Devil’s Consort – Anne O’Brien

This book has the subtitle “England’s Most Ruthless Queen” and, yes, it’s about Eleanor of Aquitaine. There are quite a few novels about this character from writers such as Alison Weir, and very good they are too. They unusually concentrate on her marriage to Henry II, who followed the troubled reign of Stephen. This is not surprising , as they did have eight children together, and during the good times reigned over a vast territory including England and much of what is today France.There are lots of tales about rebellion, mistresses and Eleanor actually being imprisoned by her husband following her support of her sons. This novel takes a different view, of Eleanor’s earlier life, when she was married to Louis, King of France.

This is a novel about how a young woman of fifteen marries a king, mainly because she has inherited a vast duchy from her father.  O’Brien paints such a realistic picture of disappointment as it soon becomes obvious that Louis is a very religious man, but a bad king in many ways. Most importantly for this novel, he is a very poor husband. This is a book about how Eleanor establishes herself as queen, ruler of Aquitaine and a woman. She is admittedly selfish, unfaithful and the most unconcerned mother of two daughters, but she is very intelligent, aware of her power, and intends to live on her own terms. She lives in Paris unwillingly, and seizes the chance to escape on Crusade with Louis, which opens up a new world of experience for her. This period of her life is often brushed over in other novels, but this book reveals much about the danger and hardship that she faced, as well as the temptation. There are several theories about what really happened on this Crusade, especially Eleanor’s relationship with her uncle Raymond, ruler of Antioch. This is just one version which shows what may have taken place, but it is probably true that Eleanor was unwilling to leave Antioch. The whole picture of Louis as a fearfully religious man helps explain why she was so keen to leave the marriage, and why she was seen more in terms of a huge opportunity to rule rather than a wife. There is lot about women at this time being seen as merely producers of male heirs, and not rulers in their own right, even if they have inherited vast tracts of land.

O’Brien like many historical novelists has written a variety of books about the great characters of history, as well as semi fictional supporting characters. There is some debate about what readers want; women that they may have heard of, or ‘real’ people who are easier to identify with. I often read books about women (and some men) who were significant in British history, and I must admit this novel went to the bottom of the pile as I have read several about Eleanor (including a very successful series by Elizabeth Chadwick, unfinished a the moment).

(I ought to write a review of these two novels, which I enjoyed reading very much. I must try to get round to it before the third and final volume comes out!)

But I am very glad that I picked this one out to read, as it presents a vivid picture of the young Eleanor, which goes a long way to explain why Eleanor acted as she did, even though Henry apparently was a lot more satisfactory as a husband.  O’Brien has written several novels which I have enjoyed as easy to read. Perhaps they are not as densely researched as some books, but are good at the atmosphere and humanity of the women she depicts. A good summer read, well, if we ever get any summer weather…

Curtain Call – Anthony Quinn

This is a book for many people who are interested in the events and atmosphere of 1936. It also deals with theatre, critics and art. It is a thriller in an historical setting, with a murder mystery thrown in. So far, so reasonable.

But I think that this novel does more. It also deals with the bleak choices for lone women who need to support themselves. It also deals with the problems faced by men in different relationships and situations. There are so many dangers in this book beyond the obvious one of a murderer on the loose; to reputations, to careers and relationships. The characters are sympathetic, maddening and vulnerable, and for the most part, realistic. Yet this is not a huge book that takes weeks to read, it is a compact novel which moves at a swift pace.

I read and enjoyed Quinn’s earlier book, Half of the Human Race, which deals variously with suffragettes, cricket and the First World War. While I thought that it was a really good read, I got frustrated by the fact that Quinn had almost included three novels in one. Curtain Call is a far more cohesive book, where the five main characters inhabit a smaller world, where they meet and interact. Thus I think it is a better book, one that can be recommended to more readers than those willing and able to take on a big read as in Quinn’s earlier book.

