For more than three hundred years, an image of Britannia with her shield and spear or trident has been depicted on the reverse of certain British coin...moreFor more than three hundred years, an image of Britannia with her shield and spear or trident has been depicted on the reverse of certain British coins. In the 17th century, the model for Britannia was said to be Frances Stuart, who was described by Samuel Pepys as a great beauty and who famously refused to become a mistress of King Charles II. Girl on the Golden Coin is Frances Stuart's story.
At the beginning of the novel, Frances is one of a family of Royalists who have been living in exile in Paris since Charles I was defeated in the English Civil War. With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the Stuart family return to favour and Frances joins the household of Henriette Anne, Charles II's younger sister, who has just married the brother of Louis XIV of France (the 'Sun King'). When Frances catches Louis' eye, he sends her to the English court where she is faced with the task of seducing Charles, converting him to Catholicism and helping to form an alliance between England and France.
The rest of the novel follows Frances at the court of Charles II, exploring her relationships with the King, his noblemen and the other women of the court including the young Queen, Catherine of Braganza, and the King's favourite mistress Barbara Palmer, Lady Castlemaine. As Frances grows closer to Charles and begins to replace Castlemaine in his affections, she finds herself under pressure from the Queen Mother, the French ambassadors and various courtiers to use her influence with the King to help further their political intrigues – and failure to do so could result in her own family secrets being exposed.
Girl on the Golden Coin is Marci Jefferson's first novel and was only published in February, but has been attracting some excellent reviews already. I can see its appeal, but unfortunately I didn't enjoy it as much as most other readers have. It was fun to read but it was too light for me and didn't have the depth I prefer in my historical fiction – although to be fair, that's what I had suspected before I started reading but decided to still read it anyway as the Restoration is such an interesting period of history and I had never come across a book written from Frances Stuart's perspective before.
I suppose given who Frances was and her position at court, it's understandable that so much of the novel concentrates on her love life, but I would personally have preferred less romance, fewer descriptions of pretty silk dresses and beautiful jewels, and more focus on the history. The novel does touch on important issues such as religious conflict (in the form of two of Frances' servants, one of whom is a Catholic and the other a Quaker), and the Anglo-Dutch War but I was disappointed that there were only a few pages devoted to some of the most significant historical events Frances lived through, such as the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London. I couldn't help making comparisons with Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor, another historical romance set at the court of Charles II, but which captures the drama and atmosphere of the Restoration period in a way which, in my opinion, this book doesn't.
I don't want to sound too negative because I didn't actually dislike Girl on the Golden Coin – it was a quick read that kept me entertained for a few days and a good introduction to the life of Frances Stuart, someone I previously knew almost nothing about. As the response to this novel so far has been overwhelmingly positive I'm sure Marci Jefferson has a very successful career ahead of her. This just wasn't the right book for me. (less)
C.J. Sansom is probably best known for his Shardlake novels, a mystery series set in Tudor England. Dominion, however, is set in the twentieth century...moreC.J. Sansom is probably best known for his Shardlake novels, a mystery series set in Tudor England. Dominion, however, is set in the twentieth century – but not the twentieth century that you and I are familiar with. Before we even finish reading the first chapter, we know that something is very wrong. In Sansom's alternate world, Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany in 1940, changing the course of history as we know it.
As the novel opens in November 1952, we begin to see what a high price Britain has paid for peace with Hitler. Yes, the war was brought to a premature end, avoiding more deaths and devastation, but now the Gestapo are established in central London, Britain's Jews are being rounded up and removed from the cities, and Winston Churchill, who never actually managed to become Prime Minister, has gone into hiding as the leader of the British Resistance.
The story is told from the perspectives of four characters, all with different backgrounds and beliefs. The first of these is David Fitzgerald, one of many people who are unhappy with the way things are in Britain. When he is approached by the Resistance movement, David agrees to use his position as a civil servant to provide them with confidential information. He decides to protect his wife, Sarah, by not telling her that he is working as a spy...but he is also hiding another, equally dangerous secret – one that nobody must ever discover.
Sarah Fitzgerald, David's wife, has been a pacifist for many years, like her father and sister. She has always believed that signing a peace treaty in 1940 was the right thing to do in order to avoid more lives being lost. However, Sarah's views are now beginning to change.
We also meet Frank Muncaster, a scientist and an old friend of David's from university. Frank is now in a mental hospital after pushing his brother, Edgar, through a window during an argument. The Resistance believe that before they began to fight, Edgar – another scientist – may have given his brother some shocking information about his work in America. Finally, there's Gunther Hoth, a German who is in London on a secret mission. Could Frank Muncaster have the information he needs?
