Chudleigh Hold by Elinor M Brent-Dyer

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This was a Blytonesque adventure/mystery/thriller book, but with some very Brent-Dyer-ish touches – a large family, a long-lost cousin and two redoubtable old ladies.  It had a definite post-war feel, with references to both Nazis and rationing.  I really enjoyed it apart from the confusion over Arminel Chudleigh becoming Gill Culver of the Chalet School.  Why the name change and why the personality change?  And why on earth was Arminel nicknamed “Crumpet”?!  The other nicknames, which were fairly self-explanatory anyway, were explained, but there was nothing about that one.

Chudleigh Hold was home to a young baronet, his seven siblings, their nanny, a governess rejoicing in the name of “Loo” and a housemaid, later joined by their great-aunt and her companion.   It was close to the sea, with smugglers’ coves and secret tunnels – you get the idea – and the house was full of valuable paintings and jewellery.

A hitherto unknown cousin invited herself to stay, and Mysterious Things began to happen.  Of course, it turned out that she was a fake, and the truth all came out and the baddies were vanquished in a dramatic adventure, with Great Aunt Merrill and “Crumpet” in the thick of it.  It’s really rather a shame that EBD didn’t write more adventure books, because the Chudleigh Hold series is great fun!

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Elizabeth of York: The Last White Rose by Alison Weir

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This is a really enjoyable historical novel, telling the story of Elizabeth of York from her childhood to her death.   It’s quite lightly written, but covers all the main events of the time insofar as they affected Elizabeth.

History gives us two versions of the young Elizabeth – the heroine of The Song of the Lady Bessy, working towards marriage with the future Henry VII because she believed that her uncle Richard III had murdered her brothers, and the scheming minx who wanted to marry Richard and was plotting it even before Anne Neville was dead.   Alison Weir largely goes for the first version, but works with the second by saying that Richard wanted to marry Elizabeth, talked her into the idea by claiming that Buckingham had spirited the boys away, then changed his mind.   We later see relatives of James Tyrell confirming that he’d had the boys murdered on Richard’s orders.

Elizabeth, Henry, Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth Woodville/Wydeville are all quite favourably portrayed in this.   It’s a very nice, gentle book, considering that it covers some very violent times!    There are going to be two sequels: going into the first one, it takes the traditional view that Arthur was always sickly, and that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was never consummated.   It takes the traditional view on pretty much everything, which I’d much rather have than people making up nonsense just for the sake of being different.

I really enjoyed this, and highly recommend it.   

The Faberge Secret by Charles Delfoure

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Oh dear.   If you’re going to write a book, at least do a tiny bit of basic research.   Set in pre-Revolutionary Russia, it repeatedly used the male form of surnames for female characters. and frequently failed to use the patronymic where appropriate.   Then it came out with this absolute classic:

“You’re still coming next week to my home for Passover?” asked the Baron as the carriage rattled along.  “There’ll be lots of challah.”

The story, if unlikely, wasn’t bad, but the very obvious lack of even basic research into the cultures of early twentieth century Russia just spoilt it.

The idea was that a close friend of the Tsar became part of the revolutionary movement, through a young female doctor with whom he began an affair.   They were both horrified by the pogroms, by Bloody Sunday, and by the lives of the peasants and urban working-classes in general.  It was an interesting idea, and it could have been a good book, but the mess-up with the names was annoying, and the invitation to eat bread during Passover was just the final straw.  Oh dear!

The New House at Winwood by Clare Mallory

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This book combines the trope of a new headmistress making changes with the building of a new boarding house, apparently constructed and filled remarkably quickly.   Some of the girls don’t like the changes, and refuse even to set foot inside it, or to play its teams at sports.   It’s mostly the older girls, which seems remarkably immature of them.  And the younger girls all appear to love fagging for the older girls – really?!  Also, some of the names are rather odd  – Adair, Miff and even Winsome.

Having said all that, it does work pretty well.  The characters are well drawn, and the story of the ongoing feuding and its development comes across quite convincingly even though it seems a bit pathetic that girls of 17 would make such a fuss about the new house.   Of course, in the end everyone makes up and the school becomes united.  Not bad.   And I found this copy very cheap on Amazon, so I’m rather chuffed about that!

The Voyage of Freydis by Tamara Goranson

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This, read for a Facebook group reading challenge (although it was already in my TBR pile!) was a story about Freydis, the legendary daughter of Erik The Red.  It didn’t bear any resemblance to the stories of Freydis in the Norse sagas, but it was well-written and entertaining.

