A Treachery of Spies by Manda Scott

A friend loaned me this book, saying he thought I would enjoy it. He was right I did…with the caveat that if I’d know it was the second book in the series, I would have read the first one first!

The book is set in France and flits between a Maquis group in the 1940s and a murder in 2018.

The central character in 2018 is Captain Ines Picaut, a detective in Orleans. She is investigating the murder of an old woman, shot with great precision, in her car. The murder happens at an awkward time as there is a conference of USA security services happening in Orleans and security is high and tight.

In 1940s the key character is the woman murdered in 2018. She is a successful assassin and has been assigned to work with a Maquis group and also to kill a Nazi officer called Kramme. Kramme manages to evade his hunters because of a mole within SOE/MI6/the Maquis group and because the Americans whisk him away at the end of the war to help them set up a Soviet desk in one of their bureaux.

I liked the main characters in the book. The majority were strong, interesting, and engaging woman. I liked the ambiguity; they are an interesting mix of neither wholly good nor wholly bad.

I also liked the slight ambiguity of the ending.

In some ways the book is uncomfortable; it tells of events in the 1940s when there were reprisals against those perceived to have collaborated with the Nazis. In the instance described, the person killed was planted be the resistance, to appear to collaborate and to learn what they can. It reminds us that things are seldom black and white but usually shades of grey. We judge people who are seen to fraternise with “the enemy” but should we? Is it fair to judge people who may just be trying to survive?

I’m disappointed that I didn’t read book 1 first, it would have set some of Picaut’s actions in context, but I did enjoy the book and I will go back to read Into the Fire, and probably any subsequent books.

The White Ship: Conquest, anarchy, and the wrecking of Henry I’s dream by Charles Spencer

Charles Spencer, aka 9th Earl Spencer, writes really readable history books. I think I became particularly aware of that reading this book. I already knew quite a bit about the White Ship disaster, yet the book kept me interested and engaged.

If you’re not aware of this period of history, the White Ship sank, just outside of Barfleur harbour. On board was William Atheling, the only legitimate male heir of King Henry I, a large proportion of Henry’s advisers and a large number of the younger members of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy.

The disaster caused havoc, to put it mildly, with Henry’s plans for a peaceful succession of England and Normandy to his son. The resulting uncertainty led to the battle for the kingdom and duchy between Matilda, Henry I’s legitimate daughter, and Stephen, Henry’s nephew.

This book starts with the birth of Henry, the only son of William the Conqueror to be born in England and finishes with Henry II, Matilda’s son, gaining the throne.

I like the fact that Spencer puts the White Ship disaster well and truly into context. The book shows how Henry I worked to build peace and prosperity in both England and Normandy. It helps the reader to understand the background to the disaster, a bit about why and how it might have happened and the impact it had on the history, not just of England but also across Europe.

My main gripe with the book has nothing to do with the author. It is the same gripe that infuriated me about the biography of Empress Maud/Matilda I read a while ago; that is that Maud/Matilda was condemned and reviled for displaying behaviours that would have lauded in a male who was claiming a throne. I know it is my 21st century outlook that causes my annoyance and that the 11th/12th century had a completely different viewpoint. But I’m here in the 21st century and my beliefs and values are always going to provide a lens on how I see things.

Overall, I think this is an enjoyable book to understand what happened in England and Normandy in the period after William I. It added to what I already knew about the period although I think it would also be a good introduction to the era.

I will certainly look to read some of Charles Spencer’s other books.

Vuelta Skelter: Riding the 1941 Tour of Spain by Tim Moore

Yippee! A new Tim Moore book to read and, with perfect timing, just before I went on holiday and had time to read it in good size chunks.

This is a book of several parts: biography of Spanish cyclist Julian Berrendero, history of the Spanish Civil war and Franco’s Spain, entertaining travelogue of Tim Moore cycling round Spain.

I managed to get a whole four paragraphs in before I laughed out loud and my reading experience was punctured by regular requests from Michael to “please stop giggling”, or words to that effect.

The book is Tim Moore’s usual mix of funny, whimsical, serious, and practical.

He also manages to make Berrendero come across as human, when I suspect he was at the grumpy and miserable end of the professional cycling spectrum.

As often happens with Tim Moore’s books, I got a glimpse into bits of history I don’t know much about and want to find out more – look out for a review of Antony Beevor’s The Battle for Spain – which I’ve been meaning to read for ages but never quite got round to.

The difficult parts of this book are those that cover the incredibly bloody and cruel parts of the Civil War, man’s inhumanity to man! It always makes me realise just how very thin the veneer of civilisation is for humankind.

On a more frivolous note, it’s also difficult to know that I’m going to have to wait an unknown amount of time until the next Tim Moore book comes out. Perhaps I should go back and reread some of the earlier ones.

As you can probably tell, I’m a fan!

