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Review: Lady Colin Campbell’s ‘A Woman’s Walks’

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I haven’t been reading much lately, so I picked up this morsel-sized collection hoping it might snap me out of it. I was far too optimistic.

This little book is a collection of travel writing fragments from Lady Colin Campbell, a noblewoman who was famously unable to obtain a divorce from her husband during the 19th century.

Feminist icon and a Strong Independent Woman living in a constraining era, I thought Lady Campbell and I were going to get along pretty well, but she makes for a rather irritating narrator.

This book weighs in at less than 100 pages, and is segmented into nine short passages, but God it was an exasperating struggle.

The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

A Woman’s Walks is one of those infuriating books in which you can read three pages, and then realise you’ve actually absorbed nothing the whole time you were reading.

It is also purple in the extreme, with paragraph after paragraph of over-descriptive fluff, and most of it less than original.

It’s strange, because you expect interesting people to have interesting stories to tell, but Lady Campbell seems rather tepid for a woman possessed of ‘the unbridled lust of a Messalina and the indelicate readiness of a common harlot.’

Her insights are, in most places, lacking in insight, and for all her pretty words she says little which means a great deal, or which hasn’t been said a thousand ways since. In fact, the primary concern of this book seems to be homage to its author’s bicycles, which feature in several of her adventures, and even have names.

‘…I regret to have to state that Biquette, the adorable machine built especially for me, whose curves are as great a joy to the eye as are her colours of dark blue and silver, whose paces in comparison to those of an ordinary bike are as different as are a thoroughbred’s to an ordinary bone-shaking hack – this exquisitely dainty combination of strength and beauty disgraces herself by a most plebian love of puddles.’

pg. 53

Lady Campbell also seems to have had an entirely unfounded and narrow-minded hatred of the German people, which I find a perplexing attitude in someone who was clearly trying to show her chums what a well-traveled, adventurous lady she was.

In truth, this book is only redeemed every so often by the odd phrase which strikes a chord (and which keeps you, by a hair’s breadth, from closing the book). I’ll let it keep two stars because it is very well-written, but overall this one just wasn’t for me.

Review: Georgette Heyer’s ‘Beauvallet’

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As you can see, my pledge to leave Georgette Heyer’s work alone for the foreseeable future really stood the test of time. I promise I’m not usually so fickle, and in any case, I have been suitably chastened for my haste to return.

Beauvallet was one of Heyer’s novels which I was most excited to read. With its Spanish heroine, pirate rogue, and promise of swashbuckling adventure, I really thought this would prove itself one of the author’s best, but here I heave a sigh.

Whilst I admit that whilst Beauvallet delivers all that it promises to, and in excellently written prose, it is a less exciting book than its counterparts by far.

The protagonists, Doña Dominica de Rada y Sylva and the eponymous Sir Nicholas Beauvallet, are flat compared to characters in other Heyer novels, and their chemistry lacks both the slow subtlety of Venetia, and the rollicking fun of These Old Shades.

Since Beauvallet is one of Heyer’s earliest novels it is perhaps understandable that it is not among her best, but the greatest shame of it is that had the two protagonists been given even a little more depth this would have been an excellent novel. It boasts one of Heyer’s more original plots, and a good cast of secondary characters, including brief appearances from real-life historical figures, Sir Francis Drake and Queen Elizabeth I.

I was particularly fond of the cool, feline character of Dominica’s would-be mother-in-law, a particularly sinister villain whose nuanced character sat poorly next to the brash simplicity of the romantic hero.

“Plenty of food for enthusiasm in Madrid, madam,” said Sir Nicholas politely.

“Ah, but when you attain to my years, señor, you will realise that there is nothing in the world to feed enthusiasm.”

“I shall hope to preserve my illusions, madame.”

“It is far better to have none,” drawled the lady.

pg. 112

All in all, this is not Heyer’s worst novel (I reserve that title for Royal Escape!), but I do not recommend it unless you are short on options.

If you are interested in finding out more about my favourite Heyer novels, which feed my ongoing love for her, and for which Beauvallet can be forgiven, find reviews for Venetia and These Old Shades by clicking the links.

Alain de Botton’s ‘The Art of Travel’

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Non-fiction? You bet! And never let anyone tell you it’s dull because they hated textbooks during school.

