Tag Archives: England

“The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie: a Flavia DeLuce Novel” by Alan Bradley

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie: A Flavia de Luce Mystery

I’m glad that I chanced upon Book 1 of this series, which now includes ten novels. Flavia de Luce is a delightful young heroine. Her absent minded and distracted family ignore the fact that Flavia has a passion for chemistry and, particularly, for chemical poisons. Their house is big enough that her laboratory is delightfully private. When a stranger is murdered in the garden, Flavia’s curiosity and scientific knowledge lead her to investigate.

Unexpectedly, she learns that her widowed father carries a burden of guilt and regret that almost shatters his life.

I appreciate the fact that Bradley writes about someone who loves chemistry and ISN’T a hopeless weirdo! I studied chemistry, and understand the appeal of things that sizzle and change color. I wish I’d had more chances to fool around in a laboratory like Flavia’s!

I plan to download the next novel in the series for my upcoming train trip. Just right!

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“The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir” by Jennifer Ryan AND Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”

This book reminded me of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Shaffer and Barrows, published in 2009. Each novel consists of a series of letters, diary entries and notices. Ryan’s novel seemed less “spontaneous” than Guernsey. Would anyone really write such wildly uninhibited letters?? But both novels, each dealing with British civilian life during World War II, make good reading.

The church choir in the village of Chilbury is deactivated when too few men are left in town to sing tenor and bass. The Ladies Choir’ takes its place, at first tentatively and then with vigor. Chilbury is located next to a city named Litchfield Park, possibly meant to resemble Bletchley Park, where Britain’s crucially important code breakers were headquartered.

Yes, there’s a spy among the characters. He turns out NOT to be a villain. Ryan creates interesting villains. One is predictable, a military man (a brigadier) who bullies his family and neighbors. But another is a midwife! (See my blog entry of May 24, 2018 about midwives in fiction.) The brigadier and the midwife enter into a nefarious scheme to insure a male heir for the brigadier. Other plots unfold. Many important characters are children and adolescents. Ryan depicts the impact of war on their young lives very realistically.

Ryan’s plotting is uninhibited – she throws in complications fast and furious. I couldn’t stop reading! One of my favorite characters was Kitty, the third child of the brigadier. At 13, she’s full of energy and curiosity, headlong and rambunctious and confused by the War and it’s impacts. She reaches out to other children and also to adults as she struggles to cope. There are enough interesting characters in this book to make me hope for a sequel. After all, the Battle of Britain has barely started!

What’s this got to do with Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, “Twelfth Night”? I attended a discussion of the play recently. Remember the identical twins, Viola and Sebastian, who are separated after a shipwreck? Viola disguises herself as a man, and is mistaken for her brother, who she fears is dead. Love at first sight strikes several characters, and giddy confusions ensues. Our discussion leader pointed out that “Twelfth Night” has a subtitle, namely “What You Will”. Our starting discussion question was “Is love something you WILL, or is it something that happens to you?” Great question! We talked for over an hour. Do you choose to love? Does reason play any role in love? No, we didn’t reach a conclusion.

In The Chilbury Ladies Choir, Jennifer Ryan depicts characters to whom love “happened”. They weren’t “looking for love”, but were taken by surprise. There are two couples, one young but sophisticated, the other older and burdened with sorrows. For each of these four people, love is a dangerous path.

The person who recommended this book to me said it was about music. This aspect was handled lightly and deftly, with occasional references to hymns and choral performances. Two other themes are change and leadership.

This book rises well above the “chick lit” or “beach reading” category. I’d classify it as high quality historical fiction. The echoes of World War I are important. Read and enjoy, but remember, war is hell.

“The King’s Speech” by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi

This book has TWO subtitles. On the cover it says BASED ON THE RECENTLY DISCOVERED DIARIES OF LIONEL LOGUE, but the title page reads HOW ONE MAN SAVED THE BRITISH MONARCHY. I find the second of these more interesting. Was the British monarchy really in that much trouble? Hard to imagine as we watch Queen Elizabeth II, ruler since 1952, move serenely through her seventh decade on the throne.

Perhaps you have heard the expression referring to the British royal family: “the heir and the spare”. Prince Albert (later King George VI) was born and raised to be the “spare”. His handsome, outgoing older brother came to the throne as King Edward VIII when their father died in 1936.

However, Edward VIII abdicated (resigned!) to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson.

