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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Henna House by Nomi Eve

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This was a fascinating book about Yemenite Jews and their unique culture and recent history; but could have been so much better had the last few chapters not been so rushed.

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, an Islamic kingdom was set up in the area which we would later know as North Yemen, and a decree passed which enabled the state to remove orphans from Jewish families and place them with Muslim families.   In order to escape this fate, children were often betrothed at an early age and married as soon as they reached puberty, but, in this book, the family of main character Adela were unable to find a husband for her.  In the meantime, she grew close to her aunt and cousin, henna artists in a culture which prized henna, especially for brides, in a manner similar to that of Hindu and Sikh culture.

The first five-sixths or so of the book was filled with wonderful, rich descriptions of the lives and customs of Yemenite Jews, but then it suddenly started galloping along.  Over a decade, including the Second World War, the Holocaust, the establishment of the State of Israel and the airlift of Jews from Yemen to Israel, passed within 25 pages.

Prior to that, we’d seen Adela and her family move to Aden, British South Yemen, with the journey and their new life there described as vividly as her childhood in the Kingdom of Yemen.  But then suddenly everything was in a rush – marriage, betrayal, divorce, emigration, remarriage, trying to integrate into Israeli society, learning of relatives’ fate in Europe … all within a few pages.  It had been so good up until then, and I can’t think why the author rushed the rest of it so much.

It was an interesting subject for a book, and it could have been very good if only the pace of the story had remained the same and it had been a third or so as long again.  It was excellent for about 260 pages out of 300!

 

 

Iron Queen by Joanna Courtney

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I really don’t know quite what I thought of this.  Even the book itself seemed a bit confused.  The blurb on the back referred to the Bronze Age, when it was actually set during the Iron Age, and the explanatory map had Leicestershire in Derbyshire, and Derbyshire in Cheshire.  Anyway, It’s the third in the “Shakespeare’s Queens” series and is about King Lear’s daughter, Cordelia.  All I actually knew about Cordelia was that “her voice was ever sweet (or soft), gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman”, thanks to Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s obsession with that quote; but, having had a bit of a read-round, the book doesn’t seem to have anything to do with either Shakespeare’s Cordelia or Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Cordelia.

That’s probably fair enough.   Whilst we know very little about British society in 500BC, it’s unlikely to have included medieval-style dukes.  But this was just … odd.  Joanna Courtney’s created a matriarchal society in which men are only really good for battle and breeding.  OK, it could have been the case, but the ruler, the grandmother of Goneril, Regan and Cordelia (shortened to Gee, Ree and Dee!) was obsessed with flying (which kept making me think of Britannia), and died whilst trying to fly.  As you do.  Whereupon Goneril took control, and pretended to kill Cordelia’s fiance.  That bit was at least dramatic.  Prior to that, everyone had seemed to spend most of their time either having affairs with druidesses (Goneril) or breeding dogs (Cordelia).

Cordelia then led a coup against Goneril, so it did get quite exciting at the end.  It was just rather peculiar.   The sections about the druidesses and their work were quite interesting, as were the sections about the actual ironsmithing (Cordelia’s fiance being a smith), and the way in which their world turned with the seasons, but I just found it all a bit strange.  But I don’t know what I expected.  Maybe it’s simply that prehistory isn’t really my thing.  It was entertaining and I read it quite quickly, but I think I’m better with books set in a more recognisable world.   And with rather less emphasis on dog-breeding.

The Hidden Light of Northern Fires by Daren Wang

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Eleven Southern states seceded from the Union in 1860-61, but there’s a little-known story about the hamlet of Town Line, New York state, close to Niagara Falls, also voting to secede.  No-one outside really recognised the vote, but Town Line didn’t vote to rejoin the Union until 1946!   It’s not clear exactly what went on, but many of the locals were German-Americans who’d left Bavaria and other German states during the 1848 Revolutions, and the author’s view, which is as likely as any, is that they’d fled partly to avoid conscription and didn’t want to be conscripted to fight for a Union with which they didn’t really identify.  Conscription didn’t actually exist in 1861, but, still, it’s as likely an explanation as any.

