Merchants of Virtue by Paul C R Monk

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This is set in France just before and after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and shows just how bad things were for Huguenots, who even had their children taken away if they refused to convert to Catholicism.  We have a marked tendency to look at situation from the viewpoint of how it influenced events in England, so it was good to find a book which was purely from the viewpoint of French Protestants themselves – and which also showed some of the issues faced in any era by refugees, something which we’re sadly seeing yet again with people fleeing Ukraine. We see the characters, those who escaped imprisonment or forced labour, effectively facing a choice between becoming Catholics or trying to leave for England, Protestant parts of Switzerland or America – easier said than done with Louis XIV trying to stop the departure of Huguenots, many of them skilled craftspeople or businesspeople, from his kingdom.

It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but it’s worth reading as a reminder of just how bad religious persecution in Europe was, well into the early modern period.   It was only really in the 19th century that the rights of religious minorities came actually to be respected, and not even then in some cases.

The persecution of Huguenots was a big stain on the reign of Louis XIV, which in so many other ways was glorious; and the book, the first in a trilogy (many loose ends are left untied) gets it across very well.

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Jennings Goes To School by Anthony Buckeridge

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   This is the first Jennings book and my first Jennings book, read for a Facebook group challenge.  I enjoyed it, but not so much so that I’ll be rushing to buy all the others.  The book sees Jennings and his friend Darbishire starting at prep school and having to get used to the written rules, the unwritten rules and the slang.  In sitcom style, Jennings takes everything very literally, there are a lot of mistakes with words, and various misunderstandings result.

It was genuinely funny and I enjoyed reading it.  And I loved our boy saying that he wanted to play for United.  But, as I said, I don’t particularly feel the need to read the rest in the series – although I can see why people do.  Genuinely funny.

Meg and Jo by Virginia Kantra

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  This is a “modern day retelling” of Good Wives, as the title suggests.  I’m not a great fan of this genre, because it feels as if someone’s just exploiting someone else’s clever ideas, and only read this as part of a Facebook group reading challenge, but I have to say that it was rather cleverly done.  Meg and Jo’s stories probably translate better to the present day than those of many “Girls’ Own” heroines would, because Louisa M Alcott told them so realistically.  In a lot of books, growing up is the difficult part, and setting up home, managing a budget, adapting to living with a partner, looking after young children and or establishing a career just come naturally and easily.  Not so for Meg and Jo, and that’s why they work well in the 21st century, having the same struggles as many other women in their 20s and 30s.

The action has been moved not only from the 1860s to the 2010s but from Massachusetts to North Carolina.  I’m not sure whether that’s because the author lives in North Carolina and preferred a Southern setting or because Massachusetts tends to be at the forefront of culture wars and therefore might not have fitted in with the story, but I thought it was a bit of a shame.  The Marches belong to New England.

Beth and Amy have got their own book, and only appear briefly in this – Amy as an intern with Louis Vuitton, later becoming a handbag designer, and Beth as a country and western singer who becomes a YouTube sensation (seriously?!).  I’m not sure that I fancy that book: it sounds a bit OTT.

This one works OK, though.  Meg has worked in a bank but is now a housewife, with young twins Daisy and DJ, and Jo is living in New York, writing a food blog and working in a restaurant whilst trying to get her books published.   Laurie, rechristened Trey (again, seriously?!), works at a car dealership owned by Mr Laurence, along with John Brooke, still hopes to get back with his high school sweetheart Jo, who only wants him as a friend.  He’s not really involved, though.  Presumably he features more in the Beth and Amy book.

Mr March is an army chaplain, and Mrs March runs her late parents’ farm and does everything for everyone else … rather less sanctimoniously than Marmee ever did.  There are no dead canaries, and no-one guilt trips Meg for wearing a fancy frock.  In fact, Mrs March helps with the dresses for the ball … which has become a school prom on which Meg looks back.   And she’s very much presented as the person who holds it all together, and Mr March as being selfish and only considering what works for him.

That’s an interesting interpretation.  I often think like that about Pa Ingalls, but I’ve never really thought of Mr March as always putting himself first.  Maybe that’s because a) Little Women’s set in wartime, so volunteering as an army chaplain seemed selfless and b) we don’t know how he lost his money.   But this book doesn’t offer an explanation for the loss of the money either.  It just casts Mr March as someone who’s far more concerned about his work than about his family.  Maybe he’s based more on the real life Mr Alcott than on Mr March?  That would makes sense, but it wasn’t what I was expecting.  Mr March in the Little Women books is a Good Egg, if rather patronising towards his daughters.