(Thank you, Wikipedia!)  In the Saga of the Greenlanders, Freydís made a deal with two Icelandic men, Helgi and Finnbogi,  that they should go together to Vinland and share all profits half-and-half. When they got there, they all fell out for various reasons.  When she returned to her husband, Freydís claimed that Helgi and Finnbogi had beaten her, demanded that he exact revenge on her behalf, or else she would divorce him. He killed Helgi and Finnbogi as well as the other men in their camp, when they were sleeping. When he refused to kill the five women in the camp, Freydís  killed them herself.

In the Saga of Erik the Red, Freydis. She joined an expedition to Vinland and, when the camp came under attack from the “skraelings” (First Nations peoples),  most of the Icelandic and Greenlandic men fled, but Freydís fought back and the native peoples retreated.

She also appeared in Vikings: Valhalla, but that definitely wasn’t factual!

In this version of events, Freydis went to Vinland, with Helgi and Finnbogi, to escape her violent husband … but he followed him there.   Freydis became lost on a solo hunting expedition in severe weather conditions, and was rescued by a Native American tribe.  She then became involved with one of the men and conceived a child by him.

Then she returned to her camp, amd violence broke out between her party and her husband’s party; but she saw the enemy off and planned a divorce.

It was a very unlikely story, but an interesting one.  It was sad that Freydis had such an unhappy life in Greenland, but at least she got away; and she was a very attractive character.  I hope to read the next instalment in.the series soon.

 

The Convert by Stefan Hertmans

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Set in the 1090s, this is based on two documents from the Cairo Genizah, a collection of medieval writings found in a synagogue in Cairo and now split between several libraries – including Manchester’s own John Rylands Library 😀.

The author frustratingly fails to explain exactly which parts are based on the documents and which are his own invention, which is really annoying.   The story is that a Norman noblewoman elopes with a rabbi’s son from Narbonne, and converts to Judaism.  During one of the pogroms associated with the First Crusade, her husband is killed.  Two of their three children are kidnapped; and she travels to Egypt in search of them, and later tries to travel back but ends up in Najera, near Burgos.

The book is largely a series of journeys.  The accounts of the different places and life there is fascinating, although it’s strange that we’re told so little about what must have been quite a romance when the couple met.   However, a) it’s written in the present tense, which is never great in a book, and b) the author, as narrator, keeps popping up to tell us about his retracing of their journeys, which is decidedly odd.

It’s an interesting if often brutal and really rather horrible story, but I really do wish that the afterword about the sources had been clearer about what was fleshed-out fact and what was fiction.  It’s something different, anyway: I’ve never come across a book quite like it before.

Caroline: Little House Revisited by Sarah Miller

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  This is the story of Little House on the Prairie, retold from the viewpoint of Ma, Caroline Quiner Ingalls.  Reading the Little House books as a child, I thought that Pa was the big hero, hunter-gathering, building houses and playing jolly tunes on is fiddle, whilst Ma seemed a bit dull, always fussing about the girls’ behaviour and education.  Reading them now, I’m overwhelmed with admiration and sympathy for Ma, being uprooted time and time again because of Pa’s “itchy feet”, and trying to bring up four children amidst it all.  Her cooking, cleaning and especially sewing skills under such difficult circumstances were amazing.

This book was written with the full approval of the Little House Heritage Trust, and never criticises Charles/Pa, but it does show how difficult life was for Caroline, especially on the long journey they made when they left Wisconsin.  The author explains in an afterword that, whilst the Ingalls family travelled from Wisconsin to Kansas, then to Missouri and then back to Kansas (in an area which wasn’t actually part of “Indian Territory”), she’s gone along with Laura’s depiction of their just going straight from Wisconsin to Kansas.

However, she shows, which Laura didn’t, that Caroline was expecting Carrie whilst travelling.   And she shows that they had to leave because the buyer of their Wisconsin property defaulted on his payments.   They weren’t moved out of the area reserved for Native Americans, because they weren’t inside it.

On the now controversial subject of Caroline’s attitude towards Native Americans, she makes reference to the killing of settlers during the Dakota Wars, and also makes clear the natural fear of a woman when strange men entered her home whilst she was on her own with three little girls.  That’s understandable, but there’s no sympathy at all shown for the people being driven off their ancestral lands as they pass the Ingalls claim, and there’s a distinct sense of “otherness” in that Caroline is unable to feel any sort of sisterhood with the Native American women.

