A Death by Any Other Name

A Death by Any Other Name (Lady Montfort Mystery #3)A Death by Any Other Name by Tessa Arlen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lady Clementine Talbot, Countess of Monfort and her brilliant, but somewhat reluctant house keeper Mrs Edith Jackson have set out solving yet another mystery in A Death By Any Other Name. Delightful in its telling of the thirteen days before the declaration of war for World War One in Great Britain, this is a wonderful ‘whodunit’ set in the early 1900’s.

In this story we read about Hyde Rose Society, made up loosely of a group of friends who’s goal in life is to breed the perfect hybrid rose. Within this group of people lies a poisoner of one Mr Rupert Bartholomew, who died five months earlier, where the unlucky cook of the house is blamed and is now fighting to clear her name so that she can go back in service to survive financially. Clementine and Mrs Jackson come to stay at Hyde Castle under the pretence of wanting to join the society, when in reality, they are there to solve the mysterious death and clear the name of the cook. There is a mix of ladies and gentlemen who have several reasonable motives for killing Mr Bartholomew. With red herrings thrown in to muddy the water, this lively story reaches its climax satisfyingly with a confession tricked out of the murderer.

Normally picking up a book in the middle of a series can be hit or miss. Often you can make neither head nor tails of the story because you are missing so much back information found in previous books. Pleasantly this is not the case with A Death By Any Other Name. It is easily picked up with minimal confusion or lack of understanding of the main characters.

Fun, entertaining and well written, this is a book to curl up with when you want a comfort read. Its not going to satisfy people who love reading mysteries, but for the dabbler it is a great read.

Really enjoyable.

 

Published March 14th  2017

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The May Queen

The May QueenThe May Queen by Helen Irene Young

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is an odd little book that you have to spend time on and occasionally fill in the gaps, but could be worth the time if you want to make the investment.

Beginning in 1934 when May is fourteen and ending in 1945 when she is twenty-five years old, this follows the story of May who has to deal with the illegitimate pregnancy of her sister Sophie in a time when it was frowned upon to be pregnant outside of marriage. With her sister in disgrace, May is further confused by the attention from Christopher, the slightly older boy from Park House, the Big House of the area, which her parents believe will lead her to the same troubled path her sister life has taken. We then follow May as she grows up, not knowing where her sister is, coming across letters hidden by her mother where Sophie insists that she is never going to return home. Then after years of family drama and May growing up, we are transported to May 1940 and the beginning of World War Two where May is old enough to become a Wren. By sheer good luck she is made a dispatch rider in London, convinced that Christopher is the father of Sophie’s baby. There is a slight romance with another man amid the excitement of life in a city at war which finally ends with May returning home much changed to love with her now disabled mother, her sister and her niece Honor. The story ends oddly with May and Christopher coming together – perhaps sexually – and leaves the ending very open ended.

This book made for an uneven read. At some points I had to read sections twice and try to interpret what the writer meant even when she hadn’t used enough words to fully express herself. Sections felt disjointed and much was left to the imagination of the reader. There is some slight character development over the course of time, but whether you care about the characters is another thing altogether. There were points in which I wondered if paragraphs had been deleted from my copy of the book because it didn’t make clear sense from one point to another. I struggle to write a clear synopsis because the theme of the book is not clear. There is a minor theme of homosexuality in the book, which pitches it as true love and May having no issue with it at all. This book doesn’t read smoothly, rather it is uneven in composition, which is disappointing, as the premise of the book was really interesting.

In the end, whilst I read this book in its entirety, it wasn’t a fulfilling experience.

Published April 2017

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Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire

Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an EmpireVictoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“When Victoria was born, food was cooked in open fireplaces, horses carried messages, half of the population was illiterate, and a narrow band of property owners were the only ones with political power. By the end of her life in 1901, people travelled by subway, telegraphs shot messages across oceans, education was compulsory and women had some basic rights.” – Ch 2

Australian journalist Julia Baird has managed to do something quite remarkable; she has written a history book as compelling as a great fictional novel. If you had told me that I would be saddened to finish 500+ pages of a book I would have said you were crazy, but the reality was that as I turned the final page of this book I found myself wanting more.

This book looks deeply into the life of Queen Victoria and the history of the British Empire over an 80 year period. The writing is engaging and entertaining in style, never pompous or dry, a fault of many a history book. All too often documentaries on Victoria focus on her as a sole person; often Albert is little more than a chapter of being her great love who died young. This book looks fully as to Albert’s role in Victoria’s life. His unashamed grab for power is revealed here, as the belief of the day that women had no use for or ability with power.

“Albert assumed his command without affirming hers.” ch 18

Albert saw his wife as below him rather than acknowledging that she was at the very least, equal to him.

“Being married to Albert, though, had made her think that the act of governing was for men; that power was, perhaps, inherently masculine. For Victoria to hold this view, she had to bury her own instincts. But the more she devoted herself to Albert, the more she feared a fundamental incompatibility between being a good wife and being a good ruler. ‘Good women’ of the era did not even work, let alone possess immense power.” ch 17

This book watches a headstrong woman grapple with, and then fully work with her power as the Sovereign, from her rebellious youth, through her pandering to her husband’s needy attitude to full power after his death. Its interesting to note that Victoria believed that it was her role as a wife and mother that gave the Empire stability, rather than her own skill as a sovereign.

“Throughout her life, Victoria was a paradox: a model of female authority in a culture preoccupied with female domesticity. ….. Victoria described herself, conveniently as ‘anomalous’. She protested that women should not hold power, all while being increasingly vigilant about the protection of her own power.” ch 25

I’ve watched many a documentary on Queen Victoria and have often come to the conclusion that she wasn’t a likeable woman. This book gave a differing point of view to her and I came away with a grudging admiration of her, even though I had an even clearer idea of her many foibles.