Professor Bhaer is now plain Eric Bhaer, the head chef at Jo’s workplace, and they get together after various misunderstandings.   That all translates to the present day quite well.  Various other characters, notably Aunt March and Sallie Gardiner, also appear.  Hannah is recast as a kindly neighbour.   And Fred Vaughn as a singer in a British boy band whom Amy followed on You Tube.  That really was a bit silly.  No Hummels.

BTW, is the term “family meal” a thing in the US now?  We have endless arguments in England over whether your evening meal is tea (we Northerners), dinner (ordinary Southerners) or supper (posh Southerners), but “family meal” is a new one on me!

To get back to the point, a lot of the story revolves around Mrs March being ill and Meg being the one to look after her, so that’s *not* from Good Wives, but the characters of Meg and Jo and how their lives are going very much are.   And it says a lot about the timelessness of the original story that that comes across so well in a book set nearly 150 years after it.

It’s well-written, but doesn’t quite have Louisa M Alcott’s charm.   Without the Good Wives connection, it’d just be basic chicklit – which isn’t a bad thing, just not something I’d usually read.  But, *with* the connection, it was far better than I was anticipating.  I suppose it doesn’t hurt to try something different sometimes!

The Forgotten Village by Lorna Cook

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I’m not a fan of dual timeline novels; but I read this one for a Facebook group reading challenge, and it wasn’t bad.   It’s set in and around the real life ghost village of Tyneham, Dorset, which was requisitioned for use as a firing range in 1943.  It was supposed to be returned to the villagers after the war, but the Ministry of Defence have hung on to it, although some of the buildings are now open as museums.

The past timeline of the book, in 1943, revolved around the fictional, unhappily married, Standishes – Sir Albert, the local squire and MP, and his wife Veronica.   Infuriatingly, the book referred to her, incorrectly, as “Lady Veronica” rather than as “Lady Standish”: OK, it’s a common mistake, but if people are writing a book then they should do a bit of basic research.   The present timeline, in 2018, revolved around holidaymaker Melissa and her new boyfriend, TV historian Guy, who’d seen a photograph of the Standishes and became curious as what had happened to them.  Added into the mix was the fact that Guy’s grandma had once been Lady Standish’s maid.

I was hoping to read about the effect of the evacuation of the village on its inhabitants, but there was very little about that.  The focus was all on the two couples’ lives and relationships, and the 2018 couple’s search for information about the Standishes.  And the far-fetched twist in the tale could be seen coming well before the end.  So it wasn’t really what I’d hoped for.   However, it wasn’t a bad book, and I quite enjoyed it.  Dual timeline books are just not my thing, though, even if they *are* all the rage at the moment!

The Colour by Rose Tremain

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I read this for a Facebook group reading challenge.  It sounded interesting, but unfortunately I didn’t really get it.  I think it was meant to be very symbolic and allegorical, but I could have done with a bit more actually happening.  Also, there were several minor characters whose stories weren’t tied in with the main plot very well, making it seem disjointed.

In 1864, a recently-married couple called Joseph and Harriet Blackstone emigrate from England to New Zealand.  Theirs is clearly a marriage of convenience rather than love.  Harriet has obviously only married him because her best alternative was becoming a governess.  He’s married her because he doesn’t want a love match, for reasons which are explained later on.   Joseph goes off to join the Gold Rush, leaving Harriet to look after his elderly mother.  He then starts paying a young man for “services rendered”.  Harriet goes to look for him, to tell him that her mother’s died, and gets involved with a Chinese gardener with a foot fetish.  As you do.  There are also some neighbours with a sick child, and a Maori woman who used to be the child’s nanny, but the stories aren’t tied together in a coherent way.

I think the idea was that looking for gold was an allegory for lookin’ for love in all the wrong places, lookin’ for love in too many places, but the book somehow felt unsatisfactory.   It’s had good reviews and was nominated for a prize, so maybe it’s just me; but, as I’ve said, I didn’t really get it.   The idea was to read a book set in New Zealand.  I’m sure that there are lots of great books set in New Zealand, but this isn’t one of them!

