The Beauty of the Wolf by Wray Delaney – A story of magic, love and the true nature of beauty

Image result for beauty of the wolf delaney

Fantasy, fairy tale, morality story; this is an unusual and fascinating book of historical fiction which moves between Shakespeare’s London (though he is only mentioned once, and then obscurely) and a village dominated by a forest. Gender, sexuality and the world of the supernatural are fluid in this adult novel which deals with the true nature of beauty. While gothic horror and death are never far away, the curse of perfect beauty is examined in a novel in which nothing and nobody is as it seems, leading to many twists and turns. While historical fantasy of the most complex nature abounds, this book has much to say about love and the parent child relationship in a curiously modern light. I was very pleased to receive a copy of this lovely book to read and review.

This book opens with a section from the view of the Sorceress, who will not only be a significant character in the novel, but also a force of many of the events. She identifies strongly with the ancient oaks which the evil Lord Rodermere has pledged to cut down and use in the construction of his house that becomes known as the House with Three Turrets. In vengeance for this crime, she places a curse on him to the effect that his son will grow to kill him. At that stage he has but one daughter, Clare, who has been scarred by a childhood illness. She is someone who is not really developed, but would make an interesting character in her own right. Eventually a boy arrives who grows to be stunningly beautiful, and who is accordingly called Beau. Meanwhile, Rodermere has disappeared, and an alchemist who is summoned to help find him, Thomas, comes and goes. He has a secret child, who grows to be a terrible beast in form; a girl who is aware that she repulses people by her half furred appearance, and her immense wings. Thus the Beauty and the Beast tale is changed around, as the girl becomes tragically aware of her appearance in a neat symbol of how some young women become obsessed with their body image. Many complex adventures ensue, as the memorable Gally and a company of actors turn up. It is this group of actors who provide some light relief, as Shakeshaft and Crumb frequently get drunk and there are sly references to a better known player who was also working in London at the time. Curses, ultimatums and love become increasingly complex as various levels of revelations are made and the action moves between the House and London.

Delaney has constructed a world of magic and unpredictability that make this unusual novel simply captivating for the reader. She writes “Here then is a truth: man is a creature who feeds on stories as beasts feed on raw meat. We inflame our senses with such wild imaginings that our minds are but kindling for the tale”. This is a novel of wild tales, fantastic events and incredible imagination, and as such is a unique experience. It is also a beautiful book to handle in its hardback form.  I recommend it as a book of adult fairy tales, with some brutality and yet some delicacy, always fascinating and genuinely enjoyable.

 

The other evening during Storm Freya (!) we went to see the film “Stan and Ollie” which was virtually a private screening. We enjoyed it as a story, and found the two leads gave very touching performances. As someone who watched a lot of television in my childhood I have fond memories of the famous pair in some of their films being repeated at odd times, so I felt quite the expert, whereas Northernvicar was new to the sketches and songs. Like any good biographical film the mannerisms are faithfully reproduced, at least in the public persona, so the image was convincing. I imagine the film will be finishing in the cinemas very soon, so it may now be a dvd experience, and it is a worthwhile film to watch.

Oh, I Do Like To Be…by Marie Phillips – Misunderstandings at the Seaside with Shakespeare…

A strange but funny book, this is an extravagant farce involving one of the best known names in British history – or rather his clone, or two. It has an equally strange title as it is set in a seaside town, and is consequently full of references to the beach and rather sad Bed and Breakfast establishments. Not terribly scientific, but enormous fun as people run in and out of buildings, around the small town and generally avoid the truth for as long as possible, while creating misunderstandings at every step. After readings Phillips’ previous books, I was especially keen to take part in the blog tour for this book by offering a review.

