2019 Week Twenty-One

Origin of Species

Charles Darwin continues to annoy me, but the end is in sight. There are only two (long) chapters left to read. I can’t hope that Darwin’s thoughts will become any clearer, but I know now that I’ll finish the book. When I put it on my list for the Goodreads Reading the Classics Challenge back in December, I thought there was a good chance that I would give up after a few pages.

Most of my other reading at the moment is about marketing, and that’s too dull to write about.

In reading that isn’t Darwin or marketing, I’ve just started Mask of Duplicity by Julia Brannan. It’s set around the time of the Jacobite Rebellion in the 1740s. I’m not particularly interested in the rebellion, but it was recommended by Annie Whitehead, who writes fiction and non-fiction about the Anglo-Saxons. If you’re remotely interested in historical fiction, you should have a look at her weekly, alphabetical recommendations.  Beware, though. She’s only reached D and I’ve already bought five of the books she’s mentioned.

Although I’m not that familiar with this part of the eighteenth century, The History of Tom Jones was set and written in the same period as Mask of Duplicity and I read it earlier this year. The only character so far who feels as if he would fit into Tom Jones’ world is the heroine’s greedy and violent brother. The heroine herself feels more Victorian than Georgian. In truth, she’s very modern. So far, that’s not spoiling my enjoyment of her story.

Books read in challenge: 4

Books read in year: 21

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Longbourn by Jo Baker – A Review

Longbourn

Published: 2013
Pages: 448

Many of the characters in Longbourn are glimpsed briefly in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. They’re the people no one notices – the servants. The house at Longbourn is as much a home to them as it is to the Bennets, and their future security is even more dependent on Mr Collins’ good will.

Longbourn isn’t a retelling of Pride and Prejudice, although the servants do see much of what happens in Austen’s novel. It’s a complete story in its own right, although I’m not sure how much someone who hasn’t read Pride and Prejudice would enjoy it. It’s mainly the story of Sarah, the older of the two housemaids, but the butler, the housekeeper, the footman and the second housemaid all have their own stories to tell. Whilst life is hard serving the Bennets, their experiences beyond their small world show them that it’s also a safe and good life. The reader is constantly made aware of Sarah’s chilblains, but Sarah appreciates that there is always food on the table. She works long hours, but is also allowed to borrow books from Mr Bennet’s library. Her clothes are worn,  but she occasionally gets Jane and Elizabeth’s cast-offs.

In her novels, Jane Austen hinted at slavery and the Napoleonic Wars, and has been criticised for not writing more about either. I suspect she thought the existence and reality of both too obvious to mention. Someone writing today wouldn’t feel the need to include details about terrorism or grooming, for example, unless they were the point of their novel. Where Austen hints, though, Baker goes all out. One of her characters is the son of a slave and her owner, brought to England by his father as a servant. Another character sees slaves being bought and sold. The Peninsular War takes up a section of the book and is as gory and destructive as you would expect it to be. Baker’s writing is beautiful, which makes some of the events it’s used to describe all the more shocking.

Some of the characters from Pride and Prejudice are shown in a different light. The servants don’t think Mr Collins is a foolish, grovelling young man. They see a man who is kind to them and thoughtful. Mr Wickham is as a man with a liking for very young girls of all classes. Mr Darcy is some kind of superhuman, who makes Sarah feel less than herself whenever she sees him, even from a distance.

The novel is definitely a page-turner, although there were pages I didn’t want to turn during the Peninsular War section. I enjoyed reading it.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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2019 Week Twenty

Longbourn

I’m halfway through On the Origin of Species. It’s been hard work getting here, as not all of Darwin’s thinking is clear in what he writes. Sometimes he uses examples in great detail and that helps. At the really tricky bits, however, he says there are lots of examples he could give, but doesn’t have enough space. He asks the reader to accept on trust that what he’s saying about natural selection is true. This is particularly the case in the chapter where he discusses the difficulties of his theory. Sometimes he just admits that he doesn’t have an answer and moves on. At other times there are pages discussing one example and he still has to say that he can’t explain why that particular thing happens. This would be disarming if it weren’t so frustrating.