Ariadne by Jennifer Saint

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Novels retelling Greek myths and legends from the viewpoints of some or all of the women involved seem to be all the rage at the moment.  I’m quite pleased about this- with most schools no longer teaching the classics, these ancient stories might have been at risk of dying out in the English-speaking world, which would have been a great shame.  When I was about 7, I had a book of Greek myths (I think it must have been the one by Enid Blyton), and I loved it.  I also loved the way that Colleen McCullough wove Greek myths into The Thorn Birds, but that’s beside the point.  I read this one for a Facebook group reading challenge, but I was going to read it anyway.

I may well be reading something into nothing here, but I sensed a mental health theme in this book.  There’s a *lot* of talk about the gods cursing women with “madness”, of having your mind taken over or taken away – first with Pasiphae, then with the Maenads, then with the women of Argos; and it’s strongly suggested that Ariadne’s sister Phaedra was suffering from post natal depression.   I might just be oversensitive on this issue, but this theme did seem to keep recurring.

Women generally come off badly in Greek myths and legends.  They’re rarely given a voice, and they’re treated pretty badly by gods, by mortal men, and even by jealous goddesses.  Ariadne was the daughter of the King of Crete, Minos, and half-sister of the Minotaur, who was born as a result of her father Minos disobeying Poseidon, and Poseidon taking revenge by making Minos’s wife Pasiphae fall in love with a bull.  Minos, after defeating Athens in war, demanded that Athens send seven young men and seven girls every few years (the number of years seems to vary!) to be fed to the Minotaur, who was kept in a labyrinth designed by Daedalus.  Theseus, a Greek prince,  volunteered to be one of those sacrificed, but killed the Minotaur with Ariadne’s help.  They sailed off into the sunset together … or so Ariadne thought, until Theseus abandoned her on the island of Naxos.   Theseus, of course, is known as one of the greatest Greek heroes, and his treatment of Ariadne is never counted against him. 

The book’s told in the first person, but some of that’s by Ariadne, and some of it’s by her Phaedra, who was later married off to Theseus.  The title’s a bit misleading, really, but maybe it just sounded more catchy than “Ariadne and Phaedra” or “The Princesses of Crete”.  It would have been interesting to have had Pasiphae telling her story too, but I suppose that only so much could be fitted into one book.  How women did suffer in Greek myths.

There are various versions of the various myths.  And, because most books have each myth as a separate story, you don’t always realise how they all fit together.  Medea, who ran off with Jason, was the stepmother of Theseus.  Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, had a child by Theseus.  Daedalus and Icarus, when they escaped and Icarus flew too close to the sun, were fleeing from Minos.  Dionysus went to war with Perseus, who killed Medusa and then married Andromeda.  Most versions show Dionysus wanting to marry Ariadne and therefore forcing Theseus to abandon her, and look unfavourably on Ariadne for betraying her father, but, in this version, it’s made clear that both Minos and Theseus are bad lots – Minos in general, and Theseus in his treatment of women.  Theseus is shown as raping Hippolyta, whereas in some versions they’re in love.  And Ariadne’s sister Phaedra, usually depicted as a villainess who tried to seduce her stepson and then made false claims about him, is shown as feeling betrayed because Theseus lied to her, telling her that Ariadne was dead, and not telling her about his son Hippolytus – and the false claims element of the myth is neatly sidestepped in this book, by showing Theseus getting the wrong end of the stick.

Because the book generally follows the myths, it wasn’t possible to show either sister as having a happy ending.  Phaedra took her own life – in this version, in despair.  Ariadne married Dionysus, aka Bacchus, the god of wine, and was happy with him and their children for a while, but she also met a sorry end. 

There are various different myths about what happened to her.  Jennifer Saint, who seems determined to paint most men as baddies, has chosen the version in which Ariadne fell victim to a war between Dionysus and Perseus.  However, in this book,  she first of all made the discovery that Dionysus was whipping his female followers, the Maenads, into a frenzy, and asking for first animal sacrifices and then the sacrifices of human babies.  I’m not familiar with the story about the babies at all: I’m not sure whether it’s the author’s own invention or a rather obscure myth.  I suspect the former, as Google didn’t seem to know about it either!   And Euphrosyne, usually the goddess of joy, was brought into this as a desperate woman seeking help and sanctuary, and the Maenads as doing the same.   

The war between Dionysus and Perseus is “canon”, though.  In this book, a lot of emphasis is paid to Dionysus caring more about trying to win the women of Argos, the city ruled by Perseus, as followers, than he did about Ariadne and their children.  I think that Colleen McCullough would have approved of that: a big theme of The Thorn Birds is men being more interested in their own aggrandisement than in their families.  And, as this was the version of events chosen, it ended – very abruptly, as if the author was rushing to finish the book – with Perseus killing Ariadne with the head of Medusa, another woman who fell victim to the jealousy of the gods.

