Friday, 29 March 2013

Habits of the House, by Fay Weldon
Fay Weldon needs no introduction:  not only is she a literary household name, but she also gained fame in the British advertising world before she started her writing career for coining the unforgettable phrase on Billboards:  ‘Go to Work on an Egg.’  What a woman!
‘Habits of the House’, we are told, is the first book of a trilogy – which is a good thing, for this is a most charming story, with characters that any reader would love to meet again;  the only problem being that Ms Weldon’s novel bears a great resemblance to the ubiquitous ‘Downton Abbey’, and unkind critics could say that she was perhaps trying to ride that most successful  bandwagon:  after all, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery but that said, Ms Weldon still manages, in spite of many similarities, to produce a different slant on manners and mores – and the hypocrisies -  of life upstairs and downstairs at the turn of the 19th century.
The Earl of Dilberne has reached a financial crisis:  because of various unwise investments, not to mention trying to keep up with the gambling habits of the Prince of Wales, he has run through his own fortune as well as the enormous dowry his wife, Lady Isobel, brought into their marriage:  the time has come for drastic action.  There is nothing else for it but to marry off Viscount Arthur, their playboy son to someone with a LOT of money.  And at the close of the season, there are not many young heiresses to choose from – except Minnie O’Brien, recently arrived from America with her distressingly vulgar mother, openly shopping for A Title. 
Arthur keeps a mistress, whom, he learns in due course  (to his horror), used to service his father.  He is amenable to marrying to save the family bacon (his tailor bill is ENORMOUS – one wishes that they would stop sending so many reminders for payment!), but he still requires, in fact expects, that his blushing bride will be a virgin.  His contempt and disdain are absolute when he discovers that Minnie has A Past, and an unsavoury one at that.  The fact that he keeps a woman for his pleasure is not, to him, in any way a double standard:  that is what gentlemen do.  Ladies are not afforded the same freedom.
Add to the mix the private lives of the people who look after and service the needs of the upper crust:  Grace the ladies maid, Reginald the footman,  Mr and Mrs Neville, the butler and cook;  they all know a lot more about their employers than one could ever dream, and Eric Baum, the Earl’s lawyer, a Jew, laments to himself as he swears revenge – after too many slights – ‘the Israelites may be God’s children, but God is an Englishman.’
Well said, Ms Weldon:  bring on Book Two!

