Monthly Archives: July 2013


A_GameOfThronesI came to A GAME OF THRONES because I read (and write) historical novels set during the Wars of the Roses, so I wanted to see what this writer of epic fantasy would do to the material. I was pleasantly surprised to find that George R. R. Martin (I’ll refer to him as GRRM) didn’t slavishly follow the historical events, making this a refreshing read.

Yes, I got that the Starks stand in for the Yorks (I guess Cateleyn is based on Lady Cecylee Neville, Duchess of York), and that the Lannisters stand in for the Lancasters. But everything has been mixed up, so that Robert Baratheon, who most resembles King Edward IV, is married to his greatest enemy Marguerite of Anjou (the Lancastrian Queen). Or perhaps Cersei Lannister is based upon his actual wife Elisabeth Woodville? Which makes Jaime Lannister what? Sir Anthony Woodville?

Anyway, you get the idea. It’s not easy to fit the actual history to this story, which gives GRRM a lot more freedom to develop his characters how he pleases.

For a book with the requisite plot twists and turns, it was a pleasant surprise to read such wonderfully poetic prose. Here is an example of what I mean. We are in Catelyn Stark’s head as she rides with her son and his army to cross the river at Riverrun:

“They crossed at evenfall as a horned moon floated upon the river. The double column wound its way though the gate of the eastern twin like a great steel snake, slithering across the courtyard into the keep and over the bridge, to issue forth once more from the second castle on the west bank. Catelyn rode at the head of the serpent, with her son and her uncle…”

Look at all those strong verbs: “crossed,” “floated,” “wound,” “slithering,” “issue forth,” “rode.” And how poetic the language is, with “evenfall” and “horned moon.” It is just enough to give a whiff of the Middle Ages without overdoing it. This long book, which I believe is about 700 pages (my iPad doesn’t tell me), kept me royally entertained for a week. If you have a boring plane journey ahead of you and this sort of thing grabs your attention, get it for your iPad. Five stars.

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THE TEA ROSE by Jennifer Donnelly

For a story with as many plot twists and turns as Jennifer Donnelly’s THE TEA ROSE, it is surprising that it takes so long to start the engine of the story. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

TheTeaRoseTHE TEA ROSE is a compelling, well-written novel. It is such a page-turner (once the story gets going), that it enthralled me, keeping me up until 4 am! Ms Donnelly has created memorable protagonists in Joe and Fiona. She has also made her many minor characters vivid and believable. The descriptions are historically grounded and add texture to the novel. It was a pleasure to immerse oneself in the details of Whitechapel, of Fiona’s job at the tea factory, of her mother cooking and doing the laundry.

Where I felt the book was weak was at the beginning. The prologue made little sense, because it is an example of a hook that doesn’t hook. Or of a hook that isn’t relevant. In the Prologue we meet Polly, a Whitechapel whore, who meets a nasty end.  After that, we switch to Chapter One, and meet Fiona in her job at the tea factory. The significance of what happened to Polly doesn’t become apparent until well into Chapter One, and then it didn’t resonate because Polly is a complete stranger to Fiona and her family.

The novel actually begins on page 129, 18% of the way into the story, with the death of Fiona’s father. To me, that is the actual hook, because everything in the story grows from that event. All the details of Fiona’s job, her family, her relationship with Joe, her visit to the West End to visit Joe, all of these things could have been slipped into the narrative afterwards to create the world that vanished when Fiona’s da died. Being forced to wade through nine chapters of detail, even thought the details was beautifully rendered, made the beginning much less strong than it should have been. It’s as if we saw the scaffolding of how Ms. Donnelly wrote her way into the story, but that scaffolding hadn’t been removed. Given that this book was published under the imprint of St. Martin’s Griffin and not self-published, it’s surprising that a stronger editorial hand wasn’t employed. 3.5 stars.


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THE INDIA FAN by Victoria Holt

I loved Victoria Holt’s THE TIME OF THE HUNTER’S MOON, so I one might imagine I would love TheIndiaFanTHE INDIA FAN just as much. After all, it has a very similar plot, of the young heroine torn between three suitors. What does she do? Does she make the eminently sensible choice of marrying her father’s curate? Or does she marry a friend of her father, the one he enjoyed having long conversations with, the scholarly young man who became an earl? Or does she fall for the local squire?

