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Archive for February, 2011

Damian Baxter is ridiculously, stupendously rich.  He’s also dying and has nobody to leave his vast fortune to. However, an anonymous letter received years earlier suggests that he may have father a child many years ago, and now he wants to find that child in order to include him or her in his will.  There are a few contenders for the mother of the child, and to track her down he needs the assistance of a former friend from the late 60s when Damian spent time amongst the upper classes and the aristocracy.  The former friend is the narrator of the book, but he now harbours a strong grudge against Damian…

When I started this book I was not sure I would enjoy it.  It seemed to be populated by snobbish shallow characters who I did not think I would be able to warm to.  However, by about halfway through it had quite won me over and I simply did not want to put it down by the time I got to the ending.

As stated, the unnamed narrator is the former friend of Damian, who undertakes to find his child.  As he does so and meets up with several people who he was friends with at the time in which most of the book was set, he not only discovers secrets about Damian’s past,  but also comes to terms with events in his own.

We learn early on that the narrator is upset with Damian over an incident that occurred in Portugal years before, although the details of the incident are not revealed until nearly the end of the story.  There is also some tension over a girl with whom the narrator was clearly in love – Serena Gresham.

The book describes the search for Damian’s possible offspring, and also explains the differing fates of several of the characters.  It also gives plenty of description of upper class society in the late 1960s.  The narrator notes that the 60s for many people were not all free love and flower power, and describes debutantes’ balls and posh parties galore.  The era was explained in great detail, which I found very interesting to read about.

I ended up really liking the narrator and finding him to be a believeable character.  It was clear to see how he had mellowed and matured in the intervening years between the two periods of time which the book covers. Damian himself was not a particularly sympathetic character, but I did feel that the reader could understand him much better by the end of the book. 

Some parts of the book were very moving, and some were very funny.  The whole description of Terry Vitkov’s ball had me in fits of laughter, while another part where the narrator finds out some distressing news almost had me in tears.

I would highly recommend this book.  I now want to seek out ‘Snobs’ by the same author.

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It is England 1672, and life is starting to return to some kind of normal after the civil war.  Jonathan Dymond, a young cider maker, leads a happy life with his parents Mathew and Barbara.  However, when Mathew receives a letter from his dying brother Robin, hinting at secrets and lies in the family’s past, Jonathan sets out to discover the truth.  Robin dies before he can pass on his secrets, but Jonathan visits Robin’s wife Harriet – under the pretext of making cider from her apples – where he is clearly not welcome.  At Harriet’s house he meets her untamed servant Tamar, and quickly discovers that Tamar has damaging and shocking secrets of her own…

On the whole, I would have to say I enjoyed this book a lot.  It’s not perfect (more on that later), but the plot is engaging and unfolds at a perfect pace.  There were plenty of twists, some of which I predicted, but others of which took me completely by surprise.  The ending is certainly very satisfying.

The book is narrated by Jonathan, and while I felt that his character was well developed, I found it hard to warm to him.  He was constantly acting rashly and against advice, without giving much thought to the consequences of his actions (not only for himself but for others too).  Tamar and Harriet were also well drawn, but again, not easily likeable characters, although Tamar’s life, which is revealed throughout the book, does go some way to excusing her attitude and behaviour.

The countryside, where the book is set is well depicted and I think this story could only really work in such a setting.  However, I did not feel that the time period for the story was so well evoked.  Some of the language used seemed to be too modern, and it was easy to forget that this was set over 300 years ago.

Overall however, I found the book interesting and I was eager to find out how it ended.  I would certainly recommend this book, and would also be happy to read more by this author.

 

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In this classic movie, Audrey Hepburn is a princess (of a country which is never named), who comes to Rome on official business.  Despairing of her pampered lifestyle and lack of freedom, she escapes from her country’s embassy, deciding to explore Rome by herself.

She soon meets up with cynical journalist Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), who initially thinks she is drunk, but soon realises her true identity, and sees the opportunity for a great story.  Princess Anne does not realise that Bradley is a journalist, and he doesn’t reveal that he knows who she is.  Instead, he takes her to see many of the sights of Rome, and gradually their feelings for each other develop.  But Anne has duties to her country and knows that her pretend life as an ordinary citizen cannot last….