Nina is one of the main characters in the novel, who witnesses a crime while she is in a hotel with Stephen, a married man.  The dilemma of what to do dominates the early part of the novel, while other characters emerge with less than positive motives. While the character of Jimmy is a great creation, I also felt strongly for Tom who struggles with life. There are characters who would exasperate in real life, but who are well drawn. It is difficult to enlarge on the plot, as this does novel does in part depend on suspense. It is not just a whodunnit, or even a whydunnit, but more of a discrimination of characters in situations.

This is not a self consciously literary novel, but nevertheless a very well written book. The paperback edition includes some interesting material for discussion and about the process of writing the novel, and points towards Quinn’s next book which takes one of the characters onwards. I think that the title Curtain Call works better than the alternative The Distinguished Thing as it covers the content well in spirit as well as in fact. It is more than a “poignant” read as described on the back cover; it feels more like a slice of life.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

This is one of the classic books that I recently re-read for a Bookworms meeting. I say re- read because I’m sure I have read it at least once before, but it’s difficult to tell because I have also watched the near perfect TV version filmed at Castle Howard. I was surprised how closely this version follows the book; large chunks of dialogue is lifted straight from the novel. I suppose it reflects the leisured approach to adaptation for the screen, which can make for lengthy series (Forsyte Saga?) but exact reproduction of the book. The lovely Castle Howard is fairly local to us, and I know that if you get the right service bus you go through part of the grounds. I have not actually visited it, but certainly the landscape is beautiful.

(A quick memory from the series)

This is a book that many people think that they have read, but if you have not, it is certainly one to be put on your list.

Charles Ryder has gone to Oxford from a background as different as possible from his chance met friend, Lord Sebastian Flyte. Charles father is a preoccupied man who barely seems to notice that he has a son, but throughout the book he provides some unintentional humour. Sebastian comes from a family seemingly split by money and religion, but it is the latter factor which comes to dominate the novel. The Marchmain family inhabit beautiful, huge buildings, but seem to communicate only to dominate and in some respects, destroy.

When we discussed this book, we raised the problem in this book of the strict Catholicism which is followed by some family members, which can be destructive as much as comforting. Charles, a character who sees what is happening but seems unable to prevent or alleviate tragedy, is more than an observer but there are times when I wish he would act more decisively to save at least Sebastian. There is so much in this book, but I enjoy the Oxford section of bad behaviour and golden youth, when Charles first sees and falls in love with a house, a lifestyle and so much else. There are some memorable sections throughout the book, but I think that it is the first half with its glorious assumption of life as it has always been lived, and will always be lived, which survives. The story is so strong, the people so real, that the cracks and downfall seem so painful. Real love seems elusive, but there are so many undercurrents going on that it is difficult to categorize this book and if it can be seen as a religious book, reportage of a lifestyle, or a book of tragedy.  I believe that Waugh had mixed feelings about this book, probably his best known, but I think that it is a stunning portrayal of a time, place and people that are almost too real at times.

So, if you have a little time over these warmer (!) months, are happy to sink into a world so different from that which we (probably!) live in, and want a book which asks lots of questions about a family under pressure, this is a classic summer read.


Rumspringa’s Hope by Beth Shriver

As you may have noticed, most of the books I review on this blog are available in the UK, often classics, and sometimes feature on bestseller lists. I obviously have my obsessions, like Persephone books, and Slightly Foxed editions, which are a little more obscure. Today’s book is unusual as it is an American book, possibly aimed at Young Adults, and was put forward by the Religious Learning Resources Centre for review up here in the grey North East. So, on the basis of a change being as good as a rest, here it goes…

This is a book I would not normally have picked up to read, but it is nonetheless interesting and for me at least, an unusual read.

