Illumination of Ursula Flight – Anna-Marie Crowhurst

Reading historical fiction can help to give insights into lives in other times in ways that straight history can’t. History itself needs to be true to reality (even if it is an individual historian’s view of what is real) but fiction can help us to see what it would be like to not just read about the 17th century but to actually live it. The non-fiction gives us an interpretation of primary source documents and other record but the fiction, which is usually equally well researched, can give us an idea of how it would feel to be there when those documents were being written. I love reading both but I have a particular weakness for good historical fiction. The Illumination of Ursula Flight, opening with the titular heroine’s birth just as a comet heralds the Restoration of Charles II, looked like just my cup of (newly fashionable in the C17th) tea.

9781760632014Ursula is an interesting character – she adores her father, wants to love her rather distracted mother, is fascinated by plays and the theatre and is the centre of a small group of local children for whom she writes a series of short dramatic pieces. Her education and rebellious nature make her seem very modern so it would be easy to think that she isn’t very typical of her age – but this was the age of Aphra Behn, Margaret Cavendish and Lady Mary Wortley Montague so not every girl was confined to sewing and childbirth. There is plenty to disturb Ursula’s happy life – a spoilt brother, a lost youthful romance and then, more seriously, the death of her father and an arranged marriage to an older man. The marriage isn’t happy – mostly because of her husband’s slightly odd sexual needs and a fraught relationship with her mother-in-law – and the religious differences which arose during the age of Cromwell continue to cause problems within even within the happiest of families. Eventually Ursula breaks with convention completely, runs away and tries her luck in the London theatre world.

I enjoyed this book. The historical period is one I’ve only read a few books about so I found it quite educational but it was also a good story. Ursula was an engaging character and I cared about what happened to her – I really loved the way that she turned key events in her life into short plays. And her plays were really rather funny too… This is a good read if you enjoy strong female leads and a historical setting.

Jane

 

 

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Natives – Akala

It’s coming up to that time of year again: Bradford Literature Festival will be starting in a week. Which means ten days of authors (500 of the clever little chaps and chapesses), events (400, because authors are pretty social and like to do events in little groups sometimes) and books (don’t ask – not every event or author has a book which we can get hold of and some have multiples: let’s just say the stock deliveries will be vast and we will all be putting our manual handling training to good use). Exhausting but so much fun! Of course part of the fun is reading some of the books beforehand and getting to try lots of new and new to me writers. It is a great festival because the audience and authors are hugely diverse – it covers politics, religion, race and sport as well as a wide range of fiction and children’s events. This year we are being treated to everything from 1970’s rock-chick Suzi Quatro to David Starkey talking about Henry VIII. Like I said, diverse…Of course the demographic I form part of – white, middle-aged, female – is represented but I wanted to read about the experience of people who are ‘not-me’. Akala’s book, on race and class, seemed to fit the bill.

9781473661219Akala is a musician and poet who has won MOBO awards and founded the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company. He was born in the 1980s into a world where casual (and institutional) racism was common – bananas thrown at black footballers, the National Front had just spawned the BNP, and the British Nationality Act 1981 decreed that people from our former colonies, including the Windrush generation, became Commonwealth citizens rather than British subjects. While my white contemporaries were singing about Feeding the World Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned in a South Africa built on apartheid and parts of Britain experienced riots in predominantly black areas – life was not as fair as it seemed to me. In this book Akala talks about what life was like growing up in multicultural Camden in a single-parent family – the good as well as the bad. He witnessed violence and prejudice but was also supported by the wider Afro-Carribean community. He was an intelligent, enquiring child (a fact which often seemed to disturb some teachers – which was, oddly, the part which I found the most upsetting) and is now an intelligent writer. This is not just an account of Akala’s own life but also that of that wider community – the history of British Imperialism, the Commonwealth and worldwide racial issues – and it doesn’t just look at attitudes to race. Akala is mixed race – his mother is Scottish – and is now part of the middle classes but he had a working class upbringing. His assertion seems to be that while there is some sense of ‘otherness’ about people of different races racism is not innate. But this otherness is often used by those in positions of power (either real or assumed) to focus the fears of those who have no power.