My other reading is much lighter (so far, anyway), because you do need something light when you’re reading Darwin. It’s Longbourn by Jo Baker. If the title sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the name of the estate on which Lizzie Bennet grows up in Pride and Prejudice. This isn’t a retelling of Austen’s novel, though, but an account of the life of the servants who feed and clean up after the Bennet family. I’m clearly not the only person who has read the account of Lizzie’s traipse across muddy roads to visit Netherfield and wondered who was going to clean her boots and skirts, because I knew it wasn’t going to be her.

There’s more to the book than this, of course, although it does begin on a washing day at in winter. Even the servants of the kindly and enlightened Mr Bennet have to work hard, and they suffer from chilblains and blistered fingers. On the plus side, Lizzie and Jane are generous with clothes they no longer want.

It promises to be good. There’s a mystery to be solved and romance is in the air – not just for the Bennet girls.

Books read in challenge: 4

Books read in year: 20

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Odo’s Hanging by Peter Benson – A Review

Odos Hanging

Pages: 251
Published: 1993

The exact circumstances behind the creation of the Bayeux Tapestry are unknown, but it’s believed that Bishop Odo of Bayeux ordered it to be made. That’s the supposition behind Peter Benson’s version of events in Odo’s Hanging.

The Bayeux Tapestry shows the background to the Battle of Hastings as well as depicting the battle itself and the resulting coronation of William the Conqueror as king of England. Odo was William’s half-brother and fought in the battle.

In the novel a Norman called Turold designs the hanging and goes to Winchester where it’s to be stitched by nuns in Nunnaminster. The story is told by his assistant, Robert, a boy who grows to manhood during the months it takes to transfer the designs onto their linen panels. Robert is dumb and longs to be able to talk. Language and meaning are two themes of the novel, which probably explains why the Normans are able to understand what the English nuns, workers and sailors say perfectly, and can communicate in turn with them with no difficulty. Whether or not they can understand what they mean is another matter.

During the production of the hanging, Turold suffers from Odo’s interference and William’s help, while Robert falls in love with the baker’s daughter.

There are discussions in the novel about the power of the visual image to convey meaning. Unlike the written word, says Turold, it can only mean one thing, which is why he fights against Odo’s decision to include text within the hanging.

Robert might be the narrator of the story, but he can neither speak nor write.  People have to guess what he means and they don’t always guess correctly. His lover is constantly asking him whether he loves her. Even characters who can speak often don’t say anything. They break off, expecting the person they’re talking to to understand what they’re not saying. That means that the reader also has to work it out. As the baker says, speech can be awkward.

I liked the novel more than I thought I would at the beginning. Once I got past the idea that historical accuracy wasn’t going to be important, I began to enjoy the language, which is quite rich, even if I never quite warmed to the characters.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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2019 Week Nineteen

Odos Hanging

I’m not having a great time with reading at the moment. On the Origin of Species becomes more difficult to read with each passing day, so I’m making little progress with it. My other reading is Odo’s Hanging by Peter BensonIt has mixed reviews on Goodreads and I’m starting to come down on the side of those who don’t like it.

Contrary to the impression given by the title, this is not a western about the hanging of an outlaw called Odo.  This Odo was the brother of William the Conqueror. William made him bishop of Bayeux and the earl of Kent. Odo is believed to have commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry and this is the hanging of the title.

I’m almost a third of the way through and very little has happened. The story is told by Robert, the mute assistant of Turold, the designer of the hanging. Like Darwin, Robert breeds pigeons, but these have been left behind in Normandy when Turold and Robert go to Winchester, where the hanging is to be made. There have been discussions about the importance of images compared to words, the nature of faith, and art. There’s also been quite a bit of violence, most of it on the part of the bishop.

One of my pet hates in historical fiction occurs early on in the book, when Turold and Robert walk from Winchester to Bosham. They arrive just after the dawn, having left well after nightfall. Even in winter they would be hard-pressed to walk thirty miles overnight, but it’s spring, and the nights are shorter. Writers of historical fiction rarely seem to consider how long a journey would take on foot or horseback, especially in the dark.

 

Books read in challenge: 4

Books read in year: 19

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Murder at the ‘Otel Parisien by Monster in the Next Room – A Review

Ray Wry

Published: 2019
Pages: 24

Murder at the ‘Otel Parisien is the first of series of humorous cartoons about Ray Wry, a private investigator, and his sidekick, Shamus. Together they walk the mean streets of Hel’s Kitchen. As the title suggests, there’s a murder at the ‘Otel Parisien. Ray is called in by an old friend and he investigates.

