Monday, 27 June 2016

Return of the Morrigan by Corinna Edwards - Colledge

I was blessed to receive this as an ARC in return for an honest review.

Mary roars into Town  on a beast of a bike  to heap havoc on the sleepy village of Burdon. 

Only one poor deranged man knows her true identity.

A chilling tale of an ancient and primal being juxtaposed with the general malaise and stasis in the lives of all the main protagonists. Two teens drawn together by loss . Their parents in limbo in their interminable village existence. Each  are caught in a prison of grief or dissatisfaction and the the village and it’s limited social and cultural offerings becomes a symbol of those boundaries. 

It is into this melting pot of miserable people treading of water that Mary comes with a dark and frightening agenda of her own.

I found all of the characters sympathetic, Mary was drawn well and I enjoyed the development that occurs in all the others. There are no particular tropes at play here which was a refreshing change. I liked the female characters most. The unlikely heroic trio of the piece was handled with a sensitivity that would not have been present in the work of many others writing this kind of work.

Whilst there are sexual scenes, they are not overly gratuitous and fitting for the situation. The horror is not overblown, in fact what is most chilling is more the sense of wasted opportunity. Mary is a nasty piece of work and she is most frightening when she is using the selfish acts or guilty secrets of her quarry against them rather than the supernatural powers she has access too but her presence is ultimately a catalyst for change and growth.

It was also really lovely to meet another Morrigan after a joyous childhood  introduction in the seminal children's Classic "The Weirdstone of Brisingamen."

The Return of the Morrigan's  pacing was very good  and the ending was immensely satisfying. Overall a good read, possible in three moderate sittings. 

The cover artwork  conveys the overall spirit of the book nicely too. Overall a  very good read, possible in three moderate sittings. 

I would definitely seek out more by this author.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Review: Mo, Me and America. The Vanishing Rural Community. By Randy Turk.

The idea of this book intrigued me as I love a good road trip book and the jaunty cover sealed the deal.

I liked the idea of a trip to examine rural communities too as many cross America trips are about the roads themselves or the cities, so this more sedate approach was a refreshing change.

There is a lot of meaty history contained in this unassuming little Tome and I greatly enjoyed it. Particularly the little titbits about The famous Pony express. I was totally unaware that it was active for so short a time for instance.

I do not come from an agricultural background, but I have seen some subtle decline in my own small town here in Cambridgeshire in the UK , so I am interested in just the same issues that are affecting US towns as the modern way of living encroaches.

I am one of those youngsters who moved to the big smoke to gain employment, but who have returned to quieter small town living as I have hit middle age.

One of the main reasons cited that is of greatest concern to the decline in rural living  is the breakdown in the community  identity that sees everyone knowing everyone and the”village” care of the children of these communities. Mum and Dad were always one step ahead thanks to neighbours and their sticky beaks!

I think the book shows that whilst that has been lost in some towns it is still very present in others and it is the intention and commitment of the community itself that ensures the spirit of townships are not diminished. I hope that cohesiveness and community remain goals for every town. 

I really enjoyed the slightly grumpy Dog’s eye view of Mo, the hostess with the mostest as we used to say. Her asides gave a fun element that raised this book above others in this genre of cross country Travelogues.

Her squirrel occupation made me chuckle out loud !

One small (slightly jaded) word on repetition, Mr Turk seems to fixate on a word every once in a while and it starts to grate, it became so apparent that I went back and counted , he wrote the word Campground eight times  in three short paragraphs. The later on the phrase “pioneer spirit” was used repeatedly in two paragraphs. A fine phrase, but so often diminishes it’s impact somewhat. This may be a stylistic flourish but for me it was distracting. 

This was however, a really minor quibble about what has been a really interesting read. I have learnt much about the US generally and the challenges and joys of rural living .

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Book Review : A Changed Agent. Tracey J Lyons

By Tracey J. Lyons

This was a ARC in return for an honest review.

I deliberately did not read the blurb just relying on the genre credentials,  I have read these Christian Historical Romance books before with varying levels of enjoyment but the cover was appealing and so decided to give this one a bash!

I had been a teensy bit disappointed that the opening gambit was the old trunk spillage trope, and  the fact that there were orphan children that our heroine is drafted in to take care of, further added to my mild dismay that this book might be formulaic.