Billy and his sister Sally have just arrived in town. Within seconds we learn about their relationship; she is carrying the bulk of their luggage while Billy delicately pulls a suitcase. Billy tries to come up with observations of the rather tatty scenery, while soaking up the atmosphere and sending his evidently downtrodden sister off to find a place to stay. He is also fed up of whatever he has been doing, as he realises that despite his beginning as a clone of William Shakespeare, he can never create anything really memorable. He is vaguely in touch with his mother, but obviously she has had high expectations of his writing. When Sally returns, he is pleased to hear that she has found a place for them to stay, but is stunned to find a beautiful woman there, among a house full of books that she evidently assumes represent his well received writing. Meanwhile, the original newly arrived in town Sally has encountered Bill, the real owner of the house, husband of the beautiful Thadie, and successful writer. Confusion and much hilarity ensue, as no one seems to be sure who is truly who in a small town where personalities overlap and complications get more dramatic.

I enjoyed this book; it was a light read which I speeded through, while appreciating the characters. It was an intriguing concept; how would the greatest writer in the world truly fare when in the twenty first century? It is not a great literary novel, but a very human one about the problems that real people unintentionally get themselves into everyday, even if these are rather extreme. There are one or two set pieces that are particularly funny, despite the fact that the characters enduring them do not appreciate them at the time. The characters are consistent in their behaviour, and the rather tatty B&B is well described. There are always times when an easy to read book is the answer and for a well written light hearted read this book is highly recommended.

We took a few hours out of the parish today and went to the cinema to see “Colette”. It was less spectacular than “The Favourite”, especially as we went to the small city cinema rather than the front row of a multi screen! It was brilliantly well acted, the costumes were superb, and the filming of the French countryside seemed pretty good to us. Both films are to be recommended, and soon I would like to see another female dominated film – Mary, Queen of Scots…

The White King – Charles I by Leanda de Lisle – A Vivid Portrait of a Controversial King

Image result for white king leanda de lisle

This is a book that in many ways reads like a novel. That said, it is also a non- fiction history book, well presented with at least some of the hallmarks of a scholarly book: extensive notes on the chapters with bibliographic details and full index. As with her previous book on the Tudors, de Lisle manages to combine her research with an eye for a readable story in which seems an effortless combination, though I am sure it is the result of living with the research. This is the story of a king whose fate is well known, as he literally fought for his throne only to die in a public execution. Despite this, the book manages to convey the humanity of not only Charles “Traitor, Murderer, Martyr” as it states in the title, but also his family and those who followed him, even to their own executions.

The Author’s Note at the start of the book describes de Lisle’s attitude to the “White King”: “The real Charles was neither a saint, nor his wife’s puppet, but a man of strengths and failings”. She does not worship the man that this book portrays so well; she knows that his “flaws and misjudgements lead to his ruin”, and that he is not a victim of a long and exhaustive plot. However, she undoubtedly recognises him as courageous and with high ideals, and this book is the story of a man whose dependence on the self-interested and misguided led him into many difficulties, as well as a role as king of an uneasy combination of English and Scottish interests. His father’s example was one of personal unattractiveness but overset by sufficient statecraft to maintain his uneasy kingdom; Charles was forced to deal with all the problems of a religious settlement challenged by the perception of continuous Catholic threat personified in his wife. The problems of a Europe riven by discord that he felt obliged to involve himself in meant continuous strains on a royal purse that was far from bottomless, and laid him open to disloyalty and even attack. He was loyal to those around him; eventually his wife and children were his first concern and when they were under perceived threat his political judgement was less than acute. This is a decidedly chronological story as de Lisle works through the story of a man beset with difficulties, whose tastes for the beautiful and visual in his collection of art works are not matched by a political intelligence which may have saved him and his throne. He was arguably more sinned against than sinning; he ascended a throne in default of an elder brother and perhaps never replaced him in his own eyes let alone those around him. This book conveys so much of the humanity of those involved, as his family’s reaction to his execution shows. Charles is shown as a man in the midst of difficulties, whose inability to see the long term effects of his actions probably led to his downfall.

There are many possible readings of the reign and death of Charles, as with so much of history. In this confident and controlled book de Lisle makes her account an intensely human one, full of the small details that make up a complex life in which Charles is more than a victim, yet flawed and often struggling to assert an authority he was uncertain of, despite his high ideals of kingship. This book offers much to the non-specialist reader who is interested in the story of a king and those around him. It also serves as a basis for further study for those willing to pursue his story.

