Review 2038: The Last Protector

It’s 1668. When James Marwood’s boss Williamson sends him to secretly observe a duel between the Duke of Buckingham and Lord Shrewsbury, James is alarmed. He has already come to the attention of the powerful Duke, and not in a good way. He has to do what Williamson asks, but he is observed and must flee for his life.

Cat Lovett has come to regret her marriage to the elderly Mr. Hakesby. As he has become less able, he has begun demeaning her and making demands of her. What she believed would be a marriage of just companionship has turned out not to be so, and she finds it distasteful.

When an old friend, Elizabeth Cromwell, the daughter of the last Protector, Richard, claims her acquaintance and behaves as if they were closer than they were, Cat eventually recognizes she is using her to get the plans for a building called the Cockpit from her husband. She also realizes that Richard Cromwell, who is supposed to be banished to Europe, is in the country. The Cromwells want the Hakesbys’ help to regain a personal possession, they say, but Cat thinks Hakesby is foolishly getting embroiled in treason.

The Last Protector is another fine entry in the James Marwood/Cat Lovett series set during the Restoration. It combines political intrigue with suspense in a realistic seeming historical setting.

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Review 2033: Astonish Me

I enjoyed Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle, although maybe I thought it was a little overhyped. However, I liked it well enough to look for something else by her and found Astonish Me.

When ballet dancer Joan sees Arslan Rusakov dance, she falls madly in love with him. A brief encounter leads to a correspondence, and a few years later, in 1975, Joan helps him defect from the USSR. Arslan is not faithful to her, however, and once he finds that she is not a good enough dancer to dance with him, he seems to lose interest.

Joan finds she is pregnant and decides to leave the dance life. She seduces her lifelong friend, Jacob, and marries him. They settle in to a suburban life in California.

Their son Harry develops the same kind of friendship with his neighbor Chloe that Jacob had with Joan—he worships her while she seems often embarrassed by him, yet appreciates his friendship. But as they reach their teens with both turning to ballet, it becomes obvious that Harry will be a great dancer while the jury is still out on Chloe.

At first, I was turned off by Joan’s decision to deceive Jacob. I felt it was particularly unlikely for that time. However, as the novel digs deeper into the fascinating world of dance, I found it more and more compelling. I liked, too, that Shipstead’s characters have their faults. They’re human, not perfect. If anything, I liked this novel better than Great Circle.

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Review 2029: Long Summer Day

R. F. Delderfield is known for his ability to capture slices of English life, and he certainly does that in this long volume, the first book of A Horseman Riding By.

Paul Craddock is just recovering from being seriously wounded in the Boer War when he learns that his father has died, leaving him a great deal of money and a half share in a scrap metal business. Paul wants nothing to do with scrap metal but thinks he’d like to buy a farm. However, Franz Zorndorff, his father’s business partner, sends him to the West Country to look at Shallowford, a large estate that’s for sale. Although it is much bigger than he had in mind, he ends up buying it.

At first people tend to treat Paul as a dabbler, but he begins to win over the regard of the people in the dale by making improvements to his tenant’s property and by his commitment to his new life. He makes friends with Claire Derwent, and people expect them to marry, but on his original trip to look over the property, he was struck by Grace Lovell.

This novel covers the first nine years of Paul’s Westcountry life, beginning with the accession to the throne of Edward VII in 1902 and ending with the accession of George V. Of course, by then, the First World War is approaching, but not many of the characters in the novel seem to be aware of it. The novel gets somewhat involved in the politics of the time and in the suffragette movement, but it mostly centers on life in the valley.

There is a strong awareness of the dale with many descriptions of it. The novel itself is slow moving with only a few major events, mostly to do with the private lives of the inhabitants—marriages, births, and deaths among them. One thing I found surprising was that there was so little emphasis on actual farming issues. It’s like the estate just runs itself.

There was much of interest about this novel, but for me some of it was hampered by Delderfield’s writing style. He likes long, involved sentences that verge on being and sometimes are run-ons. He also has the odd habit of leaving out the comma in a compound sentence, which many times forced me to reread. Even with the modern tendency to use fewer commas, I’ve never seen anyone else do that and am surprised his editors didn’t add in a bunch of commas.

