The Little Missus by Elinor M Brent-Dyer


Hooray, I have now read all of Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s books!   This is a short historical novel, set in Kent and Dorset during the Napoleonic Wars.  Unlike The Little Marie-Jose, in which the peasants are the goodies and the aristocrats are the baddies, our heroine is the daughter of an English lord and a late French “Pretty Mamma” who had to flee from “wicked Robespierre”.  Lower class people are either faithful servants or a bit thick and, if male, spend most of their time in the pub.

The Little Missus has four much older half-brothers – whom Elinor, as she does, refers to as “step-brothers”.  One of them, Roger, is disowned by his father for marrying Pleasance, the daughter of the family’s steward.  For various reasons, the Little Missus is then packed off to stay with her Great-Aunt Susannah.

Great-Aunt Susannah is planning to evict Seth, who runs the local pub, for getting drunk and swearing a lot and other such heinous crimes.  Meanwhile, she and the Little Missus bump into Roger, who just happens to be living nearby, and she punishes the Little Missus for speaking to him.

So the Little Missus runs away, but only gets as far as the pub before she hurts her ankle, and is rescued by Seth’s wife Mary … and overhears Seth plotting to burn down Great-Aunt Susannah’s house.  In the meantime, a message has been sent to Roger, but he’s away, so Pleasance comes instead, and Great-Aunt Susannah sees that she’s a lady really.

Seth and his mates, the Little Missus and Mary, Roger, and Dear Papa and one of his other sons, then all head for Great-Aunt Susannah’s house.   Roger, who fortunately carries a pistol around with him, shoots and injures one of the baddies,  some soldiers turn up, the plot is foiled, and Dear Papa, Roger, Pleasance, the Little Missus and Great-Aunt Susannah are all reconciled and live happily ever after.

It’s a bit of a daft story, and it’s not very long, but I’m so glad to have read all of Elinor’s books at last, 40 years after I read my first Chalet School book!


The Little Marie-Jose by Elinor M Brent-Dyer


This is a historical adventure story, set in late 17th/early 18th century France, New England and Quebec … and rather exaggerating the conditions of the time, which I suppose at least made it dramatic!   There’s a strong religious theme to it, but it isn’t nearly as preachy as I was expecting: I actually rather enjoyed it.  And it was one of only two of Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s books which I hadn’t read, so I’m very glad to have got a copy of it at last.

The foreword takes a reference to its being 100 years before the French Revolution literally, and therefore takes the start of the book as being in 1689; but there’s also a reference to having heard of Cotton Mather, so maybe it’s meant to be just after the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.  Or maybe they’d heard about his earlier witch trials.  And was he really that notorious in France anyway?  Am I overthinking this?!  Anyway. What isn’t mentioned at all is the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.   I appreciate that the book was written just after Elinor’s conversion to Catholicism, but the emphasis on Evil Puritans persecuting Those of the True Faith, with not the slightest reference to the fact that Catholics also persecuted Protestants, gets a bit much.  I could also have done without all the thees, thous, dosts, etc, but I suppose they were meant to make the book seem more historical.

Our family are forced to flee after 10-year-old Marie-Jose slaps the local seigneur’s spoilt daughter, who’d drowned her kitten and whom she was frightened was going to kidnap her baby brother.  It’s a jolly good job that they do so, as we later learn that the said seigneur was going to send both children away to do hard labour in factories.  And it’ll be 100 years before the Revolution happens, and frees the oppressed peasantry.

I’m not entirely sure that ancien regime France was full of child-kidnappers, or indeed juvenile aristocratic kitten-murderers, but it’s interesting to see Elinor taking such a strong stance against the ruling classes and in favour of the peasantry, and praising the French Revolution as a time of liberation.  There’s also that idea of Simple Peasants and True Faith which we get when Elinor writes about Oberammergau in The Chalet School and Jo, and also in 19th century movements such as Russian Slavophilism.

With the help of some kind people met along the way, Maman, Papa, Marie-Jose and baby Jeannot take ship for Quebec.  Unfortunately, their ship is hit by a hurricane, and is unable to make it to Quebec but instead has to put our family and some of their shipmates ashore in New England.   They’re initially helped by some English Protestants who are, wa-hey, actually nice and kind, but unfortunately the local schoolmaster sends for the extremist Baddie Puritan authorities.

The French party are then immediately grabbed off the street and hauled off to prison for being the wrong religion, which sounded more like something from Isabella I’s Castile than something from Puritan New England, and the priest was burned at the stake.  Our family are told that they can either convert and be split up and set to work separately or, if they won’t convert, they’ll be sold south into slavery.

There’s no doubt that Puritan extremism existed in late 17th century New England.  Massachusetts notoriously executed a number of Quakers in the early 1660s – and, partly as a result of that, was put under English rule and forbidden from doing so again.  But things’d calmed down a bit by the 1680s and 1690s, and, even before that, people weren’t just grabbed off the street and burnt at the stake.  And the last person I’d have expected that sort of exaggeration from is Elinor Brent-Dyer.  In the Chalet School world, Catholics and Protestants co-exist in perfect harmony.   A Catholic priest and an Anglican vicar ride around together on a motorbike.   When a pupil questions by Protestant pupils are attending a Catholic service, she’s told firmly that the different denominations are just “different paths to God”.  The goings-on in this book are all very dramatic, but not particularly historically accurate and certainly not very Elinor.

