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FictionFan (Kirkintilloch, Scotland)

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Sunset Song (A Scots Quair Book 1)
Sunset Song (A Scots Quair Book 1)
Price: £1.39

5.0 out of 5 stars A Scottish lament..., 29 July 2015
This first volume of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's trilogy, A Scots Quair, focuses on the life of Chris Guthrie, daughter of a tenant farmer in the fictional estate of Kinraddie in the north-east of Scotland, before and during the First World War. Sunset Song, written in 1932, is generally considered the strongest book in the trilogy and one of the greatest Scottish novels of the twentieth century. Although it's written in a form of the dialect of the area, it's been pretty heavily anglicised so that it keeps the rhythms without being too hard for non-Scots (or modern Scots) to understand. There's a heavy sprinkling of old Scots words, but also a glossary of them should the meaning not be obvious from the context.

Chris is born the daughter of John Guthrie of Blawearie, a farmer hardened by the lifelong struggle to wrest a living from the land, and Jean, a woman worn down by years of pregnancies and childbirth. John is a harsh father to his sons, demanding hard labour and unquestioning obedience, and exacting cruel physical punishment when angered, while Jean can do nothing but watch passively. But Chris shows signs of academic intelligence, and it is John's wish, and her own, that she be educated and get away from the land to become a teacher. All this changes when first Jean and then John die, leaving the family broken up and Chris as the inheritor of the farm. Now with the money to leave and make a new life for herself, Chris realises the land is in her blood – she wonders how she could ever have thought to leave it and to take up a career that would deny her the joys of marriage and children.

And so she marries young Ewan Tavendale and together they are content to farm their land, Chris' happiness enhanced when she bears her first son. But the world is changing and over in Europe war clouds are gathering. And during the four years of fighting, life for Chris and for this entire community will be changed forever.

The book is essentially a lament for the passing of a way of life. Gibbon shows how the war hurried the process along, but he also indicates how change was happening anyway, with increasing mechanisation of farms, the landowners gradually driving the tenant farmers off as they found more profitable uses for the land, the English-ing of education leading to the loss of the old language and with it, old traditions. Although the cruelties and hardships of the old ways are shown to the full, he also portrays the sense of community, of neighbour supporting neighbour when the need arises. And he gives a great feeling of the relative isolation of these communities, far distant from the seat of power and with little interest in anything beyond their own lives. But here too he suggests things are changing, with some of the characters flirting with the new socialist politics of the fledgling Labour Party.

It took me a good third of the book to really find myself involved in the story. It begins with a long introduction to all the characters and a potted history of the area. While there's some great writing and quite a lot of humour in this section, I found it was trying to cover too much and I didn't really get a feel for most of the characters – which was a problem that remained throughout the book in fact. The main characters become very well realised, but all the others flit in and out and I never felt fully on top of who they were or how they related to each other. As Chris grows from childhood into young womanhood, there is a major emphasis on her awakening sexuality, with some writing which I feel must have been considered pretty shocking in its time, including allusions to rape and incest.

But suddenly, at the point where Chris finds herself alone and independent, the book turns into something quite wonderful. The story of Chris and Ewan falling in love and marrying is full of emotional truth. This isn't a great romance – this is two young people setting out to make a life for themselves and their inevitable children, farming the land in continuity with the generations before them and assuming they will hand it on in turn to the next, and making the adjustments that any couple must when the realities of living with another person don't quite match up to the dream.

And when war begins, Gibbon handles beautifully the gradual change within the community, from feeling completely detached and uninvolved to slowly finding their lives affected in every way. As the men begin to either volunteer or, later, be conscripted into the Army, each character reacts differently but truly to the personality Gibbon has so carefully created for them. Some of the writing is heart-breaking in its emotional intensity but never overloaded with mawkishness or sentimentality. Gibbon touches on questions that must still have been hugely sensitive so soon after one war and with another already looming – conscientious objection and desertion – and asks not for forgiveness for his characters but for understanding and empathy. The ending echoes the beginning, as Gibbon again takes us round the community showing the irrevocable changes wrought by war and modernisation on each family – some winners, some losers, but none unaltered. And as he brings his characters together one last time, we see them begin to gather the strength to face their uncertain future in a world that will never be the same again.