Emma and her family live as part of an Amish community in America, near Philadelphia. It is a closed community, self supporting and depending largely on agricultural work, carried out by old fashioned methods; no factory farming here. Her brother, Mark, is troubled, and he is interested in going on Rumspringa, when young people go into the outside world for a short time. I think the idea is that this gives them a glimpse of a world which is so frightening, so different to their experience of growing up Amish that they quickly retreat back to their community, marry and bring up a family. Emma feels that she must accompany her brother, though she is a little older than normal. She has history, though very circumspect, with Caleb, who has led groups into the worst areas of Philadelphia. She is also being pursued, matrimonially, by Zeb, who sees her as a way of getting his hands on her family farm as well as a useful wife and worker.

This is a book which tries to show how the Amish way of life offers security, strong values and an alternative way of life. Part of Emma’s mission to the city is to evangelise, and offer the homeless and poor help materially and spiritually. I’m not sure that her views would work outside a community which is still very patriarchal and enclosed. This is not a Christian message of hope for all, it is offering a lifestyle which those outside the community would struggle to embrace. There is not much practical help shown to those in the city, and much is made of those young people who leave the community being quick to return rather than embarking on long term mission work. Caleb, the love interest, is shown as being condemned for leaving the community rather than celebrated for making worthwhile contributions in the city.

I was not the target audience for this book. I think that if it is not intended as a Young Adult novel, it could well be. It is an interesting view of a life I knew little about; an enclosed agricultural community built on a traditional faith in America. It shows a community challenged by, but not changed by, the outside world. Women are the homemakers and workers, but not decision makers. I suppose that I am surprised that communities like this still exist. City life is unattractive, negative and dangerous. The young people seem to be shown only the worst possible alternative to their life in the community, so it is not surprising that they return as soon as possible.

This is a readable, well written book which is presumably the first in a series. I found it easy to read and an interesting anthropological study, rather than a personal novel. It could be read as a romance, a young person’s novel, but not a huge statement of faith. If you were seeking an insight into the Amish way of life this would be a good read, but as a book with a Christian message it offers little by way of example, evangelism or spiritual insight.

So, a longer review than usual of an unusual book for me. I think the next review will be back to a very English book in direct contrast to this!

Us – David Nicholls

I think I enjoyed this novel. I think I managed to follow the story, the art and the angst. I think I had some sympathy with the main character, Douglas. But,  frankly, there was too much thought in this book. Too much of Douglas pondering life the universe and everything.  I’m not terrifically surprised that his wife despairs of him and his son isn’t too keen either.

I suppose it is a strength of the writing of this book which describes a trip round Europe interspersed with recollections of a life that the main characters are strong enough to have feelings about. Except that there is the danger that we hear so much about what Douglas is thinking and feeling that the other characters are just there to react to him. I realise that the weakness of first person narrative is that we get to hear a lot about what that character perceives but precious little about what is really going on for the other characters in the book. Here that becomes annoying, as Connie ( Douglas’ wife) is described but never really comes to life for me. She is meant to be the bohemian artist – type, who gives up her lifestyle for the rather boring, rather over organised Douglas. I know that opposites are meant to attract, and Douglas is as surprised as anyone when she adopts the more conventional lifestyle, but I’m not convinced.

The scenery of this book is meant to be splendid, and it does seem to describe the reality of the “Grand Tour ” in the twenty – first century, with trains and plains meaning that I was not always sure where the action is meant to be taking place. We are treated to descriptions of some low spots as well as the famous attractions with attendant queues. There is a lot about art here, the great paintings of Europe in both the guidebook and evoking reactions way, but I was left a bit bemused. Was that meant to anchor the action, or give the reader chance to agree with the reaction. Either way, I’m not sure if they added greatly to the overall narrative.

The story in this novel is not as strong as in its predecessor, One Day . In that book there was a welcome shift in focus, an interesting contrast of perspective.  This book is a good read, but it is so much through one character’s eyes that I think it does not quite live up to its promise. Maybe that is more realistic, but it is definitely limiting.  Possibly it is a more “male” directed book, which I do not mean to be critical in any way, and I am not suggesting that there are men and women’s books and never the twain shall meet. I just feel that my sympathies were not engaged in the same way as if this book was less relentlessly from one point of view. The narrator does have moments when he realises how he must appear to his nearest and dearest, but that does not change how he behaves or (over)reacts.

