MARKING TIME by April White (Review)

I am re-reading this story and enjoying it even more the second time than I did the first time – so am re-posting this review for any of you who didn’t see it first time round.

Saira Elian is a 17-year-old Californian girl whose English mother disappears while Saira, a solitary parkour free-runner and tagger (hope I got that right!), is out doing her thing in “the tunnels” somewhere under LA.  Faced with the Child Protection Services unless she can name a relative who will take responsibility for her, Saira reluctantly tells them about someone in England.

That someone was waiting for me when I stepped off the British Airways flight in London: Millicent Elian. I hadn’t seen my grandmother since I was three years old […] My mother couldn’t stand her. Not a big surprise given the way she was sizing me up, probably wondering if I was worth the effort. […]
“I see you got his height.” Millicent’s tone was not flattering.
“Hello, Millicent.” I knew I should be more polite and call her “Grandmother”, considering she just kept me out of foster care, but she hadn’t really earned the title.
“And his manners, too, obviously.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
[…]
“I have a car waiting.” Of course she did. Millicent’s fancy gray Rolls Royce waited at the curb outside the airport, and her fancy gray driver held the door open for us.
“Home, Jeeves,” she said with total authority.
“Jeeves? You’re joking.”
“I don’t joke.” Millicent’s expression didn’t change.
Jeeves caught my eye in the rear-view mirror and very slowly, he winked. It wasn’t much, that wink, but it was something.

It turns out that the Elians are a family of time-travellers, and Saira’s mother, who is normally gone for only what seems to be a couple of days is now being held against her will in Victorian London. And that, of course, is where half the story, and most of the adventure, takes place.

One aspect of the story that fascinated me was the love between Saira and a young man in Victorian times who had already known Saira in the future in her own time and fallen for her there – or should that be “then”? He, of course, doesn’t know about this yet, and she can’t tell him because the secret of how he came to be still a young man all those years later is just – well …

I’ll leave it to you to sort all this out when you read the book, and add only, by way of encouragement, that while the ingredients may not be entirely original (there’s Hogwarts here, and Ann Rice, and Jack the Ripper, and Time Travel) the resulting dish is something different from the usual run-of-the-mill YA, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

ISABELLA: SHE-WOLF OF FRANCE, QUEEN OF ENGLAND by Alison Weir (Review)

Let’s start with the title. First, the “of France”: true she was born in France, was “the daughter of the King of France and the Queen of Navarre,” and as such “a great prize in the marriage market: no queen of England before her had boasted such a pedigree.” But after her marriage she was very much the Queen of England, and there no evidence that her loyalties remained to France. On the contrary. Her father, Philip the Fair (IV) was, like the later Henry VIII of England, a brutal megalomaniac who in any other walk of life would have ended up on the scaffold or in the madhouse. Her life from the moment she arrived in England was no longer his to dictate.

And as for the words “She-Wolf”, the phrase “She-Wolf of France” was in fact, Alison Weir tells us, coined by Shakespeare (why am I not surprised?) but he used the words not of Isabella but of Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI; it was not until the eighteenth century that it was first applied, by the poet Thomas Gray, to Isabella. And – very unfairly – it stuck.

Isabella, as Alison Weir makes clear, was not a simple femme fatale, “one of the fairest ladies in the world,” “the fairest of the fair,” but a good queen. If it had not been for her infidelity she would be seen as a great queen, a liberator, for Edward II and his friends the Despensers were, by the time she organised the coup d’état, running what was certainly the worst example of tyranny in the history of England. To see what life was like under Edward and the Despensers, you have only to read one of Michael Jecks’ books such as The Mad Monk of Gidleigh or A Friar’s Bloodfeud. In modern times, that infidelity would not be held against her, especially when we consider that her husband was far more interested in his “friends” (Piers Gaveston, and later Hugh le Despenser) that he was in her.