A brilliant book that fully deserves its reputation. Highly recommended, though I should warn you I sobbed solidly through most of the second half...

Time of Death (Tom Thorne Novels Book 13)
Time of Death (Tom Thorne Novels Book 13)
Price: £9.49

3.0 out of 5 stars Nothing new under the sun..., 28 July 2015
Two schoolgirls have been abducted in the small town of Polesford, where Helen Weeks grew up. Helen and her partner DI Tom Thorne are on holiday when the news reports that a man has been arrested for the crimes, although no bodies have been found. When Helen realises that the man is the husband of an old friend of hers, she insists on going to Polesford to offer support. At first reluctant, Thorne soon finds himself interested in the investigation and at odds with the local police.

I read the first few books in the Tom Thorne series but lost touch with the series several years ago. While there is clearly a running story arc over Tom's relationship with Helen, this book works perfectly well as a standalone. Past cases are referred to but not in a way that affects the understanding of the plot of this book.

My first impressions were pretty favourable – the serial killer storyline is increasingly hackneyed but Billingham tells the story well, and I initially liked the characters of both Tom and Helen. Although I picked up along the way that their partnership is fairly new, it was refreshing to have the detective in a seemingly stable, loving relationship. Thorne has some baggage from past cases, but is a functional detective, well able to handle the pressures of the job, and oh joy! He doesn't have a drink problem! In fact, early on in the book Billingham has a sly dig at the cliché of the angst-ridden drunken maverick of current crime fiction.

There's nothing terribly original in the storyline, and it's pretty slow in places with a good deal of repetition. However Billingham keeps the tension flowing for the most part by skilfully casting suspicion on most of the male characters in turn. It's interesting to see the story from the perspective of the family of the accused, although they're all so unlikeable I couldn't develop much sympathy for them. And it all leads up in the end to the usual thriller ending.

Overall, for the quality of the writing and storytelling I'd have rated this quite highly but for two things. The first is the ridiculous amount of unnecessary bad language, which is constant all the way through. Most of it is fairly low-level, simply a sign of a lack of imagination and facility in the author's use of vocabulary, but some of it is pretty strong. And of course it adds nothing to the story.

Mild spoiler alert!
(You might want to skip the next paragraph if you're planning on reading the book.)

But the thing that annoyed me more, especially after Billingham mocking the maverick cop cliché himself, was that Helen and Tom suddenly turned into violent criminals halfway through - beating up a teenager in front of his friends (who fortunately seemed to be the only teenagers in Britain without smartphones to film it on) for the heinous crime of spitting, with no repercussions. (Did I mention Helen's job is to deal with child victims – good grief!) From that point on, the book lost any credibility and the characters lost any appeal for me. If every fictional police officer must be a violent criminal, the least authors could do is try to make it believable. (Hint for all the brutal and corrupt fictional police officers out there – take your victim up a dark alley, alone, and check there are no CCTV cameras around. It's hardly rocket science...)

(End of spoiler)

To sum up, a standard serial killer police procedural, quite well-written, slow in places, with lots of swearing, a bit of angst, the obligatory child abuse angle, and some gratuitous and silly police brutality. Same old, same old... 2½ stars for me, so rounded up.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grove Atlantic.

The Savage Hour
The Savage Hour
by Elaine Proctor
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Divisions and links..., 27 July 2015
This review is from: The Savage Hour (Paperback)
When the body of elderly Ouma is found drowned in the dam on her property, everyone assumes that she slipped. Everyone except her young granddaughter, Delilah, that is, who is convinced that there is more to it than that. But who would have killed Ouma – and why? Even in the apartheid years, she treated everyone in the community, black or white, with the same respect and used her skills as a doctor to help those in need. Despite the lack of motivation, Delilah persuades a young policeman, Jannie, to investigate her death.

