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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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Wednesday Reviews: ALTERED (CREWEL WORLD)

AlteredIn this second volume, Adelice Lewys and her friends Erick and Jost find themselves on the strange Planet Earth (where they’ve never been before). Adelice discovers who her real father is, but the mother she loved so much in Arras is beyond repair, a mere “remnant”.

ALTERED becomes a Quest Story, this time to find the Whorl in a race against time as Cormac Patton, the powerful figure from Arras (who wanted to trap Adelice into marrying him in Volume One), sends his “people” to find her. As this novel takes us away from the stunning details of Arras world, and from Adelice’s incredible talent with weaving, the writing becomes less compelling. Despite this, Gennifer Albin manages to write a page-turner that will make readers want to know what happens next. Four stars. 

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Wednesday Reviews: CREWEL (CREWEL WORLD)

CrewelSixteen-year-old Adelice Lewys has tried so hard to FAIL her obligatory weaving exam. Unfortunately, on the day of testing, she slips for just one moment, showing off her great skill.

That night, they come for her.

The rest of the story is about Adelice’s growing realization of her power, and of how the strange world she finds herself in works, as she graduates from Eligible to Spinster (one who has the skill to mend the weave-world that is Arras), to Creweler (one who can actually make new matter.) Every time Adelice’s fingers touch those threads, Ms. Albin’s writing becomes extraordinarily compelling.

Things come to a head when she learns she’s going to be reprogrammed to make her more suitable to become the wife of the powerful (and much older) Cormac. Five stars for a stunningly imaginative new world, three stars for a predictable love-triangle, making four stars. 

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Wednesday Reviews: FLAME OF SEVENWATERS by Juliet Marillier

FlameOfSevenwatersI loved FLAME OF SEVENWATERS. I thought author Juliet Marillier did a wonderfully sensitive job in talking about disability, and how hard it is for a differently-abled person to find the things in life that matter most, such as a partner who loves us for ourselves despite our flaws.

I won’t talk about the plot here so as not to spoil the story, but the stakes are very high and it has wonderful plot twists and a satisfyingly resonant ending. Five stars. 

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Wednesday Reviews: THE WELL OF SHADES by Juliet Marillier

TheWellOfShadesTHE WELL OF SHADES, the last and third volume of THE BRIDEI CHRONICLES by author Juliet Marillier again makes Faolan a chief player. This time his love interest is the fierce and fragile Elie, daughter of an Irish warrior who helped save Faolan’s life in Volume 2. As usual, Marillier takes the reader on quite an adventure, but this time it was more successful as both of her characters were flawed human beings who grow and change.

Of all the volumes in this series, I enjoyed this one the best. Five stars. 

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Wednesday Reviews: THE BLADE OF FORTRIU by Juliet Marillier

BladeOfFortriuTHE BLADE OF FORTRIU, the second volume of THE BRIDEI CHRONICLES (THE DARK MIRROR is the first volume) pairs the intriguing spy and assassin Faolan, with a minor character from King Bridei’s court. Ana is a royal hostage kept there to ensure that the King of the Light Isles, her father, will not betray Bridei.

Like Bridei in THE DARK MIRROR, Ana is also a too-perfect character who can be annoying for exactly that reason. So it’s great that Faolan finds her so annoying and a bit of a pain in the neck. Just as I was enjoying how their relationships was unfolding, Marillier threw a spanner in the works by making Ana fall in love with someone that she basically can’t see. Marillier would have lost me at that point, except for her truly lovely descriptions which made the story come alive for me. Four stars. 

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Wednesday Reviews: HEART’S BLOOD by Juliet Marillier

HeartsBloodHEARTS BLOOD by Juliet Marillier is her retelling of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, but she makes this story so much her own, I actually didn’t recognize the original tale, only learning that it was based on the well-known fairy story after I’d finished reading it and was perusing the Amazon reviews.

Deftly downplaying Beauty’s beauty and the Beast’s ugliness, Marillier turns this tale into one about the power of hope to overcome sorrow. Although there are some fantasy elements, this story is firmly grounded in history, in the Norman conquest of Ireland either under Henry I (1100-1135) or his grandson Henry II (1154-1189).

IMHO HEARTS BLOOD is a wonderfully told tale, on a par with the SEVENWATERS sagas. Five stars. 

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Wednesday Reviews: THE CASUAL VACANCY by J. K. Rowling

CasualVacancyTHE CASUAL VACANCY by J. K. Rowling is the story of a bitter class struggle between the smug, wealthy inhabitants of Pagford, and their much poor neighbors who inhabit the council flats called “The Fields”.

When kindly counsel member Barry Fairbrother dies suddenly, someone has to be found to fill that vacant seat. The good people of pretty Pagford would rather not have to deal with all the problems created by poverty and would love to redraw the boundaries so that the inhabitants of “The Fields” now live in nearby (and poorer) Yarvil. And so the plot of the novel turns on whether the people of Pagford will be able to fill that seat with someone who will do their bidding, or not. 

This book is not particularly easy to read. It is written in omniscient third with 18 point-of-view characters. Personally, I thought that Rowling did a wonderful job in telling this story, and I was not bored or confused as some readers were. But potential readers should be warned that most of the characters in this book are just plain mean and there is plenty of betrayal, infighting and heartbreak. However, if you stick with this story, you will find a rewarding, thought-provoking read. Four stars. 

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