Town Line lies very close to the Canadian border, and, in this book, some of the inhabitants are part of the Underground Railroad, whilst others are bounty hunters who try to capture slaves trying to reach freedom in Canada, and return them to owners offering rewards for their capture.  We also hear their fears of competition for jobs if slaves are freed and head north.  A young male slave has fled Virginia and made it to Town Line, but been attacked by a vicious dog belonging to the bounty hunters and lost a leg as a result.   Our heroine Mary is trying to help him to get over the border.

It’s an interesting setting for a Civil War novel.   They tend to focus on either plantation owners in the Deep South or pro-war characters in the North, and ignore the spectrum of views which existed on both sides of the Union-Confederate border.  The blurb for the book refers to the “Mason-Dixon Line”, but even that’s not accurate because not all the Southern states seceded.   Washington DC was a Southern city, for a kick-off.  And West Virginia, from where the slave in question had escaped, seceded from Virginia and was admitted to the Union as a separate state.  It was complicated.

This is the author’s first novel, and that shows.  The subject matter’s interesting, but the characters are a little one-dimensional, all either goodies or baddies with not much in between.  And the escapee’s former owners live in West Virginia, but the book doesn’t really explain how West Virginia seceded from Virginia, etc – although it does make the point that slaves in Union slave states weren’t covered by the Emancipation Proclamation.

Some of the language and attitudes may offend, but none of it’s inappropriate in context.  It would be ridiculous to write a book in which characters in the 1860s spoke about racial issues in the language of the 2020s, and I wish people would accept that.  This isn’t a great book and never really gripped me, but it was very positive to see a book which showed a range of views being held by different characters.  Due to the “culture wars” present plaguing the US and beyond, a narrative’s been created by which the American Civil War was all about the North opposing slavery and the South supporting slavery, which just wasn’t the case.   There were complex issues involved, and views across a broad spectrum were held, in both Union states and Confederate states.   Thanks to Daren Wang for showing that.

 

Rebekka and the Unwashed Child of Eve by Angela Stevens

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This was an excellent book, despite the off-putting title.  I don’t often read anything with a fantasy element, but this contained so much detailed information about rural Iceland in the 1870s – houses, systems of labour, the roles of men and women, food, drink, religion, medicine, clothes, embroidery -, all put across extremely well, that I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Belief in huldafolk, or fairy folk, remained strong in Iceland until recent times, and to some extent still does.  It’s become fused with Christianity via a belief that Adam and Eve had children who didn’t appear in the Bible as Eve was ashamed to show them to God because she hadn’t had time to wash them, and that it’s from their line that the huldafolk come.  In this book, a childless couple foster a child who’d fallen into the water and been frozen in it, and it transpires that the lost child and a fairy child had become fused together.  Their farm and their community prosper from when she arrives, and she and a local youth fall in love, but their neighbours become suspicious of her and she eventually leaves.

It sounds weird, but it really does come across well.  The folklore itself is interesting, and the picture of the society of the time and place, an unusual setting for an English-language book, is incredibly well-drawn.   This isn’t my usual thing, but it was very, very good.

The Affairs of Ashmore Castle by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

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I’m pleased to say that this was a distinct improvement on the first Ashmore Castle book.  I loved the author’s Kirov trilogy and liked her War At Home and Morland Dynasty series, but The Secrets of Ashmore Castle was a bit disappointing.  This one was much better – a glorious, if sometimes a bit rose-tinted, depiction of Edwardian rural England.

The series is clearly intended to try to ape Downton Abbey, rather than to be particularly original; but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, given good characterisation and good plotlines.  The plotlines in the previous book were rather silly in parts.  Those in this book were more like it.

I was, however, nearly put off very early on: I’d only got as far as page 10 of this before I found a historical blunder.  The book stated that Ernest of Hesse was the brother of the Queen of Romania.  No, no, no!  He was the brother of the Empress of Russia.  The Queen of Romania was his ex-sister-in-law!  Errors like that are extremely annoying.  There were a few spelling mistakes as well.  Spellcheck doesn’t pick up on errors if the incorrect spelling’s a word in itself, and editors don’t seem to read things properly any more.  However, in general, this book was a return to the sort of form expected from Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.