Sometimes crime is only included in a novel, it seems to me, as a hook on which to hang a wider story, and that's the case in this one. Proctor uses the story of Ouma's relationships with her family and the community to paint a picture of rural life in post-apartheid South Africa, showing a society struggling to overcome the racial divisions that have scarred it. Still divided, with Ouma's white family as landowners and the black characters as employees, we also see the links that go back often to childhood, links of love and loyalty that cross racial lines. But this is a deeply troubled society, and Proctor touches on many of the strands that make it so – gang and random violence, police corruption, prostitution, AIDS, old tribal hatreds still surviving. Add in dementia, assisted suicide and homophobia and I couldn't help but feel at points that the book is trying to do too much.

We soon learn that Ouma had been suffering from the early stages of dementia and, as a doctor, was well aware of how the disease would progress. She had been asking all of those near to her to help her to die. Since the book opens with Ouma's death, her scenes are given to us in flashback, and it's partly through these that we get to know the other characters and see how they relate to each other. There's a fairly wide cast of characters – Ouma's family, her black housekeeper who is also a loyal friend, the farmworkers, Klein Samuel and Cheetah, and the policeman, Jannie, who each in different ways feel an intense love and loyalty to Ouma for having helped them at some crucial point in their lives.

There is an emotionalism in all of these linked stories that builds to something uncomfortably close to bathos at times. But the quality of the writing just about pulls it back from the brink, and I found the storytelling element compelling, though I did find that I could only read it in quite small chunks. Proctor is particularly strong at creating a sense of place, both of the struggling, drought-ridden farm and of the town, when we follow Jannie there. She gives a real feel for the harshness of lives lived on the edge of poverty and the sometimes cruel decisions people must make to ensure their survival.

I have mixed emotions about the book. I felt that there were too many points being made, too many strands being forced in. I've made this criticism of other books too – sometimes an author seems to want to cram every aspect of a complex society into her story and it becomes unreal that all these things would happen to such a small group of people in a short time, and that unreality tends in the end to lessen the effect. It's the old 'less is more' thing – in this one, I felt several strands, not least the 'murder mystery' itself, were unnecessary and in fact detracted from the overall impact. Nonetheless I enjoyed Proctor's writing style and for the most part she made the characters feel real, so that I cared about what happened to them. And I found her depiction of this struggling society a convincing one - bleak, certainly, but not devoid of hope. She subtly makes the point that whatever the difficulties of the present they pale in comparison to the apartheid past, and she shows the beginnings of a gradual realignment of the relationships between black and white South Africans, shifting slowly towards a more equal footing as time passes. A thought-provoking read and I would certainly be interested to read more of her work in the future.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

Heath Robinson's Great War: The Satirical Cartoons
Heath Robinson's Great War: The Satirical Cartoons
by W.heath Robinson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.48

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The mechanics of war..., 24 July 2015
William Heath Robinson was a British cartoonist and illustrator who is now best remembered for his cartoon contraptions. In fact, he's one of very few cartoonists whose name has become a shortcut in everyday use - in his case, for any design that seems unnecessarily complicated or slightly ridiculous. (Makes me think of these wine bottle openers that require a gas canister, a physics degree and a diploma in Health & Safety to operate.) His career having begun in 1897, he was already well established by the time of the outbreak of WW1, and this collection from the Bodleian Library brings together three of his wartime books - Some 'Frightful' War Pictures (1915), Hunlikely! (1916), and The Saintly Hun: a book of German virtues (1917).

An introduction by Geoffrey Beare of The William Heath Robinson Trust gives a brief biography of the man. Starting out as a book illustrator he gradually moved on to drawing humorous sketches for some of the periodicals of the day. His first 'contraptions' appeared in The Sketch in 1908, in a series entitled 'Great British Industries - Duly Protected.' Over the following years, while book illustrations became less prevalent, his humorous work steadily became more popular. He remained popular between the wars, still entertaining the country with his cartoons during the Second World War, until his death in 1944.

