Montreal, Quebec, Canada | Member Since 2015
Many readers must come to this book having read quite a few Alan Furst WWII spy novels. After all, as the NYT stated in a recent review, "Mr. Furst has long since carved out this turf and made it his own", and while I've long wanted to start on his Night Soldiers series, I jumped at the occasion to acquaint myself with this novelist with his latest one-off.
Cristián Ferrar is a Spanish émigré living in Paris and has some clout as a lawyer working for a prestigious American law firm representing an international clientèle. When the novel starts in December 1937, the Spanish civil war is ongoing and the Republicans, fighting against General Franco's fascist army is in desperate need of munitions. Ferrar, with his skills as a negotiator and diplomat is recruited to help in the arms deal negotiations with dangerous criminals and to ensure the shipments actually get into the proper hands. A man of not inconsiderable charms and an amorous disposition, Ferrar quickly falls for the charms of a prim and proper potential client, the Marquesa Maria Cristina. Beneath her chic veneer is a woman all too willing to fall for Ferrar's charm, but is she who she claims to be and does she have ulterior motives? Ferrar is too clever to be played like an innocent in these dangerous times, but he also doesn't miss a chance to enjoy the bounties beautiful women and life in Paris have to offer, as the novel takes him from exclusive swank nightclubs and the famous Parisian landmark, restaurant Lapérouse, to wine and dine, and potentially bribe a necessary contact. From there to negotiations with Bulgarian gangsters in Istanbul brothels and uncollaborative train-yard inspectors in Poland, he and his collaborator, ex arms dealer Max de Lyon, must use all the finesse they can to deliver the arms to Spain or else see the republicans lose to the Fascists in the bigger war that is looming ahead. It took me a while to sink into the story, in which many characters are introduced in the beginning, but once I got in the groove it was a smooth, satisfying ride with plenty of zing.
When Margaret Prior accepts to become a 'Lady Visitor' at Millbank Prison in London, she is far from suspecting what tangled skeins await her in the endless corridors of the dank and cold prison, with it's wing holding women prisoners who are there for crimes as diverse as attempted suicide, infanticide, arson, petty theft, and fraud. Recovering from an undefined nervous illness brought on by the grief following the death of her father, she believes this will be a worthwhile occupation to fill her time away from home and her overbearing mother, and will bring much-needed relief to the women prisoners who are living in deplorable conditions in the jail, where the emphasis, typical of the times, is on punishment. Her presence gives the prisoners a rare opportunity in the day to speak to someone, for they are expected to be silent at all times otherwise, and it gives them a small break in their continual chores, as well as a chance for some empathy from a stranger rather than the harsh treatment they can expect from the prison matrons who seem to delight in taunting them continually.
Margaret is only interested in listening to the women speak of their experiences and describe their crimes rather than giving pious sermons to the women, as other lady visitors tend to do, and she is taken by the matrons around the jail to see how it is run, which allows the reader to get a comprehensive view of how things stood for women prisoners in 1874. It is rather obvious that Waters did thorough research for the novel and the details are many and quite striking. She writes beautifully and sets the mood perfectly so that one is carried along fascinating scenery in expectation of events to come. To some readers these scenes might seem too prolonged, but I found the details fascinating and as I listened to the audio version beautifully narrated by Juanita McMahon, was all too happy to be carried along the story at a deliberately observant pace.
When Margaret first sees Selina Dawes alone in her cell with her pale face turned to the sun, her attention is arrested. Selina is holding a violet, which she can't possibly have obtained from within the prison, so that its very presence there seems almost miraculous. Selina herself has a delicate and mysterious beauty, and soon Margaret visits her regularly and learns she is a spirit medium who is continually in contact with ghosts. Selina claims the ghosts bring her gifts, such as that violet Margaret saw her with. Furthermore, she says they can spirit her out of the jail anytime they wish to, but that they have a purpose for having sent her there, and soon it emerges that the purpose is for Margaret and Selina to have come together, for they are each other's Affinity.
But this is no simple lesbian romance story. And if one is patient enough and can enjoy the journey, the novel becomes a suspenseful ride which is impossible to put down in the second half and promises a big reveal in the end.