The other problem is how and why – and if – and on whose orders Edward II was murdered following his deposition. (Also dealt with at length in Paul Doherty’s book, Isabella And The Strange Death Of Edward Ii.) In the present book, “the Fieschi letter” is reproduced in full and the reader, as she considers Weir’s arguments for and against its authenticity and credibility, must make up her own mind whether Edward II in fact escaped and lived on, abroad. Personally, I am convinced that he did, and that it was not in his son’s interest to acknowledge his father’s continued – and shameful – existence when he finally learnt of it. I suspect that he felt only contempt for his father, and admiration for his mother, the lioness who had brought him up and made him king. He had to get rid of Mortimer, his mother’s lover and de facto ruler of England, but he never turned against Isabella.

Another wonderful biography from Alison Weir. I am proposing to read, next, her The Princes in the Tower – Edward IV’s sons Edward and Richard, two more who are said to have been murdered but rumoured to have survived.

DÉJÀ VU by Ian Hocking (Review)

The story opens with Saskia Brandt arriving at the EU Federal Office of Investigation building close by the Brandenberg Gate in Berlin in September 2023 after returning by Eurostar from a trip to London where she broke up with her English boyfriend Simon.

(There is no guarantee that Eurostar will still be running – the tunnel seems to me an easy target for terrorists – or that the Brandenberg Gate – or even Berlin – will still be there in 2023, but they probably will, for 2023 is not far away. Which leads me to wonder about the wisdom of setting a futuristic piece in so near a future. I hope I shall still be writing this blog in and after September 2023, and I can imagine avid readers coming upon this post in, say, September 2024 and failing to realise that this story was set in the future. Think “1984” etc. So let me just point out that I am writing this review in January 2019)

But back to the – (I almost wrote “the Future” there instead of “the review”. It may have been a dream I had last night. I never remember my dreams but know I have been dreaming and often suspect that the contents or setting of a dream are lingering in my subconscious. Who knows what dreams may return to haunt our troubled musings?)

But now, seriously, back to the review.

So, Saskia returns from England to find her secretary dead and stuffed into the refrigerator.

(Do you think there is any connection, causal or otherwise, between my reading about scenes like this in books like this – which I do all the time – and the dreams I imagine I have?)

She also very quickly finds that she herself is being framed for the murder.

But this is not your average straightforward murder story. It transpires that she never went to London at all, never had an English boyfriend called Simon, that all this was a “memory” planted in her mind by means of a microchip, and that she is not being framed at all. She was there. She committed the murder.

Beckmann, her immediate superior, says: “Oh, Frau Kommissarin. You are so worried about being caught for your secretary’s murder. You think they’ll wipe your brain. It’s too late. They already did.”

Then they convince her that she is – was – a convicted murderer whose brain was wiped and the persona of Saskia Brandt implanted to replace the original. The mind and memories of Saskia Brandt inhabit and control the body of the condemned woman.

She is now Saskia Brandt, and because of this staged murder, and because of the microchip in her head – which Beckmann has a remote control for and can operate, operating her – she has no choice but to obey.

Then she is sent on the mission to which all this has been a prelude. And that is fine, a great introduction to the story.

Problems arise, though, when we are presented with too many other relatively major characters, each with their own point of view, and what is in effect their own story, at least during the first half of the book until the various stories start coming together. And this is not helped by the fact that some of these stories are set in the past when Professor David Procter of Oxford University committed  a murder at a research facility in Scotland some twenty years earlier. Or is he, too, being framed for committing a murder he did in fact commit?

Or the stories are set in a present that was prearranged by people in the past, twenty years ago. Anything that happens may be happening because someone travelled forward through time twenty years ago and arranged for it to happen … Nothing in this book is what it seems.

But I am giving away too much.

Though difficult to follow at first due to the abrupt changes of setting and point of view, the story is well plotted, while the characters, if somewhat stereotyped, are rounded and convincing, especially in the case of Saskia, whom I identified with from the very first page. The body in the fridge shocked me almost as much as it did her!

