts off a little shakily; at first I found it a little hard to get engaged by Benson's writing style. But as I continued reading, I found myself loving this witty satire, in which people split hairs over whether one lives in a "street" or "a road." Mrs. Evans's social ascendency over the town of Riseborough seems accidental, so it's no less funny when she has the upper hand over Mrs. Ames. One of my favorite characters in this book is Mrs. Altham, the middle-aged neighbor who equally aspires to the position of Queen Bee--but doesn't ever get there and says nasty things about people behind their backs. This might get old after a while if the author's tone hadn't been quite so satirical--often, the joke is on Mrs. Altham, which makes parts of the book such a joy to read. Reading this book makes me look forward to reading more of EF Benson's books--I've heard that the Mapp and Lucia series is especially good and so I think I'll try to track down copies of some of those books.


To Defy A King (William Marshal)
To Defy A King (William Marshal)
by Elizabeth Chadwick
Edition: Hardcover

12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not her best, 27 Aug. 2010
To Defy a King is the story of Mahelt Marshal, eldest daughter of the famous William Marshal--who appears as the main character in two of Chadwick's previous novels, and a minor character in a handful of others. As the oldest daughter of one of the most famous men in England, Mahelt married Hugh Bigod. The novel covers a period of about ten years, from Mahelt's marriage to Hugh up through the Magna Carta.

I do love Elizabeth Chadwick's novels; her writing really takes her reader back in time. But for some reason, I just didn't love this one quite as much. Maybe because there's so much less known about Mahelt than about her father, her character seems a lot sketchier here. Still, I thought Chadwick did a wonderful job of trying to ring her and Hugh to life. Hahelt matures as a character, but it's too abrupt; at one point she's running off to meet her brother in secret, the next she's a responsible young chatelaine. Maybe having children made her more mature and responsible, but it happened too suddenly for me.

Another frequent theme that pops up in the novel is loyalty; the Bigods and Marshals were on different sides of the King John conflict. Who should Mahelt side with: the family she was born into or the side that her adoptive family is on? Like a previous reviewer, I thought that Chadwick should have focused more on the internal struggle that Mahelt faces--and there's a lot of opportunity to deal with the topic in this novel.

Still, as I've said before, Chadwick really knows how to get her reader into the mindset of her medieval characters. Her research is always detailed, and her descriptions of the time and place in which her novels are set are always absorbing. I think there's a lot more promise for this book--but if you're new to Elizabeth Chadwick's novels, I'd start with her books on Mahelt's father, instead--The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion. To Defy a King assumes that the reader knows about William Marshal, so his involvement in this story is more peripheral. The ending of the novel is a bit open-ended, which makes me think that a sequel may one day be in the works.


Howards End is on the Landing: A year of reading from home
Howards End is on the Landing: A year of reading from home
by Susan Hill
Edition: Hardcover

29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, but somewhat limited, 14 July 2010
Howards End is on the Landing is a short collection of essays in which Susan Hill, author of The Woman in Black, went on a search through her house to find a book--and found hundreds that she hadn't read, and dozens more that she had forgotten she owned but wanted to return to. She then resolved to read more books from her ever-growing collection, making a vow to not buy any more books (more power to her!) There were a couple of caveats: she would still accept books from publishers, for example.

The essays in this book aren't organized in any particular way, so Hill's discourses tend to be a bit random at times; but her writing style is superb, and she writes well about the books she loves and doesn't love. Be warned, however, that there's a fair amount of literary name-dropping (everything from "EM Forster once dropped a book on my foot when I was a student at King's College" to various authors she's been acquainted with over hr literary career), which sort of put me off after a while.

