RESTLESS by William Boyd

RESTLESS by William Boyd is one of those novels with a parallel plot, there is the present-day told from the point-of-view of Ruth Gilmartin a 20-something PhD student at Oxford and a single Mum. Then there is the story of Eva Delectorskaya, a woman of Russian-English heritage, working as a spy for Britain in New York in 1940 and 1941. Her job was to pose as a journalist spreading disinformation about the progress of the war in an effort to encourage the United States to join the fight against the Nazis.

51j-Z7md5sL._AA160_This may sound only moderately interesting, but in William Boyd’s hands it becomes completely gripping. Both POV characters, Ruth and Eva, are so real. While it is true that inevitably Ruth’s story is not that interesting, nevertheless, her story kept me glued to the page, partly because I’m old enough to remember the Baader-Meinhof gang, and I kept wondering if she were harboring some of the members in her apartment.

As for Eva, well she is completely compelling. Strikingly beautiful and breathtakingly smart she is astonishingly good at her job, and manages to wriggle out of a couple of very difficult situations. Most of the pleasure of this novel is in watching such a smart woman outsmart some pretty smart men.

I have never heard of William Boyd before, but I will certainly be reading more of his novels. Five stars.

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MOON TIGER by Penelope Lively

51Sclf-mlNL._AA160_I can see why Penelope Lively’s novel MOON TIGER won the Booker Prize in 1987. It is a beautifully written novel, awe-inspiring over its control of multiple points of view and in its non-linear story telling.

We start in the present, with elderly Claudia Hampton ill in hospital, dying of cancer. As she lies in bed, memories of her past flicker through her consciousness, but not in chronological order. Reading this novel is like delving into someone’s past, like peeling layers off an onion, until we get to the core of the story, which is…But I don’t want to spoil this novel for you, so I’ll let you discover that for yourself.

We learn about Claudia, her quiet mother, her unusually close relationship with her brother Gordon, her disdain for Gordon’s wife Sylvia, her partner Jasper and her daughter-whom-she-doesn’t-understand Lisa. We also learn about another man in her life.

Without spoiling the plot, I will say that I found the characterization of the lover, Tom, wanting. Claudia is portrayed as such a sharp-tongued, opinionated, fiercely intelligent woman that for the life of me I couldn’t see why she was attracted to quiet, decent Tom. I couldn’t figure out why he made such a powerful impression on her. By contrast, her relationships with her argumentative brother Gordon and the sexually powerful Jasper were easy to understand and imagine. I know it seems awfully presumptuous NOT to give a Booker-prize-winning novel five stars, but I’m going to give this four stars, taking a star off for the problematic Tom.

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THE MASQUERADERS by Georgette Heyer

51qDiPICMZL._AA160_THE MASQUERADERS by Georgette Heyer turned out to be the most unexpected delight. I cannot remember now why I put it on my reading list, but as I opened it to read I hoped it would give me a little pleasure as I am very fond of historical novels. Part of the joy in reading this novel is that the characters have such fun, even while the stakes are so high:

The door opened, and the page let in fat Marthe, a tray in her hands. It was a very colossus of a woman, of startling girth, and with a smile that seemed to spread all over the full moon of her face. Like her mistress, from one to the other she looked, and was of a sudden smitten with laughter that shook all her frame like a jelly. The tray was set down; she clasped her hands and gasped: “Oh, la-la! To see the little monsieur habillé en dame!”

Robin sailed up to her, and swept a practiced curtsey. “Your memory fails you, Marthe. Behold me – Prudence!”

She gave his arm a playful slap. “My memory, alors! No, no m’sieur, you are not yet large enough to be mademoiselle.”

“Oh, unkind!” Robin lamented, and kissed her roundly.

“Marthe, there is need of secrecy, you understand?” My lady spoke urgently.

The need for secrecy is that brother and sister are both Jacobites, and have fled to London after the failure of the 1745 rising to put Bonnie Prince Charlie on the throne. As Robin, the brother, is under attainder and could be hanged for his part in the rebellion, he is now dressed in petticoats and answers to the name of Kate Merriott, while his sister Prudence is dressed as a man and presents herself as Peter Merriott.