The Art of Travel is a collection of essays on the whats and the whys of going places, being there, and coming home. It is a delightful, thought-provoking book with a wealth of wisdom.

With its bite-size sections it is also ideal for dipping in and out of. I think this is probably the ideal method to digest this book, as de Botton has a luxurious, erudite writing style that encourages a leisurely reading pace.

‘It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves. The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, but who may not be who we essentially are.’

pg. 59

Each chapter contains a mixture of de Botton’s experiences and references to those of a particular historical figure, or ‘guide’. My personal favourites were:

  • ‘On Travelling Places’ – concerning the poet, Charles Baudelaire, and the painter, Edward Hopper.
  • ‘On the Exotic’ – an overview of the life and times of Gustave Flaubert.
  • ‘On Eye-opening Art’ – about Vincent Van Gogh’s relationship with the natural world.

Not many books can be described as ‘helpful’, but The Art of Travel is exactly that. Living abroad, this book has assisted me, and having finished it I feel I have undergone a small degree of intellectual growth.

This is not a book with universal appeal, and if you are disinclined to philosophy I don’t recommend it, but for the rest of us it is a book about going places that will take you to places in your own mind.

Also, The Art of Travel is very quotable, making it an ideal text for academic work, and for those times when you want a book which will not only amuse you, but make you want to be a better, wiser version of yourself.

I am confident that de Botton is an author to whose work I will return. Also, on a side note, I received this book as a present from a friend, as a budding traveller, and have received few gifts so touching.

‘…we might return from our journeys with a collection of small, unfêted but life-enhancing thoughts.’

pg. 113

Review: Georgette Heyer’s ‘Devil’s Cub’

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Yes, I know I should just rename my site the Georgette Heyer Review, but I promise this will be the last of hers, at least for a short while.

Devil’s Cub is the sort-of sequel to These Old Shades, but equally a book in its own right. The main characters are the strait-laced Mary Challoner, and the gambling, shooting, downright misbehaving Dominic, Marquis of Vidal. She’s a good girl, he’s a bad boy, and from the beginning it’s obvious how things are going to go down.

After attempting to elope with Mary’s younger sister, Vidal finds a different woman on his hands. What follows can best be described as a fantastic and frolicking piece of frippery.

“What do you want to talk about?”
“My future, if you please.”

He looked frowningly at her. “That’s my affair, ma’am.”
She shook her head. “It is kind in you, my lord, but I do not aspire to be your wife.”

pg. 107

This is book full of fine clothes, jewels and lace, but for all its lavish loveliness, it’s not quite as good as some of Heyer’s other novels.

Not that this is a bad book, but it doesn’t have quite as much charm as Shades. Dominic is a convincing love interest, but he’s not as compelling as his father, and Mary, whilst spirited and engaging, falls short next to Léonie.

It doesn’t help that the plot of Devil’s Cub is considerably less original than its predecessor, and I think the more generic alpha bad boy/good girl pairing turns the predictable into something slightly pedantic.

But I’ll grant I’m being harsh. There are some lovely scenes in this book, and its romance charms in the first degree. Reading it, I spent a lot of time grinning, especially when my favourites from Shades made reappearances.

Dominic is rougher than Justin, in voice and deed, spoilt and immature, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t likeable. One of the things I find most impressive about Georgette Heyer is that for someone who wrote a lot of romances, she wrote a variety of love interest types. I have yet to find one character who entirely resembles another, despite the repetition of settings and events.

“Almost the only evidence of intelligence I find in you, Rupert, lies in your ability to pick a wine.”

pg. 282

I really enjoyed this read. It is as delightful as a macaroon. The perfect sweet treat for unwinding with after a long day, and the sort of book that it doesn’t really matter if you’ve read it before. It is a warm, comforting cushion for a tired mind to sink into.

I just think maybe I’ve read one too many of Heyer’s romances in rapid succession, and the magic is fading next to my voracity.

Review: Richard Adams’ ‘Watership Down’

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It’s not every day that I go in for anthropomorphism, most of the time because I find people writing through animal eyes tend to write animals very much like people. Either that or there’s a distinct lack of depth.

Watership Down is something from my childhood, when I had a videotape of Winter on Watership Down. I never read the book, and since by reputation Watership Down is one of the anthropomorphic texts, I decided it was high time to amend that.