Like the War at Home books, there were a *lot* of characters and a lot of different storylines going on, so it was quite bitty.   And very much one in a series rather than a stand-alone book: ends were not tied up neatly – the book finished so abruptly that I checked the number of pages to make sure that my copy hadn’t got any missing – and readers really needed to have read the first book in the series in order to be able to follow that one.   As a slight aside, were some of the names meant to be a joke?  Bunce the farmer is very Roald Dahl.  And Trump the dog?!

No spoilers, but, as with the first book, we had various members of the Stainton family – the earl, the jam heiress countess, the dowager, the earl’s younger brother, the earl’s two younger sisters and the earl’s uncle – plus the countess’s middle-class friend and her husband, and various servants and other locals.   A few famous names were mentioned, and we even got to meet the King and Queen at Cowes; but there was little mention of national or world events: it was about the domestic, family and love lives of the characters.  And the countryside – glorious rural England in what we think of as the Golden Age before the Great War.  Of course, it wasn’t glorious for everyone, and the book didn’t really show much of the poverty that existed; but it’s period drama escapism … like Downton Abbey.  The descriptions of both the landscape and the grand houses were wonderful.  And the clothes.  Lots of detail about fashion!

Don’t be looking for too many thrills from this, but, as a domestic period piece, it really was good.  Roll on the next one in the series!

The Girl in the Pink Raincoat by Alrene Hughes

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This isn’t a particularly well-written book, but it was on a cheap Kindle offer; and there’s an awful lot of local interest in it for anyone from the Manchester area.   It includes some very evocative scenes of the Manchester Blitz.  It also covers the largely-forgotten story of the internment camps at Warth Mills (in Radcliffe, near where Newbank Garden Centre is now), where many members of the local German/Austrian-Jewish and Italian communities were taken during the Second World War, and how many of them were tragically killed when the SS Arandora Star, taking them to Canada, was torpedoed.   There are also some vivid descriptions of Heaton Park before the war, of town, and of the factories both in the Strangeways area and in Trafford Park.

The storyline’s not particularly convincing, but it’s all right.   Gracie Earnshaw works in a raincoat factory, where she becomes involved with the boss’s nephew, Jacob Rosenberg.   His family aren’t keen, because he’s Jewish and she isn’t, but the two agree to marry … only for him to be taken off to an internment camp just as she was waiting at the registry office.   Without wanting to post spoilers, the story then develops with two other men, with an unlikely switch from war work to working in the theatre, and with a secret long kept by Gracie’s mother.

It’s not the best of books, as I said, but it’s worth reading for the descriptions of the local area and the local communities, and also for the inclusion of the story of the Warth Mills camp.  The author makes good use of real events, and her descriptions of Manchester are very much Manchester.  Overall, not bad!

The Children’s Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin

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This is a novel about the severe blizzard which, after an ordinary-seeming morning, hit the Great Plains one afternoon in January 1888, killing  235 people and causing many others to lose limbs or digits to frostbite.   It’s sometimes called “The Children’s Blizzard” because, due to the timing, many of the victims were school pupils trying to make their way home at the end of the school day.

As readers of Laura Ingalls Wilder will know, teachers at that time and place could be girls of just 15 or 16, little more than children themselves.  They were the ones who had to decide whether their pupils should wait out the storm in the schoolhouses, try to get home, or try to reach another place of shelter.  Two of the four threads of the book are those of two such teachers, sisters, one of whom was hailed as a heroine in the national press as well as locally, the other of whom was vilified for making what turned out to be a bad choice.  The other main characters are a hired girl and a “booster”.