But whereas THE TIME OF THE HUNTER’S MOON used setting details to set the reader’s hair on end every time that mysterious young man appeared, THE INDIA FAN was not as engaging. The fan itself wasn’t compelling as an object, the house wasn’t creepy, and Miss Lucille, the owner of the fan, could be too easily dismissed as mad, rather than scary or forbidding. Three stars.

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Victoria Holt was one of those authors I loved as a child, and it wasn’t until I was nearly grown up that I realized that she, and Jean Plaidy, and Philippa Carr, were actually all noms-de-plume of the same person, Eleanor Hibbert (1906-1993).

Recently, I picked up a novel I had not read before, TheTimeOfTheHuntersMoonTHE TIME OF THE HUNTER’S MOON written under the name of Victoria Holt, as it is a gothic romance.  And what a creepy book it is. I haven’t felt unsettled for such a long time, not since I read Diana Gabaldon’s OUTLANDER 15 years ago. The creepy young man who appears in a forest in Switzerland in the first part was making it difficult for me to get to sleep! Subsequently, I stayed up until 3 am this morning, because I just couldn’t put it down.

Of course, one could argue that the plot is predictable, that it is the familiar tale of a beautiful young woman sought after by 3 young men, who has the puzzle of sorting out which one would make the best husband. But Victoria Holt is so good at creating atmosphere and plot twists that it doesn’t matter. Of course, it is a cliche that abbey ruins encourage young women to imagine all sorts of things. Jane Austen had great fun sending that up in NORTHANGER ABBEY. But what is so wonderful about this novel is that there really is something to worry about. It’s just not what you think it is. Five stars.

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A LITTLE PRINCESS by Frances Hodgson Burnett

ALittlePrincess1I loved this novel as a child, so it was a pleasure to read a re-issue of this novel which contains some material that had previously been cut out.

ALittlePrincess2A LITTLE PRINCESS is the story of a rich young lady, sent from India at the age of seven to be educated at a Young Ladies Seminary at the age of seven. Treated as a princess by the mistress of this establishment, Miss Minchin, Sara is regarded with jealousy by some and with awe by others. But when she suddenly becomes impoverished, Miss Minchin banishes her to the attic, and proceeds to treat her as a maid-of-all-work.

ALittlePrincess3I read this book after another of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s books for children, the more famous LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY. I had never read FAUNTLEROY before, and so it was interesting to compare a book I didn’t know, with a well-loved one from my childhood. There were several similarities. Like Fauntleroy, Sara is a natural aristocrat, she is kind-hearted, she acts on her kindness to help others, and she is old before her time. But A LITTLE PRINCESS is much darker than LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY. True Fauntleroy’s path to his Grandfather’s heart (and his magnificent inheritance) is not an easy ride. On the other hand, I don’t believe anyone doubts that things will work out in the end. A LITTLE PRINCESS, by contrast, contains details of real deprivation, suffering, exhaustion, abuse, all suffered by children. Although things do work out in the end, the reader is left with a much darker picture of 19th-century London. Five stars. A book club recommendation.

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LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY by Frances Hodgson Burnett

LittleLordFauntleroy1LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY has been a byword in my family for a spoiled, too-perfect little horror dressed in black velvet suits with lacey collars.


LittleLordFauntleroy2Having nothing better to do, I sat down recently to actually read the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924). I was extremely surprised by what I found. Far from being spoilt, Fauntleroy is a sweet little boy, seven years old, who has been plucked from his humble abode in New York City to become the heir to the Earl of Derincourt, who happens to be his grandfather.


LittleLordFauntleroy3Fauntleroy is not only a sweetie-pie, but he’s kind-hearted too, using the largesse bestowed on him by his grand-papa for the betterment of the needy people around him. He has large brown eyes. He nestles close to people. And he is so earnest, the kind of child whose preternatural wisdom makes him amusing to the grownups around him.