Following Chief Rabbit Hazel and his band on various terrible adventures as they seek a new warren, this novel illustrates, with graphic poignancy, the fragility of our natural world. Mixing sympathy with subtle allegory, Adams offers a stark reminder that creatures have lives worth more than losing, but avoids going all-out and creating something which reads like a manifesto.

It is this balance which, I think, makes Watership Down engaging.

‘Hazel realised wearily that Bigwig was probably going to be troublesome. He was certainly no coward, but he was likely to remain steady only as long as he could see his way clear and be sure of what to do. To him, perplexity was worse than danger; and when he was perplexed he usually grew angry.’

pg. 34

For the most part, the characters in this novel are strong, from the prophet-like Fiver to heroic Hazel, the warrior-rabbit Bigwig, and my favourite, the raucous black-headed gull, Kehaar.

I enjoyed the interactions, and whilst the book does suffer from having too many characters (to be expected with rabbits, I suppose), Adams does succeed in creating a convincing hierarchy.

‘Rabbits (says Mr. Lockley) are like human beings in many ways. One of these is certainly their staunch ability to withstand disaster and to let the steam of their life carry them along, past reaches of terror and loss. They have a certain quality which it would not be accurate to describe as callousness or indifference. It is, rather, a blessedly circumscribed imagination and an intuitive feeling that Life is Now.’

pg. 173

I feel, having finished this book, a little annoyed. There is something about it which I can’t quite grasp, and I feel that I ought to have enjoyed it more than I did.

Really there isn’t much to fault. Obviously, reading books aimed at children as an adult is never ideal, but nonetheless, I did think this would be a tearjerker, and it wasn’t really like that at all.

I admit I find the plot a little haphazard, and the number of characters a distraction. That being said, however, this is a fantastically written book, and it is refreshing to find a child’s book which has some bite to it. There are some dark themes, and whilst the ending is not quite the tragedy I had been expecting, Adams writes without flinching.

‘For rabbits, winter remains what it was for men in the middle-ages – hard, but bearable by the resourceful and not altogether without compensations.’

pg. 490

One comparison I can draw is to David Clement-Davies’ Fire Bringer, which is a novel of similar themes. I think if I had read Watership Down around the same time I would have been more captivated.

Still, it’s certainly one for the bedtime story when I have children of my own, and far from a disappointment.

Review: Georgette Heyer’s ‘These Old Shades’

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This book is actually getting a 4.5 rating, and it’s official. I have a Georgette Heyer addiction.

Either the books are getting better as they go, or I’m getting better at picking them, because sacré bleu! That might have been the best historical romance I’ve ever read!

These Old Shades is a comical Georgian romance, concerning the dastardly Duke Justin of Avon and his page Léon, who is later revealed as the young minx, Léonie…

It is an aggressively lovely book, and reads as a work both finely-tuned and witty. It is a rarity, for me to actually laugh at a book, but Avon’s bitter sarcasm, accompanied by the foil of Léonie’s biting tongue make for a wealth of humorous exchanges, and this is besides an amusing secondary cast. My favourites were the Duke’s boisterous English siblings – the scoundrel Rupert, and indomitable Fanny.

‘”Mr Marling has no doubt warned you that I am no fit companion for the young and – ah – innocent, infant?”

“No-no.” Léonie tilted her head. “I know all about that, you see. Me, I am not very innocent, do you think?”‘

pg. 126

As with all of Heyer’s books that I have read thus far, These Old Shades is light and a tad farcical. To read such novels with a serious mind to literary criticism is to remove their charm, but that is not to say Heyer’s work lacks intelligence. Deftly plotted, and coloured with delightful true-to-the-era colloquialisms, there is an undeniable depth of research which gives this romp depth and character.

Again with the age gap though, and this time a scandalous union between a sordid man of forty and a nineteen-year-old ingénue. Ah… indeed it is an inch shy of uncomfortable, but though I cringe in the more rational side of my heart, I can’t deny that Heyer pulls it off. Monseigneur and his enfant are nothing if not unconventional from the first, and as much as Léonie is an embodiment of innocence, her spirit belies criticism of her choices, which are always her own.

‘”Did you think we had eloped?” Rupert inquired.

“That explanation did present itself to me,” admitted the Grace.

“Eloped?” Léonie echoed. “With Rupert? Ah, bah, I would as soon elope with the old goat in the field!”‘

pg. 204

Just shy of perfection, is my verdict on this novel, and having consumed it in the space of a few hours, I declare These Old Shades enchanting, and just about everything a proper old-fashioned romance should be. Oui. I will stand by it, though I don’t deny it’s not a book for everyone.