This book is a powerfully argued plea for a fairer world. One where nobody is judged by the circumstances of their birth – either by class, race, religion or skin colour – and everyone has a chance to realise their potential. I was, once again, reminded of the privileges I enjoy but was never made to feel that I didn’t have the right to make the most of them. What I was left with was a desire to work with and for those who are less fortunate and the reminder that what that work should involve isn’t my decision to make. Now I’m just looking forward to finding out which events at the Literature Festival I will be doing bookstalls for – Akala’s is one I’d be very keen to be able to attend…

Jane

 

Riddle Of The Runes – Janina Ramirez

Riddle Of The RunesI first saw Dr Janina Ramirez on TV a few years ago presenting a documentary called Treasures Of The Anglo-Saxons, telling the bigger pictures behind Beowulf, the Gundestrup Cauldron, the Sutton Hoo treasures and many other works of art in a new and engaging way. Since then she’s become a successful author of several nonfiction historical books and presenter of TV programmes ranging from the Hundred Years War and Julian of Norwich, to the Vikings. In addition she runs an active twitter account and a series of Art Detective podcasts. And in between all this she somehow manages to be a course director for the History of Art at Oxford University! It’s fair to say the woman seems tireless, and it’s also fair to say her striking goth look means I have a bit of a crush on her (although hopefully not one that will result in restraining orders).

Riddle Of The Runes is Janina’s first foray into children’s fiction, and it’s wonderful. Set in Viking era Norway around the time of the Lindisfarne raids, this is the start of a series centred on a young heroine Alva Gutharson and her family. Alva is a great character – in this book about 12 years old, intelligent, reckless, brave and foolhardy in equal measures. Alva’s passion is finding out the truth and investigating mysteries, and around her is a cast of characters that alternatively help and frustrate her, her loyal mother Brianna,  the wise, calming influence of Uncle Magnus (my favourite) and her trusty pet wolf, Fenrir.

When a monk from Lindisfarne appears suddenly in her home of Kilsgard babbling of a casket covered in mysterious runes, and a tale of his warrior companion kidnapped in the mountains, the peace of the village is shattered and Alva is filled with purpose – the runes and the casket are a series of clues to a promised treasure and Alva must follow them, keeping ahead of the adults of the village who spend more time debating in the longhouse then getting out there and getting on with it…!

Riddle Of The Runes is a lovely tale of mystery, family, warmth and companionship for children (including grown up children), rooted deeply in Janina’s knowledge and love of this period of history. The whole Viking world of Kilsgard is brought vividly to life, David Wyatt’s atmospheric illustrations complement the story beautifully and as one who spend several happy weekends at Danelaw Viking Village in York drinking mead in the longhouse, tending fires and spit-roasting pigs I felt at times I was back there! I look forward to where Alva goes next.

Rob Glover

Riddle of the Runes – a Viking Mystery by Janina Ramirez with illustrations by David Wyatt
Oxford 241pp

City of Sinners – A A Dhand

I’ve never had an urge to be famous. I enjoyed acting when I was at school and university but the whole idea of being recognised wherever I went sounds horrid, to be honest. I’m happy that my friends, family and colleagues know who I am and, maybe, that the posts I do for my place of work’s social media (under the store name, not mine) make people laugh, think or want to read a particular book: anything more would be a bit much. But, when a local author opens his latest crime thriller with a body discovered in my actual place of work and asks if it is okay to call the bookseller who discover the body ‘Jane’ then, of course, it would be rude not to say ‘yes’….

36634147City of Sinners is the third outing for unconventional Bradford detective Harry Virdee. He’s used to dealing with murders but this time there are some very odd things about the body – how did a young female bookseller end up hanging from the rafters of a bookshop set in a Victorian wool trading hall, who killed her and why are her eyes both sewn closed and yet still moving….Soon there are more bodies (all female) and Harry can’t work out how they are linked. But when a young student goes missing it soon becomes apparent that she is not yet dead because she is the daughter of the Home Secretary. Harry’s boss needs to transfer the case to a specialist unit but the killer declares he will only deal with Harry: it seems that this case is very, very personal.