A young apprentice clockmaker is morose and desperate as he sits in Glockenheim's White Horse tavern on the last day of his apprenticeship; he has not been able to deliver a clock figure as all apprentices over the ages have done before him and his reputation is about to be ruined and he shares his despair with the town's storyteller, young Fritz. Fritz assures him that his difficulties are nothing compared to the hardships of creating stories, as he is expected to tell the townfolk gathered there his latest story in a few minutes, and though he has a new tale to tell them, he hasn't managed to write an ending for it in the night, but must somehow invent it as he goes along. And so begins a fantastic dark tale featuring a prince and princess and a dark forest and a suspicious ghastly death which features a mysterious character... who very suddenly appears in the tavern as Fritz introduces him in his storytelling and offers the apprentice a Faustian pact which promises to solve all his problems and bring him great fame and wealth, but will also put the lives of two innocent children in mortal danger. A wonderful tale in the tradition of the best Germanic storytellers of old such as E.T.A. Hoffmann and the Brothers Grimm, this is a tightly paced novella. Wonderfully narrated by Anton Lesser.
When Vianne Rocher, the beautiful and unattached mother of little Anouk Rocher arrives on a changing wind just at the tail-end of a carnival in Lansquenet and decides to open a charming little chocolate and sweets shop right across from the church, she immediately splits the little town into two factions. She manages to both delight some of the locals and children with her sublime and delicious handmade confections and generous offers of free milk chocolate and enrages Père Reynaud and his virtuous followers who are set to deny themselves all guilty pleasures during the lent season, now just begun. Then, worse still, some gypsies arrive on their boats and while a group of upstanding citizens (once again headed by Reynaud and his minions) are prepared to repel the strangers from their safe harbour and deny them all service, Vianne further inflames those opposed to her strange free-spirited ways by inviting them into her shop and facilitating their stay.
At the heart of the novel is a conflict between the rigorous organized religious zealots and the accepting open-minded and perhaps witch-like roaming spirits like Vianne and her travelling friends; between scrupulous self-denial in the name of a higher moral calling versus indulgence in the good things as a way of celebrating life's and nature's bounties. But beyond all that, it's a wonderful story about people and how they interact with one another, and about how magic can be made with some quality cocoa beans and the right amount of cream and sugar. Delightful, and all the more so in this audio format as narrated by the wonderful Juliet Stevenson.
Partly based on the true life story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force—a cousin of the Sun King, Louis XIV—who was banished from the court of Versailles by the King for a series of scandalous affairs to live in a nunnery, this book interweaves her own life story with the fairy tale we've come to know as Rapunzel. According to Wikipedia, Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force, or Mademoiselle de La Force, was a French novelist and poet, and her best-known work was her 1698 fairy tale Persinette which was adapted by the Brothers Grimm as the story Rapunzel, though it seems this story originally came from an Italian folk tale which Mademoiselle de La Force would have had no way of becoming acquainted with, and Kate Forsyth uses her ample skill as a novelist to suggest how this now famous fairy tale might have been transmitted to her.
When Charlotte-Rose arrives at the convent where she is to spend the rest of her life locked up and isolated from the rest of the world, she meets with a harsh and brutal reception. Stripped of her luxurious court garments and shorn of her cascading locks of hair, then systematically bullied by her overseer, she is eventually taken under the wing of an old nun, Soeur Seraphina, who comforts her with an old Italian folk tale about a young girl who was taken from her parents because her father has stolen a handful of bitter greens; before little Margherita was born, her mother nearly died during the pregnancy because she was unable to eat. At her request, her husband stole a handful of herbs from the garden of the renowned courtesan next door. According to the story, Selena Leonelli was a famous courtesan in the Venice in the 16th century, the favourite model of a great painter, and by that point also a powerful witch with dark powers. When she catches Margherita's father stealing the herbs, she threatens him with declaring him to the authorities, the punishment for theft being the cutting off of both hands. A bargain is made, and so the parents must agree to eventually give their daughter away. On her seventh birthday, Margherita is taken away, first to a convent to receive a proper education and then into a tower where she is shut off for years, her only visitor being Selena Leonelli on monthly calls and blood rites. There are monstrous secrets hidden in the tower, which has no doors nor stairs, and Margherita must drag around yards of hair which the witch uses to climb up to the only window every month, and the only company the girl has the rest of the time is her own beautiful voice to distract herself, with the hope that someday somebody might hear her and come to her rescue.