These First World War cartoons are satirical and absurd in tone and directed as much at the British war effort as at the enemy. Apparently they were hugely popular with the troops as well as at home. Some of the things he poked fun at - poison gas warfare, for example - made me think that somewhere during the last century we seem to have lost our willingness to laugh collectively at horrors while keeping our individual fears hidden, or perhaps even as a method of keeping those individual fears at bay. We're much more likely now as a society to protest and publicly emote. I'm not sure which is the healthier reaction, to be honest, since neither seems to prevent war, but these made me think very much of the old 'stiff upper lip' approach we used to take. I suppose in a continent that had been fighting amongst itself since pre-history the people had to have a way of lightening the emotional toll or survival would have been well nigh impossible; and perhaps it's the long years of relative peace (in Western Europe) since WW2 that have caused us to react differently now. The book certainly made me feel that the idea of Tommies trudging through the mud of the trenches cheerily singing 'Tipperary' is not so far-fetched and propagandistic as our generation might think. I like the thought that, even in the midst of the hell around them, the boys at the Front were able to laugh at the tragic absurdities of their situation. It doesn't make the idea of war better but it makes it somehow more bearable.

Anyway... as well as his contraption cartoons, Heath Robinson also drew a series of silhouettes depicting German officers and soldiers performing acts of kindness to old ladies and animals, as an ironic response to the daily reports of atrocities, many true but many propaganda, that were appearing simultaneously in the press. As Mike Webb of the Bodleian Library points out in his preface, "Although in his gentle way Heath Robinson was drawing attention to these stories, there is no rancour or hate in his depictions, and perhaps one can detect too an undercurrent of mockery of not only German propaganda, but also more hysterical sections of the British Press."

Over this 100 year anniversary of the start of WW1, as well as reading a very good history of the lead-up to the war (The War that Ended Peace), I have found that reading some of the complementary publications of writings of the time has added a lot to my understanding of how it must actually have felt, particularly for those at home, as the war dragged on. This collection adds to that understanding, along with the excellent collection of war journalism in The Telegraph Book of the First World War. And on a lighter note many of the cartoons are still as fresh and funny as they would have been at the time. The book itself is good quality and well produced, and would make a great gift for anyone with an interest in the WW1 period. Or for yourself...

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Bodleian Library.

Resorting to Murder: Holiday Mysteries (British Library Crime Classics)
Resorting to Murder: Holiday Mysteries (British Library Crime Classics)
Price: £2.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Trains and boats and planes..., 21 July 2015
Another in the British Library Crime Classics series, this works well as a companion piece to Martin Edward's other recent anthology, Capital Crimes: London Mysteries. As the title suggests, Resorting to Murder is a collection of classic crime stories set in holiday destinations. While a lot of them are set in and around Britain, several others take us abroad, mainly to Europe with the Swiss mountains featuring more than once (well, a good place to make a murder look like an accident, eh?). In his introduction, Edwards suggests that holiday settings were popular with authors since the novelty of the location allowed them to concentrate a bit less on creating strong plots. The stories are in rough chronological order, as in Capital Crimes, again allowing us to see the progression of the mystery story.

There are a few well known names in here – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Adventure of the Devil's Foot is the first story and GK Chesterton appears with a non-Father Brown story. But there also many whom I didn't recognise at all or only knew because they had also appeared in Capital Crimes.

In truth, I thought this collection was quite a bit weaker than the London stories. Perhaps it's the locations – London has always been such a great setting for crime fiction – or perhaps Edwards' point about plotting is at the root of it, but on the whole I found many of these stories pretty obvious and not overly original or atmospheric, and often without much sense of place despite the interesting locations. There is some crossover of authors between the two collections, but there are also several in this who don't appear in the other volume, and I felt one or two had been included for their curiosity value more than for the intrinsic quality of the stories. As usual in any collection, though, the quality is variable and there are enough good stories to outweigh the weaker ones overall, meaning this is still an enjoyable read. 3½ stars for me, so rounded up.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, who publish the Kindle version.