This review originally appeared on Shiny New Books, but as I noticed that this book has now gone paperback for early 2019 I thought that I would republish it. I do actually consult lots of non fiction books, but do not read them to cover to cover; this one was so readable that it flows well as a fascinating read. I received some impressive history books over the festive system – I wonder when I will finish them!

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans – A Review Revived in honour of the paperback edition!

Image result for lissa evans old baggage

There are some books which are so good that I struggle to find words to suggest how much I appreciate them, and this is one of them. A novel with a big agenda in some ways, yet carefully controlled as the story of a few women who are struggling in a world where part of their lives’ work has been achieved, yet in many ways not much has changed. It is essentially the tale of what happened to those brave women who took on the establishment when there was every danger of them being ignored, only to find their fight had perhaps not essentially changed attitudes and real oppression. It is the story of women who lost much in a war, but have been prevented from fighting and winning their own battles. Evans chooses to base her novel on one woman and those around her, but it is the story of a movement which had inspired her life, and left many women bereft of purpose in a world where their battle seems to be won, but much has not improved. It is undoubtedly a clever idea, to remember the damaging battle for the vote, the First World War, and the brave new post war world in which the women now find themselves, through the eyes of a strong but frustrated woman.

Mattie Simpson is first seen as the victim of a robbery. She is not upset at the loss of her bag as the loss of her weapon which symbolised the suffrage battles which still dominate her mind for so much of the time. She lives some of the time in her memories of when she and her friends, allies, made a difference, took real action to fight for what they believed in, even to the extent of ruining their health and the real fear of forcible feeding in prison (readers of a delicate disposition should look away). The camaraderie of common ideals has been reduced to fighting minor skirmishes with neighbours and others shocked by her lifestyle. Her faithful companion, Florrie or “The Flea” is a sort of health visitor, made angry by the suffering of the mothers and babies she sees. Significantly as she is without property herself she cannot use the vote hard won in the campaign she actually managed in the mundane tasks of administration. She has a secret sadness, but eventually cannot continue picking up the pieces of others’ lives. One of the former suffragettes has married and found her hope in a form of fascism; another war is approaching and some see their hope in values familiar to those familiar with the rise of the right. Another has become an alcoholic, trying to grasp reality but struggling to survive. Not that this is a miserable book in any sense; there are times it can be funny and the main protagonist is often wilfully awkward.  Evans uses her true ear for dialogue  to convey so many people here, the strong willed, the sad, the ambitious, the caring.

In some ways this is the story of an obsession, which causes grief. It is a novel about the loss of a sense of purpose, as well as sisters in a battle which did not improve the lives of most people. However, there is a sense of hope, of change, of improvement from which the next generation will benefit. This book is based in London, but the Heath becomes almost a character as it is the place of so much of the action. It is a book rooted in a place, yet with characters who go beyond the here and now. I truly enjoyed this novel, and am so glad to read a review copy in advance of publication. I think that it has done well in hardback – it deserves to do so well in paperback.

 

This review originally appeared on Shiny New Books when the book first appeared, but having seen the book in its paperback form I thought would revive my review. It certainly made my books of the year list, and I hope that if you have not found it yet, you soon will!

 

A Very Murderous Christmas – Ten Classic Crime Stories for the Festive Season

Image result for a very murderous christmas

Murder for Christmas? There seems to be a tradition of buying, and hopefully reading, murder mystery novels at this time of year. Possibly people fondly imagine that they will have time to actually read an entire novel over the festive season, but for those who lack that sustained reading time, this is an ideal book. Ten short stories by a mixture of writers, ranging from the clever development on classics to actual Golden Age gems, this is a book which will have something for everyone. The cosy, the clever and the complex are all represented here for enjoyment in those quiet moments that we actually get, without trying to remember what has gone before. These are not carefully introduced, justified and put into context, but just presented as they stand, in all their complexity or clever simplicity.