Am I ready to read the second book? I don’t think so. The novel has a lot to recommend it, but at 800+ pages, this first book in the series indicates that it will be very lengthy.

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Review 2019: Edith Trilogy Read-Along: Cold Light

In this third book of Moorhouse’s Edith trilogy, the League of Nations having closed and Edith’s hopes of getting a job with the United Nations dashed, Edith has decided to move back to Australia, thinking that Canberra will “snap her up.” (I was surprised that she thought this after her last job hunt in Australia.) Her husband Ambrose has managed to get a position with the British but is not happy to be there, and Edith has been back for months without any job offers. Her lack of an official title at the League, its spectacular failure, and sexism seem to be getting in her way.

Then her brother Frederick, who disappeared from the family 20 years ago, makes himself known to her. He is an organizer for the Communist party, a true believer. Talk is building up about banning the party in Australia, and in the U. S., Senator McCarthy is building power around this issue, so Edith isn’t sure what to do about Frederick and his girlfriend Janice.

Edith learns that the Canberra government isn’t hiring married women, but she eventually gets a temporary position organizing a conference about the design of the city. When the opportunity comes, she and Ambrose have just decided to move back to Europe and she thinks the job is beneath her, but by the end of the interview, she is sucked in. Of course, she uses this position to shoehorn herself into more opportunity.

I have been ambivalent about this series. At times, it is really interesting, while at other times it dwells too long on the details of some subject. For, continuing on with the theme of Edith being involved in world events of her time, there is a great deal of discussion of Communism from both sides as well as the ramifications of passing a law against it. (Edith has a long discussion with her old mentor, John Latham, a supreme court judge, who she believes voted wrongly on the issue, and it turns tedious.) The novel also deals with uranium and nuclear bombs vs. nuclear energy, as Edith makes herself an expert on uranium.

My other problem is that Edith has always seemed unconvincing to me as a woman. She is a bold and impulsive woman, true, but some of the things she does and the way she thinks don’t seem like the actions and thoughts of any woman I can imagine.

On a related issue, I was kind of fascinated by the cross-dressing aspect of her relationship to Ambrose and the emphasis on it—because there is no such emphasis on any of her other husbands. Robert is around for a millisecond, and she rarely mentions Richard after she marries him except in terms of his kids—not until she decides to leave him, at which point suddenly a chapter is devoted to their relationship.

Thinking about what Moorhouse chooses to talk about and what he ignores brought me to this conclusion. Authors often invest themselves in their characters by imagining that they are their main character (or some other). For a long time, I thought Moorhouse saw himself as Ambrose, but I finally decided that either he saw himself as both Ambrose and Edith herself or perhaps simply as Edith.

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Review 2017: The Aeneid

When I choose books for my Classics Club list, I try to pick some from very early times. This time I realized that although I knew of many of the stories of Achilles and Odysseus before reading The Iliad and The Odyssey, I knew nothing about that other great classic hero, Aeneus. So, I put The Aeneid on my list.

Regarding the translation, I had heard good things about the Fagles translations of several of these epics, and that was the one described on the library web page when I reserved the book. The translation I got, however, was by Sarah Ruden. Apparently, whoever picked this book off the shelves sees no difference (assuming they actually had the Fagles translation), which is odd for a librarian. I didn’t look into the reviews of this translator’s works, just read it, so I have no idea how that might have affected my enjoyment of the book. Suffice it to say that this version was easy to read and went relatively quickly.

Aeneus and his men are refugees from the fall of Troy who are looking for a place to settle. Prophecies have informed him that he will settle on the west coast of what is now Italy and found a great empire (Rome), but he is a long time getting there. Seven years is mentioned at one point.

In the beginning of the book, the Trojans’ ships are blown off course in a violent storm. Aeneus’s ship is separated from his father’s, but they all end up in Carthage. There Aeneus dabbles with Queen Dido and seriously considers staying, but a seer tells him to go to Italy, so he does, leaving some of his people behind. Poor Queen Dido stabs herself from sorrow. I don’t think he even bothers to say goodbye. What a guy!