I watched this film for the first time, the night that I got back from a mini break in Rome, and I adored the movie.  Black and white films are not something I would normally choose to watch, but this was a true classic – amusing, incredibly charming and romantic.  Much like the two leads.  Peck and Hepburn on screen are like genetic perfection, and both of them are perfect in their respective roles.  (It was in fact Audrey Hepburn’s debut film, and she won as Oscar for her part.)  Peck is gorgeous, but he is world weary and while he is a decent and kind man, his only care initially is for writing an exclusive scoop on the princess – but his feelings change as he comes to know her.  Hepburn meanwhile is cute, innocent in a child like way and very funny, capturing the vulnerability and loneliness of the princess in her ivory tower, and infusing her character with a great deal of fun on her ‘day off’.  I defy anyone to watch this movie and not fall a little bit in love with her.  The setting of Rome is of course beautiful and lends the perfect backdrop to this romantic comedy.

Some movies become classics for a reason – this is one of them.  I only wish I had watched it a long time ago, but it has instantly become a favourite film for me, and one that I will watch again and again.

Year of release: 1953

Director: William Wyler

Writers: Ian McLellan Hunter, John Dighton, Dalton Trumbo

Main cast: Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, Eddie Albert

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In 2009, Chawton House Library held a competition for writers to compose short stories inspired by Jane Austen and Chawton House.  This book is the final longlist of entries, consisting of 20 stories.

The stories are indeed short – all about 7 or 8 pages long, with a little note of explanation from the authors at the end of their respective offerings, where they state their inspiration.

The authors have taken such inspiration from different aspects of Jane’s life and home, and their approaches to the stories vary widely.  Some take characters from Austen’s novels and create a new story around them; several explored the effect that Austen’s writing has on people today; one in particular took a specific moment from Jane Austen’s life and recreated it.  Sometimes the connection to Jane Austen was obvious, sometimes more tenuous, but it was always there.

There were hundreds of entries to the competition and with such a plethora of choices, it’s probably fair to say that the final 20 should all have something special.  Happily, they do.  As with all short story collections, I enjoyed some more than others, but they were all very well crafted and all had something unique.

My personal favourites were Jane Over The Styx, by Victoria Owens (which was the eventual winner of the competition) and Eight Years Later, by Elaine Grotefield.  Jane Over The Styx features Jane Austen after her death being put on trial by some of the characters in her books, who feel resentful at the way they were portrayed.  This is no zombie/afterlife mash up, but rather an interesting way of examining how Jane chose to depict older women in her novels.  Eight Years Later is a gentle love story set at Chawton House, and was simply a lovely heartwarming tale.

I would certainly recommend this collection of stories.  For many of the entries it is not necessary to be an Austen fan, or to be familiar with her characters, but I certainly think that a couple of the stories benefit from the readers knowledge of specific Austen novels. It’s worth mentioning also that the introduction by Sarah Waters (another excellent novelist) is worth reading in itself.

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Anne Lister (1791 – 1840) was a Yorkshire woman, who inherited Shibden Hall (the family estate) in 1826, the income from which allowed her to live a life of modest luxury.  She was a noted diarist who wrote about her financial concerns, her life in industry (coal mining) and her lesbian relationships.  When writing about her relationships, she often used a code, which she created using Greek letters and algebra symbols.  She also loved to climb mountains.

This television film, adadpted from Anne Lister’s diaries (which were only published over a century after her death) concentrates on her love life, which is perhaps a shame, as there were other interesting aspects of her life which could have been featured – the death of all four of her brothers for example.

Anne Lister lives with her aunt and uncle at Shibden Hall, and is in love with Mariana Belcombe, but due to the conventions of the day their romance is a secret to all but Anne’s close friend and former lover Isabella ‘Tib’ Norcliffe.  When Mariana marries a wealthy older widower, Anne is devastated but seeks solace elsewhere.  Her relationship with Mariana continues in fits and starts with them meeting up whenever possible, but while Anne wants to ‘marry’ Mariana and live together, Mariana fears that the nature of their relationship will be discovered and refuses to leave her husband, although the marriage is not a happy one.

Eventually, when Anne realises that Mariana is never going to commit to a relationship, she starts a relationship with a neighbour Ann Walker, with whom she remained for the rest of her life.

I thoroughly enjoyed this adaptation.  It looks sumptuous, showing off Yorkshire’s natural beauty, and really creating a sense of what life must have been like in the early 1800s.  Anne’s sexual orientation is guessed at in the village where she lives and is generally disapproved of.

Maxine Peake plays the title role, and she is superb, conveying sometimes in just one look, the pain, heartbreak or love which Anne feels.  She is a fiercely intelligent woman, sometimes calculating, sometimes incredibly vulnerable, and Peake plays every aspect of the character beautifully.  Anna Madeley and Susan Lynch are also excellent in their respective roles as Mariana and Tib, and I should mention Christine Bottomley, as Ann Walker.  Her role might not have been huge, but she embodied it totally.

