Between Two Seas by Marie-Louise Jensen

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The book began with someone emptying a chamber pot in Grimsby in the 1880s, which wasn’t particularly auspicious; but it did improve! It was a story about a girl going to Denmark to find her long-lost father: the main plot was rather unconvincing, but it did include some nice descriptions of life in a fishing town in late 19th century Denmark, and some Danish words which I already knew and plenty which I didn’t.

That’s all I have to say about that.

Cajun by Elizabeth Nell Dubus

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This tells the story of two Louisiana families, one descended from Acadians expelled during the Great Expulsion and one descended from French aristocrats fleeing the Revolution. It takes their story up to the First World War.

What there was of it was well written, but it was under four hundred pages long and trying to cover the lives of seven generations of two families in a relatively short book inevitably meant that rather a lot got missed out. The Louisiana Purchase itself wasn’t covered very thoroughly: we seemed to get to the War of 1812 with very little having said about the fact that Louisiana was now part of the United States. Reconstruction was covered in a fair amount of detail, but the Civil War itself wasn’t. Not a single mention of anyone empting chamber pots on Union soldiers’ heads! Very little about the build-up to the Civil War either, come to that.

What struck me most, though, was the portrayal of the Great Expulsion. Don’t get me wrong: it was a terrible thing to do, and one of the greatest stains on the history of the British in North America. Not to mention the fact that, due to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, everyone thinks it was entirely down to the British rather than being due to both the British and the New England colonists. However, Elizabeth Nell Dubus did make it sound even worse than it was, suggesting, for example, that families were separated deliberately, rather than becoming separated in the chaos. Is this the story that’s been handed down in Cajun culture, as stories of the Boer War have been handed down in Afrikaner culture? It’s a controversial subject, and there was no excuse for what happened – and really it’s strange that it did happen: certainly nothing of the kind ever happened in Quebec province when that was ceded to Britain.

Anyway – that, as I said, is a controversial subject. A less controversial one is the fascinating story of the unique culture of this part of Louisiana; and this book depicted that very well.

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The Musketeers – BBC 1

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I’ve finally seen all of this, and I wish now that I’d watched it in the first place, instead of boring old Mr Selfridge! I really, really enjoyed it – all good old exciting, swashbuckling drama, and good fun to watch! Not many points for historical accuracy – poor old Louis XIII was depicted as being a) rather a prat and b) devoted to Anne of Austria – and you really couldn’t take it too seriously (especially when d’Artagnan was commissioned into the Musketeers as a reward for killing Vinnie Jones!), but it didn’t take itself too seriously so that was fine.

I did keep wanting to call D’Artagnan “Dogtanian”, half-expecting Milady to appear as a cat and totally expecting “One for all and all for one, muskehounds are always ready,” to be played at the end of each episode, but that’s a compliment to the series, LOL – I always loved Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds!

In summary – a thoroughly entertaining series, and I’m very glad to hear that a second series has already been commissioned.

A Respectable Trade by Philippa Gregory

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I first came across Philippa Gregory when my then best friend read “Wideacre” way back in the 1980s, but for some reason I’d never read “A Respectable Trade”, first published in 1995, until now. It tells the story of a group of slaves brought from Africa to Bristol in the 1790s, and the relationship between one of the slaves and his white, upper-class English mistress, married to a Bristol slave trader who invested unwisely and ended up losing all his money. Novels which concentrate on slavery within Britain are unusual, and novels which show a relationship between a male slave and a mistress even more so … it doesn’t seem particularly realistic, but then a novel about a relationship between a female slave and a master would seem realistic enough.

It was an interesting story, well told. The disappointment was the ending. Our Heroine had “delicate” health, consisting of “weak lungs” and a “weak heart”, and conveniently died whilst giving birth to her lover’s child. All that vague “delicate health” stuff, and conveniently dying rather than dealing with social ruin, is very Victorian – it doesn’t work so well in a novel set in the 1780s and written in the 1990s!

Good book – shame about the ending, though!

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

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Edmund de Waal is the son of an English country vicar descended from a Jewish banking dynasty whose founders moved from Berdychev to Odessa (I’ve put “Berdychev” rather than, as he did, “Berdichev”, but I’m sticking to Odessa with a double s!) and then split into a Paris branch and a Vienna branch, both fabulously wealthy and well-connected … until the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the rise of the Nazis. The focus on the book was his investigation into the history of a collection of Japanese “netsuke” (miniature sculptures) which he’d inherited from a great-uncle who’d moved from Vienna to the USA before settling in Japan, and which his great-uncle had in turn inherited from a relative who’d mixed with all sorts of artistic luminaries in Belle Epoque Paris.