Kate Forsyth has a gift for storytelling and we get a narrative from three points of view: there is Charlotte-Rose, locked away in the convent and looking back on her youthful follies and excesses; Margherita in her tower, becoming a woman and looking back on her childhood while learning to outsmart a powerful witch; and Selena Leonelli, telling her own fascinating life story starting in the plague-ridden Venice of the early 16th century and explaining how and why she became Margherita's jailer. The long narrative of her life is perhaps the most fascinating of all.
I haven't yet read Angela Carter, and looking forward to redressing that omission, but from the descriptions I've read about the way she retells fairy tales, it seems Kate Forsyth has also adopted a very modern, adult and feminist point of view which is rich, dark and fascinating. Certainly miles away from the Disney folks and their ilk. A thrilling book with which to start the year, and heartily recommended.
This book picks up 15 years after King Charles II has restored Robert Merivel to his former grand house, Bidnold, in Norfolk. Both the King and Merivel, as well as his faithful servant Will Gates, are aging; Merivel is now 56 and his daughter Margaret has grown into a graceful beauty whom he is very attached to. When their neighbours propose to take her away with them to Cornwall for a time, the notion of this separation depresses Merivel so much that the King suggests Merivel set out to Versailles for a change of air, and to seek the patronage of his cousin Louis XIV as one of his court doctors. But when Merivel arrives at the French palace, he is discouraged to find his letter from King Charles does not help to discern him from the masses of supplicants equally looking from favour from the the Sun King, and he is obliged to share a garret with a Dutch clockmaker and subside on a diet of peas and jam, with drinking water supplied from the public water fountains, and to add insult to injury, he also has to put up with ridicule from the courtiers who find his clothes and accessories aren't up to the latest standards of Versailles fads.
Things start looking up when he meets with a Swiss beauty called Louise de Flamanville who proposes to bring him to a couturier to outfit him with the necessary bows and ribbons. She happens to dabble in chemical experiments and quickly takes on Merivel as her lover, until her wrathful husband, a homosexual guardsman, eventually provokes him into a duel. Later on, Merivel is forced to make a choice which reminds him too much of the past in the form of a marriage of convenience which is to bring him great wealth and splendour, but that choice has led him down the wrong path once before, making him indebted forever, and he had promised himself not to repeat that mistake again.
Instead, he rescues a captive bear from certain death, which is later christened Clarendon by the King, and brings him back to Bidnold. Now Merivel hopes to make something of his life by starting work on a treatise inspired to him by Clarendon, and which seeks to prove that animals have souls, which of course, he eventually abandons. Clarendon himself comes to a bad end, first escaping his pen, then pursued by the angry countrymen who's animals the bear has eaten during his escape, he is eventually caught and put to death, then cut into pieces to be eaten in equal shares among the country folk.
Merivel's daughter Margaret almost dies from Typhoid fever, but is brought back home in time, and through his attentive care, he manages to rescue her, only to be discouraged by the the fact that King Charles has taken an interest in her during her recovery. Would the King actually betray him, his most valiant and loyal supporter, by ruining his daughter's reputation? When the King asks Margaret to join his household as lady in waiting to his favourite mistress, Merivel is in no position to refuse. Life is certainly never dull in Merivel's world, though it is fraught with many risks.
When we initially met Robert Merivel in Restoration, the first novel, it was clear he was a misguided man with a melancholy disposition, but also an essentially a good person with a good heart who seeks to enjoy life to the utmost, at the risk of making terrible blunders which were comical to the reader. By this second novel, he's become that much more reflective, and he has his notebooks from the past which his faithful Will has preserved for him to look back on and to measure his progress up against. He knows that both he and his King don't have much longer to live and that he is at the end of an era, so his overall tone can't help but be that much more melancholy as he reflects on mortality, yet he seems that much more human for it too.
Very highly recommended, but must be read in sequence following Restoration.
This book by the fine historical novelist Barry Unsworth is set in 1149 Palermo, Sicily, where power struggles between East and West have left King Roger hard pressed to maintain his throne. Both the Pope and the Bishop of Rome refuse to recognize his rule, and Conrad Hohenstaufen (ruler of the west) and Manuel Comnenus (ruler of the east) are threatening to invade Sicily to secure their powers. Palermo has always been tolerant to various ethnic communities, but a Christian group is making false accusations against Muslims, Jews, and other "outsiders" to take over power.