My attention was held throughout this wonderful piece of period drama.  However as mentioned earlier I did think it a slight shame that more aspects of Anne Lister’s fascinating life were left out, apparently to centre on her relationships.  Nonetheless, the excellent acting and scenery made it a joy to watch, and I would thoroughly recommend it.

Year of release: 2010

Director: James Kent

Writer: Jane English

Main cast: Maxine Peake, Anna Madeley, Susan Lynch, Gemma Jones, Alan David

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It is 1844, and Pyke is now heading up the Detective Branch of the new Metropolitan Police Force.  When a robbery at a pawnbrokers leaves three men dead, Pyke soon recognises one of the victims as having links with Pyke’s own criminal past, and has to try and solve the crime before secrets from his own past are revealed.

However, this is only the first problem that Pyke will encounter during the investigation.  When the rector of a wealthy parish is murdered some months later, and a valuable antique cross is stolen, Pyke sees a connection and sets out to solve the mystery.  He soon discovers that somebody – possibly one of the men he works for – wants to keep the matter hushed up and is prepared to sacrifice Pyke’s career, or worse, to do so.  It isn’t long before he realises that he doesn’t know who he can trust – or indeed if he can trust anybody.

Meanwhile, Pyke has to deal with loss in his personal life, and a growing detachment from his 14 year old son Felix…

This is the fourth novel in the Pyke series.  All of the books have been enjoyable and this one, like those preceding it, is very readable.  The author captures the atmosphere of Victorian London, and clearly knows his subject well.  One aspect of the series that has been fascinating is how it describes the development of a police force in London from the beginning.

Pyke is somewhat more restrained in this book – necessarily so due to his job as a police inspector.  Whereas in the previous novels he was a Bow Street Runner and then an independent (of sorts) investigator, he now has a duty to uphold the law and therefore is not always able to turn to his former methods of obtaining information.  He is also becoming more considered as he gets older and is starting to realise that how he lives his life directly affects how his son Felix sees the world.

The mystery itself is satisfying, if sometimes a little over-complicated and it was occasionally necessary to remind myself who was who, and occasionally what a particular character’s role in the story was.  The ending however was excellent – probably the best ending of any of the novels so far in the series, with a twist that I certainly couldn’t have predicted.

For the most part, the characters are well drawn, and the development of Felix’s character suggests that he might play an even bigger role in future novels.  I liked the dynamic between Pyke and Felix – they love each other dearly, but don’t really understand each other.  Some of the other characters in the book were interesting to read about – I hope that the priest Martin Jakes might feature in any future Pyke novels – especially the other officers in the detective branch.

Overall, I wouldn’t say that this is the best Pyke book, but it’s certainly a worthwhile and enjoyable addition to the series.  Recommended to fans of crime and/or historical fiction.

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When wealthy businessman Gregory Matthews is found dead in bed one morning, it is generally assumed that his heart gave out after a particularly rich roast duck the night before.  But when it’s revealed that he was actually poisoned chaos ensues, and Superintendent Hannasyde must decide which of Matthews’ family would have wanted to murder him.  Not an easy task, as they all had motive…and nobody in the family seems able to trust anybody else.

This is the first Georgette Heyer book I’ve read – it won’t be the last.  I enjoyed the mystery aspect of the story, but more than that I liked the amusing and wit which the author uses throughout the story, especially to describe the various members of the Matthews’ family, with all their various idiosyncrasies.  All of the characters were well described and I found myself plunged into the story from the first page.

My favourite characters were Stella (Matthews’ niece) and Randall, who while impertinent and naughty, provided a lot of entertainment throughout the story with his clever sarcasm and obvious disdain for most of the family.

I also really liked Inspector Hannasyde.  This is not the first book by the author in which he appears, but I didn’t feel that it was necessary to have read any of the others before reading this one.  So often in fiction, police characters seem to have marital problems, drink too much and argue with their superiors, and it was refreshing to read about an officer who seemed perfectly level headed and just wanted to get on with the job.

I thought I had worked out the ending about two thirds of the way through the book; I had got some elements right, but the ending itself was a surprise and I certainly could not have predicted it.

This book is both a police procedural set in the 1930s, and a gentle comedy centering on the dynamics of an unusual family.  I enjoyed it immensely and will certainly be looking out for more books by Georgette Heyer.

(For more information about the author, please click here.)

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