This is Bradford Noir at its best. With a real sting in the tail and twistier than barbed wire – don’t miss it (even if just for the cameo role by a real live bookseller….).

Jane

P.S. If you want to meet the creator of Harry Virdee the book will be launched as part of Bradford Literature Festival on Friday 29th June. If you are very good maybe I’ll sign the book for you too – after all, I’m famous now…

 

Eve of Man – Giovanna & Tom Fletcher

Nobody wants to be typecast but it is really hard not to get a bit blinkered. Rowan Atkinson, for example, has played so many classic comic characters that it would be very hard to see him play a romantic lead. He could be, indeed probably would be, great but it was take more effort on our part than his to make it work. There are some authors like that – a gritty noir novel by Barbara Cartland or a YA romance from Dan Brown would be equally unlikely. Of course some writers do cross genres – I love Hugh Howey’s thoughtful science fiction but he has also written romance. This hasn’t gone down well with all his readers, however, as some feel he should stick to the dystopias he excels at. Other authors manage to write across genres by using alternative names (even if it is just sticking an extra initial in there, I’m looking at you Iain Banks…): everyone now knows that Robert Galbraith’s crime novels are written by J K Rowling. But how about if two authors, a husband and wife team, write a novel (the first in a series) which is a new departure for both of them? Giovanna Fletcher has made her name writing contemporary women’s fiction and Tom writes for children. How will the authors of Billy and Me and The Dinosaur That Pooped Christmas collaborate to create a dystopian novel suitable for teens (and adults)?

38467635In a dystopian future (where lots of my favourite books are set…) humankind has a big problem. For fifty years only male babies have been born: girls are, occasionally, conceived but are never carried to term. Gradually the population becomes skewed and women of childbearing age are fading fast until, at last, one girl-child, Eve, is born. Despite the care given to her by the best medical teams available the mother dies after delivering her baby and Eve and her father are moved into a vast tower block. After a while Eve’s father is sent away – for her safety, we are told – and Eve is raised by a group of older women, called Mothers, overseen by a rather sinister woman called Vivian and her only friend is a hologram called Holly*. Holly herself is guided by a small group of young men and, although Eve is never told about the different pilots used, she has a favourite. This is Bram, the son of the man who developed the technology behind Holly (who is a downright nasty piece of work too…), and when the two meet, during a set of very unusual circumstances since Eve is meant to be totally isolated from all men, they fall in love. These circumstances revolve around the fact that Eve is now sixteen and the time has come for her to begin the attempt to repopulate the planet with girls with one of three carefully chosen male candidates.

I began to book by trying to work out which passages or ideas were the work of which of the two authors but I was quickly too caught up in the story to care. The world surrounding Eve, which she is never allowed to see, is a bleak place where the remaining population have damaged the environment so badly it is hard to see what kind of world it would be to bring any kind of child into. Although she has always been protected Eve is beginning to question her future – she is a lot feistier than the average princess in an ivory tower – and this is just as well since we soon begin to realise that it would not be a pleasant one. I had one or two quibbles – in particular the way that Eve is dressed up, made up and presented as the epitome of young feminine beauty to meet the first of her prospective mates. Why should it matter – it is not as if they have to choose between her and other, less attractive girls? Some might complain about the fact that the story does develop into a romance of sorts but, given that humans will die out completely if repopulation doesn’t happen, that is fairly forgivable. The science side of the story is fairly standard – cryogenics, holograms and lots of meddling with human biology – but is made nicely sinister in contrast to Eve and Bram’s gently growing romance.

All in all this is an interesting addition to the YA dystopian genre. While the prospect of the way that Eve will be trapped into breeding the new generation – treated as nothing more than a brood mare – means that this is probably not suitable for younger teens it will be of interest to those who are interested in gender politics alongside their post-apocalypse. It isn’t quite The Handmaid’s Tale but would lead a reader there quite easily.