I need not have worried!

The introduction of a Pinkerton Agent suddenly had me salivating. My adoration for the stories of the first private eyes is helped in no small part by the integral part one has in the seminal BBC series Ripper Street.

So I settled down to see just what William and  Elsie were going to offer me!

A devout Christian teacher with a Wanderlust who wants to travel the world to further educate her young charges and a gruff man who needs to keep his mission and identity secret despite appropriating a pair of emotionally damaged  twins thrown together  by misadventure and the resulting prying eyes of the town watching it all with wry amusement and interest, is an excellent premise. Comforting for fans of this genre, but fresh enough to not feel you have read it all before.

I often feel slightly uncomfortable when  the females of the piece begin to” feel” things within hours of  meeting, I like the emotions to develop at a more natural pace, but I fully appreciate in a relatively short book such as this, it is important to keep the pacing brisk.

 My own personal preferences aside, this was a sweet story, the main protagonists likeable and believable. Elsie was not saccharine sweet as can be the trap in these kinds of novels, she has normal human  behaviours and tells like everyone without and I liked that. Similarly Will was a not sullen to start, just a man completely out of his depth !

The twins are not precocious or stereotypes and the device with little Minnie’s voice was very well handled.

When it comes to Christian novels, I always think it is better that the characters model their faith rather than having  to “tell” everyone that they are acting a certain way because of Jesus. Thankfully this book stayed away from( in my opinion )the cardinal sin of shoe horning verses in, attempting to prove the Christian genre title.

 As a Christian I liked that Elsie and William were kind and thoughtful even before they began to interact, William may have been out of his depth, but he is still Goodhearted. The church, Grace and prayer passages were subtle and fitted into the narrative arc snugly without seeming too forced.

The identity of the Bond  thief appeared to be heavily sign posted in  the very early chapters and I would have liked there to have been a little more emphasis on the Pinkerton Detective plotting, if only to delve more deeply into why William was compelled to join in the first place and a little more tension prior to revealing the identity  of his prey would to my mind been more dramatic but this is not designed as a crime thriller, but a romance and it is indeed a  very solid and enjoyable romance at that.

I look forward to reading further adventures in this series as two or three minor characters seem primed for romantic encounters of their own and I am more than willing to enjoy them too!

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Cutting for Stone: a book of emotional and cultural depth.

I loved this book! Only missed a 5* rating because Mr Verghese did not know how to use apostrophes.. Hed and Shed in place of "He had" or "she had" got very wearisome after a while, but other than that, a wonderfully meaty tale!!

Reading like a memoir, but really a novel of astounding depth and breadth, Marion and Shiva are conjoined twins, fruits of a deep love only once consumated between a nun and the Surgeon she met on the voyage from India to Ethiopia. 

It is at once desperately bleak and dark and yet hopeful and  ultimately a tale of Redemption. Set against the struggles in Ethiopia and Eritrea in the 70s and 80s, it is a time and part of the world I had never really sought  in books, but through the sights and sounds of a field hospital I could almost smell the dust and cow dung, blood and waste matter. It is the descriptiveness that really lifts this story and it put me in mind of the equally beautiful works of Khaled Hosseini.

The sections on the reality of Fistulas for women in Africa left me in tears.

At times violent and unrelenting and at others amusing and tender, I "lived" with the twins as they too became medical men  like their distant father and begin drifting into and out of each other's lives and fates.

It was a book that I read slowly because there was so much to devour on every page. Twists and turns of the coin of fate and examination of faith in all it's forms... Marvellous!!

Friday, 10 June 2016

War of the Roses - Trinity: Second in a series about a period still swathed in some mystery!

The second in the War of The Roses series by Conn Iggulden starts in 1484, eighteen months after the King’s Catastrophic collapse that has left him catatonic and in permanent residence at Windsor Castle. The queen, Margaret of Anjou  has borne a son and poor old Derry Brewer  ( the fictional character who Conn uses to get the reader into the Royal  chambers as the Spymaster to the King ) is travelling  incognito as a itinerant Monk on the Road to Windsor after trying for weeks to ascertain the temperature of the people..

