Friday, 20 November 2015

Book Reviews: 20 November

The Lady reviews of the latest books available to buy or download now


books-quicksilverQUICKSILVER by HRH Princess Michael of Kent (Constable, £20; offer price, £17)
The third volume in her Anjou trilogy, the Princess’s latest historical novel is also written in the present tense, but for the first time the author has chosen to narrate the story from a male protagonist’s point of view. The story focuses on Jacques Coeur, an extraordinary man living in extraordinary times: intelligent and manipulative, through his own efforts he achieved immense wealth and power.

This attracted envy and resentment, eventually leading to his downfall. The son of a merchant, he rose to become minister of finance to King Charles VII , controller of mines and master of the Royal Mint. His palace in Bourges, with its hints of secrecy and symbols of the trade with the East that was one of the foundations of his success, is his autobiography in stone. The novel’s title alludes to the suggestion that he was an alchemist, although the author, in her endnotes, wonders whether Coeur might have belonged to a society of early Freemasons.

He lent vast sums of money, profited from those in debt to him, and was eventually arrested, accused of poisoning the King’s mistress, Agnès Sorel. He was imprisoned and his assets seized. After three years of incarceration, a daring rescue saw him smuggled out of the country. He died on Chios in 1456.

Princess Michael of Kent’s enthusiasm and her dedication to historical research are evident. To sum up a complex mosaic of 15th-century French history in one coherent and compelling narrative is no mean challenge, but one she has tackled admirably.
Philippa Scott

books-edge-of-fallTHE EDGE OF THE FALL by Kate Williams (Orion, £14.99; offer price, £13.49)
Historian and novelist Kate Williams draws expertly on mysterious, flawed characters coming of age in a displaced world in this gripping period novel, set in the aftermath of the First World War. The de Witt family struggle to cope with the death of their second son. Their home, Stoneythorpe Hall, is a reminder of a bygone age, and they cannot fathom this new, post-war world order.

Desperate to escape, their youngest daughter Celia is sent to finishing school in Paris with her cousin, Louisa. But Louisa falls in love with the de Witts’ oldest son, a troubled young man with ulterior motives who takes her to London.

Celia too ends up in the capital, caught up in the Roaring Twenties. Amidst this social whirl, Celia discovers secrets about her family that threaten the very foundations their lives have been built upon. The period detail and acutely observed behaviour of the English upper classes give an air of authenticity to the cold, foreboding world Williams has created. A haunting piece of historical fiction.
Lyndsy Spence


books-book-of-the-weekAlways on Duty
While it is yet Day: The Story of Elizabeth Fry by Averil Douglas Opperman (Orphans Publishing, £16.99; offer price, £15.29)
As a girl, Elizabeth Fry loved flirting and pretty clothes – but gave them up when she became a Quaker. She combined having 11 children with an extraordinary career reforming prisons and mental asylums, and organising education for women and soup kitchens for the destitute. Only three things frightened this formidable woman, writes Opperman in her timely and well-researched biography: ‘the sea, darkness and death’.

The title comes from Fry’s mantra, a quote from the Bible that reflected her zeal to spend every waking hour improving people’s lives. She walked into prison cells, packed with often violent women, and would stay overnight to raise prisoners’ morale and read to them. She became a role model to Florence Nightingale, who took Fry-trained nurses to the Crimea. Nicknamed ‘the angel of prisons’, Fry never seems to have had a tantrum or a day off. It helped that her family owned banks, but she could easily have chosen to be a Victorian trustafarian, instead of a reforming philanthropist.

This thought-provoking and beautifully written book celebrates Fry’s selfless life, 170 years after her death. With poverty, homelessness and desperation rising, the world could do with more.
Rebecca Walersteiner


Drinking and Driving in Chechnya by Peter Gonda (Periscope Books £9.99; offer price, £9.49)
This economical, stinging debut novel conjures up an extraordinary sense of place, normally found in the best travel books or war journalism. It is the 1990s and, while Russia struggles to define itself after the collapse of the USSR , cynical ‘tough guy’ Leonid makes an uneasy living driving illicit vodka across the country. A wrong turn in the Caucasus leaves him marooned in Grozny, Chechnya, during the Russian bombardment. Gonda’s style is as muscular as Hemingway’s, while evoking the sheer terror of civilians in a total war. A Russian Heart Of Darkness.
Steve Barfield

If You Go Away by Adele Parks (Headline Review, £7.99; offer price, £7.59)
Parks’s latest is set in wartime England and centres around Vivian, a debutante who compromises her reputation with a bounder. To stifle the scandal, Vivian is forced to marry an older man she does not love. When he goes off to war, he sends her to his family’s remote country house. There she meets Howard, a playwright and conscientious objector. The two begin an affair, but then Howard changes his stance and enlists, leaving Vivian alone wondering which man (if any) will come home to her. Renowned for her chick-lit novels and ‘telling it like it is’, Parks has written a slow-burning read that picks up its pace halfway through. A worthy follow-up to her bestselling Spare Brides.

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