Price: £1.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Loneliness, prejudice and the will to survive..., 21 July 2015
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Robert Neville is the only human left in his neighbourhood and possibly in the world. It's some months since a devastating plague swept through humanity, killing many and turning the rest into vampires. For some reason, Neville alone seemed to be immune. Now he spends each night barricaded into his house, surrounded by all the traditional anti-vampire weapons – garlic, crosses, mirrors – while a growing horde of vampires gathers outside howling for his blood. By day, the vampires go into a coma-like sleep and Neville uses this time to fight back the only way he can – by killing as many of them as he can find.

Put away your anti-vampire fiction prejudices for a moment. The book is sci-fi in the sense that it's set in a near-future and involves a plague, Neville's world is about as dystopian as you can get and there are passages of great horror writing. But Matheson combines all these genres to produce something that is fundamentally about humanity – about loneliness, prejudice and the overwhelming will to survive.

The story is told from Neville’s perspective, though in the third person, and begins by showing his day-to-day existence – checking his house is still secure, making good any damage the vampires have done the night before, collecting any supplies he might need from the abandoned grocery stores. Then if there’s enough daylight left, he takes his stock of wooden stakes and hunts for vampires. The horrors of the plague are never far from his mind, though, and it’s through his memories that the reader learns what happened at that time. And Neville hasn’t given up all hope yet, either that there might be other people who escaped with their humanity intact, or that by studying the medical books in the abandoned libraries he might be able to fathom out the cause of the plague and develop a cure.

The quality of the writing is very high, not always a given in sci-fi. Where a modern day writer would doubtless waffle on for a stultifying 500 pages and throw in a love triangle, (yes, I am bitter…), Matheson cuts to the chase and packs a huge amount into a relatively small space. The search for a cure is done interestingly, with Neville taking the usual vampire story tropes one by one and testing them out to see which ones are true, then speculating on possible scientific causes for why they should work. Why garlic? Why do they only go outside when its dark? Why wooden stakes?

But when evening comes and the shouting and howling begins, then we see the utter loneliness and despair that haunt his nights, with memories of his happy, normal life before the plague constantly reminding him of all he has lost. It’s at these times that he questions what it is that makes him go on day after day, why he is driven to continue with the futile task of killing vampires when he knows that he’ll never be able to make even a tiny dent in their overwhelming numbers. Would it not be easier to give up, go outside and join them? But he is disgusted by them, a visceral, instinctive disgust at their very nature, a disgust that comes as much from hatred of difference as from fear.

The descriptive writing is spare but very effective in building an atmosphere of fear and tension, with occasional gleams of hope serving only to deepen the pervading darkness of despair. Neville isn't a super-hero – he's just a normal guy, meaning that the reader empathises with him. But what pushes this book beyond good and towards great is unfortunately the thing that cannot be discussed in a review without major spoilers. Suffice it to say that, when you have finished reading, you will probably find that you feel very differently than you expected to, and might well be left pondering the very nature of what it means to be human. Intrigued? Then read it...

Lola Rose Alfie Sea Green Jasmine Marble Bracelet of Length 15-21cm
Lola Rose Alfie Sea Green Jasmine Marble Bracelet of Length 15-21cm

5.0 out of 5 stars A happy reviewer..., 20 July 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I've often looked at Lola Rose jewellery on the shopping channel and wondered if it's as good as it looks, so I was delighted to be offered the chance to review this. And even more delighted when it arrived! The quality is excellent. It has a nice solid, chunky feel with some weight to it and is traditionally knotted between each stone. On my sample, the stones are very well matched in colour and beautifully smooth to the touch. They are perhaps just a shade darker than they look on the screen, heading towards turquoise, and the marbling is lovely. The two stones attached to the closure give it that nice, dangly look and a satisfying click-clack when the wrist is moved. The size is adjustable. At its smallest it neatly fits my 7.25" wrist and there's almost two more inches available if required, though obviously this would mean a bigger gap, filled by the cord, between the last two stones. There is a small gold-tone tag with Lola Rose inscribed on one side. The other side is smooth and it would be possible, I think, to have a name engraved onto it, though it's too small for any longer message.