I found the first half of the book fairly entertaining. There is a really creepy description of a visit to an oracle, maddened by her visions (and hydrogen sulfide gas, I presume), and not too much tedious listing. That changes with the departure for Italy, as Virgil names each man who comes along, including for some a brief history of their deeds. I envisioned Virgil making sure he has included the names of the ancestors of his potential patrons.

After that, as my husband and I say about ancient stories, “There’s a whole lot of smiting going on” as Aeneus and his men arrive in Italy and proceed to evict the inhabitants. And lots of it is gory. The gore didn’t bother me but the tedium of those described battles did.

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Review 2010: Punishment of a Hunter

When Zaitsev and his homicide team in 1930 Leningrad investigate the death of Faina Baranova, he knows there is something odd about it. Although all her clothing is practical, she is dressed in velvet and posed before red curtains the neighbors in her communal apartment say are not hers. There is something theatrical in the scene. However, after months, the team finds no clues.

In a meeting at work of the OGPU, Zaitsev is accused of hiding bourgeois origins. He claims he knows nothing about his father, having grown up in an orphanage. Pasha, his building janitor, shows up in support and claims to have known his mother; nevertheless, some days later he is arrested.

After a few months, he is released without explanation. Zaitsev soon figures out he is to solve another murder, this time of a group of people on the site of a new park planned by Kirov, head of the party in Leningrad. The unspoken message is solve the case or go back to jail. However, because he’s been released, his colleagues no longer trust him and won’t speak to him about work.

Aside from presenting an intriguing mystery, Punishment of a Hunter evokes 1930 Leningrad, beautiful but gray and tired, the atmosphere paranoid, citizens poorly clad and fed. I was convinced by this post-revolutionary world as I was not by the popular A Gentleman in Moscow. I hope Pushkin Press will be publishing more books by Yakovlevna.

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Review 2008: The King’s Evil

This third book in the James Marwood/Cat Lovett series begins with James hearing that Cat’s cousin, Edward Adderly, has found out where she is hiding. Since the first novel, in which Edward raped her and she put out his eye, she has been hiding at the office of Mr. Hakesby, an architect, and working for him as a drafter and maid. James finds Cat on Saturday and warns her she must go into hiding. She finds refuge with Dorcas, a connection of Mr. Brennan, a draftsman she works with.

However, on Sunday Edward Adderly is found drowned in the well at Clarendon House, where Cat was working with Hakesby on a project. Clarendon has recently been removed from his offices at court, and his enemy, Buckingham, has been trying to stir up the public against him. One of James’s bosses, Mr. Chiffinch, tells him to dispose of the body. Cat is accused of murder and a warrant put out for her arrest.

James is charged with finding out who murdered Adderly, but he is also dispatched by Charles II to accompany Lady Quincy, Cat’s aunt, to Cambridge. This errand has to do with fetching a child back to court, but in both his investigation and his trip to Cambridge, James keeps encountering a mysterious man called the Deacon and his fat friend. James begins to believe both his errands are related.

I think this series is proving every bit as good as Sansom’s Shardlake series, and perhaps doesn’t have such a heavy feel to it, although neither main character seems to have much of a sense of humor. James finds himself pulled helplessly into the affairs at court while Cat into the arms of Mr. Hakesby, who has offered marriage. The plots are interesting and complex and the characters believable.

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Review 2005: Rose Nicolson

It’s 1575. Mary Queen of Scots has been ousted from the throne of Scotland in favor of her young son James and a series of regents. This revolution has been mostly a religious one, with Queen Mary a Catholic and James (referred to as Jamie Saxe) being raised Protestant. But there is also a struggle between the Calvinists and milder forms of Protestantism.

This struggle is reflected in the home of young William Fowler, whose father is a Calvinist and whose mother, with contacts in Queen Mary’s court, is French and Catholic. However, William’s father is accidentally killed during a siege on Embra. Now William is off on the Sonsie Quine to school at St. Andrews. On the ship, he meets a red-haired boy who asks to borrow his dirk. This meeting proves fateful, as William finds out years later that the boy is Watt Scott of Buccleuch. (For Dorothy Dunnett readers, I believe this is the grandson of the man of the same name in the Lymond chronicles.)