Dominion is a chilling and thought-provoking novel, all the more frightening because the world C.J. Sansom describes is so realistic and believable. In many ways, the Britain of Dominion is not greatly different from the real Britain, but as the story unfolds we begin to see more and more subtle differences, more and more ways in which authoritarian rule has replaced the freedoms we take for granted.
As well as being an alternate history, this is also an exciting thriller. After a slow start I found it became very gripping and suspenseful, with some cliff hanger chapter endings and a few moments when I feared for the fates of some of the characters. The Great Smog of 1952 is incorporated into the novel and really adds to the oppressive atmosphere. There were some parts of the story, though, that felt superfluous and had little relevance to the main plot and this made the book feel longer than it really needed to be.
My favourite character was Frank Muncaster, who through no fault of his own finds himself at the centre of the conflict between the Germans and the British Resistance. We are given lots of flashbacks to Frank's childhood when, as a shy and lonely boy, he was bullied at school, leaving him suffering from low self-esteem and finding it difficult to make friends. Of all the characters in the novel, I thought Frank was particularly well-written and I found myself warming to him in a way I never really did to any of the others.
Dominion is a disturbing and unsettling novel with a sinister vision of what our lives could have been like had just one or two different decisions been made at crucial moments in history. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, but when I reached the final page it was good to know that the world I was returning to was not quite the same as the one I had just finished reading about! (less)
One night in 1899, Benjamin discovers a young woman lying on the ground near Vienna’s mental hospital, naked and bruised, and takes her to the home of...moreOne night in 1899, Benjamin discovers a young woman lying on the ground near Vienna’s mental hospital, naked and bruised, and takes her to the home of his employer, the famous psychoanalyst, Dr Josef Breuer. The girl, whom Dr Breuer names Lilie, insists that she is not human, that she’s just a machine. Her mission, she says, is to destroy a monster. The doctor enlists Benjamin’s help in trying to uncover the truth about his young patient, but both men find themselves increasingly drawn to the mysterious Lilie.
Many years later, in Germany, we meet a spoilt and badly behaved little girl called Krysta. She has recently moved house with her father, another doctor, to be nearer his job working with 'animal people' at what Krysta believes is a zoo. Krysta’s father is busy with his work, leaving his daughter to entertain herself by remembering the fairy tales she was told by her old nurse, Greet, and making friends with Daniel, a lonely little boy she discovers eating worms in the grounds of the 'zoo'. When an unexpected tragedy throws Krysta’s life into turmoil, she learns that Greet’s stories can provide an escape from the horrors that are going on around her.
Well, this is proving to be a very difficult book to write about without giving too much away! Gretel and the Dark is one of those books where it is not immediately obvious what is happening. For a long time I was confused. What was the link between the two storylines? Was Lilie a real person or was she a machine, as she claimed? How did she seem to have so much knowledge of the future? And who was Gretel supposed to be?
I think I spent about 300 of the book’s 350 pages trying to figure out the connection between Krysta and Lilie and coming up with theories, most of which were completely wrong. I only started to guess the truth shortly before it was revealed and when everything began to come together in the final chapters of the book, I discovered that the story I had actually been reading was not quite the one I’d thought I was reading!
Despite the allusions to fairy tales and the fact that some of the main characters are children, this is actually a very, very dark novel. Again, I can’t really discuss any of the issues the book raises because it would be best to know as little as possible before starting to read – though I don’t think it would be too much of a spoiler to say that the place where Krysta’s father works is not really a zoo at all, but something much more sinister. And the fairy tales Krysta recalls throughout the book are not the light, whimsical kind, but the dark and gruesome ones. Hansel and Gretel is one of her favourites and she enjoys using her imagination to push various enemies into the witch’s oven! Later in the book, when something particularly horrible happens to Krysta, another of the tales Greet told her takes on new meaning.
I liked Eliza Granville’s writing but I didn’t find this an easy book to read because some parts of the story were so disturbing and unpleasant. Although it was not a book I could describe as 'enjoyable' it was certainly very clever and unusual…and I can almost guarantee you’ll still be thinking about it long after reaching the final page. (less)
I think I need to start this review with an apology to George Orwell because like many people, I read Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four as a teenag...moreI think I need to start this review with an apology to George Orwell because like many people, I read Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four as a teenager and assumed I'd read everything by Orwell that was worth reading. I was obviously wrong because Coming Up for Air is a great book, though very different from his two most famous novels. In a way, though, I'm glad I've waited until now to read it because I'm not sure I would have appreciated it as much when I was younger.
