GREAT READS FOR SEPTEMBER, 2013
|Me, best bud Maureen, her brother Robert and schoolfriend Lorraine|
My apologies for the long absence of my attention to this blog, but for the past few days I have been visiting Auckland – ‘The Big Smoke’! – for the 125th Anniversary of the founding of our primary school, now known as Freemans Bay Primary. (No: I wasn’t one of the founding members – how rude you are!) When I attended in prehistoric times it was called Napier Street School, and because of its seedy location no-one told anyone they went there, much less resided in Freemans Bay – my Grandmother, with whom we lived, told everyone we lived in Ponsonby, whose boundaries started about a kilometre up the nearest hill.
Now, of course, the tables are turned: one needs Big Bucks to live in what used to be The Slums.
The inner city has become very expensive real estate.
Needless to say, all the former pupils who rolled up had shopped till they dropped at the Big Bum and Tum Shop, waistlines had gone West and hair and teeth were in short supply, but what a great time we had – what a Gabfest! My jaw will ache for a week, but what impressed me most was the welcome we received from the current pupils, all of whom were so well-mannered and courteous that we thought we were dreaming: I was taken on a tour of the school buildings by Sacha aged 9, who was so engaging, open and confident that I’m sure he’ll end up being Prime Minister one day. We were treated royally by everyone, especially the teaching staff over the course of the festivities, and I have to say that now that I’m home it has been very hard to settle back into the Old Routine. It was especially good to have a few days off from trekking out in the early morning frost to feed the chooks, but we are now back to normal, so!
Let’s get down to business.
Blood and Beauty, by Sarah Dunant
The Borgias: most hated name in Renaissance Italy; a brutal family for brutal, desperate times. Sarah Dunant weaves literary magic in her retelling of their lives, and while she is more sympathetic to them than most historians she does not shy away from the ruthless methods they employed to achieve their domination – all for the greater glory of God and the Mother Church, naturally.
Spanish Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia wishes to be Pope. He is currently Vice-Chancellor, so knows well the financial structure of the Vatican. He is also enormously rich, thanks not only to his economic brilliance but his ability to play different factions against each other – and gain fat rewards for favours granted. The Papacy is his when the old Pope dies, despite the fact that he, supposedly celibate, has a family of grown children, all of whom he loves with undisguised passion and pride.
The oldest son, Cesare, has been roped into the priesthood and is currently Cardinal of Valencia, a title that sits awkwardly with him but for the handsome income it brings him; second son Juan is married off to a member of the Spanish royal family (the Spaniards despite their deep and unassailable Catholic faith are pragmatists none the less: they will accept a bastard into their holy ranks if it will give them more sway over their Italian counterparts), and Rodrigo’s only daughter Lucrezia is wed to an ineffectual member of the powerful Sforza family of Milan in a bid by the new Pope to shore up alliances against a possible French invasion.
Ms Dunant portrays Rodrigo and his family in bold strokes: he is larger than life in every way, especially in his appetites and his enthusiasm and delight in his good fortune – all due to his profound faith in God and the Madonna, naturally. Cesare is the ultimate warrior; he longs to subjugate all the squabbling Italian states, bringing them all under the Vatican umbrella and thus under Borgia rule. Lucrezia is little more than a pawn to be used in marriage with prospective allies and before long an annulment of her union with her treacherous Sforza husband is quickly arranged (his family welcomed the French into Milan with open arms) so that she can be married to the illegitimate son of the King of Milan.
Fortunately for the reader, Ms Dunant provides a family tree of all the noble families who had the misfortune to enter into liaisons with this most dreaded clan and I referred to it often; the various changing alliances confused me greatly and I still can’t believe how everyone at some time spoke with forked tongue: the adage ‘keep your friends close, but your enemies closer’ must have been invented especially by the Borgias – except that they had no friends nor need of any. They had each other.
Ms Dunant’s novel covers eight years of their ascent and consolidation of power and she promises an eventual sequel. What a pleasure it will be to read; she writes with charm, wit and a beauty of language that make her characters leap off the page: highly recommended.
Shadow, by Michael Morpurgo Junior Fiction
This is the third book I have read by Mr Morpurgo and he impresses me as much as ever: in each book is a lesson for children, couched lovingly in an adventure which is always based on fact - both the lesson and fact being that war anywhere in the world is The Great Destroyer, a vain conflict that decimates populations and ruins countries, and wars fought in the name of religion are the worst of all, for religious fanatics are always absolute in their belief that their cause is just, righteous – and the only way to live. Everyone must follow the Way, or die.
Aman and his mother are living in a cave in Afghanistan. They have been driven from their home by the Taliban who murdered Aman’s father for not being properly respectful, and they lead a hand-to-mouth existence. When a shivering, wounded, filthy little dog arrives at the mouth of their cave one night Aman’s mother tries to drive it away – they don’t have enough food for themselves, let alone a mangy animal!
But the dog won’t leave. She stays just out of the range of missiles lobbed at her and gradually Aman comes to admire her determination to be friends. He sneaks food to her, bathes her wounds and a true friendship is formed, and it is the dog Aman names Shadow who eventually leads them away from the danger of the Taliban and after a series of frightening adventures to the safety of a British Army base, hundreds of miles from where they started – for Shadow is really Polly, a very special dog indeed, trained to sniff out IED’s – Improvised Explosive Devices – and the troops, particularly her owner Sergeant Brodie are overjoyed to see her again: she went missing after a skirmish and they thought she had died – it is truly miraculous that she has found her way back to the base, bringing two refugees with her.
There are many facets to this lovely story, not least being the plight of refugees, not only in their own country, but the uncertainties they face of a new existence in their country of choice, in this case Britain, for Aman’s mother has a brother to sponsor them on their arrival. Aman attends school for six years, making many friends before he and his mother are finally refused residential status, then sent to a detention camp before deportation to Afghanistan. Mr Morpurgo pulls no punches: he writes baldly of the lack of humane treatment for refugees caught in the limbo of red tape and disinterest at immigration removal centres; once again this fact is shamefully stranger than fiction but fortunately for young readers (and me!) Aman’s story ends happily. Friends old and new rally to help him, including Shadow, and once again Mr Morpurgo has written a heartwarming story for us all to enjoy. Highly recommended, as always.