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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Thereby lies a Letter: The Lost Letters of Aquitaine

A well-researched and evocative historical novel, this book by Judith Koll Healey is highly recommended. Based on the story of Alais Capet, the mistress of Henry II, the novel takes place partly in the sun-lit fields of Provence and partly in England. When the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine sends Alais to recover letters that were lost in England Alais finds herself caught in a conspiracy involving the Knights Templar amongst others. She is unsure who to trust. Can she trust her childhood friend, William, now a handsome man to whom she finds herself attracted? Can she trust her aunt or Queen Eleanor? Who is the mysterious child mentioned in the letters?

Beautifully written, this is also an action-packed novel in which Alais battles the evil King John, narrowly escapes from death, and has to solve many problems including what to do about a dark secret of her own.

I enjoyed this very much and look forward to more exciting novels from this author.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

As the old saying goes: 'this is an oldie but a goodie'. Daughter of Time is an excellent defence of Richard III and a much more entertaining way of learning some history than reading a dry textbook.

Tey's hard-working detective, Grant, lies in bed in hospital at the beginning of the book with a leg injury. Bored and missing his police work, when his bright actress friend, Marta, gives him some portraits to study concerning historical mysteries, he becomes intrigued. The portrait of Richard III surprises him. He has long been told, like the rest of us, that Richard was a monster who would do anything to claim the throne including murdering the little Princes, his own brother's children.
When he looks at the portrait, however, he sees the face of a 'judge', someone of integrity.

The two nurses who are entertaining characters - the bossy 'Amazon' and the timid 'Midget' - agree with him and decide to help him discover the truth about Richard. One of them lends him a book by Sir Thomas More, the book on which the legend about Richard was based. As he reads this he remembers that More lived during Henry VIII's time and never knew Richard at all. He determines to discover the truth.

Marta enlists the aid of her young American friend, Carradine, who wants to make his name by writing a historical book. Carradine loves all this and Grant's discussions with him help him greatly in his development of a new theory about Richard.

Although Tey's detective is ill which rather limits the action in this book, she manages to fill the novel with interesting characters and tell an excellent story.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

From the Outback to Fairyland


Phyllis McDuff has written a fascinating tale about a daughter who searches for her mysterious mother's past and finds out much more about herself along the way. A quintessentially Australian migrant story it involves a country childhood, an adolescence spent in a schizophrenic whirl between Australia and Austria and discovery of a family's true past. Most of all, however, it is the story of Bettina McDuff, a tremendously strong and enigmatic character who escaped from the Nazi's to make a new life in Australia.

Bettina came from an extremely wealthy family with a luxurious house in Austria. When the Nazi's captured Austria this wealth was requisitioned and Bettina managed somehow to escape here. Used to having all the domestic duties done by servants and a former pupil at a famous English private school, in Australia she found herself poor and had to take any work she could. She worked on a farm and met Joe, a much older man who lived nearby in a fairly open log cabin. They married and as they managed farming together life slowly improved.

Phyllis enjoyed her country childhood and got on better with her easy-going father than her temperamental mother. After Joe died Phyllis found herself torn between Australia and Austria during her teenage years as her mother often decided to take the children back to her homeland. In more formal and cultivated Austria she became a debutante going to balls and dances every night, enjoyed the opera, shopped with her mother and ate Viennese cakes.

Her mother grew increasingly erratic and strange as she grew older refusing to talk about her past when Phyllis asked questions. But there were many odd events which made Phyllis long to know more, such as the disappearance of Bettina's brother during the war, whispered conversations in Vienna amongst family and friends and the provenance of some drawings allegedly by Picasso.

Finally she and her mother make peace and she learns more about her family but some questions will always remain unanswered.

Although simply told the writing is very lucid and this is such an enjoyable book that it is well-worth reading. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The first hippies: Passion by Jude Morgan

Atheism, republicanism, free love and even vegetarianism - the Romantic poets believed in all or some of these. Compared with these free-thinking rebels even the Bloomsbury group look like conservatives! They didn't just believe in these ideas they acted on them upsetting the whole of England with their scandals. This is why they are often called the first hippies.

Jude Morgan in her evocative novel, The Passion, weaves a wonderful story around 'the second generation' of these Romantic poets, i.e. Byron and Shelley and their loves. The novel sweeps from the attempted suicide of the famous feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, through the scandal-ridden loves of Byron and Shelley to the tragic end of the era. The novel is filled with interesting characters: crazy Lady Caroline Lamb obsessed with Byron; Augusta Leigh, his too affectionate sister; Annabella Byron, his vindictive wife; and Mary Shelley who wrote Frankenstein. The author presents these characters vividly sometimes using the trick of writing from the first person point of view which enhances the novel.

The writing is rich and multi-layered providing an excellent picture of the era. Ms Morgan is e equally at home with the debt-ridden, poverty-stricken early life of Mary Shelley; the high society of Byron and Lady Caroline Lamb; and the scandalous summer that Mary and her half-sister and Byron and Shelley spent in Switzerland.

This is a huge book but well-worth reading especially for anyone who likes the Romantic poets and historical novels.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Some Bitter Taste

A taught thriller set in the fascinating city of Florence, Some Bitter Taste by magdalennabb is well worth reading. The likeable, but extremely serious hero, Marshall Gaurnaccia, is forced to investigate the murder of a middle-aged woman with a mysterious past. His investigation leads the reader into an involved plot which involves the Holocaust, unrequited love and family feuds. Sarah, the murdered woman, has many secrets in her past which makes finding the motive and the murderer very difficult.

When the Marshall also has to investigate a robbery from a rich and dying man, he regards this as somewhat of a nuisance because he really wants to discover the murderer but the twists and turns of these two convuluted plots keep the reader guessing until the end when all becomes clear.

Florence is like another character in this book. Well-described and vivid, the different areas of the city are known by the author inside-out. The heat and humidity, the crowds, the secret lanes and the beautiful gardens and villa are all painted with a clear brush.

I'll definitely be reading more by this author!

Monday, July 18, 2005

Nelson's Daughter by Miranda Hearn

England celebrates the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar this year and commemmorates its greatest hero Lord Nelson. All Nelson asked in return for his wonderful service to his country which saw him defeat Napoleon was that his country take care of the love of his life, Lady Emma Hamilton and his daughter, Horatia. To its eternal shame, his country failed to carry out his wishes although this was partly Emma's fault - the government thought that she had money already because of her spendthrift ways and she also annoyed important people in a position to grant her a pension.

This is an excellent book which tells Nelson's love story from the point of view of his daughter, Horatia. Miranda Hearn paints a vivid picture of Emma's love affair with Lord Nelson and her miserable decline into grief and alcoholism, cared for by the long-suffering Horatia. A richly atmospheric novel, it captures the romance and splendour of Emma's days in the sun so that one can almost see the carriages arriving at the door and the luxuriously laden tables of the dinner tables and balls she was famous for holding. The description of her addiction to drink is almost enough to turn one off drinking at all.

The author tells a reasonably accurate account of Nelson's story and captures the inconsistencies of his character well. Miranda Hearn also doesn't desist from criticising Nelson at times describing his nasty treatment of the Italian rebels and Emma's feelings about it.

The addition of the charming character of the Egyptian maid, Fatima, who befriends Emma and Horatia, adds a charming element to the story.

This novel deservedly won the Orange Prize for Fiction.