THE SILVER WOLF by Alice Borchardt (Review)

Alice Borchardt’s The Silver Wolf is set in Rome in the time of the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne, the latter half of the eighth century AD. But the great city is not now what it once was: Regeane didn’t know what she’d expected of the once-proud mistress of the world when she’d come to Rome. Certainly not what she found.

The inhabitants, descendants of a race of conquerors, lived like rats squabbling and polluting the ruins of an abandoned palace. Oblivious to the evidence of grandeur all around them, they fought viciously among themselves for what wealth remained. Indeed, little was left of the once-vast river of gold that flowed into the eternal city. The gold that could be found gilded the palms of papal officials and the altars of the many churches.

And this is true. Life in the Rome of the Dark Ages was squalid and sordid in almost every respect, though as the celebrated courtesan Lucilla points out, it was in some ways an improvement over the past: for instance, the hypocaust that heated the baths of the villa at the end of the first century AD “was fired by slaves who never saw the sun from one end of the year to the other“, whereas now, her men “are paid extra to fire the hypocaust and are always happy to do so. … This world is better than that of the ancients.” Maybe. She should know. You will decide for yourself after you have entered it.

The book is full of magic and mystery: shape-shifting and werewolves; ghosts, and other spirits, good and evil; involuntary psychometry; astral travel; a miraculous healing – and full, too, of the kind of medieval outsiders I always identify with immediately, for instance Lucilla, the new Pope’s mistress, who is accused of witchcraft by his enemies; a female werewolf named Matrona, who has been alive “since the beginning of time”; and a one-time leading intellectual beauty and arbiter of fashion, now with no nose and living in a convent in Rome.

Regeane is a werewolf, as was her father before her. When the book opens, she is being held prisoner (a steel collar and chain in a locked room with a barred window) by her sadistic uncle, who is of course aware of her “affliction” but wants her to go through with the marriage anyway then kill, or help him kill, her husband, who is very rich. He will pocket the proceeds and continue to “supervise” (his word) his niece. Thanks to Lucilla, she manages to avoid this fate, but as the Queen of the Dead later tells Regeane, “Woman Wolf, the road to paradise is through the gates of hell,” and Regeane does indeed go through these gates and through hell (and we with her) before she achieves happiness.

The writing is superb, and some of the lines unforgetable. I could quote all night, but how about this?I have often thought if one could impart the doings of humankind to a rose, the only thing it would understand would be the sweet, drawn-out lovemaking of a drowsy afternoon.”

Nevertheless, it is in describing the relationship between the woman and the wolf that the book most distinguishes itself. For understand that this is not one person shape-shifting, it is two distinct personalities – two utterly different personalities, one a woman, one a wolf – both occupying the same two, interchangeable, bodies. It is, so far as I know, absolutely original and quite unique. Normally the shape-shifter is the villain of the piece, but here the wolf is no creature of horror, she is something natural and marvellous, while the woman, Regeane, is the heroine. We feel everything she feels – and everything the wolf feels – experience everything they experience; and from the first page, and right till the end, identify with her – with them – completely.

PARDONABLE LIES by Jacqueline Winspear (Review)

London and France, 1930

The dating of this book, 1930, is deceptive, for it is very much a post-WW1 novel, and a very good one. It catches the spirit of that time, when all had lost someone and many still suffered, those so wounded mentally or physically as to be unable to take any part in post-war life, those who did go on with that life despite the mental and physical traumas. It was a horrible period.

The heroine herself, Maisie Dobbs, was a nurse at Verdun, an experience from which she has never fully recovered, psychologically. She also lost her fiancé, who is still “alive” in a home somewhere, a vegetable … So when she is asked to find out whether a Flying Corps officer, officially declared dead twelve years ago after his plane crashed in France, is really dead, she accepts the task – especially as a thirteen-year-old girl whose own father was killed in the war and who is now accused of murdering her “uncle” and pimp, needs a good lawyer. Maisie’s client, the father of the missing airman, happens to be one of the best barristers in the country, and he agrees reluctantly to defend the girl if Maisie agrees to investigate the death of his son.

