Lady of the Sun: The Life and Times of Alice Perrers by F. George Kay

This was a fascinating book about a sometimes elusive historical figure – the much maligned mistress of Edward III, Alice Perrers. Perrers has been (mis)represented by history as a lower class, avaricious, grasping woman who had Edward III firmly wrapped in her serpentine coils, rising to impossible heights before falling in disgrace, stripped of her property, lands and dignity by powerful men who deeply resented the power she wielded and what she came to represent – a corrupt court. Yet, this apparently lowly-born woman rose from being one of Queen Phillippa’s maidens to become, not only the king’s lover and a mover and shaker of the times, but one of the wealthiest landowners in England at the time.

Casting doubt on previous contemporary accounts of the much-loathed Perrers and applying logic to what is known about her through deeds, court transcripts and letters (among other things) Kay critiques the way history has painted her. Starting with the notion she was lowly born, he suggests she at least must have been of middle-class origins to be able to read, possibly write and speak other languages (just to communicate with the king, she must have had a good grasp of French), even if she wasn’t fluent in these skills. Considering French would have only been spoken among the middle and upper classes, this is one clue, as is her name and possible familial relations. Explaining where other historians have perhaps made incorrect assumptions about Perrers’ upbringing, Kay seeks to put this right – but without being dogmatic. Rather, he puts forward alternate ideas and evidence and lets the reader decide. Kay also points out that Perrers’ business acumen must have also been exceptional to have acquired the property she did, never mind the fact she had the respect and allegiance of some of the finest businessmen (albeit somewhat shonky) in London and abroad – men who later paid a high price for their professional relationship with the woman. If nothing else, Perrers was one smart operator – but don’t expect her contemporaries to have acknowledged that or the (mostly male) historians who came later either. Rather, they repeated and emphasised all the negative qualities those seeking to malign and scapegoat her in the aftermath of Edward III’s reign, making any alternate reading of the woman difficult if not impossible.

What is fascinating about Kay’s account (and which I suspect the author, Vanora Bennet, used when writing her marvellous The People’s Queen), is that Kay places Perrers’ at the heart of many events that occurred in not only Edward’s reign, but even his successor’s, the hapless and spoiled Richard II’s. Whether it was championing various businessmen, nobles, bishops and seeking their favour with the king, or somehow getting involved with the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, Kay presents a persuasive argument for Perrers’ being, if not central, then likely a key figure. There’s little doubt she would have known Chaucer (though he fails to obviously mention her, though Kay feels a physical description of her exists in The Canterbury Tales, not as the Wife of Bath, as some other historians have posited, but rather as the Miller’s wife in that tale).

Rather than following traditional notions of Perrers as a greedy, selfish woman who would stop at nothing to acquire what she could while she could (though Kay acknowledges she likely did that as well), he also admires her as a woman of the times who used the resources available to her – her wit, mind and charm – to advance herself in ways that weren’t otherwise available to women, let alone a woman of her birth.

Overall, I found this book really interesting and the connections and analysis convincing. The era comes alive as well as Perrers, and while she might have been wiped from history in the immediate aftermath of her fall, there’s no doubt that she nevertheless left enough of an impression for many historians and writers to wish to uncover what made her tick and bring her back to life – I am certainly glad Kay did.

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The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman

Book Two in Philip Pullman’s new trilogy, The Secret Commonwealth, a trilogy that functions both as a prequel (Book One, La Belle Sauvage) and a sequel, is a deeply disturbing and at times very dark read that sees the main characters from La Belle – Lyra, Pan and Malcolm, thrown into personal and professional turmoil as their world and lives are threatened and, as a consequence, how they’re catapulted into life-altering journeys.

Commencing with a murder that Pan bears witness to, it’s a while before the significance of the death becomes apparent. What’s of concern to the reader is not only the fact that Lyra and Pan can separate (those who’ve read The Amber Spyglass will recall the heart-wrenching circumstances that facilitated this ability), but that they’re at terrible odds with each other. Now twenty, Lyra is a student at Jordan College in Oxford and, despite what happened in her childhood, is filled with the new, rationalist and materialist philosophies of the latest academic and literary “celebrities”, notions which cast doubt on what Lyra has not only experienced, but sees around her on a daily basis. This makes Pan totally despondent as he tries to debate the futility and absurdity of these viewpoints. But whatever Pan says, it simply makes Lyra more determined than ever to try and adhere to them. Initially, the tension between the two is just disheartening to read, but when you begin to understand this isn’t simply a personal change in perspective for Lyra, but part of a much broader way of thinking and being – a kind of existential crisis – and which has strong links to the growing might of the Magisterium, then it’s apparent much darker forces are at play.