With Richard Duke of York, Protector of the Realm, age old feuds  between the ruling houses of the land become inflammatory. York , playing a long game,strengthens his position  throughout the kingdom with the King totally incapacitated. The Earls of Salisbury and Warwick join with Richard in a strong coalition , holding the  country in their palms and together they seek to break the nobles  support for Henry. Whilst signing the succession of the King’s son into Law,Richard is just biding his time.

The Nevilles have married into as many families as they possibly could, even the wife of   Earl Percy , the Patriarch, a man loyal to the King, is a Neville by Birth. Percy’s hatred for his wife’s family is all consuming  and he violently subdues her and exiles her to a convent, whilst sending his Son out to make an ill advised attack on the gathered wedding party of the son of the Earl of Salisbury and the might of the Nevilles is now bound to descend.

The meeting of Two opposing sides of Percy and Earl Salisbury is one of the best Battle descriptions I have read in a long while, the detail is so vivid , the pacing is brisk, but the time these battles must have taken is also evident in the pauses and repositioning of the various components of each fighting force. Archers, crossbowmen, riders and Axemen all play their parts in intricate battles.

Much to York’s Horror, the King unexpectedly recovers his senses and returns to London,seemingly his mind is stronger than it has ever been even if his body is less robust, the Royal seal is grudgingly returned to the monarch that bears it’s likeness and the seesaw  of power and the peace of the country  is once again thrown into a roiling maelstrom again.

If “Stormbird” was a love letter to the might of British Archers, I think “ Trinity”, is a valentine to the stallions of war, cut down to disable the riders. I he'd never realised that razor Spurs were common practice . It seems barbaric to force a horse into onward motion in this way, but these were I suppose times where a moment’s speed could mean life or death. I wonder if horses really were trained to Buck and kick on command, but Thomas  Percy’s mount Baeleon is a ruddy hero in his own right!

The battle scenes throughout are well realised and for someone who rails against gratuitous stuff this was balanced just about right for me.

So begins a tug of War for England and the  maintenance of the King’s Sanity. 

You really need your head screwed on to get all the Dukes straight here, but I have really enjoyed the series so far and despite there being very little real historical work on Henry Vl , I enjoyed the way Conn made him three dimensional and against type I really respected Margaret who in Shakespeare is represented as quite the Harridan.

 I think I will be continuing!

A word to fans of Phillipa Gregory and her ilk… I would definitely try this series, it is not romantic but the research is very solid and any liberties are explained in the comprehensive author Historical notes. The language does veer into modern vernacular a tiny bit but for me at least, that tiny grating was counteracted by a good pacing and  an interesting period.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Versailles - A nest of surveillance, Shoes and Sibling Rivalry

We rejoin Lucy Worsley and Helen Castor  the engaging and entertaining hosts of this in -depth examination of the reign of The Sun ,King Louis XIV just as Louis begins work on the renovation to the Hunting Lodge that was to become the most Lavish Palace in French History.

The plans  that Louis  had envisioned were extensive including a man -made lake a league in length. Nothing could  be allowed stand in his way, not even the topology of the land.He set about  employing people to do whatever was necessary, be that draining swamps, moving forests or even diverting Rivers. 

This Palace had to be blazing beacon of Wealth and more importantly, Power!

For decades much of the palace stood under scaffolding while a workforce of up to thirty six thousand toiled from Dawn to Dusk in  awful conditions. A bricklayer might earn five sou, which was barely enough to pay for tiny  piece of butter. It was perilous work with injury rates being so high that three hospitals were erected to cope with demand for medical treatment.

Eventually in desperation, workers went on strike, tired of the abject suffering  and in a bid to improve conditions and safety. It was estimated  that six men per week were killed with many more sustaining life altering injury. 

Helen Castor has uncovered an empirical example from archives . In the summer of 1668  , the Gazette of Amsterdam reported a piece of machinery malfunctioning, causing debris to fall,  crushing and killing  five men. The Mother of one  of the dead men happened to get close to the King to petition for his body to be returned to the family for burial. It is claimed she made these entreaties with “many insults “ thrown at the King.  The woman was Imprisoned. 

It seems from our viewpoint that to Louis , the Human cost of the endeavour was irrelevant in the grand scheme. One wonders how many  families had no grave or marker to pay respects at and whether it was not so much the fact of her asking for the body, but her ability to come so close to the King and make even justified scathing remarks, sealed her fate.