Coming Up for Air was published in 1939 and tells the story of George Bowling, a forty-five-year-old insurance salesman who is bored with his dreary, middle-class existence. Married with two children, George's biggest worries are his mortgage, his weight and the risk of losing his job, but with Europe on the brink of war he knows that the monotony of his life could be about to change. On the day that he receives a new set of false teeth, George takes a trip into London where he sees a poster that triggers memories of his childhood and Lower Binfield, the small, peaceful town where he grew up. George is tempted to return to Lower Binfield for the first time in years, but if he goes back now, what will he find?
Based on the other two books I've read, this is not really the type of book I would have expected from George Orwell. However, there are some similarities with Nineteen Eighty-Four in Orwell's surprisingly accurate predictions of the future. Reading this book gave me an eerie feeling, knowing that it was being written just before the beginning of the Second World War, when the author could have had no real knowledge of what was to come, yet anticipating the changes that would soon be upon the nation.
"I can feel it happening. I can see the war that’s coming and I can see the after-war, the food-queues and the secret police and the loudspeakers telling you what to think. And I’m not even exceptional in this. There are millions of others like me."
My favourite part of the book was the long section in the middle where George looks back on his childhood in Lower Binfield at the turn of the century. This whole section is a lovely nostalgic portrait of an England that is now gone forever...that had already gone by 1939, destroyed by the First World War.
"1913! My God! 1913! The stillness, the green water, the rushing of the weir! It'll never come again. I don't mean that 1913 will never come again. I mean the feeling inside you, the feeling of not being in a hurry and not being frightened, the feeling you've either had and don't need to be told about, or haven't had and won’t ever have the chance to learn."
The novel doesn't have a lot of plot, but that wasn't a problem; I didn't find it slow at all. There's not much dialogue either, as we spend the whole book inside George's head with his thoughts and memories. Despite this, I found the book completely engrossing. The only time I got bored was with George's long and enthusiastic description of fishing, his favourite hobby until the age of fifteen. But even this was steeped in nostalgia:
"The very idea of sitting all day under a willow tree beside a quiet pool — and being able to find a quiet pool to sit beside — belongs to the time before the war, before the radio, before aeroplanes, before Hitler."
George's actions and opinions are not always very admirable and his views on the women in his life leave a lot to be desired, but despite his flaws, I couldn't actually dislike him. He's so ordinary; not a hero, but a real human being with good points and bad points. He has a wryly funny, self-deprecating narrative style which saves the book from becoming too depressing, though overall I found this a sad and poignant story rather than a humorous one. I don't know much about Orwell's own life, but I'm sure this book must have been autobiographical to some extent.
I loved Coming Up for Air and will certainly consider trying another of Orwell's books. (less)
The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins was first published in 1988, although the edition I have was revised in 1996. The author, William M. Clarke, is marr...moreThe Secret Life of Wilkie Collins was first published in 1988, although the edition I have was revised in 1996. The author, William M. Clarke, is married to Wilkie Collins' great-granddaughter, Faith Elizabeth Dawson, and maybe because of this connection, the focus of the book is on Wilkie's private life and relationships with his family and friends rather than on his work. Clarke does attempt to show us the circumstances surrounding the writing of most of Collins' books, plays and stories and what may have inspired them, but he doesn't often go into any detailed analysis of these.
After a brief introduction, the book follows Wilkie's life in chronological order, beginning with his birth in January 1824. Wilkie was the eldest son of the Royal Academy landscape painter William Collins and his wife, Harriet Geddes, who was also from a family of artists. The first few chapters describe Wilkie's early childhood, some of which was spent in France and Italy and the rest in London. I found this the least interesting section of the book, but it does show us some of the influences Wilkie was exposed to from an early age which would have had an impact on his future career (an appreciation of Italian art, for example, and familiarity with all the writers, poets and authors who were part of his father's social circle including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Constable). I also enjoyed reading about Wilkie's school days and how one of the older boys bullied Wilkie into telling stories late at night!
Clarke then takes us through Collins' adult life, including his friendship with Charles Dickens, his battle with rheumatic gout (an illness he suffered from for many years), his six-month reading tour of America, and his addiction to laudanum and his unsuccessful attempts to withdraw from it. I've mentioned that Clarke doesn't spend much time discussing Wilkie's writing, but I did find it interesting to read his thoughts on the effects of laudanum and how in the later stages of his career it may have affected Wilkie's ability to write descriptions of visual landscapes and construct the intricate plots he was famous for.
