Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory

Another intriguing tale from the Queen of historical romance. When reading the novels of Philippa Gregory it is very easy to forget that they are works of fiction as her extensive research brings history alive on the printed page.

This time it is the story of Mary Queen of Scots, during her years of imprisonment as the so called ‘guest’ of the Shrewsbury’s. This tale of suspense, passion and political intrigue is related to the reader by the three protagonists, Mary herself, George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury and his determined wife Bess of Hardwick.

George, Lord High Steward of England for Queen Elizabeth I and only fairly recently wed to Bess finds himself commanded to guard Queen Mary as a guest in his household.
Bess a self made woman who has used three previous marriages as a stepping stone to her fourth, The Earl, at first sees this arrangement as beneficial to her household. It is only after seeing her husband with Queen Mary that Bess realises that at forty one she is already an old woman. Past child bearing age she is a woman who has risen as high as she is likely and can now only face decline. It seems she is now competing with a Queen for her husband’s heart.
George takes his task very seriously as a loyal servant to Queen Elizabeth I, however he still finds himself becoming emotionally attached to this young woman who has become part of his household. It his gullibility that is the cause of him squandering his wife’s inheritance that she bought to the marriage on a young woman who will continue her fight for her throne no matter what.
Mary a young woman of tremendous courage and determination through out her imprisonment never gives up her fight for the throne, even as plot after plot to free her is discovered.

As a story based on historical fact told to us by three main players during an interesting period in history this novel could not be better. As the reader I felt involved with Mary, George and Bess as individually they told of their hopes and disappointments during the years that plans were made, acted on and failed time and again to restore Mary to her rightful place on the throne of Scotland and provide freedom of choice in religion for the British people. Had they succeeded the course of history would have been somewhat different!

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Duchess by Amanda Foreman

I would probably not have chosen this title myself as something I would enjoy, but I was pleasantly surprised. Recently passed on to me by my daughter when she was clearing her bookshelves, this is history made palatable. Originally published in 1998 as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, it has now been republished because of the recent film. Prior to reading this I only knew the very basic facts about her, mainly that she was like her descendant Diana, Princess of Wales publicly loved and personally very troubled.

A fascinating account and although normally I would not want to do so after reading the book, I would actually now like to see the film ‘The Duchess’ and will be looking out to either hire the DVD or wait for it to appear on television.
Through the study of letters Amanda Foreman has managed to create for her readers a vivid portrayal of the life Georgiana lived as a young wife with a much older husband, whose mistress she was expected to accept. What a strange life they all seemed to live surrounded by scandals both at home and in politics. Georgiana herself succumbed to addiction and incurred huge gambling debts, from a very young age. She was also ill-fated to never be happy in love but she never lost sight of the fact that her children were the single most important factor in her life, she adored them. I found there were a number of comparisons to be made with the life of her descendant who was born just over two hundred years after her!

From what I have heard and read about the film I think having read this first will give me a much greater insight and understanding to the broader historical background.

Flora's Lot by Katie Fforde

Katie Fforde is an author I have been reading and enjoying since 1995, usually reading new titles as they are published. Somehow Flora’s Lot which was first published in 2004 remained elusive until I recently managed to get hold of a copy, her eleventh novel! Katie Fforde has never I do not think aspired to write great literary fiction but she certainly writes easy to read romantic fiction with realistic characters in feasible situations.
This time the protagonist is Flora Stanza who having recently inherited shares in the family antique business of Stanza and Stanza decides to leave London for awhile and investigate the world of antiques. Her cousin and partner in the business Charles does not give her the welcome she was expecting, mainly due to the fact that his fiancée Annabelle is not happy about her interest in the ailing firm. With the help of a great cast of characters who help make up for her lack of experience in the auction business and country living, Flora enthusiastically sets about reviving the business.

This was not my favourite Katie Fforde novel but if you are looking for romantic escapism this is exactly what she produces every time. Predictable stories, but that does not detract from their enjoyment.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Becoming Strangers by Louise Dean

I am now unable to recall exactly why this title was on my to read list, but something about it must have originally attracted me. It was longlisted for the 2004 Man Booker prize and this first time author has been compared to Alan Bennett with her writing style.

Two couples Jan and Annemieke and George and Dorothy meet whilst on holiday on a Caribbean island. Jan and Annemieke are middle aged Belgians and they know for sure that this is the last of many such holidays, that they will take together. Jan has a terminal illness and knows he will soon be too weak to travel far. Escaping from their daily existence for awhile and knowing he is dying makes him realise that he has never taken the time to understand his wife. Meanwhile his wife Annemieke is wondering how she will cope alone and takes to participating in anonymous sexual encounters.
The other couple are British and are considerably older and this is the first and probably the last such trip they have ever undertaken. George also learns a lot about himself and his marriage to Dorothy, who has the early stages of Alzheimer’s, whilst on holiday and decides to write his memoirs in case he forgets who he is without Dorothy to help him remember.
The story of two ordinary couples both at the beginning of the end of their lives together I felt was a depressing enough topic without discovering that I was disappointed. It was a cleverly written comic tragedy but I just found it unbearably dull and impossible to lose myself in.