The English and the rest of the Commonwealth could have decided the monarchy was a luxury they couldn’t afford. If  “the spare” was an unpopular King, the monarchy might have been trimmed back to match what we see today in, say, Netherlands or Scandinavia.

The “man” of the title was Lionel Logue, and the monarch he served was King George VI, who ascended to the throne in 1936 after the “abdication crisis”. Prince Albert suffered from a severe stammer. Some people mistook his hesitance for unintelligence. He never expected or wanted to be King.

How did Logue and the future King get together? In 1926, young Prince Albert had suffered terrible public embarrassment when, in the middle of a live radio broadcast, he stammered and paused repeatedly. Humiliated, he consulted another in his long string of “experts”.

Unlike the previous disappointments, the Prince was told his problem could and would be resolved. The profession of speech therapy did not exist at that time. Australian specialist Lionel Logue had elevated the teaching of elocution into a medical type specialty, and greatly improved the speech of many stutterers. After intensive work with the Prince, his role became that of coach and friend, and Logue supported King George through many milestone speeches, especially during World War II. The King’s speech was never perfect, but with hard work it was excellent.

This reminds me of a young woman with lilting, elegant speech whom I met at a workshop. As we were getting acquainted, someone asked the origin of her “accent”. She explained that she had a speech impediment. It had been beautifully “corrected”.

This book helped me understand how the British subjects feel about their royalty. Logue was a “commoner” from Australia. British subjects want a leader to admire, and they want to know that their leader CARES about them. What better way to convey that than by radio? Broadcast radio was just coming into it’s own. As a head of state, King George VI could not avoid addressing his people publicly.

Interestingly, no one can explain how Logue improved the King’s speech. Much of the change was undoubtedly psychological. Confidence can overcome a great deal.

This book is also the account of a unlikely friendship. Crossing class lines and the client/expert barrier, the warm relationship between King George VI and Lionel Logue lasted until the King’s death in 1952.

This is an excellent book, especially for people who like to watch royalty.

“The Dawn Watch – Joseph Conrad in a Global World” by Maya Jasanoff, published 2017

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This book surprised me. I expected it to be “heavy”. The scholarly notes run to 43 pages.

It was totally the opposite – brisk and entertaining. I had no problem at all reading 320 pages, even allowing for the fact that (woe is me) I haven’t actually read much of Conrad. When I dipped into Heart of Darkness and saw a movie version of Lord Jim years ago, I responded more to “atmosphere” than to plot. Jasansoff discusses only a few of Conrad’s many works, and she provides enough comprehensive information that my scanty exposure didn’t matter. I’m now planning to read Nostromo, Conrad’s only novel set in the western hemisphere.

To digest Conrad’s books and short stories, written roughly from 1886 to 1924, you have to ponder various “-isms”, like

  • racism,
  • imperialism,
  • colonialism and
  • militarism

Charges of racism have led some scholars to agitate against using Conrad in the classroom. I lean towards the argument that Conrad helps drag racism out into the open, for conversation and analysis, to everyone’s benefit. It’s good to know the history of the attitudes you want to change.

Conrad’s life was adventurous. Raised in landlocked, Russian-occupied Poland, he decided on a career in the merchant marine and left home at age 16 to pursue that goal. He sailed to Australia, many Asian ports and eventually to Africa, when Congo was first being explored and exploited by Europeans. Some critics consider Heart of Darkness, about Congo, to be his greatest work. He eventually settled in England and wrote in English.

Conrad was a “global thinker” well before that concept emerged. The college where I work has established “global awareness” as one of its four guiding principles. So… I will suggest The Dawn Watch as a common reading. One book is selected each year with the intention that

  • incoming students will read it before arriving on campus and
  • faculty will be encouraged (but not required) to incorporate it into a class in some fashion, especially in courses oriented towards Freshmen.

The author must be accessible for a guest lecture (in other words, not dead). Anyone can nominate a book. I’ve pitched several, with no luck so far. The Dawn Watch is probably too long and (cringe) “too academic”. But I would love to have Maya Jasanoff on campus for a visit!

“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer

 

This book is a treat. It’s romantic without being sentimental. As England recovers from World War II, a young woman accidentally begins corresponding with a resident of the island of Guernsey, a part of Britain that fell under Nazi control during the War. She travels to meet her pen pal and finds the island beautiful and the people charming.

If you have ever belonged to a book group, you will love this novel! The “literary society” of the title emerges accidentally, when residents are caught out after an occupation curfew. They don’t stop reading and meeting when the War ends.