Louis was constantly afraid of Enemies and plots from within. He undertook a massive court wide surveillance. For Louis Information really was power. The court records showed 948 journals  filled up entirely  with the personal particulars of every single member of the court from the Royal Valet to the lowliest kitchen maid.

Mail was intercepted, prior to Louis taking the throne, personal seals would have been used to authenticate the identity of the sender, the wax left unbroken, proof that tampering had occurred. However as one courtier wrote to a German cousin,  Mercury and other elements are used to make impressions to make counterfeit seals with which to make  the imprint on fresh wax after the letter’s contents had been ascertained. Any  Contrary comment about the King’s speech , policy,or friendships meant a courtier was  finished. 

In retaliation those who wanted to dissent led to the introduction of cyphers to disguise the content of letters. Louis was not to be outdone, he just employed used his own skilled cryptographers to break the codes.

One such Cryptographer was  the brilliant Antoines  Rossignol  who created  a code so complex that once it fell out of use it baffled cryptographers for centuries.  Antoine Rossignol and his son, worked either at their estate at Juvisy near Paris or in a room next to the King's study at Versailles. For him they developed the Great Cipher (also called the Grand Cipher) of Louis XIV. They alone mastered it, encoding letters, memoranda, and records. The Rossignols ran the Cabinet noir, the French Black Chamber (founded when Louvois served as Minister of War) as a code bureau

A generation later, when Bonaventure's son, Antoine-Bonaventure, died, the Grand Cipher fell out of use. Without the key, and even the base concept, it remained uncrackable until the late 19th century, when Etienne Bazeries deciphered it after three years of work. Until this time, historians had remained unable to read the coded diplomatic records of the time in the French archives.

Louis obviously had trouble trusting but there were some people he did trust and those were his retained servants most notably his valet, Alexandre Bontemps who stayed with Louis for forty years. It was an exceptionally privileged position. He was the first to see the King in the Morning and tucked him in at night, he slept on a truckle at the foot of the bed just outside the little gate that delineates the point where the kings’s bed became private. He was the sole person allowed to sleep in the King’s Bedchamber, not even the Queen was allowed to do that!

His devotion to his duties was massive and meant his own family was left bereft on occasion, when once asked how his wife was, he absentminded replied, “I’ll ask the King”. All private correspondence went through him. And he acted as go-between between The king and his mistresses. It is said that he may well have been The King’s closest friend.

Bon Temps was showered with titles, gifts of land and lucrative posts. He was able to run an entire household with twelve servants of his own, so his position really did come with privileges.

Louis also began to promote commoners into high ranking roles. Before nobles were the only people offered such positions but of course he did not trust the nobles and so he had to be innovative in his choosing of his closest advisors and ministers  and so began the reign of the vile bourgeoisie!

Louis also decided that if he was to be a leader he would have to take prerogative with fashion too. By edict you were not to wear anything that did not come from French Manufacture, so if you were caught wearing anything else you were fined. A court Uniform was designed of blue with Gold embellishments and Red lining and this was given to the fifty top ranking courtiers. Lace and gold buttons were incredibly expensive and so it was not uncommon for nobles to fall into debt trying to bulk out their wardrobes and so would borrow money against purchases from the King’s purse.
The French court was to all intents and purposes rich, at least in appearance, but also Louis had established another ingenious way of keeping them beholden to his good graces. Debts and dues kept the nobles close and under his control.

Philipe, his brother had always been treated as less, their Mother had exaggerated  the differences in the two boys as children and  even in art, Louis is represented as a strapping young lad in bright clothes and with a kingly air. At age  7  boys would be allowed to wear breeches,so this would have been correct for their relative ages, but it seems little Philipe was actively encouraged to wear dresses and to play up his feminine side so much so that she called him her little girl!

Philipe was a spare rather than an heir so he was left to indulge this and become a living embodiment of a  rather stark test of nature versus nurture as sincerity childhood  he seemed to err towards femininity and a more fluid attitude to sexuality by wearing dresses and engaging in a torrid affair with handsome powerful Chevalier De Lorraine who lived with Phillipe despite he being married to Henriette of England.

Even in male Garb he decked himself in rings, bracelets and jewels, wore flowing wigs and had specially high heels on his shoes. One year he spent 50000 on shoes alone. Louis feigned embarrassment at his brother’s flamboyance, but secretly was glad as his strength and manliness was exaggerated by his brother’s effeminacy.