Milk Glass Moon by Adriana Trigiani

The final volume of Adriana Trigiani’s Big Stone Gap trilogy continues the story with all the wonderful characters from the previous volumes of life in Big Stone Gap Virginia. The main characters Ave Maria and Jack MacChesney are still facing challenges within their marriage. This time they are learning to cope with what happens as their daughter Etta turns from a child into a woman and their relationship with her changes.
It was a slow story to develop from book one but with the protagonist Ave Maria’s development from spinster, to marriage and discovery of her Italian heritage I was left wanting to know how her life had changed by reading the next volume. Big Cherry Holler finds Ave Maria and Jack eight years later and it is a gentle continuation of the ups and downs of their marriage and is again set both in America and the land of Ave Maria’s forefathers, Italy.
So to the third and I feel best volume continuing Ave Maria’s life story as she faces the changing mother daughter relationship with Etta and finally learns about the power of love. Once again we are transported from the mountains of Virginia to the Italian countryside and this time also to New York City. We are also kept up to date with big changes within the community of big stone Gap itself, where time has changed since Ave Maria the local spinster first took over the town pharmacy from the man she knew as her father.
By the end of these three novels I felt I knew the characters personally and actually enjoyed the trilogy more than I expected too, liking each volume just a little more!

I think it is possible to read each of the Big Stone Gap novels as stand alone stories but I would recommend reading all three to gain a full insight into the inhabitants of this southern town.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Wilt in Nowhere by Tom Sharpe

It is a good few years ago that I last read a novel that contained the protagonists Henry and Eva Wilt, but my memories of this couple soon came flooding back. I literally laughed my way through this in a day as once again the Wilts got themselves into the most terrible tangle of events!

Henry and Eva are apart for much of the time so there are two ludicrously farcical plots to follow. Eva and the horrendous quads have been invited to holiday with relatives in the USA which of course all goes horribly wrong. Henry in his inevitable way has managed to wriggle out of this trip. Pleading work but then planning a secret lone walking holiday which of course is also set by misfortune!

If you are an old fan of the Wilts then you will probably enjoy this as farcical as ever trip down memory lane.

Free Fall by John Francome

Crime fiction not a genre I read very often and a first by John Francome, although I remember when
one of my daughters was younger she went through a phase of reading this author. Owning a horse and living near racing stables was probably part of the attraction.
As an ex jockey turned writer he obviously knows the racing world inside out and draws on his own background and experiences for his novels. As it has been languishing on our bookshelves for a couple of years and I was looking for a book that would be easy to concentrate on, I decided to pick this one. It met my expectations as suitable for the mood I was in and I finished it very quickly.

The main protagonists are two couples, Pat a jockey who is unwisely operating a scam with Andy the husband of Harriet, who just happens to be the sister of Pat’s girlfriend Zoe. Harriet is the only one of the foursome who does not work in the world of horse racing. Somewhat bored with the lifestyle she gets involved with a hunky tennis coach at the health club where she works in the hairdressing salon.
As this is a crime thriller there is of course the inevitable murder along the way which is well plotted although I had guessed correctly who did it before the author finally reveals the truth!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Paris Imperfect by Susie Vereker

Romantic comedy for the 21st century, this was a perfect read for a sunny afternoon of relaxation.
A perfectly feasible modern love story, if not rather predictable as I was not surprised at all by anything that happened. Although this novel has all the traditional elements of a romantic novel I feel it lacks the humour, suspense and intrigue of Susie Vereker’s earlier novels.

The protagonist is twice married and divorced Clio, living in Paris with her French lover Philippe. Although she is not completely sure she is happy with Philippe, due to his constant criticism and desire for perfection, she remains with him as she craves stability in her life. She stays with Philippe not only for her sake but for that of her son Alex, the single most important person in her life. Anyway Philippe does sort of propose to her, the problem being that he is still legally married.
A fact Philippe’s mother is constantly reminding Clio of in a far from subtle manner.
Clio works as a tour guide and it is through her work that she meets someone who gives her renewed confidence in herself which Philippe has slowly eroded.
Well I am sure you can guess the rest, love story with a predictably happy ending!

I have already added Susie Vereker’s next novel ‘Tropical Connections’ to My Wishlist.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Harvesting the Heart by Jodi Picoult

I only discovered the work of this prolific author under three years ago. As I have at various levels enjoyed all eight read previously, I am now trying to read all the published novels by her that I can get hold of.
Harvesting the Heart was her second novel first published in 1993 and although it certainly does not have the polish or topical moralistic style of her more recent novels it is still an enjoyable read.

Basically the story tells of the anguish and joy of parenthood told in flashbacks by the two protagonists Paige and Nicholas Prescott. Paige’s mother had abandoned her young daughter and husband when Paige was still very young. Circumstances force her to run away from home herself at eighteen and she soon meets and marries Nicholas a very successful medical student. His parents were very much against the marriage, disowned by them they struggle with a lifestyle that soon overwhelms Paige, who is not used to such a sophisticated lifestyle as demanded by Nicholas’s rising career. After the birth of their son Max Paige starts to seriously doubt her own maternal instincts and capability to be a good mother. It is then that history seems to repeat itself as she in her turn runs away in search of answers.
This is an absorbing novel which is written in the already emerging distinct style that Jodi Picoult has now made her speciality. I would recommend this to all fans of her novels.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale

This was my first Patrick Gale novel, so I had no preconceived ideas and am delighted to say that I found it absolutely engrossing. I will certainly be on the look out for other titles by this author in future.
The story is a powerful and emotional one revolving around the story of artist Rachel Kelly as her family deal with puzzling aspects of both her life and death. Rachel suffered from manic depression, now more commonly known as bi-polar disorder and led a life of highs and lows. The novel moves to its climatic and emotional ending through a series of non chronological chapters. At the start of each chapter is a curator’s note from an exhibition held in her honour posthumously. Each note sets the tone for the chapter, each one narrated by various family members, it works very well as one gradually builds a picture of Rachel’s complex life. Rachel has always been something of a mystery to her husband, Anthony and her four children, Garfield, Hedley, Morwenna and Petroc, after her death the family feel the need for answers and it is these we learn. Each characters feelings are well portrayed and I felt drawn to them all, plus I also enjoyed the Cornish setting and learning something about Quakerism.
I will certainly be recommending this title to friends and family that have not yet read it.