Category Archives: historical

Review: The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam

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I really enjoyed this book.  Within a few pages it created a sense of anticipation about the direction of three young lives, which I looked forward to resolving as I read.

It begins with a scene in a graveyard in the late summer of 1946 where three young women — Hester ‘Hetty’ Fallowes, Lieselotte Klein and Una Vane – have gathered following the news that morning that each of them has been awarded a state scholarship, an important award because it finances their place at university, which they can now take up.

Hetty is to read Literature at London, Una is off to Cambridge to read Physics and Lieselotte is to Cambridge as well to read Modern Languages.  As the girls lounge among the gravestones, their feet on a tomb, Gardam gradually introduces us to their lives.

We learn that Hetty’s father is a former intellectual, ruined by the effects of World War 1 and not suitable for much besides gravedigging; her mother is an anxious individual, constrained by her husband’s lack of ambition, and one of those characters that sets the restrictive moral tenor for the small town in which they all live.  Una’s father was a doctor who committed suicide when Una was young so Una’s mother tries to make ends meet running a hair salon.  Lieselotte is a Jew from Hamburg, who arrived in England in 1939 ‘on the last train full of refugee children, the Kindertransport’, and as a consequence has no parents.  She has lived with a childless Quaker couple for six years after losing her papers that would have seen her united with a relative.

The book follows the group in the couple of months before they begin university in October: Hetty takes herself off to the Lakes District to study, Una bicycles around the countryside with her friend Ray, and Lieselotte vanishes to London following a bureaucratic breakthrough in finding her relative.

What I liked about this book was the strong, feisty, multi-dimensional characters –- from the three young women to their parents, and other adults in their lives.  In the cases of Hetty and Una, I enjoyed the exploration of the relationships each had with their mothers — a type of exploration I haven’t really encountered before in much fiction.  Mothers tend to be characterized as foils, as others, as objects to be defined against, or just plain perfect.  But in The Flight of the Maidens this bond is examined, looking at how it’s maintained and valued despite its imperfections.

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BOOK REVIEW: Imperium by Robert Harris

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BOOK REVIEW: Imperium by Robert Harris, fiction, Arrow Books, paperback, 2006, 480 pages.

‘Gripping’ Guardian
‘Captivating’ Newsweek
‘Marvellous’ Sunday Telegraph
‘Accomplished’ Observer
‘Fascinating’ Mail on Sunday
‘Engrossing’ New York Times
‘Yeah, look, it didn’t grab me’ Indiscriminate Reader

Somehow, I don’t think Robert Harris is going to care too much about my less-than-enthusiastic response to his book, Imperium given the positive if mono-syllabic reviews it received from a large number of major global newspapers.  But the very least I can do is outline the reasons for this lack of enthusiasm.

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BOOK REVIEW: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

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BOOK REVIEW: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld, fiction, Doubleday, paperback, 2008, 555 pages.

Sittenfeld_American Wife

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld is a loose fictionalisation of the life of Laura Bush, the wife of the former President of the United States, George W Bush.

It tracks the life of Alice Lindgren from young girl to First Lady and documents the events that occur along the way.  There is nothing particularly remarkable about her life and I think that’s the point — American Wife is a study in ordinariness.  It shows how an unexceptional young girl growing up in the American mid-west can, through various choices, find herself as wife to a President of the United States.  It was not something she set out to be, rather it’s a position that finds her because of the person she chooses to marry and his political ambitions as state Governor, and then as President.

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BOOK REVIEW: Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor

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BOOK REVIEW: Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor, fiction, Bantam Books, paperback, 1997, 318 pages.

Barron_Jane & Unpleasantness at scargrave manor

I can’t say I’m a huge fan of Jane Austen’s novels — I’ve read most of them but I haven’t re-read them nor thought about them much since, except of course when they’re on the telly.

But for some reason, a series of detective novels set in Regency England with Jane Austen at the centre of them, employing her sharp intelligence to solve various murders and mysteries, appealed to me.  How on earth, I wondered, could a Regency woman, whose life was restricted socially and geographically, obtain the necessary freedom to solve a murder?

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