When Lyra is ordered from her lodgings under a slim pretext and Pan, fed up with what she’s become, decides to go on a quest for her “imagination” (which he is convinced has been stolen from her), Lyra is left with no choice but to go and find him. Only, where Lyra believes he’s gone is linked to the murder Pan witnessed, the political and power plays moving in the wider world and, most strangely, the fact that a certain genus of rose, which can only be grown in parts of Asia, is being wiped out.

What follows, is a mighty quest that sees Lyra, Pan and Malcolm Polstead, who in his role as an agent of Oakley Street as well as someone who cares deeply for Lyra, crossing England, Eastern Europe and entering incredibly dangerous territory. In the meantime, moves are afoot to disband those who would protect what’s been important in the past – academic freedom, the right to free speech and faith, to imagine and create – as the Magisterium and the men behind it rise to incredible heights and gain unprecedented control. Not only are they seeking to quash any kind of resistance, but put an end to those who represent that: the central figure being Lyra Silvertongue.

While the book plumbs some terrible depths – I am thinking particularly of a scene on a train with Lyra and some soldiers, as well as veiled and real threats levelled at all the main players – there are also some enriching and warm acts of kindness to offset these. They occur among friends and familiar characters (many of whom tread the pages of the book), but in a heartening gesture, often from strangers, some with no agenda but wishing to be of aid. But what is most exciting in this book is following Lyra’s pursuit – not so much the physical one she undertakes to find Pan, but the spiritual and psychological one she embarks upon as slowly and surely her eyes are (re)opened to what she’s wilfully closed them: The Secret Commonwealth.

This is a highly political, deeply engaging read that keeps you turning the pages and often while on the edge of your seat. A fabulous addition to an incredible series. I cannot wait to see where Pullman (and Lyra, Pan and Malcolm – and the rest!) take us next.

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Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E Harrow

When I first started reading this book, I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about it. Sure, the writing was exquisite, the metaphors and similes original and evocative and the style was lovely and easy to read… but… then, whoompa! Something occurred about a third or even halfway through and I was hooked. In fact, I not only didn’t want to put the book down, but I never wanted to leave this marvellous world/s of possibilities Alix E. Harrow has created.

This is the story of young, mostly abandoned (by her peripatetic father who worked collecting unusual antiquities for his patron, Mr Locke, who is also his daughter’s guardian) January Scaller – a girl who is not yet a woman, not quite white, but neither is she black. She is, however, coloured, and therefore perceived by the predominately white society she mixes in, as different. She is also curious, protected and, considering her differences, quite privileged. For this is a world very aware of place and position and that includes colour of one’s skin which, in January’s world, can only be overcome by connections – of which January is, to her great fortune, possessed.

Aware that she leads a sheltered life, January likens her existence to that of the many wonderful artefacts Mr Locke collects – the very same ones her father is tasked with finding for him. They’re kept in rooms, cages, glass display cases and judged; a value is assigned which governs how they’re appreciated. But January longs for more – she especially longs for her father to return from those interminable voyages he’s always taking and from which the best he can do is scrawl a few lines to her to indicate she is not forgotten. Only, try telling that to January.

Then, one day, she discovers a strange book. Believing it’s one of the many peculiar presents her guardian often leaves for her to discover, she finds the story within the pages transportative. It’s wondrous, compelling in its narrative about secret doors that when opened lead to other fantastical and sometimes dangerous worlds, and it offers her the escape she longs for. Yet, the more January reads, the more perplexed she becomes: is the book a fiction, or is it real? And why is it that the further she delves into its pages, the more complex and dangerous her own life becomes – until the moment she understands just what this book is and why it came to her…

It’s hard to talk too much about this novel without risking spoiling it except to say that it’s incredibly beautiful. I’ve already spoken about the writing, but the story (which is about the stories we tell – each other, within and across cultures – and the ability they have to shape and influence us; how they reside in our hearts and head, captivate, restore, embolden, challenge, move etc) is simply sensational. It’s a slow burn in some ways, but in other ways, the pace is perfect, but it took me a little while to appreciate that.

Part magic realism, wholly magical, this is a story about identity, family, love, and the other bonds that make and break us. It’s also about trust, faith, and the astonishing power of stories to shape the worlds we live in and how, in turn, we shape them as well. How opening doors, both metaphorically and literally, is an optimistic and progressive action that allows us to grow, change and most importantly, learn to understand ourselves with and through others. Powerfully and skilfully told, in a mesmerising and dream-like way, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

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An explanation (for the absence of reviews of late) and a new review: The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

The cover of my next novel, due out March 1st 2020. Set in Scotland in the early 1700s, it’s based on a true story.