All in all, it was an interesting read, although rather rushed at the end.  But it was also a bit depressing.  In The Thorn Birds (yes, I do realise that the two books have nothing to do with each other), Justine succeeds where Meggie didn’t, in being a strong independent woman and also in finding a man who puts her first.   At the end of this, both sisters end up dead because of the actions of men who didn’t care about them enough.  But, hey, that’s Greek myths for you – they don’t tend to end happily!

This is Jennifer Saint’s first book, and, for a first book, it’s not bad at all.   Recommended.

 

 

 

The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier

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  Remember the ridiculous Krystle/Rita storyline in Dynasty?  If your child, sibling, partner or parent had been replaced by a lookalike, do you not think you’d notice the difference?  And Rita had at least been coached by Sammy Jo in Krystle’s history, the family history and Krystle’s mannerisms.  In this book, we are expected to believe that a British history professor is tricked into taking the place of a French count who drugged him a short time after they met by accident at a railway station, and that the count’s mother, wife, brother, sister and daughter all failed to realise that this wasn’t actually their guy, just someone who looked like him?  I mean, seriously??!!

The dog realised that it was the wrong guy.  So, eventually, did the guy’s mistress.  But no-one else did.  The said count had got his life in a mess.  The terms of his wife’s dowry were that the money would only be released if she either produced a male heir or died before the age of 50.  One daughter, one miscarriage, now expecting again but terrified that something would go wrong.  He was supplying his mother with morphine, his sister didn’t speak to him because he’d had her fiance murdered during the war, and his young daughter was having some sort of religious crisis.  Also, his finances were a mess and putting a lot of people’s livelihoods at risk.

Our friend, John, did his best to sort it out, but the wife committed suicide.  Meanwhile, Jean, the real count, was in London, helping himself to John’s money.

Why didn’t John just go to the police and say that he’d been drugged and kidnapped and he wasn’t actually Jean?!  Did he enjoy being caught up in this very messy life, just because his own was so boring?  And how on earth did even Jean’s closest relatives fail to notice that he was the wrong person?   Even if he genuinely looked very like Jean, he wouldn’t have sounded like him, and the fact that he knew nothing about Jean’s life must surely have been obvious.   The story of Jean’s family was interesting, but the idea that no-one would have realised that John wasn’t Jean was just too silly.

 

The Island of Lost Horses by Stacy Gregg

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  If I’d read this book, combining a modern-day pony story with the Great Expulsion of 1492, when I was about 10, I would have loved it.  Reading it for a Facebook group reading challenge now isn’t quite the same, but that’s hardly the book’s fault.  There are a few silly errors, such as using “ancestor” instead of “descendant”, and my historian’s brain wants to nitpick about the use of “Spain” rather than “Castile” (I know, it’s a pony story for children, not a history textbook), but it’s generally pretty good, as a children’s book.

Twelve-year-old Beatriz’s parents have divorced, and she’s moved from Florida to Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas with her mother, who’s an expert on, er, jellyfish.  The pony element of the story comes from the Abaco Barb horses, a now extinct breed of Spanish descent which used to live on the island.  No-one’s quite sure how they got there – the most likely explanation is that they were taken there by 19th century Cuban forestry workers, but other suggestions are that they were taken there by Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution, or came from Spanish ships wrecked on the coast of the island.

The story in this book – and, OK, it’s pretty fanciful, but never mind! – is that Felipa Molina, the young daughter of a converso and a Spanish noblewoman, serving as a lady-in-waiting to Ferdinand and Isabella’s daughter Juana, was forced to flee when her mother died and the Inquisition took her father, and managed to get on board one of Columbus’s ships, with her horse, and ended up on this island in the Bahamas.  She later married one of the sailors and left the island, but left her horse behind, and that’s where the Great Abaco horses came from.  Beatriz finds her diary, and also finds a Great Abaco horse (there were a few left in 2014, when the book was published, but sadly they’ve become extinct since then), and there’s a mystical link between them all which is some sort of combination of West Indian obeah spiritualism and Native American belief in Medicine Hat horses.