Thurstan Beauchamp narrates this story. He is a young man still, the son of a Norman knight and a Saxon mother. He works in the Diwan of Control, the central financial office at the palace, where his employer is Yusuf Ibn Mansur, a Muslim man with political savvy and of unimpeachable honesty who is willing to help Thurstan become influential if he can avoid falling into one of the dangerous political games the various factions are playing against each other. Traveling throughout Europe as "Purveyor of Pleasures and Shows," Thurstan finds a group of five Yazidis, including Nesrin, a belly dancer with uncommon talent, and immediately hires them to come to Palermo to perform for the king. He is drawn to Nesrin's great beauty and allure, but things take yet another turn when he meets again with the Lady Alicia on the same trip, once his great love when he was still a boy and she then just a girl also. Now she has returned from the land of Jerusalem as a widow of considerable wealth, and seems just as taken with Thurstan, who finds his love for her has not abated over the years.
Further complicating matters, we learn early on that Thurstan's most cherished dream has been to become a knight and fight in the crusades, as his father has done before him, though this opportunity was taken away from him just when it seemed about to be realised. Now with Lady Alicia's return on the scene, many opportunities beckon. The novel builds up at a moderate pace, all the while filled with period details which inform us about aspects of daily life in 12th century Palermo. Thurstan, narrating in the first person from the vantage point of a period after the events have taken place, is a personable main character, whom we cannot help but empathise with though he makes many grave gaffes and mistakes, and much as his naivety and youth show he has yet much to learn, we see the events though his eyes before he had gained the advantage of hindsight, so that the reader is offered only glimpses of the whole, until a complex mystery is revealed.
A jewel of a book which I can't wait to listen to again to pick up on all the fine intricate details I may have missed the first time. I also loved Andrew Sachs' narration in this audio version.
The grandson of that famous other Freud, Sigmund, Lucian Freud became one of the most famous artists of the late 20th and early 21st century while fiercely resisting any sort of public exposure, including having his photos taken or giving interviews for most of his lifetime. Geordie Greig contrived after years of repeated efforts and conniving to secure a series of breakfast interviews with the notoriously monomaniacal artist, and also interviewed friends, former lovers and models after Freud had passed away in 2011; only at that point were they willing to break the vow of silence they had kept, which they weren't willing to breach before, even if Freud had acted in outrageous ways toward them, because somehow under the influence of the immense charm and influence he had exerted on them. Freud had not been above employing thugs to threaten journalists and reporters who had been working on biographies of him, so fear of his wrath was as effective a silencer as the rest.
His tremendous talent and the one passion which guided his whole life and to which all sacrifices were made was his art, which eventually evolved to his signature paintings of nude models, often of friends and his family, including his own children, or of people he met who were willing to pose for him over many months and for sessions lasting very long hours. As a person he seemed to have more disturbing faults than can be enumerated, and as a father probably sent all his children into lifelong therapy (my own conjecture only). His other singular passion was sex, which he reportedly indulged in as frequently as he could with little regard for convention, and consequently, of children, he had fourteen recognized daughters and sons, two from his first wife and 12 from various mistresses, but none of them ever had much contact with him; he gave everything he had to his art and then some, always seeking to perfect himself in that single sphere of life, which ended up paying him back handsomely in the literal sense of the word. Love him and his work or hate him, he was a fascinating character, very well read and full of culture and stories. This book, both gossipy and filled with interesting tidbits and background information about some of his most well-known paintings, is a real treasure-trove and also a great treat in the audio format as narrated by John Standing, an actor and an aristocrat who might very well have been among the kind of people Freud himself would have happily associated with in his long and fruitful lifetime.
I borrowed the print edition from the library to see what I may have missed, suspecting it was probably illustrated with many of the paintings mentioned in the text and featuring pictures as well, and that is indeed the case, so I'd say both audio and book are worth getting your hands on.
Fiona Maye is a British judge assigned to child welfare cases. One of her more recent cases has involved deciding against the parents of conjoined siamese twins who shared vital organs. One of the twins had chances of surviving if the twins were separated, while the other was sure to die. If they were not separated, both would have died. The parents wanted to let God and nature take their course. Fiona made the decision to let the stronger twin have a chance at life. Fiona's difficult professional life has had repercussions on her long-term marriage. Now nearing sixty, she no longer craves intimacy with her husband after all the accumulated stress. Her husband on the other hand decides what he needs is one last grand passion and wants to have his cake and eat it too, so tells Fiona he'd like to have an affair with a young woman, yet keep the marriage intact, which doesn't suit Fiona in the least.