Oh Dear Sylvia, by Dawn French
Silvia Shute is in the intensive care unit, critically ill with a serious head injury caused by a fall from her balcony.  Her elder sister Jo and estranged family, ex-husband Ed and furious daughter Cassie (son Jamie is with the British Marines in Afghanistan and states that he couldn’t care if she lives or dies) reluctantly visit her room to keep vigil, and over the next ten days Sylvia’s virtues and faults (and there are many) are revealed:  she has divorced not just Ed, but her children, too, has sold the family home after saying she wouldn’t, and jettisoned Cassie (pregnant at the age of 16) to sink or swim in The Real World.  Jamie is so hurt and angry at the inexplicable dissolution of his home that he immediately joins the Military, not caring what happens to him – ‘Take THAT, you bitch!”
Yep, Silvia has many enemies, but all is not revealed until two thirds of the way through the story – just why she decided to reject her family, and who took their place, and the price she paid for her choice.
Dawn French is a much-loved TV star in this neck of the woods;  her reputation is stellar in Britain and she recently gained much praise for her foray into storytelling with the delightful ‘A Tiny Bit Marvellous’ (reviewed March 2011, see below), but it pains me to say that Ms French’s second novel isn’t up to the standard of the first:  there are some lovely characters in this book, but the story is spoilt because Ms French seemed bent on writing parts of the narrative as though scripting a TV Sitcom/Romcom.  Shame, shame, shame but I’m inclined to think that her editors should take the blame for some of the outright clunky stuff that escaped the net.
Ms French’s intentions were patently clear:  I am sure she wished, ultimately, to reflect upon the end of life, and how family and loved ones react to their loss;  how they say farewell, and how their lives change as a result:  sadly, this story doesn’t hit the mark.  I wish it had, because Ms French at her best is a great storyteller.  This book is like the weather – good in parts.
A Tiny Bit Marvellous, by Dawn French
There is no end to Ms. French’s myriad talents – quite apart from her superb comic skills as an actress she has now proven that she is also a writer of insight and wit, capturing effortlessly in her amber the 21st century family:  Mum Maureen Battle (Mo), capable and efficient, on-to-it child psychologist – except when it comes to her own children, about whom she clearly hasn’t a clue;  Dad or ‘Husband’ as Mo invariably refers to him, hovering lovingly in the background, keeping the wheels turning in ever so subtle ways in his efforts to provide a loving and stable environment for his family;  (he has a job, ‘doing something with computers’, but everyone seems to be vague as to its specifics);   Dora, about to turn 18 and full of teenage angst and self-loathing, is fretting about the humiliation of being dumped by her small but perfectly-formed boyfriend;  being a virgin;  being less than interested in a future career; and being FAT!  Last but not least, Peter:  call him Oscar please, as he is such a disciple of Mr Wilde that he is sure he is his reincarnation.  Peter is also tall, cherubic, flamboyant, academically brilliant and gay as a hat – and proud of it  - no gender angst for Mr. Peter;  in fact the only thing he agonises over is having to live in Pangbourne, the most deeply unfashionable place on earth.
  The novel is written in diary form, with each member of the family contributing their own thoughts and opinions (and some of them are hair-raising) about each other, and while some of the humour is laugh-out-loud funny (as we would expect from Ms French) there is also very shrewd and poignant observation of this flawed, Ipod, Iphone, Ipad, I want family – the problems they face are all too familiar to anyone who reads this charming, wise little story;  the dangers parents wish to protect  their children from are still the same, but stranger-danger has become Internet- danger in the 21st century,  and not always preventable.  Fortunately,  Dad/Husband/Den – that loving, unsung problem-solver extraordinaire – well, he only gets one chapter to narrate, but he saves the day, his family and his marriage:  what a Star!  Oh, and I nearly forgot (for shame!) to mention Nanna Pam, Mo’s loving mum, dispenser of sound common sense and wise council, and baker of everyone’s favourite cakes – and the yummy recipes are all at the back of the book.  Magic.    

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Merivel, a man of his time, by Rose Tremain.
Here is the sequel to ‘Restoration’, Rose Tremain’s superb novel of 17th century England in the reign of Charles II, and I am delighted to say that the story, once again, loses nothing in the telling.
It is 1683 and Sir Robert Merivel is 17 years older, back in favour with his godly hero the King, and delighting in being a father to Margaret, his pretty and vivacious daughter.  The King has restored Bidnold, Merivel’s beloved Norfolk estate back to his ownership, and all should be perfect – yet it isn’t. 
Merivel is bored.  But when he examines possible reasons for his restlessness and lack of concentration, he is hard put to find a cause:  he has a flourishing medical practice caring for the sick in the area (not that they pay him, for hard times have visited all); he is a generous host, socialising often with his neighbours, and he takes a great and kindly interest in the smooth running of his estate by his trusted, long-time servants.  But - he is lonely.
Merivel’s proudest achievement has been the raising of his beloved daughter;  now she will soon be an adult and he knows he must prepare for her coming independence and eventual marriage, the thought of which, whilst he hopes for the best possible match, fills him with the dread of losing her, his only child.  The solution is clear:  while Margaret is holidaying with family friends, Merivel will launch himself on a new adventure, thus proving to all that he can lead an independent and exciting life of his own – he’s not ready to moulder away in dowdy seclusion at Bidnold just yet, thank you very much!
To that end, Merivel obtains a letter of introduction from the King to Charles’s cousin, Louis XIV of France (given most reluctantly:  Charles cannot see the sense of going to France:  Merivel must face his fears, not flee from them!) applying for a post as physician at the court of Versaille;  he will enjoy French cuisine, French women, and bask in the warmth and approval of the Sun King and his ministers, freely bestowed because of his close friendship with the King of England.
Needless to say, events do not transpire as Merivel wishes.  He has adventures aplenty, but not the thrilling and delicious kind he imagined.  As before, his life plays out in entirely different and unhappy ways, and once again he must subject himself to uncomfortable and humiliating self-examination.  As anyone knows, being honest with oneself is the hardest of truths to face, but Merivel, that flawed, self-indulgent, kindly and loving man, does so with bravery and grace.