There are also a number of inconsistencies (her husband is a Shakespearean scholar, yet Hill dismisses other Elizabethan poets as not worthy of her time because people have never heard of them; she claims she'll never read a Richard and Judy selection, so why does she keep buying them?). Hill tends to dismiss certain types of books (fantasy, historical fiction) and Australian and Candian authors as not worthy of her time, and her tastes tend to run towards 20th century fiction for the most part. She claims that Jane Austen isn't her cup of tea (different strokes for different folks, I guess) and tends to promote authors that you might not have heard of--which is good in a way, as she's given me a number of new-to-me authors to track down; and she's also inspired me to read more from my TBR pile (she mentions FM Mayor's the Rector's Daughter, which has been on my TBR list for a while, and I've had Dorothy Sayers's The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club on my bookshelves for a long time as well).

I also wish that Hill had given us a full list of the books she read during her year--and that she'd read more from her unread pile (it's fine to revisit the books you've always loved, I do that sometimes, but surely there should also be an effort to broaden your horizons, so to speak?). Hill does give a list of the forty books she'd take with her to a desert island--the Bible, for example, or Wuthering Heights. I also wish there had been an index of the books mentioned in this one, as she mentions perhaps hundreds, either in depth or in passing. Despite my reservations about this book, I did enjoy parts of it. It's perhaps just not the best book about books there is to be had.


The Love Knot
The Love Knot
by Vanessa Alexander
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic, 11 April 2010
This review is from: The Love Knot (Hardcover)
Written in epistolary form, The Love Knot is the story of the love affair between Joanna, Duchess of Gloucester and daughter of King Edward (Joan of Acre); and Ralph Monthermer, Welsh knight. Witness to their love affair is the cold, shred clerk named Henry Trokelowe, who is charged by the King to discover what happened in the matter of the death of Gilbert de Clare, Joanna's husband. His behavior is starkly in contrast to that of the lovers, whose passionate affair drives the action of much of this novel.

The letters are written by several of the characters: from Joanna to Ralph and vice versa; and from Trokelowe to the King (and there are a couple of letters at the end from the King to various people, to tie up the loose ends of the story). Each of the characters writes in a very distinct, unique style. Trokelowe, having seen people destroyed by love, is a skeptic on the subject matter, and has even written on the subject of the danger of lovesickness; so it was interesting over the course of the letters to see things from his point of view.

In the meantime, I was very drawn in by Joan and Ralph's romance, which wasn't at all run-of-the-mill. Joanna, having seen her parents have a loving, happy relationship, wants the same for herself, and it's this desire that propels her action throughout the book. The novel is short, and it only covers a period of about three months, during the spring and early summer of 1297. Therefore, it necessarily leaves quite a lot out, which in some ways is a shame, since there's such a wealth of material here that the author could have worked with (for example, Joanna gave birth to her oldest child with Monthermer in October 1297--ten months after the death of Gilbert de Clare--so it's possible that by the time this novel takes place, she would have known about the pregnancy). It's a wonderful story; I'd love to find a longer account of it!


The Champion
The Champion
by Elizabeth Chadwick
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining, 4 Dec. 2009
This review is from: The Champion (Paperback)
This novel is set against the tournament circuits of the late 12th and early 13th centuries. Alexander de Montroi, an escapee from a brutal regime at Cranwell Priory, goes to his brother, a tourney knight. Eventually, he becomes a knight himself, eventually entering into the retinue of William Marshal. Meanwhile, Monday de Cerezay is the daughter of a tourney knight and seamstress. She and Alexander fall in love--with adverse results.

Once again, Elizabeth Chadwick gives us a wonderful rendering of the 12th century, combining romance with a wealth of historical detail that never bogs the story down. I was especially fascinated with the marriage scene, where Alexander and Monday's son was legitimized. The reason why I love Chadwick's novels so much is that she always manages to create a story that draws the reader in. Although the romance seems a bit pedestrian at times, it's also a bit bittersweet; they don't really realize how much they love each other until after they've parted ways. I found Monday's motives for leaving a little perplexing, though. Still, the characters are such that you really find yourself involved in their story. There's a nice blend of historical fact and fiction, which lends itself well to Alexander and Monday's story. It's not my favorite Elizabeth Chadwick novel, but it's still very good.