I was continually reminded of two other books written from a similar perspective, The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect, by Graeme Simsion. These feature first person narration, unlikely relationships, and extremes of behaviour (as well as much foreign travel) . Curiously I enjoyed these books more, partly because they were more extreme, funny and just less self aware. I know it’s not fair to compare these books in many ways, and Us is a very, very good book. I would undoubtedly recommend it, but with a slight warning that it is not the most optimistic book that you could read this summer.

Death of an Airman – Christopher St John Sprigg – British Library Crime Classic

Another British Library Crime Classic, another murder mystery set in that Golden Age of Crime Fiction by an author that definitely deserves rediscovery.

I read this book while sitting in the sun at Wallington, a lovely National Property here in Northumberland.  A beautiful setting (though more chocolate would have been nice) to read an “ingenious” book, as Dorothy L Sayers apparently wrote in appreciation. A quick inspection of the introduction written, once more, by Martin Edwards, points out that it is impossible to reveal too much about the plot. Be assured that it is full of detail and twists, however, and takes a bit of following throughout.

This is a book set in the world of inter war aviation, when flying planes for more than simply getting from A to B was all the rage. Anyone with money and time could learn to fly a dazzling range of planes, at a time that records were still being broken for flying across oceans. This book is more concerned with more local flying feats, and even the most reluctant aviator (that would be me) can find much to enjoy in this book.

An Australian bishop finds his way to Baston Aero Club, intent on learning to fly a plane to get around his diocese. He is polite and quite taken with the manager, Sally Sackbut, who is driven to exasperation by the antics of the other instructors, pupils and people hanging around the base. These two are the first of the memorable characters to be found in this story, no mere murder mystery composed of puzzles and a confused detective. In this book there is quite the right combination of procedure, diversion of attention, crisis and murder. It has some very funny moments among the mayhem, as the local fund raising lady is described as a tank and just as difficult to avoid, as well as Sally’s outbursts and the bishop’s confusion about flying. Yes, it is difficult to write about this book without giving too much away, but I did enjoy the characters hugely, a factor which does not always feature in murder mysteries, even in this period.

Christopher St. John Sprigg apparently died just before he turned thirty in the Spanish Civil War, a convinced communist. He wrote seven detective novels which have been nearly impossible to find. I hope that the British Library has plans to bring out more of his books, possibly The Perfect Alibi which Sayers enthused about according to the introduction. I enjoyed this book, a worthy addition to this series, and  a very entertaining read for a summer afternoon (or any time really. With chocolate, obviously…)

Murder on a Midsummer Night – Kerry Greenwood

One of my other obsessions (apart from books, chocolate…) is Netflix (other tv services are available, but probably not as cheap). Through searching for something else to watch, we found the Miss Fisher mysteries. In case you have not yet found it, this is an Australian series about a wealthy woman private detective, set in the 1920s, rejoicing in the name of Phryne Fisher. She has many unlikely adventures as she solves cases of murder and mayhem in Melbourne, while wearing amazing outfits which would normally preclude climbing walls and advanced self defence.

I searched out the first three books in the series of Phryne Fisher mysteries which I had bought on a whim a while ago from The Book People. They are great! The first three books are quick reads, setting up the characters and situation of detection and crime solving. They are not immensely challenging in terms of mysteries, but the solutions are satisfying in terms of character. Set variously on trains and planes, as well as the neighbourhoods of Melbourne, they seem fairly correct in terms of transport, fashion and behaviour for the period. The characters overlap with those in the TV series, but as you would expect are more complex and rounded. Some of the relationships differ, but essentially these are the same stories. The early books are lightweight, enjoyable reads, with interesting insights into the time and places in which they are set. I enjoy reading about the scandalous progress of Phryne as she, together with her well paid and interesting household, solve mysteries. They are far more detailed than the TV versions as you would expect, given a greater range of character possibilities and setting. They are variously set on trains and early planes, on the basis that Phryne is equally at home wherever she finds herself.