It seems odd then, that Philipe fervently wanted to go to War, to fight for King and country. In 1677  when France  was at war with Dutch, Philipe was finally able to ride out to try to wrestle back enemy held towns. He distinguished himself with honour and valour at the Battle of Cassell. Leading the charge, he was such a dashing figure that he inspired the troops to a crushing victory. The men saw him as a true warrior.

Louis would not allow that, his jealousy preventing him from even hearing of  his Brother’s exploits in despatches, so when the inevitable painting of the battle was commissioned, Louis is featured in a attitude of blazing righteous regality and Philipe in his shadow as usual.  The simple truth however was Louis had never even been there!

In 1684, Versailles became the permanent residence of the King and in the following, thirty years, he returned to Paris only eight times.The interesting combination of paranoia and cold hearted determination could well have ended the reign as civil or noble arrest could have made the whole structure fall apart, but there was no violence collapse and the Reighn of Louis XIV was one that preempted a period culture and sophistication that continues into modern day.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

The Truth behind the Drama - Part One. Versailles

Lucy Worsley is one of my favourite Historians and is Curator of the Royal Palaces collections  here in the UK and as such, to my mind at least, her  pedigree to speak on all things Sun King, is  well established and so when I saw she was doing a companion documentary to  new BBC drama “Versailles,” I was thrilled.

Historian Helen Castor joins her as they delve a little deeper behind the story being so lavishly presented in the French produced Historical Drama.

Louis XIV  had inherited a country at odds with itself, but it was the building of his palace in the rural area of Versailles that would make his Seventy two years on the throne so  interesting and groundbreaking. 

His glorious Palace was to play a huge part in Court Politics, his personal life and his very safety. The Sun King shone thanks to gilt and mirror and a great deal of cleverness!

Versailles was a tiny hamlet. 

Situated some twelve  miles from Paris, it had served as refuge from the rebellious Nobles after a failed attempt to seize power. Soon after Louis’ Mother died leaving the country in flux. The only thing remotely Grand in the locality was the hunting lodge that had belonged to Louis and Phillipe’s father, so the plan to build a palace must have seemed like pie in the sky.

The Capital and the Lodge were connected by an old Drovers path. It was nigh on inaccessible.  The Royal  seat of power was the Palace of the Louvre and the Nobles all had residences nearby in the city. 

Louis though, was an outdoorsy sort of King, he loved to Hunt and Ride.  He expected his courtiers to come to him in his country retreat, but many were unwilling to travel as the well to do, Dukes, Duchesses,  Counts and Countesses  were wholly unsatisfied with their accommodations!

Was Versailles  really a “Mistress without Merit”? The nobles thought so.

The plans were to house his guests all on site, so Louis decided to just build around the existing Lodge architecture,which had originally cosily housed about fifteen guests.  By quite literally encasing the original structure  in an envelope(called the “Enveloppe”  even today )  of additional rooms and courtyards,he was able to house  up to Six Hundred people at any given time.

This endeavour was not Louis  just being a tremendously generous host to the displaced visitor, he had much more serious reasons for this bringing  of folk all together under one roof. 

He was absolutely and resolutely going to protect his throne. 

His very birth was the first viable pregnancy after twenty three years of marriage by his parents, his arrival deemed so much a  a “gift from God”  that his name the   Dieudonne means just that. His  belief in the Divine Right of Kings  passed on with vigour from his Mother was the cornerstone of his belief system and his confidence.

He was so confident in himself that he had many likenesses made of himself in guises of massive power, Popes, Alfred the Great, even Zeus the Greek God!

Making his personal Emblem a blazing sun, was further designed to make sure people always made him the centre of the Royal universe. This determination to be the fulcrum  around which all else revolved was partly due to a deep seated paranoia that it might all come crashing down around him.

France was not a unified nation, in fact customs, language and laws differed from region to region and great swathes were held under the thrall of powerful noblemen. Louis knew only too well how vulnerable his position was. He had personal  experience.

In 1651, an attempt  by the monarchy to wrest power back from the ruling houses had resulted in civil war and a mob had even fought its way into his childhood bed chamber in the palace. Pretending to slumber, he eventually escaped with his mother, but he was forever suspicious of Paris, always equating it with unrest and plots to get him and his throne.