There are also some accounts of Collins' travels with Dickens and I enjoyed reading about these, especially their walking tour of the Lake District (which reminds me that I still haven't read The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices). It seemed Dickens disapproved of his daughter, Kate, marrying Wilkie's younger brother, Charles Collins, and this put a strain on their friendship in later years.
But it's Wilkie's romantic relationships that are given the most attention, which is understandable as this book is supposed to be about his 'secret life'. Wilkie never married but was in long-term relationships with two different women, Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd. He lived openly with Caroline and Harriet, her daughter from a previous marriage, while having three children with Martha, whose household he established at a separate address. Each woman was aware of the other and their children even visited each other. I'm sure neither woman could have been very happy with the position they were in but it seems they were both prepared to accept it as this arrangement continued for more than twenty years! Caroline did leave him briefly to marry another man (Wilkie actually attended the wedding) but returned several years later. Collins does seem to have genuinely cared about both of his families but this sort of behaviour must have been scandalous by Victorian standards (and not very admirable by modern standards either) and led to his sister-in-law, Kate, describing him as "as bad as he could be, yet the gentlest and most kind-hearted of men".
Wilkie's life was fascinating to read about, but I can't really say that I enjoyed this book as I found Clarke's writing style quite dry and boring. This is a book I've been dipping into over the last few weeks and reading a few pages at a time rather than ever feeling a compulsion to sit down and read it from cover to cover. It has clearly been thoroughly researched with lots of quotes from Collins himself and from people close to him (references are provided), and there's plenty of supplementary material – notes, photographs, family trees, bibliography and several appendices, including an analysis of Wilkie's bank accounts (Clarke's unique position as the husband of one of Wilkie's descendants meant he could access this information) but I think I would have been more interested in a book with more balance between Collins' private life and his writing. (less)
This is the second book in Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series. I read the first one, Crocodile on the Sandbank, two years ago in January 2012 and...moreThis is the second book in Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series. I read the first one, Crocodile on the Sandbank, two years ago in January 2012 and enjoyed it, so I'm not sure why it has has taken me so long to get round to reading this one.
The Curse of the Pharaohs is set in the late Victorian period and begins five years after the previous book ended. Amelia is happily married to the archaeologist Radcliffe Emerson and they now have a young son, Ramses. Despite longing to return to their work in Egypt, Amelia and Emerson have spent most of the last five years at home in England because they're unable to agree on what to do about Ramses. But when Lady Baskerville, an old friend of Emerson's whose husband has recently died, asks Emerson to continue Lord Baskerville's excavation of an Egyptian tomb, he and Amelia are unable to resist. To make things even more interesting, there are suspicious circumstances surrounding Lord Baskerville's death – and a possible link with an ancient pharaoh's curse.
Leaving Ramses with his aunt and uncle, Amelia and Emerson head for Egypt where they begin the exciting task of excavating the pharaoh's tomb, but soon there are more deaths and more attacks, often accompanied by sightings of a mysterious woman dressed in white. Amelia is now convinced that Lord Baskerville was murdered and that the murderer must be one of the people she and Emerson have met since their arrival in Luxor: the Irish Daily Yell reporter Kevin O'Connell maybe, or could it be Madame Berengaria, who believes she is the reincarnation of an Egyptian Queen, the rich American Mr Vandergelt, or even Lady Baskerville herself?
Beyond the actual mystery – which I found stronger and more complex than the one in the first book – there are two things I particularly liked about this book (and they are the same things I liked about the previous one). The first is the setting. Egypt is always fascinating to read about! I like the fact that although Peters herself has a PhD in Egyptology, she doesn't go too deeply into the technical details of the subject, so that even those of us who know very little about Egyptian pharaohs, hieroglyphs or archeological digs can follow what's happening and share in the enthusiasm Amelia and Emerson have for their work.
The second thing I love is Amelia's narrative voice. From other people's reviews of books in this series it seems that a lot of readers find Amelia's strong, opinionated personality very off-putting at first. Luckily that hasn't been a problem for me; it only took two or three chapters of Crocodile on the Sandbank for me to get used to her and start to warm to her. I think her practical, no-nonsense style fits perfectly with the entertaining plots and the ridiculous situations she finds herself in.
I enjoyed this second book as much as the first, although I did find the two very similar and while I'm looking forward to the third, The Mummy Case, I am concerned that they might lose their appeal unless I try to space them out. However, I have another sixteen or seventeen books to go, I think, so I'll try not to let too much time go by before picking up book three! I can't wait to get to know Ramses better in future books. He's still just a lisping baby in this book but I'm looking forward to him being old enough to join Amelia and Emerson in their adventures! (less)