The plan is for the pair to lie low in London for a while, awaiting instructions from their father who has disappeared. But no member of this charming, highly intelligent and incorrigible family is good at actually disappearing, and they win hearts and a great deal of attention from the bon ton.

Apart from the high spirited pranks and witty dialogue, what gives readers so much pleasure in reading this novel is how fascinating the three main characters are, as well as how devilishly clever they are. The reader is going to be glued to the pages of this gook as they see how this family saves itself from disaster and is accepted into London society. Highly recommended. Five stars.

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MISTRESS OF MELLYN by Victoria Holt

Mistress of Mellyn really creeped me out. There I was sitting up in bed at midnight, the dark only relieved by the light from my iPad screen. And I really felt uncomfortable. Uncomfortable enough to turn on my bedside light.

51onsSulJiL._AA160_That is how good Victoria Holt’s writing is. She had me swept up in this Gothic romance set in Cornwall. Even though there were obvious references to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Henry James’ novella “The Turn of the Screw,” nevertheless this story of the governess’s love for her employer and her attempts to solve the mystery surrounding his wife’s death kept me up. Until 4 am!

What is it about Victoria Holt that is so compelling?  She immediately creates sympathy for her heroine by writing in first-person in such a way that we are in Martha’s head, and privy to Martha’s thoughts. And what does Martha think of herself?

“…my brown velvet bonnet, tied with brown velvet ribbons under my chin, was of the sort which was so becoming to feminine people like my sister Phillida but, I always felt, sat a little incongruously on head like mine. My hair was thick with a coppery finger, parted in the center, brought down at the sides of my too-long face…My eyes were large, in some lights the color of amber, and were my best feature; but they were too bold…”

Re-reading this passage in the light of the events that happen to Martha it is possible to see that she is a beautiful young woman. However, she doesn’t think she is, and that is what makes her so endearing to the reader. So we are invested in Martha from the start, and as we follow her on that train down to Cornwall, meeting an impertinent young man who pretends to read her hand:

“I see a child there and a man…perhaps it is the child’s father. They are wrapped in shadows. There is someone else there…but perhaps she is already dead.”

It was the deep sepulchral note in his voice rather than the words he said which momentarily unnerved me.

I snatched my hand away. “What nonsense!” I said.

He ignored me and half closed his eyes. Then he went on: “You will need to watch little Alice, and your duties will extend beyond the care of her. You must most certainly beware of Alice.”

I felt a faint tingling which began at the base of my spine and seemed to creep up my neck. This, I supposed, was what is known as making one’s flesh creep.

Here, Victoria Holt deftly drops in hints that all is not well at Mellyn House where Martha is to take up the post of governess. Is this young man just toying with Martha? Or should she heed his warning? And who is Alice? The little girl she is to take care of is called “Alvean.” The reader is intrigued and hooked, and turns the page wanting to find out more. If you have never read Victoria Holt before, you are in for a treat. Five Stars.

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THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy by Suzanne Collins

Author Suzanne Collins mentions that the idea for 41jG4xQjjsL._AA160_THE HUNGER GAMES came from channel surfing between reality TV games and the Iraq war. While the reality game show element is really obvious, it seems to me that this whole series is a metaphor for the wars of the recent decade, with each volume of the trilogy serving as a metaphor of those hellish places. No wonder Katniss behaves so badly and in such extreme and violent ways. No wonder this book is so dark. No-one is ever quite the same again. And that is where the power of this work lies, in it’s linking of dystopian fantasy with unpleasant realities of the present day.

This is a strong work that doesn’t sag and will keep you glued to the page. What makes it so outstanding is the way the trilogy ends. Ms. Collins provides a satisfying ending that ties up a lot of loose threads and make the reader feel that there was no other way this story could have ended. It is not a happy-ever-after ending, which would not have been appropriate for such a dark story. But it is the kind of ending that throws everything into relief and makes you realize what the emotional heart of the story is.51tK519fUHL._AA160_

For those of you who haven’t yet read or viewed HUNGER GAMES, you might want to stop reading at this point, as what I have to say contains spoilers.