Review: Georgette Heyer’s ‘Venetia’

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Oh, but a fun romance novel is nothing if not a guilty pleasure, and a feat so rarely done well.

The best thing about Georgette Heyer is that she was not only talented, but prolific, and Venetia, as compared to the handful of other Heyer regency romances I have read, is one her best.

Heyer’s books are devoid of explicit sex and real passion, focusing instead on the lighter and more humorous aspects of budding courtship. However, Heyer is one of very few writers I’ve ever read who can make the misty-eyed something more than mush, and here she does what she does best. The dashing rogue, the headstrong lady, and an unequivocal evocation of a bygone age.

Our protagonist, Venetia Lanyon, is a sassy young woman of the gentry living out a selfless kind of exile in the company of her younger brother, Aubrey. Orphaned by unloving parents, it might be expected that Venetia would be the most insufferable, self-pitying wretch, but with her sharp tongue and independent, no-nonsense attitude, she is entertaining to follow. Aubrey is also an excellent character, and there is great charm in this book’s depiction of their sibling relationship.

‘”But he’s dead, Venetia!”
“Yes, but I don’t suppose he has any more fondness for us now than he had when he was alive, ma’am. He never made the least push to engage our affections, you know, so he really cannot expect us to grieve for him.”‘

pg. 6

But of course this is a romance, and we’ll leave incest to A Game of Thrones, so enter the love interest, the wicked Lord Jasper Damerel, reputable womaniser, blackguard, and thirteen years Venetia’s senior…

To be honest, age gap romances don’t usually do it for me. Call me a cynic, but my mind is always fast-forwarding to the unhappy fate of having a lover in their dotage. That being said, Heyer does handle the situation convincingly, with neither of the characters sweeping at once into each other’s arms.

Scoundrel though Damerel is (and there is no doubting, from his first meeting with Venetia, that this is far from an act), he is lovable, and Venetia, for all her inexperience, is a clever and engaging heroine, who knows, as much as she can, what she is getting into.

The gradual development of feelings between the two is slow, but tender, as Venetia goes from Damerel’s sort of pet, then his friend, and only later, when they are much better acquainted, his dear one. Likewise, Damerel is not at first an object of ardent desire, but instead a friend and advisor. Womaniser he may be, but in this novel it is Venetia who does most of the chasing, and only after she has been given sufficient experience to know what it is she wants, contrary to the grip of societal expectations.

‘”No, but you know what that Prince in the fairy tale is like, ma’am! Young, handsome, and virtuous! And probably a dead bore,” she added thoughtfully. “Well, my usurper is not very young, and not handsome, and certainly not virtuous: quite the opposite in fact. On the other hand, he is not a bore.”‘

pg. 290

Of course there are terrible complications, among them Venetia’s unwanted suitors, meddlesome relations, and Damerel’s burgeoning conscience, but we read safe in the knowledge that this book is a historical caper, with the delightful touch of a master at her craft. Intelligent and fun, it manages, despite its lightness, to stay just shy of frivolity. Just be sure you like the historical setting, because Georgette Heyer knew a lot about it, and was determined to impart her knowledge!

A satisfying read for a Sunday afternoon, and unromantic though I profess to be, I can’t deny there is a sweetness to this book that melts my chilly heart.

Review: Catherynne M. Valente’s ‘Deathless’

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‘Let the truth be told: there is no virtue anywhere. Life is sly and unscrupulous, a blackguard, wolfish, severe. In service to itself, it will commit any offence. So, too, is Death possessed of infinite strategies and a gaunt nature – but also mercy, also grace and tenderness. In his own country, Death can be kind. But of an end to their argument, we shall have none, not ever, until the end of all.’

pg. 79

Never in my life have I read such a blend of my favourite things. Fairy tales, Russia, and all the grim darkness of death combine in this novel, making for a fantastic, unhappy riot that flows as easily as the wind.

Deathless is a surrealist Russian fairy tale set in the confines of 20th century St Petersburg (or Petrograd/Leningrad). It chronicles the life of Marya Morevna, bride to the Tsar of Life, Koschei, and her terrible adventures in the realms of life and death.

