GREAT READS FOR AUGUST, 2015
The Dust That Falls From Dreams, by Louis de Bernières
It is August, 1902, and loyal Britons are holding Coronation parties throughout the land, for the dear old Queen has died after ruling for 63 years and her elderly and high-living son Edward the Seventh has ascended the throne. The Victorian era has ended and the Edwardian age has begun, those sunlit years that reinforced – for the last time – the rigidity of class and certainty of one’s station in life: everyone knows where they stand, and all is right with the world.
Three prosperous neighbouring families meet on this beautiful summer day to celebrate the King’s ascension; Mr and Mrs Pendennis, lately come from Baltimore, U.S.A. with their three fine sons; Mr and Mrs Hamilton McCosh and their four vivacious daughters, and Mr and Mrs Pitt, parents of four strapping sons, two of whom are already fighting in the Boer War. They are all fast friends and the children call themselves The Pals, certain that they will be friends always – in fact Rosie, the oldest McCosh girl has already accepted an offer of marriage (when they are old enough) from Ashbridge Pendennis, formalised by the gift of a brass curtain ring. She will be his forever.
It transpires that several of the other boys have crushes on Rosie, for she is the prettiest, and because she has eyes for no-one but Ash, the most unattainable, despite great feats of courage and daring performed by the Pitt boys, Archie and Daniel in an effort to impress. And Rosie IS impressed, but not long enough to alter her unswerving devotion to her beloved.
Mr de Berniéres, author of the wonderful ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ is a master at setting the scene for this lovely story of the War to End all Wars and the death of an Empire; his characters beautifully personify the times, especially when ‘that dreadful Kaiser’ starts the war and the flower of England’s youth rush to enlist – after all, ‘it will be all over by Christmas’ and no young man wants to miss out on the excitement and the opportunity to ‘do his bit’, including Ashbridge Pendennis and Daniel Pitt, leaving their loved ones at home to fret and marvel at their bravery.
And the worst happens: Ash dies of his wounds in France, leaving Rosie with a yawning hole in her life which she tries to fill with religion. She and her sisters attempt to give meaning to their lives by volunteering at the hospitals to look after the wounded and are horrified and chastened by the suffering they see and try to alleviate. Daniel Pitt’s two brothers did not return from South Africa and his widowed mother fears for her remaining two sons, for Daniel has become an Air Ace, and Archie is fighting on the NorthWest Frontier. Life will never be the same again. They will never return to the halcyon days of Coronation parties and certainty of place and Empire, and Mrs. McCosh, a gentlewoman who corresponds upon occasion with the King – and his secretary always replies – is horrified at the breakdown of manners and mores which now allow common people to Actually Come to the Front Door. It’s entirely too awful to think about!
This is a story that is not finished in this book; there are many characters (some extremely irritating, Rosie’s twitty sister Sophie being a prime example) that still have parts to play and the pace is so leisurely (except for the superb, brutal battle scenes) and the ending so inconclusive that Mr de Bernières MUST be planning a sequel. I live in hope!
Red Sparrow, by Jason Matthews
Red Sparrow is not new; it was published in 2013, but what impresses me about it enough to write a review is that a sequel has been written, ‘Palace of Treason’, and if it is anything like Red Sparrow’ then we are all in for a fabulous treat.
Russian Dominika Egarova is a privileged, ambitious and enormously talented young woman who adores her country and believes unquestioningly in its leadership under Mr Putin. Her parents, a respected university professor and a prodigiously talented concert violinist are more circumspect, having felt and suffered enormous discrimination from lesser talents, purely because the lesser talents had ‘connections’ which would always put them in front.
Dominika aspires to be a ballerina but eventually is sabotaged, just like her parents by a staged accident that ends her career permanently; enter her influential uncle, who decides that she could be useful as an intelligence officer/honey trap; a ‘sparrow’ to lure with her great beauty various victims into impossible and irreversible situations. Dominika gradually realises that she herself has been coerced and blackmailed into an irreversible situation, but because she is a person of intelligence with an exceptional gift – not to mention a huge thirst for revenge, she decides to play the long game: after all, ‘Revenge is a Dish that People of Taste Prefer to Eat Cold’. Yes indeed.
Dominika’s masters have no idea what hit them when their instructions for her to lure an American CIA agent into her embrace go horribly awry – for them, and hapless CIA agent Nathaniel Nash: he has found that his life has changed forever, whether he wanted it to or not!
Mr Matthews is well qualified to write a spy novel; he was a CIA officer for more than 30 years and knows the Spook business from every angle, and what a bonus it is for the reader that he is a smart, witty writer who can generate huge suspense, then relieve the tension with much-needed humour. His characters are (in the main) very believable – except that the villains are more evil than usual, and definitely uglier (!) and I have to say that there were so many abbreviations, acronyms and cryptonyms that I felt battered about the head – oh, and at the end of every chapter was the recipe for a meal that the characters consumed as part of the action: nothing wrong with that, except that each recipe had enough cream, butter, oil etc to send us all to an early grave. Did I mind, though? Of course not. I am impatiently awaiting ‘Palace of Treason’ which I trust will be full to bursting with more vengeance, corpses and lethal recipes. Highly recommended.