I’ve known Monster in the Next Room online almost since I started my other blog four years ago and I love her cartoons. This review might not, therefore, be entirely without bias.

As you can see from the cover above, the cartoons are beautifully drawn. They were published first on Monster in the Next Room’s blog and I’ve already read them on a computer screen, which doesn’t do them justice. Reading the paperback is a much better experience. More than a couple of times I’ve picked it up just to remind myself of one of my favourite jokes and carried on reading.

What the cover doesn’t entirely convey, is the nature of the humour. The buns, sorry puns, come thick and fast. You have to know your bakery products to get the jokes, though, and I’m convinced there are still a few I’ve missed.

You should avoid this book if you will be upset by scenes of acts of violence being carried out on baked goods. More than one character comes to a sticky end; these are perishable goods after all.

As you might have guessed,  I love this book. I’m hoping that Ray’s further adventures will soon be in print.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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2019 Week Eighteen

Origin of Species

I’ve had my first shock from On the Origin of Species, and it will shock you as wellTowards the end of the first chapter Darwin refers to ‘savages in South Africa’ and ‘uncivilised man’. I had rather expected, given the subject matter of the book, that he would be a little more civilised himself in the way in which he referred to other people. Others around him were probably using similar language, though. Doubtless people I admire (although there are few from the middle of the nineteenth century) expressed themselves in that way.

Despite my prim disapproval of Darwin himself, I’m making good progress with his book. I’m a third of the way through and so far I’ve managed to keep up with most of his arguments, although his descriptions of the differences between different types of pigeons have tripped me up more than once. It would have helped me, though, if he had included ‘species’ and ‘variety’ in his glossary, since an understanding of both seems vital to keeping up with him.

There are gaps in the book, but Darwin says a more detailed book to come will fill them. That book was never written, according to the editor of the edition I’m reading.

I think Darwin’s intended audience must have had more specialist knowledge than I have, but, even given the enthusiasm of middle-class Vicotiran naturalists, many of his early readers must have struggled as I do. I suspect that more copies of this book ended up gathering dust on bookshelves than being read.

If you’d like to know a bit more about Darwin and his ideas about evolution, you can get some background from Sonia Boal, who is also reading On the Origin of the Species at the moment.

Books read in challenge: 4

Books read in year: 18

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Revelation by C.J. Sansom – A Review

Revelation

Pages: 351
Published: 2008

Revelation is the fourth book in the Matthew Shardlake series. The lawyer is drawn into the hunt for a serial killer when a friend is murdered in a particularly horrible way. As the hunt goes on it becomes clear that the murderer is not killing for political reasons or for personal gain, and the hunters can’t understand him at all. Most of them think he’s possessed, but Shardlake thinks he’s a madman. Shardlake thinks a lot about insanity, as he also encounters patients of the Bethlem (Bedlam) Hospital in this book.

Once again he’s entangled with powerful men, but this time they’re on the same side. Archbishop Cranmer has reasons for wanting to keep the investigation from the king and he thinks Shardlake is the ideal man for the job. The king’s brothers-in-law, Edward and Thomas Seymour, are also involved.

Thanks to a sympathetic portrayal of him by Bernard Hepton in the TV series The Six Wives of Henry VIII in 1970, I’ve always had a soft spot for Cranmer. Sansom portrays him as a compassionate and determined man, when he’s more often depicted as a weak man who gave way under pressure. There’s a particularly moving moment in the novel where Cranmer talks at length about the horror of being burned alive, a fate the real Cranmer eventually suffered.

The historical detail is, as always with Sansom, wonderful. There’s talk of setting up a hospital for the poor who have nowhere to go for care after the monasteries have been dissolved and the monks cast out. Shardlake and his assistant, Barak, make as much use of boats on the Thames as they do of their horses for moving around London. The streets are full of beggars and hawkers selling their wares.

Interestingly, Sansom only shows characters who have extreme religious beliefs. There are conservatives who want the English church to return to Rome and ‘hot-gospellers’ who are radical Protestants. There are even atheists. There are, however, no characters who show moderation and understanding in their beliefs. Perhaps that’s how things were at that time, but it feels odd.