The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century
The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century
by Ian Mortimer
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.49

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, 25 Nov. 2009
The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England is just that--a comprehensive traveler's guide to the fourteenth century in England. It covers pretty much anything and everything of day-to-day life, from the people you would have encountered, to the clothes you would have worn, to the kind of medical treatment you would have received if you had gotten sick, and much, much more.

There's a lot here I already knew, but a lot I didn't--for example, that pockets were introduced during this century, as were differentiated shoes (left foot versus right, in other words). It's details like this, that you wouldn't normally think are important, that really are important in daily life. At first, the present-tense writing threw me off; but, as Mortimer says in his introduction, once you begin understanding history as happening rather than as has happened, then you'll better understand the complexities of fourteenth-century life.

As the back of the book paraphrases LP Hartley, "the past is a foreign country, they did things differently there..." It's not that things were bad or wrong with the way that people lived six hundred years ago; it's just that people back then had different ways of seeing the world. Take, for example, the chapter on health and medical practices. It's not that medical physicians and surgeons (two different things, up until the 17th century) were ignorant in the sense that we mean it; it's just that they used different areas of knowledge to make a diagnosis and treat a patient. Doctors and surgeons in the fourteenth century probably had as much knowledge as doctors do today--they just used things such as astronomy, religion, and blind faith in their practice. I wish the author had focused a little more on religion and education, however. In all, though, a fascinating study of medieval social life, and unlike any other history book I've read (and much more enjoyable than most). I read this book straight through, but it can also be used a a reference book, to dip into from time to time. This book will be coming out in the US on Deecember 29th.


Mary Reilly
Mary Reilly
by Valerie Martin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Creepy, 25 Nov. 2009
This review is from: Mary Reilly (Paperback)
Mary Reilly is an alternate telling of the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It's told from the point of view of Dr. Jekyll's housemaid, Mary, an observant young woman who is nonetheless somewhat blind to what's going on around her. She keeps a journal of her observations, in which she chronicles the increasingly bizarre behavior of the man she calls Master; and her encounters with his new assistant, Edward Hyde.

It's not a long book, only about 250 pages, but there's a lot packed in. At first glance, it would seem odd that Dr. Jekyll seeks out the company of a lowly housemaid; but they really have a lot in common, both having gone through, or going through, periods of darkness in their lives--Mary with the demon her father, and Dr. Jekyll with his demon Mr. Hyde.

The tension in this novel, especially in Mary's encounters with Mr. Hyde, is palpable, as is the London fog, which seems to surround everything. Right from the opening scene (which I won't describe; you have to read it for yourself), I was immediately hooked into the story May's language and grammar are colorful, too, and make her voice unique. The end of the book is somewhat marred by the anonymous postscript, but otherwise I enjoyed this novel. It's been a number of years since I read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but from what I can recall, Valerie Martin stays pretty close to Stevenson's book. Mary is for the most part knowledgeable about the world; but in several others, she's a complete innocent.


The Fraud
The Fraud
by Barbara Ewing
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining, 13 Nov. 2009
This review is from: The Fraud (Paperback)
The Fraud is a novel with a complicated plot. It opens in 1735, and closes in the 1780s, so it covers a lot of ground. Growing up, Grace Marshall had every intention of becoming a Painter; but her brother Philip was the one who was permitted to take his Grand Tour to Europe to study art. Many years later, he comes back from Grace--as Filipo de Vecellio, conquering the world of portrait painting in London. He enlists his sister's help in his deception, and Grace becomes Francesca, housekeeper to the famous portrait painter. It's a remarkable self-sacrifice that Grace makes, but she does it for love of her brother--who, in time, she ends up hating.

There's a whole lot going on in this novel, some of it crucial to the plot, some of it not (I won't go into specifics, but sometimes I felt as though the author thought "what's the worst thing that can happen in this situation?" and made it happen to her characters). I also didn't really believe in Grace's relationship with James Burke (because honestly, would someone like him really have behaved the way he did in real life?) There are lots of run-on sentences, and the author seems fond of Capital Letters.