A rich friend of Maisie’s asks her, while she’s about it, to see if she can find out anything more about her two beloved elder brothers, both killed in action.

All this, of course, involves returning to France and the scenes of her nightmares.

It is all very moving, very real, and very well written. And Maisie herself is a young lady you will definitely identify with, if you are anything like me.

There is apparently a whole series of books featuring Maisie Dobbs out there and I’m going to be on the look-out for them from now on as I browse the shelves (and cardboard boxes) of my favourite second-hand bookshops.

MORIARTY MEETS HIS MATCH by Anna Castle (Review)

No time for a full review here – and no need for one. We all know and love Sherlock Holmes. We all abominate Professor James Moriarty, the “criminal mastermind” whom Holmes describes as “the Napoleon of crime”, the man responsible for Holmes’ death on the Reichenbach Falls in The Final Problem – though Conan Doyle had later to resurrect him by public demand (like James Bond in You Only Live Twice).

Now imagine James Moriarty as the hero, a handsome and gentlemanly professor of mathematics whose astute mind is perceived by the beady-eyed Holmes (he of the “nose like an axe”) as a challenge: Holmes is determined to cast Moriarty in the role of criminal, and does so, though without much success, it must be said, at least in this first book of the series.

And then there is Angelina, Mrs Gould, a woman far more memorable than any female character in the authentic Holmes stories – a Victorian Bond-girl with a mutiplicity of talents and a totally unVictorian code of behaviour and outlook on life.

I loved it. So, I am sure, will you.

 

The MADELEINE TOCHE series by Soren Petrek (Review)

Cold, Lonely Courage
Madeleine Toche grew up in a village in Provence where little usually happened apart from the changing of the seasons and people coming to eat at Chez Toche, the family restaurant. In her case, though, something quite out of the ordinary happened: the Germans invaded France, her brother was killed and she herself was raped by an SS officer. Later, after days of careful planning with her father, she killed the rapist and escaped to England where she joined the SOE, the Special Operations Executive (the original “Special Ops”, also known as “Churchill’s Secret Army”), where she was trained as an assassin.

Back in France, we follow her war as she kills and kills again and again, always picking the worst of the worst, Gestapo torturers and murderers, while at the same time spiriting Jewish children to safety.

By the end of the war she is known far and wide as L’Ange de la Mort, the Angel of Death.

This is a very exciting book, certainly one of the best and most memorable WWII novels I have ever read – and I have read dozens! Not one to miss if you are a WWII buff.

Then comes Angels Don’t Die, an apt title and another great story. Madeleine is now about fifty years old and living in small-town America (in Patience, Missouri) with a British husband, another SOE agent from the war. There, she runs a French restaurant and thinks of her wartime life as a thing of the past, almost a dream now.

That is until her godson, Tracy, is kidnapped by the PLO  while on a training mission with the Mossad in Israel.

The Angel of Death, it seems, was not dead but sleeping.

Another well-researched and deeply-felt story that had me for one up through the wee small hours again, Kindle clutched tightly in my hand.

Patience County War brings the trilogy to a close.

Another thirty years have passed by. Now in her eighties, Madeleine can no longer play the lead, so don’t expect to see much of her. The protagonist this time is Sam, Sheriff of Patience County and younger brother of the Tracy she rescued in the previous story.

When Sam clashes with a Mexican gang who have the audacity to cook and push meth (methamphetamine) in his county, they send an assassin to eliminate the gringo. It is the assassin who dies, and the ensuing battle soon escalates into a full-scale war.

The story has its exciting moments, some very exciting, but much of it is slow and its setting is not one of the worlds I always love being transported to (like WWII France and the Israel/Palestine conflict). That said, if you enjoyed the other two books then you really should round them off with this sunset, passing-on-the-baton-to-the-next-generation tale.