The later books, which I have borrowed from the library in two cases, become more complex and frankly, interesting. In Death Before Wicket there is an interesting sidelight on women’s choices when their husband becomes unable or unwilling to support them. There is an interesting view of academic life, while circumstances and characters combine to comment on bohemian life on the fringes. These are not great physiological works, and it is nearly impossible to get bogged down in plot or setting. This is a funny book, with some adult themes.

Murder on a Midsummer Night        Cocaine Blues TV tie-in edition     9781741140958.jpg

Murder on a Midsummer Night  is a later book, and boasts two mysteries which Phryne is asked to solve, each of which necessitate bringing in various members of her circle.  Thus the Comrades of the taxi join forces with charitable ladies, a seance which succeeds a wake becomes deliberately  spooky, and family splits get mixed with scandal. I really enjoyed this more substantial novel in a good series, and found it more challenging and therefore more satisfying. There is still the same eye for clothes, decor and character, but this book presents them in a more significant way as contributing to the novel overall. It is not great literature, but is nonetheless worth reading for pleasure. It even boasts a detailed Bibliography, surely rare in a novel, but it is very interesting. Another point worthy of note; most of the action takes place in boiling hot, uncomfortable weather. In January. It’s Australia….

These books (and author!) have even got their own website: which lists all the books.

So if you want an unusual read, and plenty of books in a series, try tracking down these books (or TV Programmes!)

Oh, and the other big book of the day, Go Set A Watchman?. Husband went and bought me a copy, and so far so good. The general impression from articles and interviews with early readers suggests that the overall novel is not so strong, but the writing seems to me very good; including a very funny incident on a sleeper train….

Carried Away – Alice Munro

A book of short stories proved to be an interesting choice for our book group, especially when it is a densely printed book of not such short, short stories. Munro’s collection apparently covers a twenty five year period, and certainly there is a lot of variety within this book.

We soon decided that it was going to be impossible to expect everyone to read all of the stories in what proved to be a three week gap since the last meeting. I found, and I was not alone, that each story was too dense, too rich to be rushed through, and it was only really possible to read one a day / a sitting.

We each therefore tackled four stories, and while there was an overlap in the ones chosen, such as the first one, Royal Beatings, there was enough variety and subject matter in the stories chosen to be interesting. We ranged over the choice of title (appropriate or not) and the endings (satisfactory or otherwise). We wondered about the domestic violence of Royal Beatings, but also the frustration inherent in the life of women in the poverty of the times. We felt that some endings did not tie up all the themes and subjects started in the stories, and we wondered why some episodes had been included at all. While some stories seemed fairly delicately written, such as The Bear Went Over the Mountain, it had a sordid underlining issue of infidelity.  Some stories were linked by characters or settings, while others introduced an entire, Canadian, world view of its own. We were confused by the ending of Carried Away, as we admitted we really could not decide what was happening. Some motifs also reappeared, such as the job in a bookshop changing a life.

Overall an interesting experiment for discussion, which proved detailed and challenging. I went on to read “The Children Stay” in “That Glimpse of Truth”, a collection of short stories edited by David Miller. (Incidentally, a useful collection of short stories by an excellent selection of authors). This is a delicately written of a woman whose peaceful family life is threatened by her surprise casting in an amateur play. It has an interesting view of relationships, which is such a dominant theme in Munro’s stories. The children become touchingly real, and the central character becomes realistically confused about her life. Munro’s stories are rich and challenging, and remain surprisingly relevant even if actually depicting an early twentieth century period. I think that this is a book to own, as it will take some time to read and appreciate this ‘greatest hits’ volume.


Funny Girl – Nick Hornby

I am not hugely knowledgeable about Nick Hornby’s work, but I read one of his previous novels Juliet, Naked and although I found it a strange, uneven book, bits and images have remained. So when I saw Funny Girl  I bought a copy as a present, then later borrowed it from the library to actually read!

