STAGE FRIGHT by Gillian Linscott

18 10 2014

Stage Fright coverBack with Nell Bray, the suffragette who continues to be one of my favourite sleuths.

It is 1909 still (as it was during Sister Beneath the Sheet – see also Dead Man Riding) and Nell is in London, having recently completed her second prison term that year for “suffragetting” – taking Direct Action against the all-male government elected by the all-male voters.

At a meeting of the “suffrage prisoners support committee” she is collared by Bernard Shaw and talked into sticking close to, and doing her best to protect, Isabella Flanagan, Lady Penwarden, whom he believes to be in danger from her husband, Lord Penwarden.

What is Shaw’s interest? Bella – Isabella Flanagan, her own name, the name she performs under – is the leading lady in Shaw’s new play, Cinderella, which takes up the tale of Cinderella five years after her marriage to prince Charming, by which time she has had more than enough of him and is desperate for a dovorce. It was written specially for her, because she is in that same position, desperate for a divorce from Lord Penwarden, but owing to the archaic divorce laws quite unable to obtain one. This is airing the aristicracy’s dirty linen in public, which is just up Shaw’s street; it also brings him once again into a head-on collision with the Lord Chamberlain and the theatrical performace licensing laws, something Shaw always enjoys.

Lord Penwarden is, predictably, not amused.

I am not going to spoil it by telling you what happens, but I must say that having Shaw as a character in a story was an ambitious undertaking, and a less gifted author might have put words in his mouth that would have him rising up out of his grave and coming to haunt her. However, Gillian Linscott does him – and us – proud. He could – he would, I am sure – have said almost exactly what she has him say were he to find himself in the situations she places him in. (Ah, the god-like power an author has!)

I love all these books, but for a Shaw fan (and sometime Shaw-scholar) like myself this was a special treat.

CHAINS OF FOLLY by Roberta Gellis

4 10 2014

Chains of FollyBack in the days when King Stephen still ruled a troubled and divided kingdom, and Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine were still buried deep in the tarot pack, one small part of London had its own queen, the beautiful  Magdalene la Bâtarde. She was all that Eleanor was to be, and more so, but the paths of their lives were utterly different and Magdalene ended up as a whore, a madam with her own up-market whorehouse, and the proud mistress of William of Ypres, King Stephen’s right-hand man. She also often acted as Lord William’s agent, for she was well placed to hear of men’s doings and learn their secrets. As she observes somewhere in this book, much is revealed in pillow-talk.

Chains of Folly is the fourth in the Magdalene la Bâtarde series … I remember reading of Magdalene for the first time in Chapter One of A Mortal Bane:

Magdalene la Bâtarde, whoremistress, she who had been Arabel de St. Foi until her husband died of a knife in the heart and she had fled before she could be accused of his murder …

I was hooked. I read Bone of Contention and A Personal Devil  – then waited – and waited – for the paperback edition of Chains of Folly. I don’t think there ever was one. I now have in my hand an ex-library hardback I came across in a charity shop.

I think I understand the problem. For Magdalene addicts like me it is essential reading, and I loved it. But I have to say that it is a bit slow compared with the others, a bit of a filler in the ongoing story of Magdalene and her circle; I wouldn’t recommend it unless, as I say, you are already hooked. (And after a filler, Roberta, should come another great story. We are waiting!)

A dead prostitute is found in the Bishop of Winchester’s bed-chamber. We know already, from the Prologue, that she was already dead when she was placed there to embarrass him and be a source of scandal about him and that the Bishop knows nothing of her. Telling the reader this is probably a mistake. If we hadn’t been sure, and Magdalene and her friend, the Bishop’s Knight, Sir Bellamy of Itchen, hadn’t been sure, that might have added to the mystery.

It turns out that the woman was also a thief, and concealed on her body is a treasonous letter from the King’s enemy, Gloucester, to the Bishop, obviously intended to incriminate him. How did she come by this letter? Who killed her and put her in the Bishop’s room? And more to the point, will Magdalene and Bell (Sir Bellamy) who have quarrelled (he adores her, but can’t cope with her being a whore and Lord William’s mistress) ever get together again? Not just working together to solve the mystery, but in bed together.

As I say, I wouldn’t have missed it. If you are already a Magdalene la Bâtarde fan, try to get hold of a copy. If not, yet, go for A Mortal Bane – that and the second in the series, Bone of Contention, are now available as Kindle downloads, and are as good as it gets in the Medieval Mystery genre.

What Keeps Me Sane

3 10 2014

Keeping me Sane

THE NIGHTMARE DANCE by David Gilbertson

27 09 2014

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley
in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!

Nightmare DanceThis is not a work of fiction; nor is it strictly speaking history. It is an examination of the Holocaust, focusing in particular on Poland and the Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz and Treblinka.

The author starts by noting and condemning young people’s – and not only young people’s – ignorance of history in general, (“they don’t know what they they don’t know and therefore confidently believe they have a clear understanding of what went before”) and in particular of World War II and the Holocaust. He claims – and I believe him – that almost nobody knows – or cares! – what happened in Poland during WWII.