Jane

 

*I did pretty well at suppressing the urge to think of Holly from Red Dwarf when I saw this name. Although the change from female to male made me smile….

 

A Little History of Archaeology – Brian Fagan

My last post mentioned that we’d just been away on holiday and, for once, I didn’t take anything set in the area (the Hebrides and Skye) to read. However, we did visit lots of archaeological sites so reading the latest in Yale’s ‘Little History’ series seemed very appropriate. I’ve always been interested in archaeology – I’m old enough to remember both the raising of the Mary Rose back in 1982 and the Tutankhamun exhibition in London in 1972 (good old Blue Peter…), I followed Living in the Past in 1978 (bedtime permitting) and, of course, I do love a bit of Time Team. Also I worked for quite a few years in academic bookshops: always in stores connected to Universities with highly regarded archaeology departments. Let’s face it, I’m a stones and bones groupie…

36125250This short book (less than 300 pages) gives a whistle-stop tour of the history of archaeology from the early days of, effectively, tomb-robbing to the present where technology has almost taken away the need for digging at all. Of course, as well as explaining the development of archaeology as a science the book also explores the human history which archaeology covers. From early stone tools, through the rise of farming, the splendours of Egypt and other near-Eastern civilisations and onto the Romans and Greeks. We also visit China – the amazing terracotta armies – and cultures in North and South America, and in Africa we go beyond the usual to look at Greater Zimbabwe.  As well as the history and the science we also meet the archaeologists themselves: from the early days of gentleman amateurs to increasing levels of scientific and academic rigour. For every showboating Schliemann there is the less well-known Vincent Gaffney. (Which then takes me back to the years I worked at Bradford University where his brother Christopher developed the ‘geophys’ used on Time Team, and his niece Bella, a talented local folk singer – talk about six degrees of separation…). I feel I know a fair bit about archaeology and still managed to learn from this book. Because care is taken to explain any even slightly specialist term it is also a great introduction for anyone (from a keen youngster onwards) who wants to delve deeper than just watching an Indiana Jones film.

Jane

May round-up

I don’t usually do a monthly round-up. They are popular with book bloggers, as are posts showing planned reading for the month, book hauls etc, but I would prefer to be posting a bit more regularly. I suppose other bloggers also do author interviews, Q&As, blog themes and the like but I enjoy reading and telling you what I’ve read. To quote a famous Russian, ‘simples’… However, sometimes life gets in the way. Over the last month I have had a holiday (which may get mentioned in a bit…), changed my hours at work (dropping my hours – which should mean more blogging time but I have been trying to get back into my running and gardening) and been doing lots of other non-reading stuff. Also I discovered Microsoft Jigsaw. If you want to be productive at all, in any way, don’t even think about Microsoft Jigsaw…Anyway, here are a few of the things I’ve been reading in May.

Whistle in the Dark – Emma Healey

whistledark.jpgI managed to miss Healey’s first book, Costa-winner Elizabeth is Missing, but I heard such good things about it that I was keen to read this. The story is told by Jen and describes the aftermath of what must be one of any parent’s worst nightmares. Lana, Jen and her husband Hugh’s teenaged daughter, went missing for four days while on a painting holiday in the Peak District. The holiday itself and the four days of parental panic are skimmed over a little: what we are really exploring in this book is the relationship between mother and daughter and Jen’s reactions to both the disappearance and Lana’s refusal (or inability) to say what happened.

It is understandable why Jen is worried – Lana has had episodes of depression in the recent past, culminating in an overdose attempt which led Jen to visits to all local pharmacies with a request not to sell painkillers to her daughter – but it seemed to me that Jen is experiencing mental health issues of her own. She obsesses over what could have happened – fearing all the usual worsts since Lana had befriended a teenaged boy on the holiday and was eventually discovered by a man on an isolated farm – becoming anxious, suspicious and a bit paranoid. The whole situation isn’t helped by the fact that the media follows the story closely and that one of the other people on the painting holiday is a slightly strange man whose religious beliefs include the possibility that some children can travel to hell and back. Jen almost stalks her own daughter to try to find answers – listening in on phone calls, searching bedrooms and following her to school – but doesn’t find them until she returns to the Peak.