Overall, we’re left feeling that life’s hard, but that there’s a lot of joy in it too.  We see Caroline’s joy in her new house, which was supposed to be their “forever home”, in her children, and in her marriage.  And we’re left with mixed feelings at the end, when they’re going home to Wisconsin and their family there, but leaving the house and crops that they’d put so much work into.

I’ve also got mixed feelings about people publishing books about other people’s characters, especially when they’re just retelling someone else’s story and not even creating their own plots; and this one’s particularly strange in that it’s about a real person, who lived not so long ago.   But I did enjoy it, and I think that most of Laura’s other fans would/will enjoy it too.

Candy Nevill by Clare Mallory

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This is my first Clare Mallory book, read for a Facebook group reading challenge.  Candy Nevill (no second e) is the younger sibling of three high achievers, but isn’t particularly good at anything other than cooking, and doesn’t win prizes even for that because she’s no good at the theory side of domestic science. 

However, she’s an all round good egg, and puts herself out for everyone else, even giving up the chance to visit America with a friend so as to help with the housework when her mother’s ill.   Of course, everyone comes to appreciate her in the end.   It’s entertainingly written, whilst never being unrealistic.

It’s set, partly in school but mostly out of school, in post-war New Zealand, and it’s interesting to note that several children hope to study at British universities and, in doing so, talk about “going home”.  You obviously wouldn’t get that now, but Commonwealth ties still go deep – and long may they continue to do so!

It isn’t the best book I’ve ever read, but I’d certainly read others by the same author, if I could get them for reasonable prices.   

Maeve of the Chalet School by Helen Barber

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I know that a lot of people will be getting this as a Christmas present, but I can’t really post spoilers because it’s set during the same term as both The Chalet School in the Oberland and Shocks for the Chalet School.  I personally would rather have had a book set during the “unfilled” term when Marilyn Evans was Head Girl, but that’s no reflection on this book.

It’s not a typical Chalet School book, in that there are no accidents, epidemics, weather-related incidents or troublesome new girls, and it’s not a typical “fill-in” in that most of Maeve’s friends, and their form mistress, are only minor characters in canon (the original series).   However, it’s a very good read, just the thing for cold December nights!   And it’s pleasantly devoid of Joey “butting in” or being  consulted about school affairs whilst on the other side of the Atlantic, but, hooray, does feature Madge comforting Maeve.  It could have done with a bit more action, though.

A lot of the focus is on Mollie Bettany’s illness.   Chalet School fans will already know how things turn out, but of course the characters don’t.   How the Bettany family cope with that is quite moving.   

Other than that, there’s a drama/detective club, which isn’t very exciting.   And a reference to Peggy’s new friend Lucy.  Have I missed something.  Who is Lucy?!

It’s a nice book, though, and finishes on a nice festive note.   I’d still like to see a book about that term with Marilyn as HG, though!

Dawnlands by Philippa Gregory

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  This is a distinct improvement on the two previous books in the series, with some of the plotlines moving into high politics.  One character joins Monmouth’s army, whilst another becomes a lady-in-waiting to Queen Mary Beatrice, so we get two very different angles on events.  If you want good books set during Monmouth’s Rebellion and the Glorious Revolution, I recommend Pamela Belle’s Herald of Joy and Treason’s Gift; but this one isn’t too bad.

It’s got an original take on the Bloody Assizes, with the emphasis being on prisoners who were transported being “bought” or assigned to courtiers and other wealthy individuals.   There’s a rather unlikely scenario in which a young Native American woman pretends to be a middle-aged white man and no-one appears to notice that anything’s not right; but following her transportation to Barbados and life there makes for an interesting storyline.

Being a Philippa Gregory book, it also had to include some utter nonsense relating to real events – in this case, that there was indeed a healthy male baby waiting in a warming pan in 1688, although in the end he wasn’t needed!   And that this was the work of our “Nobildonna”, rather than the Jesuits.  Incidentally, surely it’s accepted that a form of religion, whether used as a noun or as an adjective, is spelt with a capital letter at the beginning?   This book referred to “roman catholics” and “protestants”, with small letters.  Very odd.

There’s some better stuff about sugar and slavery in Barbados, which comes across quite well.  Philippa Gregory *can* write very well: it’s just a shame that some of what she writes is such twaddle.  But, as I said, this is a big improvement on the two previous books in this series.  Worth a go.