Lord James Harrington & the Winter Mystery by Lynn Florkiewicz

The second of my attempts to find a new detective/murder-mystery series. This one is set in 1957. The Harringtons have turned their stately home into a hotel and live in a modern house in the village. When their cleaner tells Lord Harrington of a missing farmer he decided to investigate.

I found this a really annoying book. The author does not seem to have done their homework – either the titular Harrington is Lord James Harrington, or he is Lord Harrington: the description of his circumstances in the book suggests he should be the latter. People like the Harringtons would not have a “lounge” in their home, they would have a sitting room or a drawing room. Lounges were for hotels. There is no river Ouse within easy fishing distance of Sussex. And, and, and…

Even worse than the author’s lack of research is the fact that the characters are just dull and boring. It was a real chore to finish the book.

I will not be reading any more books in this series.

Murder at Archly Manor by Sara Rosett

I’ve been downloading a few detective novels onto my Kindle, trying to find some new series as I’ve got to the end of others.

This one has been hanging around on my wish list for ages, so I thought it was about time to give it a go.

The series is titled “High Society Lady Detective”, which put me off a bit, and is set in 1923. The main character is Olive Belgrave, a young woman searching for a job after her inheritance has disappeared in a bad investment and her father has remarried.

Her cousin sends a telegram asking for help. Her younger sister has fallen for a man her parents think is unsuitable and they want to find out more about him.

Olive and her friend, Jasper Rimmington, investigate when the unsuitable man turns up dead.

The book ends with Olive setting herself up as a private investigator.

This was a lightweight but generally enjoyable detective novel. I will certainly read the next book in the series when I want an untaxing read.

Whether I read the whole series or not depends very much on whether the jarring Americanisms continue to proliferate or not!

The Perfect Marriage by Adam Mitzner

A freebie download book for my Kindle. A murder mystery that is very different from my usual style, although I quite enjoyed it.

In brief the plot is that Jessica and James Sommer have just celebrated their first wedding anniversary. There were fireworks at the party when James’ ex-wife turns up and starts hurling abuse. Jessica’s ex-husband is also at the party but he prides himself on keeping his anger tightly under control.

The other main characters at the party are Reid Warwick, a friend of James who is trying to draw him into a dodgy art deal, and Owen, Jessica’s son whose leukemia has returned.

A few days after the party James is found dead in his office and Detectives Valasquez and Jamil have to untangle these relationships to get to the truth. The murderer is discovered but can’t be brought to trial, although the book makes it clear that they have to live with the consequences and guilt of what they have done.

I enjoyed reading something really different from my usual murder mystery and I particularly liked that I didn’t spot who the killer was until it was pointed out to me. A vast improvement on the usual freebie where the quality of the writing often means I can spot whodunnit from very early on.

The frustrating thing with this book was that the characters weren’t really fleshed out enough for me to care about them. I would liked to have known more about them, more about their hinterland, to have really engaged with this book.

Spring Comes To World’s End by Monica Dickens

This is the book I bought the last auction lot of children’s books for. The fourth and final book in the World’s End series by Monica Dickens. The last book to complete a set of much loved favourites from my childhood.

And, it turns out, one that I haven’t actually read! This really shocked me. I was sure I’d read the complete series but nothing about this book was at all familiar. And I have a really good memory for books I’ve read.

The basis if the series is that Tom, Carrie, Em and Michael have been left to the less than tender mercies of their Uncle and Aunt whilst their parents are sailing the world/trying to earn a living by writing a book/trying to earn some money to live on. The Uncle and Aunt dump them at World’s End, an old, semi-derilict pub they own, and leave them to fend for themselves. The family at World’s End grows as they take in waifs and strays, human as well as animal.

I loved the series as a child because of the ramshackle way the Fielding family live and the way they gather in human and animal friends. It was so completely different from the way I grew up as an only child.

Both as a child, and now, I love the way the Fieldings as always upbeat in the face of adversity. I also enjoy the adventures they have and the running feud with Aunt Val and Uncle “Rhubarb”.

I didn’t notice as a child but the book also deals with dyslexia and the challenges it can cause children who are treated as being stupid because they struggle to read and spell. I think this is really unusual for books from the early 1970s.

In short, I loved this book and I continue to love the series. And I’d recommend it to anyone looking for books for 6 to 8 years olds who like animals and a bit of adventure in a story.

The Comedy of Errors – Royal Shakespeare Company

It’s been so long since I’ve seen or written a review of a play I’ve seen live, I’m not sure where to start! I think with the thought that this was always going to be an enjoyable experience: just being in the same place as other people, all looking forward to something, the happy buzz as people chat whilst waiting for the performance to start, people watching as people come into the theatre and that wonderful, expectant hush as the play is about to start. Oh, how I have missed it for seventeen long months.