Versailles is to become the seat from which  he wants to rule.  He begins to stamp himself out as  an absolute monarch, stripping power from the nobles. Louis was  very clever at wielding what might be termed soft power, learning rapidly from the mistakes of Uncle Charles in England.  Charles I’s struggles with his parliament started in  civil war and ended in execution and exile for his son.

Louis was not to be thwarted the same way. His plan was to “devastate” dissent with hospitality and “overwhelm” adversaries with titles that in reality meant very little,wielding little to no power at all.. The plan was to emasculate by giving all the nobles trivial jobs in the  massive household.

Louis was a lavish entertainer, Gambling, Feasts , hunting trips and parties were commonplace. He wanted to dazzle his guests! And he  obviously succeeded. Books  of revels  were produced so that visiting dignitaries could take home physical evidence of the glorious reign of Louis XIV and show them just  how the French do things-  with style and panache of course!

One such book illustrates the celebration of  a six day  and six night  extravaganza named
 “ The pleasures of the Enchanted Isle” based on epic poem, The  frenzy of Orlando .

Louis  was a great dancer and always took the lead role in dramatics or displays wearing lavish costumes. The Pictures in these books show marble Courtyards decorated with orange trees and candles in every window.

Court composer Jean -Baptiste Lully wrote  the ballets  performed at these parties and was the most renowned composer of the time.  Fireworks and illuminations  were set off at night to astonish  the assembled guests  by the magnificence, novelty and  pomp of the new palace.

Once hooked by the extravagance of the entertainments, Louis had another cunning way to keep his courtiers enthralled and more importantly - Present. 

He began a series of rituals throughout his day that demanded attendance and to participate was a great honour. The closer you were to the King during these daily tasks and ablutions the higher in regard you were thought to be held.

The noblemen have to present themselves at the appointed hour. Chosen elites shared his intimate rituals  and might be allowed to participate.

At 8am sharp, wherever the King had slept the previous night, the curtains would be thrown back  behind a golden gate and courtiers would witness the “ The rising’” a  physician would check the kings’s wellbeing, his wet  nurse would administer a morning kiss and the King would rise.

Next the Grand EntrĂ©e, nobles would help dress him in his shirt. Dressing,  shaving, drinking and eating, were no longer tasks of everyday life, but displays of wealth, harmony, modesty and piety. Louis demanded to be Worshipped like a God.

This did hold some positive for the gathered court. Nobles seeking favours knew exactly  where the monarch  was  at any given time and were able to  engineer meetings and transform their fortunes. 

The King’s  progress to Mass would be thronged with petitioners. If however the person for which the favour was asked was not part of Versailles society they would be turned down with a flick of the wrist and a” we never see him , we do not know  him”

 This Avid attendance was paramount, which  ostensively kept court imprisoned  within the opulent walls  of the palace, so nobles could not plot, or ferment rebellion back at their personal households.

As soon as a structure was in place, the other passion of his life could be enjoyed. That was of course Women and he  was a voracious par taker of the ladies!  I have previously  spoken a little in my other blogs this month of the relationships with his Brother’s wife and  in actual fact first cousin to both brothers.

This dalliance went on  in front of his real wife  the Queen and the other woman in his bed, nominal head “mistress “ or Maitress Declaree , Louise De Valiere.

 Louise had beguiled the King as he planned his great palace.  However remaining  in this hallowed position of power would prove hard as other women snapped at  their heels and seemingly stepped over each other to get a seat, quite literally at the King’s side. It was not long before another lady elbowed the others out of the way.

Athenais  De Montespan was said  to be a great beauty whose spirit  and Fire intrigued the King, a friend of Louise’s she took her first opportunity to usurp her, betraying her friend,she stepped into her place  when the king’s appetites for bedding the  lady Montespan rose to three times a day. She, not an unwilling partner. It  was said,  Athenais’ desires were just as pressing and she maintained her allure and so  her place; at Louis’s side for ten years.

Join me again on Thursday when I carry on  looking at the intriguing behind the scenes history of The Sun King, finding out about Court fashions, the building works themselves and the ever bubbling sibling unrest between Louis and the almost as interesting figure of Phillipe, his younger brother.