It would be easy to mistake this book for a twisted romance, but in ambition it is a sweeping commentary on life, death, war, love and all things in between. In execution, it is close to perfect.

There are rusalka and talking horses, firebirds and birds who can become men. There are sisters, lovers, and murderers. There are ghosts, and chains, and blood. It is at once, too much, and exactly enough. The balance of this novel is exquisite, and Valente’s writing is of the highest quality. Every stitch of this book is artful, but it reads with the ethereal lightness of the best old fairy tales.

Gushing though my praise may be, it is, I feel, deserved, because Deathless is everything I wanted it to be.

‘There is no such thing as a good wife or a good husband. Only ones who bide their time.’

pg. 125

A book as hideous as it is beautiful, and whilst it echoes with the voices of other writers (something reminded me of The Master and Margarita), Deathless is both bizarre and unique.

I am hesitant to read any more of Valente’s works, because I am reluctant to believe any writer has got more than one book as good as this in them, but whether Deathless is one of a kind or not, I am so, so glad to be alive in a time to read it.

‘”We are going to do something extraordinary together, you and I,” she whispered. “Do you remember when you said that to me, so long ago? Do you know what it is we are doing? I will tell you, so that later, you cannot say I deceived you. I am taking my will out of you, and I am taking yours with it.”‘

pg. 260

Mysterious and poignant, this is a book to carry in the soul, and to compare with all others. It is for ones like this that I read, and my one gripe is that Valente’s masterpiece has raised the bar so high that many good books will now never attain greatness in my mind. A sad truth, but, as Deathless voices more than once: ‘life is like that.’

Review: Naomi Novik’s ‘Uprooted’

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Uprooted is a fantasy fairy tale. I went in with high hopes, but this novel had as much flavour as a vat of cold celery soup.

Our protagonist, Agnieszka, lives in Dvernik, a backwater village on the edge of an evil wood, protected by a mysterious, unlikable wizard in a tower. The Dragon, as he is called, chooses a girl every ten years to be his companion. All these women return forever changed, and when Agnieszka is chosen (surprise, surprise…), she must discover why.

In trying to write a fantasy/fairy tale/adventure/romance, Novik manages to write something which is none of these things, and overall, nothing much at all. I think that the main problem the novel suffers from is ‘flitting’. There is a lot of ground, and not much depth, as though the author was more concerned with getting to the finish than getting there in an exciting way.

There were bits of this book that I quite liked, more bits that I didn’t, and some I really despised. The highlight is probably The Dragon, essentially a grumpy neat freak with intimacy issues. He’s not one of the best characters I’ve ever read, but he was, in places, amusing. The mythology created (or used) is also interesting, but Uprooted unfortunately lacks the oomph to do it justice.

Less impressive was the romance, which was far from compelling. In the zenith of passion, there is a sense that The Dragon kind of likes Agnieszka, and Agnieszka likes The Dragon, but in the same way as a familiar piece of furniture. The sex is horny, but lacking in emotional maturity. I think this novel is meant to be adult, but in a lot of places it reads like generic YA dusted with blood and halfway explicitness.

Another point not worthy of comment is the friendship between Agnieszka and her supposed close-as-a-sister friend Kasia – just wet. Also, the writing is only passing decent, and in the host of secondary characters there is not one who is memorable, original, or in any way interesting.

There are fewer things I really didn’t like, but one of them is the weird sexual assault that Agnieszka suffers early in the novel, which is then later pretty much brushed under the carpet. Our love interest’s reaction amounts to ‘well it’s kind of your own fault, but I made the guy forget, so who cares?’ Why was that scene there, Novik? What was it meant to be?

Also this Mary-Sue protagonist. Pack your bags and get out of my reading, girl. It’s quite sad really. Novik seems to think that just because Agnieszka isn’t the most attractive girl, this is viable excuse for her to be the best magician of the age, despite having had little to no training. She is an expert strategist, despite having never left her village, a brilliant healer, and the only person really capable of understanding The Dragon, as no one ever has…

Personally, I am so over this type of character. I want everyone flawed, and not just nicely flawed, but actually imperfect, conflicted, and with something to overcome. Agnieszka is not insufferable, but nor does she face any real challenges, or grow.

All in all, an almost rotten read. One or two good scenes, and a couple of nice similes, but really overrated. Novik, it seems, is better at with winged reptiles than wizards, so I’ll stick to Temeraire.

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