Not quite a psychological thriller this is a fascinating look into the mind of a woman driven to extremes by the fear of what could have happened to her daughter. The characters are realistically drawn, both Jen and Lana but also Hugh and the older daughter, Meg, and the situation is plausibly dealt with. The final answers (which I won’t give away) are perhaps a little more far-fetched but possible all the same. I’m not a parent but the pain and worry of learning to deal with the fact that a beloved child is both growing apart from you and potentially putting themselves in danger seems very well described.

The House of Islam – Ed Husain

39988957I’m an atheist but I would never deny others the right to follow any religion – although I would really prefer their religion to promote tolerance, peace and fairness. I have friends who are Jewish, Christian, Sikh, Hindu and, since I live and work in Bradford, many who are Muslim. I am always interested in learning about what other people believe in and also how their faith is reflected in their everyday life so I was keen to read Ed Husain’s House of Islam. I read his earlier book, The Islamist, an account of his youthful brush with the world of more politicised, radical Islam and how he moved away from it: this book promised to be a more rounded and mature look at a major world religion.

Firstly we get a pretty comprehensive history of Islam – its origins, its early schisms and spread around the world. The rise of various sects is covered and some of them are fairly roundly criticised. What is important to Husain – whose particular brand of Islam is based on Sufism, a very spiritual form of the faith – is the essence of the religion, the feelings it should create, rather than strict obedience to man-made laws. As a person who doesn’t follow the directions of any religion this is a good distinction – I like the idea of a world filled with good people rather than Christians/Jews/Muslims/Jedi who follow a set of rules which can cause difficulties, or even suffering, to those who are not following in the same way. Specific areas are considered – sharia law (which almost certainly doesn’t mean what you think it does…), the role of women, education and sex, the relationship between Islam and Judaism and attitudes to death – and some suggestions are made. These mostly seem to be a plea for a greater understanding  of the full range of possibilities for Islam. Although there are many Muslims in the West the view of them held by many non-Muslims is that of one particular aspect of the faith. Often this is that of more extreme versions of what is, at heart, a peaceful faith.

I realise that Husain is giving his opinion here. He doesn’t speak for all Muslims, or even for all moderate Muslims. But he does speak very passionately and persuasively about something he seems to believe in wholeheartedly. Solving the problems of extremism (in all religions) can never be easy but a deeper understanding of other faiths would be a good place to start. I feel I have gained some of that understanding by reading this book.

Travellers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People – Julia Boyd

34594504Okay. So this doesn’t, on the face of it, sound like fun holiday reading but it was actually fascinating. It looks at the rise of the Nazi party in Germany between the two world wars from the first hand reports of non-Germans visiting or living in the country. The reports – diaries, journalism, letters and memoirs – are from a wide range of people. Diplomats, tourists, socialites, opera-buffs and school children are all represented and British, American and New Zealand voices are heard. Some are serious reports and some are more jokey in tone but, as we are repeatedly reminded, none of these people have the benefit of hindsight.

The majority of the travellers in this book (school-children excepted) are of an age to remember the Great War. This means that many of them are willing to accept many things in order to prevent another conflict. It seems shocking that so many were convinced, even after the persecution of the Jews began, that Hitler was the best hope for peace in Europe but, again, we have history to inform us and they did not. One of the points repeatedly made is that anti-Semitism was widespread and generally accepted in this era (although there is no suggestion that the methods ultimately used by the Nazis to deal with the issue would have been accepted in the same way). These reactions and reasonings are given without criticism – after all, we have no way of knowing what future generations will think of the way we are dealing with the global issues we face today. The main lesson I would like to draw from this gripping book is that we must not fall for smooth-talking political leaders who try to persuade us against our personal morality. Whatever religion (or none) we draw that morality from.

Jane