My one criticism of Sansom would be that he’s not very good at action scenes. As in the previous three books there are moments when Shardlake’s life is in danger, but the reader barely has time to register the danger before it’s over.

As always, I can thoroughly recommend this episode in the Shardlake series.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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2019 Week Seventeen

Origin of Species

The Goodreads reading the classics challenge is a challenge to read twelve classics in a year. So far I’ve managed four of my list and I’m on target. I now feel that I can start a book I’m not confident of finishing. That book is Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

My objective in doing the challenge this year has been to read books that have been on my shelves for years (or decades). My version of On the Origin of Species is the 1985 reprint of the 1982 Penguin Classics edition, so I can only assume I’ve had it since the mid-eighties. There’s a bookmark in the introduction, so I have tried to read it before and not got very far. It’s one of those books that people, me included, think you ‘ought’ to read, which is why I’m having another go at it. I’m not looking forward to it, because I’m not good at science. If I’m in a  pub quiz team with you, you can safely turn your back on me during the science round, because I won’t know any of the answers. I suspect, therefore, that a lot of the book will go over my head. If it does, or if I just can’t bear to read it, I have two stand-byes: The Interior Castle by Theresa of Avila and Four Comedies by Goldoni.

The book has an introduction by John Burrow, the editor, and Darwin’s glossary, but no notes.  The glossary defines words like prehensile and parasite, so I think I can at least be confident that the words whose meanings I don’t know will be included.

In other reading I’ve reached Revelation,  the fourth book in the Matthew Shardlake series by C.J. Sansom. Since I’ve read it before, it wasn’t much of a surprise when I remembered who the murderer is, even though I don’t know why he’s killing people. This time I’m enjoying coming across the clues that I missed the first time. I don’t know how I missed some of them, though. There’s a particular object that’s mentioned every time Shardlake enters the room where it’s kept. It’s not even mentioned with subtlety and I still didn’t notice years ago that it’s a huge clue to the identity of the killer. Even though it’s a long book and Shardlake is even more melancholy than ever, it’s an easy read.

 

Books read in challenge: 4

Books read in year: 18

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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The Treasure of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan – A Review

treasure of ladies

Pages: 198
Published: 1405 (this translation 1985)

This book is indeed a treasure. Christine de Pizan, the first woman known to have earned a living from her writing, gives advice to all classes of women about how best to live their lives. Some of the advice is not surprising for the time in which it was written. For example, women are to respect and obey their husbands even if they’re worthy of neither. In a world where divorce was not an option, that was the only course open to women. Some of de Pizan’s advice is completely unexpected. She tells women not to get involved in the antics of courtly love. It is, she says, just another way for men to seduce women and take advantage of them. Many of de Pizan’s (male) contemporaries praised courtly love as something that put women on a pedestal. De Pizan points out wryly that the woman doesn’t remain on a pedestal forever and that as soon as the man has had what he wants he gossips about her and she is ruined.

She targets her advice at all parts of society. Although most of it is aimed at princesses, she also writes to aristocratic women, the wives of merchants, peasant women and prostitutes.

De Pizan is a realist. She knows that not all husbands are worthy of respect and that not all servants are honest. There’s advice on how to deal with both. She also knows that young girls can be led astray by men. There’s a lot of advice to their mothers and maidservants about what to do if it looks like that’s happening.

Her realism and understanding of the world are also shown in her advice to prostitutes. They are advised to give up their work, not just because it’s a sin, which is the advice you would expect from a pious woman in the early fifteenth century, but because it’s dangerous, which you wouldn’t. Women are exposed to the possibility of beatings and death at the hands of the ‘vile men’ they serve. It makes me wonder how de Pizan knew the details of that kind of life.

One of the most surprising bits of advice, for me at least, is for aristocratic widows or the wives of men who are away. They are told that they have to be ready and able to lead the men their husbands have left to protect their estates … into battle if necessary.

Modern readers might be annoyed by her insistence on maintaining the status quo, but she was a woman of her time and almost everyone believed that people were born to a certain station in life and stayed there.

The translation is easy to read and flows well, despite a few anachronisms.

I enjoyed reading this book very much.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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