Boosters, who featured a lot in The Beautiful Snow, aimed to persuade people from Europe, mainly Scandinavia, and the eastern US to settle in Minnesota and Dakota Territory, giving a very over-favourable impression of the farming conditions and climate there.   Most of the characters in the book were Norwegian immigrants, and the author seems to contend that the US authorities and eastern US society weren’t overly concerned what became of them.

For some reason, there aren’t a lot of books about Scandinavian settlers in the Great Plains.  Vilhelm Moberg’s four The Emigrants books, about a Swedish family, spring to mind, and Laura Ingalls Wilder mentions Norwegian neighbours;  but most people’s image of immigrants in the late 19th century US is of people from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe crowding into New York City.   And, other than Laura Ingalls Wilder’s brief reference to a black doctor, I can’t think of any other books mentioning black settlers in the area, as this one does.  And the settlement of the area in general doesn’t get much attention, with the obvious exception of Laura’s books. Incidentally, I just did a “Goodreads” search on “pioneer”, and 8 out of the top 10 results were books by Laura.  Other than Willa Cather, none of the other authors or books in the top 25 were well-known.  Yet both the Native American Wars and the Dust Bowl have attracted a lot of attention from different quarters.  It’s strange.

It’s an interesting subject, not least because it’s had so little coverage; but it’s not the most gripping of books, which I think is largely because it’s so focused on the one incident, and goes into it very quickly.  We don’t really have chance to get to know and care about the characters before they and we are swept up in the blizzard.   But it’s still a fascinating story, about the hardship faced by the pioneers, many of whom had thought they were going to a land of plenty.   And, without wishing to get political, it’s interesting to think how often, in the past, there were places which were desperate for immigrants, so desperate that they deliberately gave a falsely favourable impression of the lands they wanted settling in order to get people in; and how that’s changed.

The best part of the book was actually the last few chapters, about what happened to the girls after the blizzard.   What happened sounded far-fetched, but is based on real accounts of the time.  The hired girl and the “right” sister briefly became the 1880s’ equivalent of tabloid celebs, benefited from a “Heroine Fund” set up by a newspaper and were able to start new and better lives.  The “wrong” sister ended up teaching at an “Indian school” in Montana and being horrified by the abuses committed there.   I think the author felt that she had to include that, given the current (unfair) fashion for criticising the Little House books.   And both the booster and the hired girl’s mistress were overcome with guilt over the way they’d treated them, which felt rather like a 19th century American moralising novel.  Somehow, that all made for better reading than the drama of the blizzard, maybe because we actually got to know the characters better.

All in all, I don’t think that I’ll be reading this again, but I’m certainly glad that I’ve read it once.  If you can find a reasonably-priced copy, it’s worth a go.

Sanditon (Season 2) – ITV

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I’m not quite sure how to judge this.  On entertainment value?   On being something Jane Austen might realistically have written?  On historical authenticity (it’s set in 1820)?

As far as entertainment value goes, the sets and the costumes were all excellent, and I do want to know what happens to the characters.  But how about being Austen-esque?  Well, it hasn’t gone ridiculously OTT this time.  There were no bare bottoms, although one bloke was walking about with a bare chest.  The introduction of a company of soldiers, albeit regulars rather than the militia, has obvious echoes of Pride and Prejudice, Georgiana’s silly chaperones are similar in character to the likes of Mr Collins, Mr Woodhouse and Mr Elliot, and Charlotte’s sister Alison gazing up into a handsome man’s eyes after an accident isn’t dissimilar to Sense and Sensibility.

However … whilst the need for an heir is central to more than one of Austen’s novels, she’d never have gone into the medical details, as the writers here have done with Esther Babington.   But it’s hard to criticise the inclusion of an explanation, rather than just vague comments about not having had a child.   And what about the sugar boycott/free produce movement, which both Georgiana and Charlotte actively support?   Well, Austen certainly never mentioned it, but it was a big thing for a long time, and it was something which women were particularly involved in.   No mention of the Peterloo Massacre, the Cato Street Conspiracy or anything else connected to the difficulties of the times, but then Austen never mentioned anything political either.