The island of Guernsey suffered cruelly under wartime conditions. Residents and occupiers alike were on the verge of starvation when the war ended. Winston Churchill refused to send humanitarian aid because he was afraid it would fall into enemy hands. My misgivings about Churchill grow stronger.

Enjoy this book!

“The Flame Bearer” by Bernard Cornwell

Copyright 2016, 280 pages.

Historical fiction is great! You can be distracted from your worries and at the same time be (gently) reminded that there have been difficult times before. “The Flame Bearer” takes place in Britain around 900 AD, before its (still uneasy) consolidation into a single, country with a commons language. Now I understand the Roman wall (built to keep out the wild Scots) a bit better. Christianity was fighting it out with paganism. Some characters were hedging their bets, praying to both sets of gods and waiting to see which rewarded them.

“The Flame Bearer” is written in the first person, from the perspective of a displaced warlord named Uhtred. Wait, wasn’t I just writing about a REAL warlord? Yes, see my blog entry of January 15, 2017, about Dostum, a contemporary Afghan warlord and politician. One thousand years have passed, and the descriptive term “warlord” still has meaning. What would these two men have in common? Both fought on horseback. Each relied on a cadre of loyal followers. Each was motivated by family and tribal loyalty. Each lived in a time of rapid change, and worried about betrayal. Each carried responsibilities well beyond the range of military concerns. Each “appealed” for divine intervention in battle. (Read Williams “The Last Warlord” for details on that aspect of his campaign.)

Differences? Uhtred dismounted for hand to hand combat and was an expert in deploying a shield wall. Dostum advanced from horseback to trucks and tanks, and faced a pace of technological change Uhtred would not have believed. Uhtred lived in a pre-modern world. Dostum is “modern”, with some traditional personality traits. (He’s also in the news lately. I’ll refrain from trying to comment here.)

What can we say about warfare based on these two “warlord” portraits? Each had available some mechanism for negotiation, temporary truce or surrender. Uhtred approached his enemies with a lowered sword, carrying a green branch. Dostum suffered the loss of soldiers when a surrender attempt went bad. War is seldom “total”. In each case there was some concept of protecting prisoners and non-combatants, but that was often violated. Do meaningful “rules of war exist”?

Cornwell has written scores of books, “The Flame Bearer” being #10 in his “Saxon Tales”. He admits in his “Historical Note” that the book contains little actual history. Maybe it’s more of an adventure novel. Cornwell obviously enjoys writing about battles and the psychological complications of fighting. The plot is revenge and redemption, with lots of BLOOD.

Another of Cornwell’s series follows a character named Richard Sharpe from 1799 to 1821, in 20 novels. What is Cornwell trying to do, outwrite Patrick O’Brian? I suppose I should not judge based on one book, but I don’t think his work equals the stature of O’Brian’s. (Yes, I’ve read the awe inspiring Aubrey-Maturin series.)

Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels work because they convey the arc of history, the sweep of the Napoleonic Wars. He invented his charmingly quirky protagonists, but the battles (I understand) are ALL taken from the naval records of the times. And sometimes they are surprising! I wonder if Richard Sharpe is as interesting as Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.

But Cornwell is good, and I’ll undoubtedly read more of his books. I think they would be excellent in audio format, for long car trips. Pre-modern Britain is more interesting than Route 95.

“Ride With Me” by Thomas R. Costain

When did historical fiction become such an active and popular genre? This book was published in 1944. The author, Thomas Costain, died in 1965 at the age of 80. Looking at a list of his books, I think read two others, “The Silver Chalice” and “Below the Salt”, when I was in high school.

“Ride With Me” uses a fictional newspaper writer to tell the story of an historical figure, Robert Thomas Wilson, a flamboyant, often disruptive British military officer in the Napoleonic Wars.

I tried, briefly, to find out a bit about the Napoleonic Wars. Some subjects simply can’t be reduced to a Wikipedia article! I was rapidly overwhelmed. Fortunately, the novel had enough of it’s own narrative drive for my ignorance not to matter.

This novel is a romance with some military history thrown in. Francis Ellery, the misfit eldest son of an aristocratic family, falls in love with a glamorous, passionate ex-patriot French woman living in London. Over the years, he rescues her from a variety of dangers, then is finally rewarded with love and marriage.

This is very high quality historical fiction, with wonderful atmosphere and period details, and if you get tired of what contemporary authors are writing, I suggest you try Costain as an alternative.