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Once in a Town Called Moth

Once, in a Town Called MothOnce, in a Town Called Moth by Trilby Kent

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a little story about Anneli who has lived in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia all her fourteen years until her father suddenly packs them up and returns to Canada. They change their names and take up residence in Toronto, where her father believes her mother, who ran away from the colony ten years earlier might be living. Why they have fled Bolivia is the central theme of the story.

Personally I found it disappointing the lack of information or research that Trilby Kent did in showing us the life Anneli would have lived in Bolivia as a Mennonite. There was very little given about the Mennonite culture or community which was a big drawer to the book.

The book sometimes feels confusing and chaotic as Anneli’s thoughts and observations are as she tries to make sense of her new culture with the mindset of her old culture where God was the centre of her life and every decision made. As she assimilates into life in Canada her faith melts away, which raises the question did she really have a faith of her own or was it simply a cultural statement for her. This question is never even raised, much less explored.

The story is told from current day Toronto with flashbacks from the colony she lived in in Bolivia. We are privy to Anneli’s hunt for her missing mother and trying to make sense of her father’s choices and behaviour when he continually avoids telling her anything. We see the struggle to make a relationship with the mother and we see the father unable to cope with life in a busy city.

I was hoping for more than it delivered.

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The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So its taken me a couple of years to get to this book, but I wanted to read it before I saw the movie and I’m glad I did.

Told through the eyes of three different characters (Rachel, Megan and Anna) this book is a web of stories that interlink in the most unexpected ways. Another feature is that you are told the story in morning and evening portions, but never is the whole situation ever made clear. Each of the narrators cannot be trusted as they cant or wont reveal the entirety of their story.

Although intellectually I know that none of the three characters are particularly likeable, I personally was able to identify with the struggles that Rachel had gone through that had lead to her becoming an alcoholic, so there was a certain sympathy whilst reading her and the emotions expressed by her over her infertility. It felt raw and real to me.

This book, in unexpected ways revolves around children and their place in the women’s lives.  Rachel, coping with infertility, Anna, a new mum trying to work out how to be a person in her own right as well as a mother and Megan, unexpectedly a grieving mother.

A relatively short read, it captures the confusion that major life changes create. This is a high paced novel after a somewhat slow and baffling start. Many people report that they were able to work out who the ‘villain’ was very early on; I was slower off the mark and didn’t feel certain until over halfway through the book.

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The Nightingale

The NightingaleThe Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“…in love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.” page 1

So begins the glorious book that is The Nightingale.

This story is about two sisters, Isabel and Vianne Rossignol, who lost their mother to illness and whose father came back from the First World War a damaged man. Sent away to live with a stranger, the sisters drift apart and become separated when Vianne falls in love and marries young, leaving Isabel in one place after another until she is finally expelled from a finishing school. When the Second World War begins, Isabel’s father sends her to live with her sister in Carriveau, very much against her will. This further highlights Isabel’s sense of abandonment.

This novel looks at the actions of Isabel as she becomes active in the Resistance and saves the lives of downed airmen, getting them to safety in Spain, known by the Germans as The Nightingale, and it looks Vianne, whose first actions are to keep her only child safe and alive through the German Occupation and the lengths that even she eventually goes to to save the innocent lives of Jewish children.

This book is beautifully paced, tells an enthralling story and is strikingly written. The story is evocative and really explores the harshness that people lived through during WW2. Both sisters stories are compelling as they tell the war story from a woman’s point of view, so often ignored by history. It dares to look at the importance of women within the Resistance and the atrocities enacted upon the women left behind when the men went off to war. The characters are wonderfully drawn. You related to each sister and the decisions they make. Kristin Hannah has been able to make such different characters likeable.

There are some clichés in this book. There is the kind hearted Nazi and there is the truly evil one. Carriveau is described as a village, but it reads more like a large country town to be the centre of so much German activity. And of course, there is the reality of each sister wanting to protect the other by hiding their ‘illegal’ activities.

Often compared to All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, I found The Nightingale to be far superior. In a word magnificent.

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Radio Girls

Radio GirlsRadio Girls by Sarah-Jane Stratford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

They say never to judge a book by its cover of which I might have been a touch guilty of. I thought this was going to be yet another romantic novel. I was wrong and ever so grateful to be so. This is a historical fiction piece set between World War One and World War Two, about real people told from a fictional characters point of view.

Radio Girls follows the career of Maisie Musgrave from 1926-1932. When we first meet her she is down to her last week of money for food and shelter. By sheer luck she is awarded a job as the secretary of the Director General at the fledgling BBC Radio; this was to be her saving grace. We follow the journey of Maisie as she matures from Mousy Maisie to a real risk taker, investigative journalist and finally a producer working in the Talks Department. We see the clash of ideals where women were caught between traditional values and a world opening up to them of freedom and equality. Ostensibly about Maisie, this book is truly about Hilda Matheson, the first Director of Talks, a fascinating and remarkable character, who was a MI5 agent during World War One and responsible for the BBC becoming such a stalwart of information for the masses.

Stratford has written a compelling novel that takes us to a time in history when things were in turmoil and life was changing. She manages to bring alive a period when attitudes were changing as were expectations of life. It touches on a myriad of topics from contraception, women being granted the right to vote and sexuality, including attitudes towards homosexuality. It looks at the growing feminist movement and touches on the suffrage movement to win women the right to vote. The story never drags and the characters are finely drawn. In the story we see the development of the Talks Department and the growth of the British Nazi Party in the UK. There is a touch of romance in the story, but it is part of moving the mystery forward rather than a distraction.

Entertaining; a really great read.

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