What isn’t quite so authentic is the strident feminism around which much of the plot hangs.   Would Georgiana really have been so rude in turning down an unwanted suitor?   OK, Elizabeth Bennet told Mr Darcy exactly what she thought of him, but he asked for it!   Georgiana’s admirer didn’t seem to have done anything worse than be boring.  And would Charlotte really have declared that she never wanted to marry, and taken a job as a governess, lecturing her new employer about the need to educate girls?   Emma Woodhouse said that she never wanted to marry, but she had a place in society as a result of her family’s wealth.   And the Dashwood girls were well-educated.  But, still,  wouldn’t Charlotte have been desperately trying to find any husband at all, as Charlotte Lucas did?  Well … whilst Peterloo wasn’t mentioned, the bad harvests and their effect on the Heywood family’s finances  were, so I suppose it was realistic that Charlotte had decided that she *had* to find a job.  And, as she said, that meant a job as a governess.  And all her talk about being free and independent wasn’t all that dissimilar to comments made a generation later by Jane Eyre.

So, OK, maybe it was all possible.   This first episode certainly wasn’t completely overboard, as much of the last series was.  All in all, it wasn’t bad.   And I love the fact that they’ve brought in a character called Alison: my name doesn’t generally crop up in period dramas!    I’m still narked about the way the last series ended – and, I think because the actor was unavailable, Sidney Parker was killed off at the start of this one – but I’ll be sticking with it.

 

 

The Railway Children Return

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I’m pleased to say that this film is about evacuees from Salford.  It’s a bugbear of mine that stories about evacuees practically always feature children from London, as if no other part of the country were affected.  There’s been so much publicity about it that I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that the children concerned are sent to Oakworth – although much of the Oakworth village set is actually Haworth – where they’re billeted with the former Bobbie Waterbury, her daughter (the headmistress of the local school, referred to as “the head teacher” as kids today apparently can’t be expected to cope with the word “headmistress”) and her grandson.

The shots of the village and the surrounding countryside are glorious, and there’s plenty of Blytonesque running around in fields, having conker fights and collecting eggs from chickens.  The plot wasn’t really very dramatic, though.   It followed the original film in that the children helped someone in need and stopped a train, but the suspense and emotion weren’t really there.  Maybe the scriptwriters focused a bit too much on appealing to a young audience demographic?

(Don’t read the rest if you don’t want any spoilers at all!)

I’d been expecting a spy story.  Instead, we got a wartime racism story.   It might have worked better in an adult film, but there wasn’t enough sense of menace here.  It was obviously aimed at a young audience – I could have lived without seeing kids using the outside of a train as a toilet, and the remarks about farting, but, OK, I’m not really in the target demographic – and maybe that was why the fear of the military police just didn’t come across very well, despite the talk of our man possibly facing hanging if he were caught.  The police just never seemed very intimidating.   Also, it was hard not to wonder why no-one seemed to notice kids just disappearing from school in the middle of the day, or why everyone’s rations seemed to stretch so far that they could hold food fights and feed biscuits to their dog.

Having said all that, the racism story was historically accurate.  We know that there were major issues over the segregation in the US Army, especially concerning black soldiers engaging with white British women: the film actually borrowed the true story of the Battle of Bamber Bridge, in which US military police attacked black soldiers drinking in a pub.   The idea in this film was that a young black soldier had deserted as a result.  He was discovered hiding out by the four children – the three evacuees, an older girl with a younger brother and sister, as in the original film, and their new pal, Bobbie’s grandson.   It was then rather unconvincingly resolved (I won’t say how), and he was allowed to gallivant around the countryside and then return home to his mum, thanks to all the children stopping the train (but without red underwear) and the intervention of Ric Griffin from Holby City.

It was all right, and it was worth seeing for the shots of the countryside.  And it was also lovely to see a film in which the Brits were the goodies.  The liberal elite will hate that … which is probably a recommendation in itself.  But don’t be expecting a classic, and don’t be looking for an unforgettable moment like the legendary “Daddy, my daddy” scene, or you’ll be disappointed.   It’s OK, but it’s not great.