What the ending meant for me was that the emotional heart of this story is with Katniss’ relationship with her sister. Which is surprising, as this is a book for teens. Authors who write for this audience are almost obliged to have the romance-between-good-looking members-of-the-opposite-sex-which-involves-love-triangle, and I must say I found this aspect of the trilogy the least interesting. Mainly because Katniss (not surprisingly) is so unsure of where she is, being spoiled for choice. But the suspense just stretches out and out and out, and I felt the work would have been stronger without so much emphasis on 51zkheo7x8L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_the romance element.

However, the ending suggests that we are being encouraged to look at the wrong relationship. Because the person whom Katniss really and truly loves is her sister. And when Prim dies, we feel Katniss’ terrible pain. Especially as she had to see it happen. I thought the scene with Prim’s cat was just wrenching, and it is a mark of the quality of this work that it is hard for me to get those scenes out of my head. Five stars.

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THE KING’S CURSE by Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory has done it again, found a compelling, forgotten woman, in the shape of Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, and woven a whole tale around this character.

Margaret of Salisbury had an impeccable pedigree. She was the elder child of George, Duke of Clarence, brother to both Edward IV and Richard the III. Her mother was Isabel Neville, daughter and co-heiress with her sister Anne, of Warwick the Kingmaker. Margaret was comfortable at court and knew most of its players. She was a cousin to Queen Elizabeth of York, wife to Henry VII and mother of Henry VIII. She became close friends with Henry VIII’s first wife Catherine of Aragon. 51feeg5HssL._AA160_So she is an excellent choice for the ending of Gregory’s series on the Cousin’s War (aka The Wars of the Roses).

Gregory is known for her unorthodox takes on history, and this novel is no exception. She found an eerie corallary between the actions of some of the characters in her previous novels (LADY OF THE RIVERS and THE WHITE QUEEN ) and modern-day science. I will let her explain it to you in the following, taken from her Author’s Note:

There has been much work on the loss of Henry VIII’s babies. Current…research from Catrina Banks Whitley and Kyra Kramer suggests that Henry may have had the rare Kell positive blood type, which can cause miscarriages, stillbirths, and infant deaths when the mother has the more common Kell negative blood type. Whitley and Kramer also suggest that Henry’s later symptoms of paranoia and anger may have been caused by McLeod syndrome—a disease found only in Kell positive individuals. McLeod syndrome usually develops when sufferers are aged around forty and cause physical degeneration and personality changes resulting in paranoia, depression and irrational behavior.

…Whitley and Kramer trace Kell syndrome back to Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford, the suspected witch and mother of Elizabeth Woodville. Sometimes, uncannily, fiction creates a metaphor for an historical truth: in a fictional scene in the novel, Elizabeth, together with her daughter Elizabeth of York, curse the murderer of her sons, swearing that they shall lose their son and their grandsons, while in real life her genes—unknown and undetectable at the time—entered the Tudor line through her daughter and may have caused the deaths of four Tudor babies to Katherine of Aragon and three to Anne Boleyn. (582)

Reading this gave me the shivers. Five stars.

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A TRACE OF SMOKE by Rebecca Cantrell

A TRACE OF SMOKE is set in Berlin in 1931 and is the story of how a (fictional) lady journalist named Hannah Vogel defies Hitler’s best friend Ernst Roehm.

What is so wonderful about this novel are the many details of life in 1930s Berlin, like this one of a seedy nightclub called the “El Dorado”:

A dozen round tables ringed the oak dance floor. Each was set in a shallow alcove painted with a stylized scene from a Chinese opium den. Between each table hung a red curtain or a large tarnished brass gong. Every so often someone rang a got with a bottle of Champagne, and the band stopped playing and started a different song.

Despite this wonderful writing, I kept bumping into the mystery of exactly why author Rebecca Cantrell had chosen to set this story in 1931, at a time when the Nazis had LESS than 20% of the popular vote, then proceeded to fill her novel with details of Nazi menace which implied that the Nazis held Berlin in a stranglehold. The author goes so far as to claim (in her Author Note) that Berlin was LOST to the Nazis in 1931!ATraceOfSmoke

But none of this makes sense. Hitler did NOT become Chancellor until 30 January 1933, and so I would say that it was in 1933 that Berlin was lost to the Nazis.