William has an affinity for poetry, and at school he befriends another scholar, Tom Nicolson. He struggles within himself over the religious issue as he feels pressure to commit one way or the other. He also falls in love with Rose Nicolson, Tom’s beautiful sister, a fisher girl with a remarkable mind.

As the King gets older, the Catholics and Protestants compete to control him. The country remains Protestant with the Calvinists gaining power while the Catholic side gains strength at court with the arrival of a favorite from France.

As he approaches graduation, William wants to marry Rose, but she is betrothed to a fisherman with the influence to protect her. She needs this protection because her remarks have been misunderstood as evidence of witchcraft.

William, despite himself, is forced closer to deciding between the two religions and finally decides that Protestantism is the least bad alternative. He also meets Scott again and is drawn into political intrigue.

This is not dry stuff. Greig is great at depicting the realities of living in this difficult time and place. I was fascinated from page one. This novel became part of my Walter Scott prize project by getting on the shortlist, but being a fan of Greig, I had already read it.

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Review 2003: The Museum Guard

I have been a big fan so far of Howard Norman’s quirky novels. However, I had a slightly more mixed reaction to The Museum Guard.

DeFoe Russet has lived in the Lord Nelson Hotel in Halifax ever since his parents died in a freak Zeppelin accident when he was eight. As a boy, he was cared for by his uncle Edward, if you can call it that. Edward is an irresponsible, gambling, drinking womanizer with a lot of opinions.

DeFoe works as a museum guard in the small Glace Hotel, where his uncle also works when he bothers to show up. DeFoe is very much in love with Imogen Linny, the caretaker for the local Jewish cemetery. However, although they are lovers, Imogen is difficult and seems often to tolerate DeFoe.

DeFoe doesn’t seem to realize how stuck he is in his life. He has no plans except to continue working as a museum guard and to persist with Imogen. He is interested in listening to the tours of the museum given by Miss Dello, a local professor, and likes to think about the paintings.

Edward has been making himself obnoxious about DeFoe’s relationship with Imogen, whom DeFoe has kept from meeting Edward. But Imogen has recently become fascinated by a painting in the museum, Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam by Joop Heijman. Then there is a fateful meeting between Imogen and Edward in the museum. Imogen essentially dumps DeFoe and begins spending a lot of time with Edward, who without permission lets her into the museum at night to be with the painting. Soon, the novel takes a bizarre turn as Imogen begins to believe she is the woman in the painting.

The novel is set mostly in 1938 and 1939 against the background of what is happening in Nazi Germany. DeFoe tells us on the first page that he steals the painting for Imogen, and the novel is about what causes him to do that and what happens afterwards.

I guess this novel is about stepping out of ordinary life. However, a lot of time is spent on DeFoe’s obsession with Imogen, maybe a bit too much, and the novel just gets weirder as it goes along. I’m not saying I disliked it, just that it wasn’t one of my favorites of Norman’s novels.

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Review 1999: Edith Trilogy Read-Along: Dark Palace

The Edith Trilogy Read-Along calls for the second book to be read during July. This second book, Dark Palace follows Edith and the fate of the League of Nations from 1931 through the end of World War II. Although most of it is set in Geneva, Edith also visits Australia and the United States.

This novel begins roughly one year after the close of Grand Days. Edith and Robert have been married about a year, but Edith feels she has misunderstood Robert’s character. For one thing, he is not really dedicated to the success of the League, and she sometimes finds him crass. She takes the opportunity of Ambrose Westwood’s return to Geneva and Robert’s departure to cover the Spanish Civil War to rekindle her unusual affair with Ambrose.

At the League, she is considered an expert on protocol but still does not have an official title. At the beginning of the novel, she and other League officers are excitedly preparing for the conference on disarmament they are hosting.

This novel, like many middle novels in a trilogy, has a less focused plot than the first. Edith, at one point, considers moving back to Australia and visits the newly founded Canberra to fish for a job. But Canberra barely exists, and her fellow Australians don’t seem impressed by her accomplishments. The novel skips in an episodic way through several events during the war.

There are times in the novel when Edith’s didacticism is really annoying. What the novel does have, however, is a deeply affecting conclusion.

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