Ms Tremain has created a great and enduring character in Robert Merivel, and a wonderful evocation of an age which bears much resemblance to our own.  It was a singular pleasure to make Merivel’s acquaintance,  and proves yet again that Ms Tremain is an unsurpassed writer of fine historical fiction.  Highly recommended.


Scarlet, by Marissa Meyer.
It has been a while since I reviewed any teen or children’s fiction available in our library, but the librarians have recently given me some great titles that ably demonstrate the wealth of writing talent catering to young readers, ensuring by their excellent stories that the wonderful pastime of reading will continue into adult life.
Such a story is ‘Scarlet’, Ms Meyer’s sequel to ‘Cinder’, her fabulous futuristic version of ‘Cinderella’.  (Reviewed May, 2012, see below).  ‘Cinder’ was so good that this reader found it a real chore to have to wait for Book two – and I’m grinding my teeth to think that Book three won’t be released until next year:  couldn’t Ms Meyer speed things up a bit?
Cinder is in prison, having been captured at the the Prince’s ball – instead of leaving a slipper behind, she leaves her Cyborg foot!  How’s that for a variation on the old tale?  A?  A?  Sadly, the loss of her foot means that she was an easy catch and is now disabled in her cell – until a secret visit from professor Erland, a research scientist:  he provides her with a new state-of-the-art hand and a top-of-the-range foot, enabling her to engineer (she’s a mechanic, remember) a daring escape from jail.  And guess who he is?  Yep, Ms Meyer’s version of Cinderella’s fairy Godmother. 
She also takes with her another prisoner, Thorne, because he has a stolen spaceship hidden in a warehouse, and on their travels they link up with Scarlet Benoit, who has been looking for her beloved grandmother, kidnapped by a gang of wolves.  Scarlet wears a red hoody, has a nasty temper and a reluctant attraction to a street fighter called – Wolf.  Now.  Who do you think she could be?  And guess what happens to poor old Grandma imprisoned by the wolf gang in the bowels of the Paris Opera House, derelict and in ruins since the Fourth World War? (the Opera House, not Grandma!)  Nothing good, that’s for sure.
As before, Ms Meyer has her readers in an iron grip and doesn’t relinquish them until the very last page:  once again, the reader is screaming ‘but what happens NEXT!  And once again, we’ll just have to wait and see.  I’m sure all this suspense is hell on the digestion, but I’ll just have to tough it out.  This is a great series.
Cinder, by Marissa Meyer (Young adult reading)
Our Children’s librarian recommended this book to me and as she’s seldom wrong in her reading choices, I’m happy to give this the ravingest (ravingest??) endorsement possible:  WHAT A STORY! 
The tale of Cinderella – yep, Cinderella, her nasty stepmum and the two stepsisters – is transferred hundreds of years into the future.  Cinderella is now Cinder, living in New Beijing with a family who are, to say the least, most reluctant guardians.  She is a mechanic (truly!) and a Cyborg, to her shame, having been fitted out with a steel hand, leg and inbuilt computer screen after a terrible childhood accident.  Cyborgs are the future’s Untouchables, considered fit only to perform the most menial and degrading of tasks, but Cinder is such a good mechanic that a Royal prince visits her to have his tutor android repaired, and after that visit she and the reader are lost:  she to alien romantic impulses (she is not programmed for this!) and a reluctant involvement in a life and death experiment -  and the reader to being nailed to one spot until they have reached the last page.
To add insult to injury, the hapless reader finds that after a thrilling journey at a breakneck pace through more clever plot twists than a pretzel, there are three more books to come – and they haven’t been written yet!  To say I feel cheated is an understatement and the withdrawal symptoms are dire, but I also say with complete confidence that ‘Cinder’ will be the next big Blockbuster book/movie series:  you read it here first.