Margery Allingham’s “The Man with the Sack” is the first story, featuring her favourite detective, Campion. A version of Holmes and Watson appear, followed by a clever and funny contribution by Anthony Horowitz in “Camberwell Crackers”. Father Brown makes a welcome appearance, as well as Inspector Morse and Rumpole. A railway mystery, “A problem in White” by Nicolas Blake, precedes a fantastic and chilling Ruth Rendell murder tale. A club for considering hypothetical murder disturbs thanks to Gladys Mitchell, and the final story literally takes the locked room mystery to a new level in “The Problem of Santa’s Lighthouse” by Edward Hoch.

Thus there is quite a range of tales in scope, time and style. It is obviously enjoyable if you already know of some of the detectives (and lawyer!) involved from longer books or even television, but they would still work without previous knowledge. One or two authors will be broadly known, others less so, but all are allowed to show their established skills. Several, if not most, are not so Christmas based as to be only of interest at a particular time of year, but all have at least a seasonal element.  The dedicated mystery fan may well recognise one or two stories here, but it is a new collection published this year so there will be surprises. There are several similar books that have come out over the last few years, and this collection does not feel like a startling new revealing reprint. It is, however, great entertainment, and would make a great gift for anyone, or an enjoyable treat for oneself.

I think that we have finally posted all the Christmas cards, which is a good thing as tomorrow is last posting day for second class. Our tree is looking under decorated, but I’m sure that will soon be addressed, while large crib figures are due to be overhauled after their year long stay in the garage ( a flock of sheep has appeared in the Vicarage hallway, which is a worrying development; Selwyn the Vicarage cat is looking perplexed…).  Meanwhile, I am hoping to review some more books before Christmas, and generally over the festive period, so you can officially watch this space!

The Private Lives of the Tudors by Tracy Borman; Kings, Queens and their daily lives

Image result for private lives of the tudors

This immense non fiction book on a subject many people feel they know something about has one great advantage over many History books; it reads like a novel. Anyone with the sketchiest knowledge of British history has some insight into the remarkably short- lived ruling dynasty of the Tudors. Featuring only five actual monarchs, their diverse personalities and ruling styles meant changes to virtually everyone in the country, as religious practices changed, religious houses dissolved, and for the first time a woman ruled in her own name. This book goes beyond the big events and politics to reveal the tiny, intimate details of the lives of the rulers as they variously fought the forces of time, disappointment in male heirs, servants and attendants who knew so much of their often fragile bodies. This is an ideal book for everyone who has ever been curious as to how long it took to dress a queen with the “Mask of Youth” as well as those vaguely amused by such titles as “The Master of the Stool”. The clothes, the cures, the paintings and the pets are all forensically examined, but in such a flowing and natural way that a vast amount of information is absorbed without apparent effort on the part of the reader.

As with all the most comprehensive books on the Tudor dynasty, this book opens in 1485 with the confirmation of Henry VI as undeniable ruler following thirty years of instability and worse in the wars of the Houses of York and Lancaster. While there was relief at this advent of a king who quickly married the surviving heir of the House of York to confirm the end of dispute, there were still unanswered questions about pretenders to the throne which threatened the very life of Henry and his wife Elizabeth. Borman gives us details of not only royal beds, pregnancies and clothes as status symbols, but also expands into contrasting with that of the other people in the country, who remade clothes and left them in wills. The section on Henry VIII reveals his obsession with his clothes and how few survive as he handed them on as generous and sometimes political gifts. His obsession with his health and the concoctions he depended on showed his real fear that he would die without a solid succession; his sole male heir was highly prized and guarded from the moment of his birth. Edward’s own reign was dominated by the politics of those around him, as his minority rule meant that his contact with even his half sisters was closely monitored. The many theories as to his health and early death are dealt with here, as even the best medical advice of the time was unsuccessfully applied. Mary’s brief reign was dominated by her marriage and her unsuccessful attempts to bear a child, her likely long term health problems are also aired. It is when she writes of Elizabeth that Borman really expresses her knowledge to the extent of how long it would take her to dress, her taste for gorgeous and expensive fabrics, how the make up she favoured all contributed to her image as the goddess queen, above mere human aging. The long section on her death is fascinating, as her will to live and her refusal to accept her frailty persisted. Her successor, the Stuart James, is quickly dealt with as the contrast with the glory of her person and her carefully constructed reign.