The pouch is also attractive - a red velveteen with matching silk-like lining, which divides into a double pocket, and a tie closure in matching red ribbon, perfect for gift-giving. I would however remove the three plastic bags - one outside, two inside - and must say I am a bit disappointed at the unnecessary use of plastic. Tissue paper would protect the bracelet and pouch just as well, look more attractive and be kinder to the environment. This small criticism aside, though, the quality and look of the bracelet mean that I am one happy reviewer!

The Rival Queens: Catherine de' Medici, her daughter Marguerite de Valois, and the Betrayal That Ignited a Kingdom
The Rival Queens: Catherine de' Medici, her daughter Marguerite de Valois, and the Betrayal That Ignited a Kingdom
by Nancy Goldstone
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.59

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Romping Royals..., 16 July 2015
It's little wonder that Nancy Goldstone has chosen to use quotes from Machiavelli to head each chapter in her romping history of her rival Queens, Catherine de' Medici and her daughter Marguerite de Valois. It was a great time for Queens, though maybe not quite so great for their subjects. Over in England, Elizabeth was working up to the beheading of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. But the shenanigans of Catherine and Marguerite frankly make the British Royals look tame.

Goldstone sets the scene well by beginning with Marguerite's wedding to Henry of Navarre, a marriage she didn't want since she was a devout Catholic and Henry was one of the leaders of the Protestant Huguenots. But Catherine didn't much care for what her children wanted, on the whole - especially her daughters. From her perspective, they were simply pawns to be pushed around on the dynastic chessboard of Europe. To be fair, that was how she had been treated herself, so hardly surprising that she dealt with her own children's wishes as cavalierly. But to then massacre the bridegroom's friends and relatives during the wedding celebrations might have been a little over the top even for Renaissance royalty!

Goldstone then takes us back to Catherine's early life as Queen to Henri II of France. Throughout, the tone of this hugely readable history is light. This early section in particular is full of some fairly ribald humour, as we learn of Catherine's difficulties in becoming pregnant, and the helpful bedroom tips she is offered by Henri's long-term mistress, Diane de Poitiers. In truth, by page 25 I had tears of laughter streaming down my face and my only regret is that if I were to quote the passages that made me howl so much I'm pretty sure Amazon wouldn't let me post the review! Suffice to say, this book has the honour of containing the funniest footnote of all time and my Google search recommendations may never recover...

After this rocky start, Catherine managed to produce ten children (Diane's advice must have been spectacular!) before Henri's death left her poised to become regent for her young son Charles IX. After years of playing second fiddle to Diane and being sidelined as Queen, there might be some slight justification for Catherine's desire to grab power when the chance arose. And she soon proved there was nothing that she wouldn't consider, including murder and war, to hold onto it. Unfortunate for her that this was the time of the Reformation, meaning that the country was almost constantly either in civil war or in danger of it. The Huguenots were numerically hugely outnumbered in the general population, but had some influential people at their head, while the Catholic Guises were constantly on the prowl, looking for opportunities to gain control over the throne for themselves.

Catherine started out willing to conciliate the Huguenots, hence the betrothal of her young daughter to Henry of Navarre. But by the time of the marriage, Catherine's attitude had changed, not for reasons of religious conviction (of which she had none, it would seem), but mainly to try to get in the good books of Philip of Spain. Having gone through with the marriage and then been horrified by the massacre which followed, Marguerite found herself in an uneasy alignment with the Huguenot husband she didn't love and the brother, Francis, whom she did, and at odds with her mother and the King. From there on, the story is one of plot and counter-plot, shifting allegiances, betrayals and lots and lots of romping! Unloved by her husband, Marguerite took comfort in a succession of affairs throughout her life, seeming to be fairly indiscriminate on whom she bestowed her favours. In and out of her mother's favour at different times, always for reasons of politics rather than any kind of familial love, the rivalry was finally resolved only by Catherine's eventual unlamented death. Marguerite's husband later ascended to the throne of France, at which point he promptly divorced the childless Marguerite (if only Diane had still been around to advise, eh?). But they got on better after that, and Marguerite ended her days as a sort of favoured aunt to Henry's children with his second wife, and loved by the populace for her charitable works.