Then another complicated case falls in her lap. A young Jehova's Witness, not yet eighteen years old, the age of medical consent in England, is urgently in need of blood transfusions. The hospital has made an appeal to the court, as without the transfusions, the leukemia he suffers from is bound to kill him in a painful way. Both the parents and Adam, the young man himself, are against the procedure on religious grounds, though the parents ultimately leave the choice in Adam's hands. For reasons she doesn't quite understand herself, Fiona feels compelled to make the trip to the hospital and meet Adam in person to see what should be done, and eventually persuades him to go through with the procedure. The consequences will have far-reaching consequences.
This was a very good book and ultimately seemed to me more about relationships and the impact individuals have upon each other than about medical and legal issues, which ultimately, was much more interesting to me. Excellent narration by Lindsay Duncan—I would gladly listen to more audiobooks read by her.
This isn't an actual review. More a comment to warn potential buyers that this audiobook is mislabelled as being "unabridged" and is actually cut approximately by half. The book is just over 300 pages and the corresponding audiobook should therefore be over 10 hours. I didn't notice the length when I purchased it, just got excited because I love Tim Pigott-Smith as a narrator, and he does indeed deliver a great performance here. But do yourself a favour and get your hands on the complete work because J. G. Farrell is a fabulous writer and the details in his novels are worth poring over.
London, 1922. Frances Wray and her aging mother have been living together in their large villa in Camberwell, a district in south London, all on their own, ever since Frances's two brothers were killed in the war, her father's death following shortly after, leaving both her mother and her in reduced circumstances, when it was discovered Mr. Wray had made bad investments and had left his widow and daughter debts to pay. They've had to let go their servants, which is bad enough for ladies of their genteel standing, but worse still, this has left Frances no choice but to take on all the hard chores of keeping house herself, which is something too shameful to reveal even to their closest relations. Barely able to eat their fill, they've decided to take on paying guests; the word "lodgers" will not enter their vocabulary, for they refuse to think of themselves as landladies, something too common to consider without evoking disturbing feelings. Then Lily and Len Barber erupt on the scene. They've arrived a little bit later than planned with all their possessions, ready to move into the top floor, which Frances has cleared, moving her mother into what was once the dining room downstairs, and only keeping her own bedroom up next to what will be the Barber's quarters. Leonard Barber is a clerk at an insurance company, a redhead, cheery and rather loud, while Mrs. Barber seems quite young, early 20s, very pretty but obviously done up and just slightly vulgar with the bright colourful clothes and clinking accessories she wears, and soon too the decor comes to resemble her personal style, which isn't exactly to Frances's liking. Frances is dismayed by all this. She has long ago resigned herself to her life as a spinster and life-comanion to her mother, even though she is still only twenty-six, expecting few pleasures and deriving satisfaction from her responsibilities and the familiarity of the grand old house and neighbourhood she has grown up in. But the Barber's arrival brings many changes, and after the initial resistance, Frances finds herself caught up in a whirlwind, not the least of which starts with the unlikely friendship she develops with Lilian Barber across the class divide.
For the first half of the novel, we are very much observing a rather slow-paced women's domestic fiction kind of story, which is all about nuance and minute detail meticulously and beautifully observed, bringing the house and it's residents and their interactions vividly to mind. But there is passion and plenty of excitement too, which will probably keep the general fiction reader going. By the time the mid-point is reached, suddenly events take a big dramatic turn. I won't reveal the exact nature of these events to avoid any spoilers, but suffice it to say there is a crime which is transformative both for the characters and for the novel itself, which now moves from the domestic to a more public realm. Now the law and the police are involved, a scandal erupts in the newspapers, there is a famous court case, and the tension keeps mounting, and through it all, Sarah Waters keeps us wondering about the fate of our main protagonists.
I thought this was a great read, and part of the enjoyment for me was actress Juliet Stevenson's impeccable narration, during which she gave each character a very distinct personality and voice and truly made you the reader actually live through the entire experience more vividly than I know I would have, had I merely read the words on a page with my limited imagination. I found some parts were a bit slow, and some were repetitive and maybe unnecessary and made the novel overly long, but these were balanced by great story elements and some surprises thrown in. I can't say I'm overly fond of romance in any form, and that aspect of the novel, which is rather an important one as the plot basically evolves around that theme, was extremely well executed, though I was still made uneasy by the actual sexual elements, though these will no doubt tantalize many readers. In all, definitely a worthwhile read and a very well executed novel.
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