This well illustrated book is surprisingly easy to read, yet with over seventy pages of notes and index this is a thoroughly researched academic book in its own right. For general readers, for those with an academic interest, for all those fascinated with the Tudor monarchs and those around them, this is a fascinating book and an undoubted treat.

I have actually got a signed copy of this book as Northernvicar and I travelled to Hampton Court and heard Tracy Borman speak on this book with excellent illustrations. She is an excellent speaker and generous with her vast knowledge of the Tudors. I have been lucky enough to get a copy of her first novel “The King’s Witch” to read and review, and already I have enjoyed several hours of this brilliantly written book. Highly recommended thus far!

Writers as Readers – A Celebration of Virago Modern Classics

Image result for writers as readers

This unique book, beautifully produced by Virago Modern Classics in celebration of forty years of Virago Classics publishing, is a real treat. It may also involve you in further expense, book collecting and generally reading more. It is at once a super idea, having well known authors write introductions to the books that have been rediscovered and republished, as well as a collection of writing by those authors who reflection on the significance of another author’s work on their own lives, reading and or writing. These are women authors, some of whom have never slipped out of print, others relatively unknown, and as the introduction states “If women’s stories aren’t published in all their variety, their voices are silenced, and only part of human experience – in both historical and the imaginative landscapes  – is represented.” Thus mainly women, and a few men, reflect on an author’s writing generally in forty short, pithy pieces, sometimes introducing, sometimes producing an essay on a series of books.

The greatest strength of this book probably lies in the fact that it covers well known authors which most people would recognise, as well as those yet to be discovered. Thus we have Austen, two Brontes, and du Maurier. These are covered by such as Margaret Drabble, Angela Carter and a favourite of mine, Sarah Dunant. This is the joy of this book; if you do not read it for the authors introduced, though the range is huge, you can read it for those writing the introduction. Thus Hilary Mantel writes about Elizabeth Taylor, Penelope Fitzgerald introduces Rose Macaulay, and Alexander McCall Smith writes a lively piece on my favourite, Angela Thirkell. Thus there are pieces you will have already discovered in actual books, whereas there are new treats of brilliant pairing such as Sarah Waters on Sylvia Townshend Warner, and Sophie Dahl on Stella Gibbons. Thus the racy comic writer Jilly Cooper gives her thoughts on the extremely funny E.M. Delafield’s “Diary of a Provincial Lady”, an insightful piece on the life and works of an accomplished writer. These pieces also vary in terms of length and content; some are brief introductions with one book in mind, others are longer pieces of writing which bring in the whole context of the author’s life and times, highlighting particular works. Most memorable for me was the essay by Mark Bostridge on Vera Brittain, as he has written much on the life of the writer and speaker. Thus he quotes her own diary entry after the publication of “Testament of Youth” “Never did I imagine that the Testament would inspire such praise at such length, or provoke – in smaller doses- so much abuse”. This is a writer who really knows his subject, and who gives such extensive footnotes that no assertion is unsubstantiated. Each writer is genuinely enthusiastic about their subject, and it has the effect of sending this reader off to seek out so many books.

It is difficult to write a detailed review of a book which contains so many gems of reviews of itself. I will admit some pieces were less interesting to me, but I have no doubt that they would appeal greatly to others. Not a book to read at one sitting, but an undoubted celebration of many writers in many ways.

This book is available in hardback at the moment, so correspondingly rather expensive. This is a book to posses if you can – if you borrow it you will possibly want to keep it for future reference!

So the end of series four of Poldark has been and gone. Those of us who have read the “Angry Tide” have been waiting for the tragic events of the last episode to happen, and indeed have perhaps been avoiding letting too much slip .Here is a very interesting article on the relative lack of attention that the four series have attracted compared to less watched series perhaps deemed more fashionable. https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/tv-radio/2018/08/poldark-one-biggest-shows-britain-so-why-does-it-get-so-little-attention Certainly it is interesting that The Poldark novels are shelved with “Romance” by WH Smiths; there is so much more to them as anyone who has read the books will know!