OK, OK, it’s not going to win any prizes for realism, but it’s a good story!  I’m not quite sure how people might react to the phonetic spelling of the English used by the elderly West Indian lady with whom Beatriz becomes friendly – “de” “chile”, etc – or the lady’s use of words such as “piccaninny” – but the author’s tried to bring a number of different cultures together, and it’s certainly a change from the traditional pony books written back in the day … although the Patricia Leitch Jinny books certainly had their mystical elements.   I don’t normally like dual timeline stories, but I like the idea of combining a pony book with a historical story, and, as I’ve said, I would have loved this when I was the age of the intended audience.

 

 

 

 

 

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D Taylor

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I’m sure that this used to be on the school recommended reading lists, but somehow I’d never read it until now – for a Facebook group reading challenge.  It’s a children’s book, about 9-year-old Cassie Logan, a young  African-American girl growing up in Mississippi in the 1930s, where the local authorities provide school buses for white children but not for black children, where black children only get grotty textbooks already used by numerous white children and now falling to bits … and, as we learn as the book goes on, where bullying, violence and even lynchings are not uncommon.    The book’s been criticised for showing every white character as a stereotypical redneck, but that’s not actually true: there’s a white lad called Jeremy who’s keen to be friends with the Logans.

Apparently, this book is banned in some educational districts of the US, because it uses racist language.  It’s a book about racism.  How are you supposed to get that across without using racist language?  I do understand the concern that young children might pick up on extremely offensive words and, maybe quite innocently, repeat them, but people need to find a way of working this out.   The Holocaust novel “Maus” has also been banned in some educational districts of the US, because it contains scenes of violence.  How do you teach children about the Holocaust without mentioning violence?  And both these books are aimed at secondary school age children, anyway, not little ones.  As several Holocaust survivors said on Holocaust Memorial Day earlier this week, education is the most important thing.

The Logan family – like the O’Haras of Gone With the Wind, a little ironically – are determined not to lose their land, come what may, and we see their determination to keep both their land and their pride.  TBH, I didn’t find this to be quite the classic that I was expecting, but it was still an interesting and important read.  And I think it is quite difficult for British readers, however much we know about American history, and however much we may love America – and I do love America – to accept that the Klan were carrying out lynchings even after the Second World War … there were even a small number of lynchings in the 1980s.  Depending on how you define lynchings, you can even say that they’ve gone on into the 21st century.  It’s hardline stuff, but it’s stuff that people need to be aware of.

This isn’t the best-written book I’ve ever read, and the characters weren’t that convincing, but it was on our school recommended reading lists for a reason (er, even if I never got round to reading it), and it’s an important book for “young adults” to read.

 

No Shame, No Fear by Ann Turnbull

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  This month’s Facebook group reading challenge was to read a “tender teen romance”.  So I read a book about the persecution of Quakers during the early years of the Restoration.  It’s a tender teen romance, OK!  Will is 17 and Susanna is 15.  And it’s very hard to find historical fiction with tender teen romances which *doesn’t* involve someone getting killed in the Great War.

This is a “young adult” book (what used to be called a “book for older children” in my day) so it doesn’t go as deep as a book for adults would, but it’s still very interesting.  We tend to think of the Restoration as being a very positive time, after the repression of Cromwell’s era, but, of course, it wasn’t.  This book’s set in 1662, so we only get part of the Clarendon Code, the big clampdown on Dissenters/Nonconformists, but we get enough of it to see life made very unpleasant for our characters – they’re subjected to assaults in the street from local hooligans, to the authorities invading their homes and businesses, and then to imprisonment even for children.

This *is* a tender teen romance, as I said, set in Shropshire, and we see Will, the son of a well-to-do Anglican family, being attracted both to Quakerism and to Susanna, the daughter of a lower-class Quaker family.  Their romance and Will’s religious conversion take place against the background of oppression and the opposition of his family.  It’s the first book in a trilogy, so it ends with Will going off to London to seek work, but we know that they’re going to get married and live happily ever in the end.

It’s not a pleasant time – and, of course, it’s so ironic that the official view of 17th century England was that it was Catholics who persecuted religious minorities.  Both Britain and America are still fighting the battles of the 17th century, in many ways, and this is how things could be for people before the Glorious Revolution.  It’s worth remembering that.  Having said which, look at some of what went on under Pitt the Younger.  But that’s getting off the point.  This is a very interesting young adult book, and offers a very different perspective on a time which is generally associated with – apart from the Great Plague, which we possibly don’t want to dwell on too much at the moment! – jollity and theatres and Charles II’s love life.  It certainly wasn’t like that for everyone.