It was interesting to see the temporary Lydia and Manfred Gorvy Garden Theatre. Chapeau to the Gorvy’s for making this production possible. I liked the design, which reminded me of The Crucible in Sheffield, and which makes it easy to both see and hear what’s going on. There was much more leg room than in the permanent theatres; not an issue for me but better for my partner and other taller members of the audience. The seats were no more uncomfortable than most theatre seats. And the weather was reasonably kind to us. Even my enthusiasm might have been dampened – literally and figuratively – if it had been throwing it down.

So, to the play. I’ve seen this play three times, once at school and twice at RSC. I can remember nothing about the school production. The first time a saw it at RSC, in 2005, Jonathan Slinger and Forbes Masson played the Dromio twins, and I can still remember how funny they were. This was my benchmark for this production until I looked up who was in the cast of the 2012 version and remembered that Felix Hayes and Bruce McKinnon were equally funny.

There were a lot of changes to the cast for this evening’s production. This is unusual and I’m not sure whether it was because it was the day after a bank holiday or because of Covid concerns. I suspect Covid absences are something we will have to get used to for the foreseeable future. Thankfully, it didn’t impact on the continuity or the play.

This version of the play zipped along at a good pace. It was funny, well-acted and enjoyable. It was engaging whilst watching it, but I don’t think it will live in my memory in the way Nancy Meckler’s version does. Having said that, I suspect we will try to see it again when it comes to Bradford in October.

Vienna 1814: How the conquerors of Napoleon made love, war and peace at the Congress of Vienna by David King

An interesting but also slightly frustrating book. This book was easy to read, gave a good overview of the main players and I learned quite a lot from it, but…

The book mainly covers the activities of the main players from the time Tsar Alexander and King Frederick of Prussia arrive in Vienna to the point at which Waterloo has happened and Napoleon is being exiled to St Helena. It describes, superficially, some of the political problems faced by the loose coalition of countries who defeated Napoleon. It describes in more detail the personal and interralational problems faced by the key players. There is also some detail about what was happening on Elba, Napoleon’s first place of exile, and at Waterloo.

The book has left me with a desire to learn more about Metternich and Tallyrand, so my next quest is find the biography of Metternich that I know is lurking on a bookshelf somewhere in the house. Quite which bookshelf in which part of the house is the problem!

The frustrating thing with the book is that it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. There isn’t enouh about the politics for it to claim to be a political history. There isn’t enough detail about the people for it to a biography, even of multiple people. I guess I would describe it as a superficial overview of what was happening in internationalist, upper class Vienna in 1814/15.

If you are looking for an introduction to what happened in Europe in the aftermath of Napoleon’s first downfall, this a good starting point. If you want to really understand the Congress of Vienna I suspect there is a better book out there somewhere.

A random assortment of Enid Blyton books

I’ve been buying at auction again! I spotted a lot that included a book I need to complete a collection. As usual, the lot included more books that the one I actually wanted so I have about thirty books to get rid of.

Whilst selling the books I didn’t want to keep I read some of them – some I used to own and others I’ve never read before. All the books were gentle time fillers at a time when I’ve been a bit tired after a busy period of work – probably an hours read.

What follows is a summary of what I’ve read so far.

The Enchanted Wood: I can’t believe I’ve never read this book before! It is exactly the type of story I used to like as a new-ish reader and it’s part of a series I had loads of books from. Also, The Folk of the Faraway Tree, the sequel, was one of my favourite books. I liked the fact that no one in these stories is portrayed as wholly good or wholly bad. As an adult, particularly an adult in the early 21st century, I kept thinking “what on earth are the parents thinking of, letting their children go off with these strangle people/creatures and accepting, without question, the chickens, goats and spades they come home with!” I think that says a lot about the differences between May 1939, when the book was first published, and July 2021.

Mr Galliano’s Circus: this is an Enid Blyton for slightly older children and by this time, as a child, my Mum was encouraging me to read books that were more challenging and with wider vocabulary. There are lots of this type of book I just never read. I really liked the fact that for once, in an Enid Blyton book, the central character is not a middle-class child from an affluent family. In this book Jimmy Brown is a working-class lad with a father who is out of work and a mother who is working hard to keep the family together and food on the table. Who knew that Enid Blyton even knew that these types of people even existed!

The Ragamuffin Mystery: This appears to be part of a series involving Roger, Diane, Snubby, Barney and Loopy the dog. I can see that it might appeal to a 6-year-old – a gentle adventure story – but I found it was spoiled by the silliness of the support characters/baddies.

The Naughtiest Girl Again: a fun school story about a girl who struggles to keep her temper and to not muddle up her thinking. What really annoyed me though was the emphasis on girls being pretty! Really!?! There are so many more important things in life and being pretty is no guarantee that someone is a nice person.

This is a sample of some of the books I’ve dug out of my two bargain boxes. In the next batch I’ve moved on from Enid Blyton to other children’s authors.