I must admit, I could not see it greatly appealing to the person in their 20s that I first bought  it for at first glance, but actually when I thought about it, this book does have some interesting things to say about how the expectations of women have changed.

The story opens in the mid sixties, when Barbara wins Miss Blackpool. Suddenly she realises that a year spent opening things and starring in the local paper is not enough. She has greater ambitions, to emulate Lucille Ball, currently starring in  I Love Lucy . So she departs for London, leaving her family behind. She soon discovers that she has not got much of a clue about how to get into television, or indeed much else. Through a series of lucky chances, as well as fortunate glimpses of her real talent, she manages to fall in with some writers desperate for success with a pilot in the BBC Comedy Playhouse. By this time she has become Sophie Shaw, actress, and the new show “Barbara (and Jim)” becomes an unexpected hit. Television politics intervene, and gradually romance of a genuine nature enters her life. The story is gentle, the incident is realistic, and the narrative fairly strong.

I enjoyed this book because of its carefully constructed sense of period, helped by adverts, listings and general ephemera adapted to suit a fictitious TV hit. It reminded me of a childhood watching (too much) TV, and the way everyone watched the same programme at the same time. The central character is a optimistic, talented woman, who finds those who love her and treats them well. It is an emotional book, as she leaves her small, broken family whose reactions to her success are heartfelt. I found the depiction of the gay characters intriguing in a period when illegality and subterfuge were the order of the day, until challenged by determined individuals. I also found the way Barbara /Sophie was treated fascinating, on the basis of her looks before her talent.

I suppose my main criticism is that in many ways this is a dated book in terms of style. It depends too much on coincidence, of the heroine being at the right place at the right time, of everyone treating her well and fairly. I struggle to believe that her lack of knowledge and survival skills would have meant that she would have really succeeded so spectacularly in real life. This is a charmed life, but well lived. It is not a great literary work, but an enjoyable read. It is uneven and many issues go undeveloped, such as the way women were normally portrayed on screen at this time compared with this rather unusual series. So, less, a good summer read, but not as good on the role of women as some books currently available.

Quick Curtain by Alan Melville – A British Library Crime Classic

This is an extremely fast review. This book was only available last Wednesday or Thursday. Of course, it was originally published in 1934, so there are apparently some very old copies around. Either way, this is an enjoyable addition to the British Library Crime Classics collection.

As it was written in the 1930s, it is obviously a dated book, a crime novel written in that Golden Age period so well documented by Martin Edwards. He writes the introduction to this edition, quoting no less a person than Dorothy L.Sayers. She recognises that this is “Light entertainment”, calling the main character “This happy policeman”. She is a little disapproving of the absolute lack of procedure in this book, but Edwards points out how difficult it is to write a “witty whodunit” and sustain the joke. This something that I think the book just about manages, and is basically a funny , if slightly cynical book.

The book opens on an opening night, as the London show “Blue Music” starts its run. There is much here about the rather dubious encouragement of fans who camp out for seats and spend a fortune to see the not so talented but well promoted stars. Before long someone gets killed, and the attention of Mr Wilson, a senior policemen at Scotland Yard is caught. With only his journalist son to help him (he never goes into the office), Mr Wilson tracks down actors, stage hands and sundry wives in a story that not only takes in London but also a lovely little village, in which yet more characters behave to type. The story twists and turns, but is always funny. The relationship between Mr Wilson senior and junior is very funny, and the series of telegrams from the undercover son keeping his father get more and more surreal. I enjoyed reading the exchanges, especially when the disappearing cook/maid is seen. While some things are obvious, the plot twists are often unforeseen. Even the smallest character, such as the postmistress, feels real in a very amusing way. This is in no way great literature, and arguably not a serious murder mystery. It is possibly one of the funniest mysteries I have read. I would recommend it as a good, light murder mystery if there is such a thing, and I would be keen to read anything else written by this author. It is especially good for all those interested in the theatre of the early twentieth century in a light, cynical vein.