In 1931, by contrast, the Nazis had to continue to fight rumors that they were pagans and thugs because they needed the Catholic vote. In 1931, they had to do everything in their power to make themselves appear civilized. The Nazi menace that suffuses this novel is simply anachronistic.

Most readers are probably not going to mind this, but as someone who has done a lot of research in this area myself, I just couldn’t understand how an author who can do so much detailed research on brands of stockings and cigarettes to illuminate the daily life of Berliners could make such an elementary mistake. Three stars.

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New book reviews for Spun Stories!

Everyone,

So sorry you haven’t heard from me recently. For those of you who don’t know, I took off a couple of years to do an MFA in imagesCreative Writing at Lesley University’s low-residency program. (Lesley is in Cambridge, MA). In any event, I’m nearly at the end of my time there, but this last (fourth) semester has been particularly grueling. Hence, no posts.

Now that I’ve got my second submission in, I have a window of time to put up some new reviews of books that I met in the Fall. I hope you enjoy reading them.

If all goes according to plan, I hope to graduate this June. Please keep your fingers crossed!

CynthiaSignature

 

 

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A Post on Freado about Lady Cecylee:

Everyone,

CastleRabyCecyleeSigI thought you might be interested in this interview I did for FREADO about my series THWARTED QUEEN:

 

http://www.freado.com/users/31565/Cynthia/

 

Have a wonderful day!

 

CynthiaSignature

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My Fifteenth Half Great-Aunt

Recently, I learned that I am related to CastleRabyCecyleeSigLady Cecylee, the heroine of my THWARTED QUEEN series. I thought I would let Her Ladyship tell you all about this discovery, in her own inimitable way:

Today I learned the most wondrous news. Did you know that my scribe and I are related to each other? Tis passing strange.

It came about because I encouraged her to learn more about her family. I mean how can you appear before folk if you know not who you are? In my day, we spent many an hour discussing the windings and twisting of our various family trees. So she began by looking back into the past, at her ancestors in the Land of Henry, which is today called America.

Did you know that they lived there for nearly three centuries, since making landfall in a leaking ship called The Mayflower? How they managed to get across that dark and wide ocean is beyond comprehension.

Then my scribe looked beyond, into the ancestors of her Mayflower ancestor (called Mary Mayflower Allerton) and discovered that her grandfather was a Sir Edward Norris. Immediately, my ears perked up for the gentleman was a knight. I must say I am not acquainted with that family. Still, twas a promising start.

I encouraged her to go back further. Would you believe it but Sir Edward’s grandfather was a gentleman named Sir Henry Norris, a friend of a queen of England. I have never heard of this queen before, but my scribe says she is most famous. Her name was Anne Boleyn. She sounds rather like that common strumpet who played upon my son’s male weakness and inserted herself on the throne of England. I always refer to her as “The Serpent”, but I am told that people nowadays refer to her as Elizabeth Woodville. It seems that my great-grandson, Henry the Eighth of that name, was displeased with his wife and her friends and had them executed on Tower Hill.

7b1a174b4cc97f16c95d7658a57ef4eb-bpfullI shall pass no judgement on his actions, as I was then cold in my grave and had been for the past forty-one years. Wishing to turn the conversation away from unfortunate channels, I urged my scribe to find out more. “Find out who his mother, grandmother and great-grandmothers were,” I remarked. “I have a notion that the ladies of that family were well-connected.”

Lo and behold, I was right. Sir Henry’s great-great-grandmother was Elizabeth Holland, a lady I had known well. For her grandfather was none other than my grandfather, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.

So what does that make my scribe in relation to me? Well, Elizabeth Holland’s mother was Lady Elizabeth Plantagenet, who was the half-sister of my mother, Lady Joan de Beaufort. That means that I am my scribe’s 15th half great-aunt. Truly I marvel at such tidings!

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