Obviously, our family cannot possibly renounce the True Faith.  However, help is, of course, at hand.  Some of the Goodie Protestants whom they’d met earlier break them out of prison, and they set off to a port from which they can get a ship to Quebec.  But then they get attacked by bears.

However, they fight off the bears, and make it safely to Quebec, where they settle and prosper.  Everything’s going swimmingly for them, when who should arrive but the baddie seigneur and his kitten-murdering daughter, who’ve got into trouble at home.  The daughter is inspired by Marie-Jose’s example to become a good person and a True Believer, and eventually realises who she is and asks her forgiveness, and they become best friends.

Then one of the goodie Protestants from New England arrives, looking for Marie-Jose.  They fall in love, but, oh no, she can’t marry him, because he’s not of the True Faith.  But, hurrah, he sees the light and converts, and they get married and live happily ever after.

Despite the rather melodramatic storyline, I did quite enjoy this; and, as I’ve said, I’m very glad to have read it at last.

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty


This isn’t my usual sort of book.  I read it for a Facebook group reading challenge.  Nine people – they aren’t perfect strangers, because two of them are a married couple, and three of them are a married couple plus their daughter – go to a wellness retreat in Australia.  They’re given smoothies laced with LSD, locked in a room together, and told that each of them has to argue for the survival of another.  Then it turns out that the room isn’t actually locked after all.  So they all go home.  And two of them get married.

And that’s all I have to say about that.  It isn’t really my sort of thing.  I’m sure it’s somebody’s, but I’ll stick to historical fiction.

A Town Called Malice – Sky Showcase


This is all about the ’80s music.  There isn’t much of a plot, but it’s worth watching for the soundtrack.  Amazing music.  However, it’s rather worrying that the hardfaced matriarch’s played by Martha Plimpton – am I the only one who thinks she’s still a teenager and going out with poor River Phoenix?

The plot, such as it is, is that a young couple from a family of London criminals accidentally kill a police officer, and run away to the Costa del Sol to live with an uncle who claims to have loads of money but hasn’t.  They then get mixed up with local criminals.  Everyone swears a lot.  The girlfriend shoots the uncle.  It’s not brilliant stuff but, as I said, it’s worth watching for the music.

Elektra by Jennifer Saint


There are an awful lot of books retelling Greek myths and legends from the viewpoints of the women involved around at the moment.  This is a very good one: I really enjoyed it.  The title’s a bit of a misnomer, though.   The story’s told, in different sections, from the viewpoints of Clytemnestra, Cassandra and Elektra, and Elektra has the smallest role of the three.

There are various different versions of the stories involving the three women.  In this book, Clytemnestra and Agamemnon are fairly happy together until he sacrifices their daughter Iphigenia at the beginning of the Trojan War.  She vows vengeance, and begins an affair with his cousin Aegisthus.

Cassandra’s story is familiar.  Abba even sang a song about her!  In this book, she doesn’t give Apollo any false promises in return for the gift of prophecy: he forces it on her, along with the curse of never being believed.  Ajax the Lesser isn’t named as her rapist, but we’re told that she’s raped by a Greek soldier in the Temple of Athena, and then taken as a concubine by Agamemnon.  In some versions of events, she bears him twin sons, but there are no children in this.  We see Clytemnestra murder her, after murdering Agamemnon, but it’s strongly suggested that she was ready to kill herself.

The version of the story of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s two youngest children here is the one in which their daughter Elektra sends her young brother Orestes away, fearing for his safety, after their father’s murder, and then makes her own choice to marry a farmer.  It’s still Clytemnestra who dominates the book, though: her sections of it somehow come across more strongly than Elektra’s do.

Years later, Orestes returns and, with Elektra at his side, kills first Aegisthus and then Clytemnestra.  They then have to free themselves of the pursuing Erinyes – the Furies, whom I call the Eumenides because that’s what they’re called in the reference to them in The Thorn Birds! – but, that done, both Orestes and Elektra live in peace.

It’s a book that’s very easy to read despite the complexities and sometimes bloodthirstiness of the plot.  And it’s wonderful to see these age-old myths and legends back in the realms of popular culture again.  A very good book, and highly recommended.

The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan


Our four ladies are well-to-do Gwendoline, her widowed sister Audrey, kitchen maid Nell and unmarried expectant mother Zelda.  Nell is Gwendoline’s maid and Zelda is Audrey’s lodger … and, as I said, it’s really not very clear why the search for a BBC nationwide producer is restricted to one village, and four women who are connected to each other, and it really makes very little sense; but it is!  The idea is to make dishes which are as tasty as possible but can be easily achieved given the restrictions imposed by rationing, and one thing it shows is how people in rural areas, with access to items growing wild and animals which could be killed off ration (sorry, I couldn’t think of a nice way of putting that!) had a big advantage over urban dwellers who could only obtain what could be bought in shops or grown in gardens or allotments.