Let me quote: The torment of Poland and the Poles defies adequate description. There is a strong argument that popular historiography in the West, influenced as it was by Cold War prejudice, failed to properly inform generations of students born after 1945 about the true extent of Polish suffering. In the five and a half years between the German invasion in September 1939 and the liberation of Poland by Soviet forces in February 1945, 5,820,000 Poles and Polish Jews, almost all non-combatants, were murdered, worked to death, starved or consigned to the flames. The grisly total represented almost 25% of Poland’s 1939 population and far outstrips the sacrifice of any other nation on Earth during the war. [...] The relationship between Poles and Jews during the German occupation, at community level, presents a picture of stark paradox. In Poland as a whole, less than one-tenth of the pre-war Jewish population survived – far less than in any other country in Europe – yet more ethnic Poles risked their lives to save Jews and were subsequently honoured for their sacrifice than in all the occupied territories together.

Why was this? It was because Hitler seriously believed that he was going to be able to incorporate Poland into the Third Reich. Indeed, that he already had. This was ethnic cleansing on the grand scale. The vast new territory was to be racially pure. The extermination camp at Treblinka, of which we hear almost nothing because there were almost no survivors to bear witness, processed (gassed and incinerated the bodies of) 10,000 people a day. 10,000 people a day, month after month, year after year. And that was just one camp! Auschwitz, Majdanek, Chelmno and others, were not far away.

Here is a map, to put you in the picture. (It is not from the book.)


Just look at that border …

David Gilbertson has put an enormous amount of work into this book. It is a book that everyone should read, but what with those who already “know it all” and those – the vast majority – who do not care, very few will. And so, inevitably, at some point in the not so distant future, history will repeat itself …

Film Adaptations

21 09 2014




I have to admit that in one or two cases – this one, forinstance – Blade Runner – I do actually prefer the film! And I haven’t seen Under the Skin yet …



20 09 2014

Sister Beneath the SheetI have a second-hand copy of the hardback first edition here (published in 1991) and on the back of the dustcover are the usual adulatory snippets from The Guardian, The TLS, etc. One from the Daily Express caught my eye before I ever bought the book.

Excellent … a witty and original story set in the fashionable London of 1874.

Now I had already read and reviewed Dead Man Riding which is chronologically the first Nell Bray story and is set in the year 1900, so while reading I kept an eye open for internal evidence, and in fact it is set in 1909, not 1874. And in Biarritz, not London.

However, to give the Daily Express critic his due, the story is “excellent … witty and original.”

When it opens, Nell, a suffragette, has just been released from Holloway (a notorious prison for women in central London) after serving three months for hurling a brick through a window at Number Ten. (The Prime Minister’s residence. These days the whole of Downing Street is sealed off!) But there is no peace for the wicked. Emmeline Pankhurst, the grande dame of the wonderful suffragette movement, informs Nell that a prostitute (whisper the word!) has left the suffragettes £50,000 in her will. Should they refuse it on principle? Of course not! is Nell’s response. So because she doesn’t find it shocking, and because she speaks French, Nell is the one chosen to go off to Biarritz, where the “highly successful prostitute” Topaz Brown lived, worked and finally committed suicide, and organise everything.

Only it soon becomes evident that Topaz would never have committed suicide, she enjoyed life too much. That in fact she was murdered.

And so begins what was, at least until Dead Man Riding was written, Nell’s first investigation, and our introduction to one of my favourite characters from crime fiction.

LOST CAUSE by J. L. Simpson

15 09 2014

Lost Cause coverI found Lost Cause quite hard to get into – might even have given up had I not agreed to write a review. I’ll come back to why I found the earlier part of the book somewhat off-putting in a moment.

First, let me say that the book is professionally produced in every way. The writing and the editing are both impeccable. Not even one of those peculiar errors we seem to be becoming inured to like the meaningless “I could care less”. No, here the narrator says she “couldn’t care less”. Bingo.

But how to classify this story? It is called a “mystery” – Daisy Dunlop Mystery Book 1. There are several mysteries, but which one is the mystery I really couldn’t say. It is certainly not a thriller, and though it is a crime story, the rather complex crime and the various bit-part criminals are not really what the book is about. Nor is it a romance, a love-story. The protagonist, Daisy Dunlop, is the mother of a teenage son and almost absurdly happily married to her husband Paul. There is no way she would ever be unfaithful to him. Yet she does flirt, often outrageously, with almost every male she meets. Especially the “Irish git” (her words) that her husband has arranged for her to work alongside as a trainee P.I. and heir-hunter. Both the husband and his friend “Solomon” (the Irish git) assume that after a few days she will abandon this ridiculous idea.

Really, the story is about the relationship between Daisy and Solomon. It is this flirting that you remember when you finish the book on another outrageous line from Daisy. A flirtation story, then. But beautifully done.

Which brings me back to my problem with the opening chapters. Daisy’s husband, Paul, and his mate Solomon are both big, hard, rich, clever, arrogant men. Alpha males. And Daisy is the obedient strawberry-blonde. Well, not always obedient. Far from it. But when she disobeys one of them she invariably feels guilty, and frequently lands herself in a load of trouble from which Solomon must ride in on his white charger (actually an Aston Martin) and rescue her.

Me, I like strong female leads. The stronger the better. And yet I liked Daisy more and more as the book went on and she began to find her feet (not easy on those heels) till by the end she was saving Solomon (all right, causing some typical dumb-blonde chaos in doing so) and I had quite made up my mind that I would definitely read Daisy Dunlop Mysteries Book 2. I also very much liked the gradual focus on homeless people, whom Daisy decides really are “the secret eyes and ears of the world”.

Final verdict? If you are in the mood for a light-hearted crime story featuring an irresistible would-be sleuth, this is the book for you.


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