Despite the light tone, the book feels well-researched, although I give my usual disclaimer that I’m not qualified to judge its historical accuracy. Goldstone handles all the personalities well, making it easy for the reader to keep up, despite the fact that almost everyone is called either Henri or Henry. I felt that she was very biased in Marguerite’s favour and against Catherine. As often as not, the source material that she quotes is Marguerite’s own memoirs – again, I can’t judge, but I’d have assumed these would not be an unbiased account of the period. My own view was that Catherine was indeed not a shining example of motherhood, or Queenhood for that matter, but that Marguerite wasn’t exactly blameless either. Both women seemed willing to use their subjects as dispensable pawns in their own struggle for power and wealth and both seemed to have a pretty superficial view of what was important in life – money, sex, money, power and money. Goldstone remarks on Marguerite’s devotion to Catholicism frequently, but her moral behaviour suggests she was pretty relaxed about following the Church’s teachings only when it suited her.

Goldstone just stops short of claiming that Marguerite’s sexual adventures showed her to be an early feminist, demanding the same sexual freedom as the men. This seemed like a fairly ridiculous leap to me – historical characters must surely be judged by the standards of the society in which they lived rather than by those of today, and there seems little doubt that Marguerite was more promiscuous, or at least less discreet, than was considered acceptable at the time. And Goldstone is fairly harsh on Catherine for remaining in control (emotionally and politically) each time one of her children died – again I felt this was projecting today’s sensibilities backwards. Early death was much commoner then and therefore something that had to be coped with. I wondered if Goldstone would have expected a King to fall apart in similar circumstances. It seemed a bit unbalanced that Marguerite’s behaviour was a sign of feminism while Catherine’s was a sign of unwomanliness.

A biased history then, I think, but a highly readable one. At points it reads like a great thriller, complete with cliffhanger endings to chapters, and then at others it becomes like an episode of Dallas, with Catherine in the role of JR and Marguerite as sweet little Pamela. It concentrates entirely on the machinations of those in power, so there is no feeling for the social history of the time beyond mentions of the disruption caused by the religious wars. For me, this was a limitation although clearly an intentional one, and it undoubtedly made the book easier to read and more enjoyable. However sometimes I felt the subject matter perhaps deserved a rather more serious treatment – one feels somehow that the French people probably didn't have as much fun living under these awful monarchs as I had reading about them. A great starter book though for someone who, like me, knows very little of that period of French and European history – a very palatable way to learn some history.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Price: £0.99

4.0 out of 5 stars My heart's in the Highlands..., 14 July 2015
This review is from: Kidnapped (Kindle Edition)
When young Davie Balfour is left orphaned on the death of his father, he is given a letter that his father left for him and told to take it to one Ebenezer Balfour, Esquire, of Shaws. Dutifully he obeys, only to find that miserly old Ebenezer is his uncle, who is not best pleased at having his nephew foisted upon him, for fear he may discover the family secret. So Ebenezer tricks David into going aboard the brig Covenanter, where he is promptly knocked senseless and carried off to be sold into slavery in the Carolinas. But with the help of a new-found friend, Alan Breck Stewart, David escapes and finds himself wandering the Highlands of Scotland – a dangerous place just a few years after the failed Jacobite rebellion, where clan is set against clan, and supporters of the Pretender are being hunted or victimised by those who support the King. And when David is accidentally caught up in a murder, he finds he too is being hunted. His only hope is to make it safely back to the Lowlands, while Alan Breck must try to escape back to France, where his chief is in exile.