Audrey’s coming to terms with her husband’s death, and orphaned Nell is coming to terms with the loss of the woman who was like a mother to her.  Gwendoline’s marriage has collapsed and she reports her husband for black marketeering.  Zelda is trying to decide whether or not to keep the baby.  They all bond and end up opening a restaurant together.

It’s far from brilliant, but it’s an easy read, and, amid all the Second World War books around at the moment, it’s good to see one about the oft-neglected issue of food rationing, which had such a big impact on everyone on the Home Front.  Not bad.


What’s Love Got To Do With It?


  I really enjoyed this.  It isn’t going to win any awards, but it’s a great hour and half’s entertainment.  Documentary maker Zoe, on learning that her childhood friend/boy next door Kaz is going to have an arranged marriage, agrees with him and his family that she’ll make a film about the process.  It’s billed as a romcom, but it also makes some serious points about the issues surrounding finding a partner when you’re expected to marry someone from the same religion and culture, and the fact that Zoe, looking for a love match, can’t find a partner and is lurching from one drunken one night stand to the next.

There’s an interesting sub-plot about Kaz’s sister, who’s been disowned by the family after falling in love with and marrying a white, non-Muslim man.  Kaz’s other sibling, a brother, is married to someone “suitable”, but it was a love match after they met through a Muslim Harry Potter discussion group.  Meanwhile, Zoe’s mum is desperate for her to find a husband, and is rather envious of her neighbours that they’re getting to help find a wife for their son.

One particularly positive thing about this film is that the sort of people who think that the BFG wearing a black cloak or Farmer Boggis having a black tractor is racist have obviously been kept well away from it.   There are plenty of one-liners which aren’t at all PC, but the audience in the cinema was about 40% white and 60% British Asian and no-one was taking offence at any of it: everyone was laughing, together.

Kaz agrees to a marriage with Mahmouna, a girl in Lahore.  This bit of the film didn’t actually work that well.  The film emphasises that arranged marriages are now more “assisted” marriages, and that couples get to know each other and find out if they’re compatible before the marriage takes place, but, whilst we were told that Kaz and Mahmouna had spent loads of time talking on the phone and on Skype, we only saw one Skype meeting and it didn’t seem to go that well.   However, the mehndi and wedding in Lahore were gorgeous and glamorous.

Then came the twist in the tale.  Well, two twists in the tale.  I won’t post spoilers, but this film really is well worth seeing.

Booth by Karen Joy Fowler


This is a fictional depiction of the lives of the Booth family, including Abraham Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth and the famous actor Edwin Booth.  It’s told in the present tense, which is always annoying but doesn’t detract from the story, and from the viewpoints of several of the Booth siblings, but *not* John Wilkes.  Interspersed with their story are updates on the political events of the time, told as they impacted on Abraham Lincoln.

National events don’t really seem to have much effect on the Booths, apart from a few references to John’s involvement with the Know Nothings.  I first came across the Know Nothings in North and South, when I was 11, and the term threw my little self completely.   Anyway.  We don’t even get John’s angle on that; and we’re told that his political views and sense of Southern identity were largely formed during his schooldays, which we don’t see.  Most of the family are in New York during the Draft Riots, but that’s as close as the war gets to them.  Edwin and John just carry on working as actors throughout the war.  However, we do see their relationship with a freedman and his family, and his efforts to buy his wife and children out of slavery.  But, again, we don’t get John’s angle on it.  We get a good sense of his sisters Rosalie and Asia, and of his brother Edwin, but we don’t get much of a sense of John.

It’s an interesting portrayal of an often unconventional family, and I found Rosalie, the elder sister, particularly appealing.  But I don’t really get the idea of writing a book about John Wilkes Booth’s family without telling us anything much about John himself.  If the idea was that he was largely shaped by his family and upbringing, I’d get it, but we’re told that he was largely shaped by his time and school, which the book doesn’t show us.  The blurb on the back cover said that the book showed the effect of the assassination on the family, and how they had to come to terms with what their loved one had done. That would certainly have been interesting, but the book only went on for 31 pages after the assassination.

The blurb on the back also said that John Wilkes Booth changed the course of history.  Did he?  Would things have turned out differently if John Wilkes Booth hadn’t assassinated Abraham Lincoln?   I’m not Lincoln’s greatest fan, but surely he’d have handled Reconstruction better than Andrew Johnson did.  He could hardly have handled it any worse.  If Reconstruction had been handled better, would a lot of the problems faced by the re-United States then have been mitigated?   We’ll never know.  And, as a slight aside, pretty much everyone can name John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, but hands up anyone who can name the assassins of William McKinley and James Garfield.

I did quite enjoy this book, because the Booths were an interesting family, but it all seemed to be leading up to John Wilkes Booth shooting Lincoln – the book ended not long after that – and yet John, and his reasons for what he did, featured relatively little in the book.  It was an interesting idea for a book, but I’m not sure that it entirely worked.  It wasn’t a bad read just as a book about the Booth family, though.