Waterfall, by Lisa T. Bergren
Gabriella and her sister Lia are the daughters of two archaeologists who travel from Colorado to Italy each summer to excavate ancient Etruscan tomb sites.  Sadly, the girls’ father died six months previously but their mother is still committed to carrying on their work, pushing into the background the terrible grief they all feel by relentlessly pursuing the research that meant so much to she and her husband – neglecting her daughters in the process:  they’re bored out of their minds!  They want to hang out, have fun, be the teenagers that they are, and not hang around archaeological sites:  they’re fed up with history, ancient and otherwise;  it’s time for a little rebellion, and to that end they decide to do the unthinkable:  sneak into a tomb and check it out a little, even though they both know they are not to go within 100 metres of the latest excavation.  Do they care?  Well, what do you think?
The inevitable happens:  fitting their hands into mysterious prints on the wall of tomb #2 sends them on a terrifying journey through time, and when it ends, Gabriella and Lia find themselves in the year 1431, in the middle of a pitched battle between the Forellis and the Paratores, warlords fighting for dominance of the region of Toscana each family covets.
Oh, this is all great fun – it doesn’t take Gabriella 5 seconds to realise that the ‘knightly dude’ striding towards her is, seriously, like a total hottie of the first order, which makes her wonder over the coming weeks why she never met anyone like that in the 21st century - and how she wishes that she had some product (at the very least) to control and improve the huge mane of her hair which refuses to lend itself to medieval hairstyles.  She’s hard put to convince her Forelli hosts that she is a visitor from Normandy temporarily separated from her family;  her Italian is good, but her Norman French is practically non-existent:  it is better to say little and look mysterious than chatter and reveal serious holes in her story, especially to speakers of French.
Marcello the Hottie is betrothed to another, an arranged alliance between his family and the most powerful family in Siena but predictably, this does not stop him from being smitten by his mysterious visitor.  Naturally, the course of true love does not run smooth and he and Gabriella endure political powerplays, battles with their Paratore enemies and eventually the dreaded separation as Gabriella is finally forced to return to her own time.  But for how long?
Miss Bergren has provided all the necessaries here to keep everyone turning the pages:  a novel, well-researched plot, action and humour by the ton and a most satisfactory line-up of battles and villains. I’m looking forward to reading Book Two, ‘Cascade’ for I’m not ready to leave these characters yet:  what a pleasure it will be to read more of the same.

Little Manfred, by Michael Morpurgo             Children’s fiction
To most children, Michael Morpurgo needs no introduction;  he has a great body of quality work for young people which covers many different subjects, and his book ‘Warhorse’ about a young man’s wonderful relationship with his horse during the 1914-18 war was filmed to much acclaim by Steven Spielberg.  Now, he visits another war, World War II, to examine once again, through the eyes of the very young and the elderly, the horrors and tragedies of a global conflict, searing and traumatic for all those who fought and a source of unforgettable memories and regrets for those who survived.
It is 1966.  England has just won the World Soccer Cup, defeating Germany 4-2;  the country is ecstatic!  On their Suffolk farm, Charley and her mother cannot understand what the fuss is about;  neither of them share Dad and Alex’s worshipful enthusiasm of the Beautiful Game and really couldn’t care less WHO won.  Needless to say little brother Alex thinks his sister is just being a big GIRL.  She doesn’t know what’s good.  Instead, Charley and her mum would rather that Dad would do as he said he would, and fix mum’s old childhood toy, a small wooden Dachsund called Little Manfred, which he stood on and broke – and always said he’d repair but never did.  For some reason that she never reveals, Little Manfred is very important to mum, and she is very upset that her old toy is missing a wheel.
It is not until the children visit the beach not far from their farm that many little mysteries are solved:  they meet two elderly men, an Englishman and a German, sightseers who have returned so that one of them can see once more where he was a prisoner of war, working on the very farm that Charley and Alex’s mum lived with her parents twenty years before, and where she still lives with her husband and family. 
Walter, the German, was rescued by Marty, the Englishman when his ship, the mighty battleship ‘Bismarck’ was sunk by the British navy in a huge sea battle;  Marty’s ship, HMS ‘Dorsetshire’ picked up some of the survivors from the water but nearly 2000 men drowned, abandoned to their fate because there were rumours that U-Boats with torpedoes were in the area.
Walter’s best friend Manfred and he formed a bond with Marty, who showed them kindness in many ways , but the steadfast friendship of Manfred and Walter sustained them throughout their imprisonment, and the kindness shown to them by the farming family they were sent to made their lives more bearable;  in fact Manfred became so close to their little girl that he made her a wooden toy, a Dachsund, so that she could remember them when they returned to Germany.
Twenty years later, the toy is still with her, broken but not discarded, a symbol of love, friendship and understanding that transcended fear and hatred in the midst of war. 
What a lovely story this is, simply told but full of wisdom and life lessons that we could all live by, young and old alike.  Little Manfred was truly the gift that kept on giving.  Highly recommended for all ages.