Written in 1886, the story is set over a century earlier, in 1752. In reality, it's mainly an adventure story, but I always find old historical novels interesting because of the double hit – seeing how people of an earlier generation interpreted an even earlier historical period. Stevenson gives us a very unromanticised version of the clans as uncouth hard-drinking, hard fighting men scratching out a subsistence living from the barren wastelands of the Highlands - a good deal more accurate, I'd imagine, than some of the later more idealised versions of the Jacobite story.

However, without over-emphasising it, he does show some sympathy for the hardships the Highlanders were forced to suffer at the hands of a government determined to destroy the clan system to prevent further rebellion. He talks of the banning of the kilt and points up the difficulties this caused to those too poor to acquire other kinds of clothing; he describes the hiding of arms to get round the ban on Highlanders carrying weapons; he shows the severe privations caused to the poor by being expected to support their own chieftains in exile while also paying taxes to the government; and he hints at the depopulation of the landscape through forced mass emigration to the New World – the beginnings of the euphemistically named Highland Clearances. But his hero is a loyal supporter of King George and a true son of the Covenanters, complete with priggish antipathy towards anything that might be considered fun.

All of this is entertaining to anyone with an interest in Scottish history, but I feel Stevenson assumes a certain degree of familiarity with the aftermath of the Rebellion that most non-Scottish readers and probably even many modern Scottish readers may not have. And I suspect the result of that may mean that the story feels slow in places as he digresses a little from the action to set the book in its historical and social context. I felt the pacing was uneven overall. There are some great action scenes – the battle aboard the ship, the shipwreck, the flight from the murder scene – but there are also quite lengthy lulls, usually when poor David is taken ill, which happens with great regularity. Again, probably realistic given the circumstances, but not the stuff of which great heroic adventures are normally made. And I found his personality grating – the older David who is narrating the story frequently remarks himself on how self-obsessed and immature his younger self's behaviour was, and I could only agree. There is some Scots dialect in the dialogue but not enough and not broad enough, I think, to cause problems for non-Scottish readers.

The beginning of the book was the best part for me, when David was at sea, and it picked up again towards the end, when they had made it back to civilisation and set out to prove David's identity. But I found the central section dragged, when David and Alan are wandering interminably around the Highlands, and half the time is spent on David bemoaning the physical hardship he is undergoing or describing his ill-health. And the ending is so abrupt that I actually wondered if a final chapter might be missing from my Kindle edition, but apparently not. Definitely worth reading, but personally I enjoyed Treasure Island more.

PetSafe FroliCat Pounce Rotating Cat Teaser
PetSafe FroliCat Pounce Rotating Cat Teaser
Price: £24.90

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gets Tuppence's seal of approval..., 14 July 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
First impressions. Wild excitement from both cats when I switched it on (Tommy and Tuppence-style wild excitement, that is, which is pretty laid back...). Two minutes of watching, then Tommy did his hunting dance and Tuppence dived straight into attack mode.

Four minutes in - Tommy got bored and went off out the catflap. Tuppence still enthralled.

Ten minutes - it stopped according to plan. Tuppence investigated the whole thing thoroughly and then insisted on a replay.

Thirteen minutes - Tuppence got bored and went for a nap.

This is actually a reasonably high success level especially for Tuppence. I shall only let her play with it once a day or she'll get bored really quickly. Tommy hardly ever plays with things like this, so four minutes interest for him is pretty good too. It seems well enough made and even when Tuppence was stopping the mouse with her paw it started working again as soon as she let go. I think it'll stand up to my two pretty well. Every cat will be different no doubt, but Tuppence actually prefers the low speed to the higher ones (there are four).

Comes well packaged in a cardboard box though it does have an unnecessary plastic bag inside. Easy to put the batteries in and the control button is on the top, so easy to access. I see a lot of people have said it's really noisy - I don't think it's bad really. I'd easily be able to listen to TV even while it was on. I also don't think it's particularly flimsy, which seems to be another criticism people are making - it's robust enough for its purpose. So far, so good. I'll add to the review in a few weeks to advise whether it holds Tuppence's interest once the novelty wears off.

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