It's a good story nonetheless, well researched, that takes place in the art galleries and auction rooms of London at a time when English art was beginning to be taken seriously. There's a huge amount of detail here--right down to the very materials used to mix paint! Well-drawn (if I may use the pun) are the characters--Grace's passion for her art is almost palpable, and Philip's boorishness is maddening at times. Technically the book is well written, though the jump back and forth between Grace's narration and the omniscient narrator may be a bit jarring at first (as it was to me). It's a novel of passion, of obsession, and of money--above all things, money, which drives the motives of most of the characters of this novel.


Boudica: Dreaming The Eagle: Boudica 1
Boudica: Dreaming The Eagle: Boudica 1
by Manda Scott
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fabulous, 6 Nov. 2009
Boudica: Dreaming the Eagle is the fantastic story of Boudica, warrior queen of the Iceni tribe (or Eceni, according to Manda Scott). This novel is the first in a series, and covers Boudica's (called Breaca) early years, from the age of eight to 21, when she faced the Romans in battle. Other major characters in the novel are Ban, who later goes to the Continent and experiences a sort of rebirth as a Roman citizen; and Caradoc (Caractatus), leader of the Catuvellauni, with whom Breaca has a tentative alliance.

You could say this book is divided into two parts, with the first half devoted to the struggle between the Iceni and Catuvellauni, and the second to the struggle between the native Britons and the Romans.

It must be very tough to write a novel about a people whose culture was oral and not written. The Romans wrote about Boudica, but their opinions were hardly objective. Not much is known about Boudica, and even less is known about her childhood, so a lot of this novel is, as the author admits in her note at the end, fictional. But Scott does a fantastic job with what little information she does have, and her characters seem real and believable. Her information about the Romans is a little more complete, because they, of course, left written records. The historian Dio Cassius described Breaca as having flaming red hair, and boy, does Manda Scott run with that.

I took a real chance when buying this book, because I'd never even heard of the author before and didn't know if I'd like a 700-page novel about Roman Britain. And, at first I was a little wary of the "dreaming" concept that drives the book. But I was pleasantly surprised. The dreaming isn't over-the-top, and the animal imagery is simply amazing. The story takes a little while to gather momentum, but reading through the first 50 pages or so yields a really rich, rewarding reading experience. This is a very strong start to what promises to be a very engaging series.


Consolation
Consolation
by James Wilson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Eh, 22 Oct. 2009
This review is from: Consolation (Paperback)
One evening, celebrated children's author Corley Roper meets a woman named Mary Wilson in a graveyard. Both have suffered the recent loss of a child, and both are more or less adrift in the world--Roper is estranged from his mad wife and finds that he cannot write anymore. Later, he embarks on a search to find out the secret of Mary's birth.

Set nearly a hundred years ago, this novel is sort of sepia-toned, in a way. The tone of the novel is dark in parts, and it promised to be a kind of a Gothic mystery. The story as it moves you along is compelling enough, but the ending left me wanting more--and not in a good way, because it was extremely anticlimactic (I don't want to spoil anything, but it made me think, "that's it? Why the heck did Roper even bother?"). From the blurb on the back of the book, Wilson wrote this novel about his grandmother, but I'm afraid that he made quite a mountain out of a molehill with this one--Mary's secret isn't particularly new or interesting. And it's not much of a secret, either, as you will find out if you read this book.

I loved the atmosphere of the novel, but it was marred by characters who behave in unlikely ways. Why is a young American woman running around Europe unescorted? Why are pretty much all the characters so laissez-faire about the possibility of divorce in an era when divorce still wasn't taken lightly? There are also a number of really wild coincidences--Roper goes in search of Alice, and the first hotel he enquires in happens to be the hotel at which she's staying! The novel also touches on a number of different ideas and movements that were starting to take shape in the early 19th century (early psychology, cubism), but he never really delves into them. In short, this was a short novel with a lot of promise; it just didn't hang together well for me, I'm afraid.


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