I think I’d have preferred a straight history of the family rather than the focus on the history of the netsuke, but it was still a very good read, and a fascinating insight into the rise and fall of a family which went very rapidly from humble beginnings to a position of great wealth and influence in the fascinating worlds of late 19th century and early 20th century Paris and Vienna, and the scattering of its survivors and their making of new lives for themselves in different parts of the world.

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The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

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This told the story of a Quaker woman from Dorset who emigrated to Ohio in the 1850s and became involved with the Underground Railroad. The author did an excellent job of describing the moral and practical dilemmas involved without being either critical of those who were unwilling or unable to help the runaways or too preachy in support of those who did. She also did an excellent job of telling the story of her main character as well as the story of a difficult period in history, and also of depicting the life of a Quaker female at that time.

Although the importance of Oberlin College in African-American history is well-known, the crucial role of Ohio in the Underground Railroad is perhaps less so, and deserves more attention. This wasn’t a particularly long or detailed book, but it was certainly a very interesting one.

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The Blue and the Gray by John Leekley

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Word PressNothing like an American Civil War/War Between The States novel for a bit of relaxation! This one seemed like a missed opportunity, though – probably because it was written more for TV than as a novel. The idea of a family split by civil war isn’t particularly original but it’s one which does usually work well, and the main characters in this book were all fascinating … but the book was so short and so rushed that I didn’t feel that I got to know any of them as well as I’d have liked to, and that some of them had all sorts of stories in their past which I never got to learn.

The TV series aired in America in 1982, so I don’t suppose there’s any chance now of the author going back to the characters and writing a prequel or a sequel, but it’d be wonderful if he did!

The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann

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This wasn’t a straightforward historical novel – it was a rather “whimsical” books involving fortune-telling and complex webs of relationships between characters – but finding novels in English on any period of Scandinavian history other than the Viking Age (or those “Scandi noir” modern crime things) is a lot easier said than done, so I was very glad to find this one! It was set in 1791-2, i.e. just before and at the time of the assassination of Gustav III. There does seem to have been quite a lot of interest in “mediums” (or should that be “media”?!) in Stockholm at the time: one well-known medium was interrogated after the assassination, because she’d supposedly predicted it several years earlier and was known to have a lot of informers who helped her with her “predictions”.

There’s so much focus on the French Revolutionary Wars, understandably so, that the very important developments of the 1790s in a number of countries – Austria, Sweden and Russia in particular – is often overlooked. This book wasn’t all that informative about Swedish history, but it was a much better read than I’d expected.

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Grand Hotel – Sky Arts 1

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This has been described as “Spain’s Downton Abbey”, but the storylines are actually far more comparable with Dynasty. It’s gloriously over the top and gloriously entertaining! The second series on Sky Arts has just finished, but hopefully the third series will be shown later this year. It’s set in a luxury hotel in Spain in 1905-1907, and involves a wonderfully complicated series of murders and secrets. Shootings, stabbings, poisonings, adultery, illegitimate half-siblings, cover-ups with babies, fake kidnappings … and plenty more besides. The central characters are the hotel owner’s stunningly beautiful younger daughter and the waiter with whom she’s having an affair. Their relationship is actually very touching. Her husband is the main baddie, and her mother is the calculating bitch character who nearly always bests everyone else.

It’s brilliant, in the way that all those OTT American soaps of the ‘80s were brilliant but also in the way that only a period drama can be brilliant. There are even some genuinely informative historical scenes in it: the hotel owner’s son goes off to fight in Morocco … although he deserts as soon as he gets there and is set to face a firing squad unless he can be saved by the sale of his brother-in-law’s title to someone with friends in high places. That’s Grand Hotel, or, to give it its proper name, Gran Hotel!

Sky Arts do a very good job of giving us access to top-class Continental drama, and I’ve got my fingers crossed that they’ll bring us the third series of this. I’m just sad that it doesn’t look as if there’ll be a fourth.

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The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson

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Books by British authors tend to show Vikings as being … well, rather bloodthirsty, and definitely “raiders not traders”! This book, about a Danish Viking but by a Swedish author, also showed Vikings as raiders rather than traders but did show the human side of them. Orm, the main character, had a very eventful life, going to Ireland, Moorish Spain and Kievan Rus amongst other places, with one of his brothers going to Miklagard/Constantinople. The issue of religion amongst the Vikings, at the time of the conversion, was covered in an interesting way too.

My one big complaint was the attitude towards women – maybe it was just a flaw in the translation, but the author didn’t seem to think they’d mind being dragged off by whoever felt like it :-(. The poor female characters :-(! Maybe he should have written another book telling the events from the viewpoint of one of them!

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