Nowadays, we find this kind of portrait of the perfect little boy to be unreal. Some might even find the portrait cloying, and the insistence on calling his mother “dearest” a little disturbing. But if you can put all of this aside, you are in for a treat. For despite all this, Fauntleroy manages to be real. Four stars. A book club recommendation.

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FrenchLieutenantWomanBookWhat is so striking about John Fowle’s THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN is how much the voice of the narrator intrudes into a story, set in 1867, in which a gentleman paleontologist prepares for his marriage with a suitable young lady, while allowing himself to be distracted by another woman, the French lieutenant’s woman, who exerts a powerful pull on his imagination.


FrenchLieutenantWomanMovieThe narrator’s voice insistently reminds the reader that this novel is set in 1867 (the novel was written in 1969) and also comments on Victorian mores as the novel goes along, making what is known in Philosophy as “meta-comments”, that is comments about the novel itself. As the novel progresses towards its end, this voice becomes ever more apparent, especially during the most famous part of the novel, in which Fowles presents his reader with three alternative endings. What is magical is how Fowles manages to do this without annoying the reader. Five stars. A book club recommendation.

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FLIGHT BEHAVIOR by Barbara Kingsolver

FlightBehaviorBarbara Kingsolver’s novel FLIGHT BEHAVIOR is the sort of book you would expect from this gifted novelist, whose story combines climate change with religious faith and traditional values.

Set in Southern Appalachia, protagonist Dellarobbia’s life is turned upside down when a swath of Monarch butterflies nests in her mountain, carpeting the landscape with their bright colors. This has never happened before, and leaves people seeking various explanations from religion and science.

What is so wonderful about this book is the sensitive portrayal of people who have so little money and access to resources that they are imprisoned by the kind of inertia that is brought about by lack of opportunities.

My favorite scene was the one between Dellarobbia and the man with the questionnaire, designed to find out how big your carbon footprint is. The questions were so not relevant to Dellarobbia’s life, it was hysterical. And sad.

What was not so good were all of the innumerable descriptions of Dellarobbia’s life with her children. If you have young children and live in a part of the world that resembles rural Appalachia, you will probably wonder why I complain about this. And in the first part of the book, when Dellarobbia has such a delightfully opinionated voice, this problem was not noticeable. But after she realizes the extent of the problem represented by the butterflies, after the novel becomes much more somber in tone, her voice flattens out and loses its emotional punch. A stronger editorial hand was needed. Four stars.

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LADY OF HAY by Barbara Erskine

LadyOfHayBarbara Erskine’s novel LADY OF HAY, in part an historical novel about Maud (or Matilda) de Braose, who had the misfortune of living during the time of King John the Bad (1199-1216), is one of those novels with parallel plotlines.

In 1970s England, we meet 19-year-old Jo Clifford, who has an amazing ability as a subject in a regression hypnosis, when she relives the last, tortured moments of a 13th-century Norman-French woman, whose husband held a great deal of power in the Welsh Marches during the reign of Henry II (1154-1189), and his sons Richard the Lionheart (1189-1199) and King John.

The modern story then jumps 15 years, and we meet 35-year-old Jo Clifford, successful journalist, and as hard-headed as you expect a modern woman to be. She is given an assignment to investigate regression hypnosis, which is a technique that claims to access a person’s memory of a past life. Jo initially pooh-poohs the idea, until she becomes a subject herself.

At that point, the medieval story takes off.

I am not alone in finding the medieval story more compelling, primarily because the stakes are so high, giving Ms. Erskine opportunities for building a spine of tension to hold up the story arc.

The modern part of the story was not interesting. The relationship between Jo Clifford and her on-again, off-again boyfriend Nick went round, and around, and around, and while true to life, this spinning of wheels meant that many opportunities for tension were lost.

Nick’s brother Sam is cast as the mad scientist, and as a former scientist myself, I wish that Ms. Erskine had eschewed the cliches and dug deeper to have formed a more interesting character. Sam’s motivation is not clear, except that he seems to have gone quite mad for no apparent reason. My question was how did we get from the concerned young man we glimpsed in 1970, to the out-of-control sadist in 1985? No satisfactory answer is given.

The modern story deserves 3 stars, the medieval story deserves 5 stars, so I am giving this novel 4 stars. A book club recommendation.

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