I’ve been a bit remiss with my book reviews of late – but not, thank goodness, my reading (I have devoured so many books – fiction and non-fiction – they are my solace, joy and inspiration). Nevertheless, reviewing has taken a back seat as the last two months have seen me immersed in my own writing (a novel due for release in 2021) and editing my next novel, The Darkest Shore (which I will blog about soon) and which is being released March 1st 2020 in Aus/NZ. As a consequence, I have a number of simply wonderful books I’ve been bursting to review, but have had to wait until I’ve had a bit of breathing space – oh, and my computer. You see, on top of everything else, my computer decided to go ballistic. It had a bit of help though. I decided I was going to store my documents on iCloud. Actually, I was persuaded by my husband who said I should have backup beyond a time machine (apologies to Dr Who) just in case someone breaks into my house and steals my computer. Fair enough, I thought, and bought iClould space and voila! My files not only disappeared, but those remaining became scattered into different hundreds of folders etc. A “geek” (his name for himself) called James was my saviour and, after saying he’s never seen anything like it, spent five days trying to rebuild my computer back to the way it was. Turns out, iCloud has eaten some of my files and we don’t think I’ll ever get them back :(. Overall, I have what I need, so I am trying to think positively and tell myself I Marie Kondoed my computer… let go of what didn’t spark joy. Problem is, I don’t yet really know what I have “let go” of and dread finding out lest it doesn’t spark joy so much as rage or despair… Anyhow, onto more interesting things… like books.

I honestly, I have been so spoiled with my reading of late, there are just so many fantastical books out there, I wasn’t sure where to start until I remembered The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes. It was recommended to me by my beloved reading buddy and while I was enchanted with the title, little did I know I would swiftly fall under the spell of the story as well.

Set during the Depression in the US and based on a true story, this about a group of disparate women living in the mountains of Kentucky who, for various reasons, decide to create a mobile “horseback” library in the small town of Bailyville.

The story opens by introducing the reader to the recently wed, British immigrant, Alice Wright. Wed to the handsome and very desirable and wealthy, Bennett Van Cleeve, Alice believes she is escaping the prison of her home in England and embarking on a grand adventure with the man of her dreams. Sadly, the reality is far from what she hoped and soon she finds herself in the company of other women who, for reasons that become apparent as the story unfolds, are also searching for something and someone beyond what their lives have offered. There’s sassy and independent Margery, shy young Izzy, the widow, Kathleen and Sophia, an educated black woman tasked with caring for her crippled brother who, due to prejudice, decides to only work in the library in the evenings, becoming, effectively, the library’s administrator and bringing order to potential chaos.

Known as the WPA packhorse librarians, of course, there are objections among certain townsfolk, not only about women mounting horses daily to take books, magazines and comics out to those who either live remotely or are unable to come to the library, but also about the fact they’re peddling stories. Stories are powerful, unpredictable and potentially dangerous. As the books and magazines and the tales contained within start to not only unite the readers, but also teach them about life beyond their mountains and about possibilities, the township begins to stir. In this sense, the book is about the way in which stories can literally transform lives – and not just those of the packhorse librarians – and for the better.

Brave, bold and kind, the librarians endure personal hardship and professional criticism, but it’s their work and their love of it that binds them together. The lives of the locals are also brought into stark relief; their poverty, their struggles, but also their joy in the tales the women bring them and how they come to slowly regard themselves and each other in a different light. But not everyone can tolerate what the packhorse librarians are doing, the way it’s empowering certain people and, before too long, there are moves afoot to prevent the women not only delivering their tales, but the changes they stimulate. But when tragedy strikes, no-one could have foreseen the lengths those opposed to the library and the independent women at its heart were prepared to go…

Beautifully written, this tale is stirring, heart-felt and inspiring. It reminds you of the power of good stories, the importance of friendship and above all, how decent people united in a great cause can bring about justice and positive change. Messages we all need to remember; lessons we need to heed. A wonderful read.

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Bruny by Heather Rose

I don’t know where to begin with this book. It was so wonderfully unexpected. A thrilling, outrageous and clever tale about family, politics, betrayal, deceit at the highest levels and the people who really pay for that – and all set in Tasmania. What’s not to love?

The book opens when a bomb explodes, almost destroying a new and ridiculously expensive bridge that has been built by the Tasmanian government using federal and international funds and which connects the beautiful island of Bruny to the rest of Tasmania via a six-lane roadway. Overkill anyone? Heralded by the sitting government as an essential piece of infrastructure that will invite more tourists and thus money to Tasmania and advance the island fair, there are many who doubt the efficacy and legitimacy of the project. Vested interests, splinter groups both combine and implode as debates over the bridge – especially now it needs to be repaired – escalate.

Enter Astrid Coleman, member of a famous political family currently working for the U.N., whose twin brother is not only the Premier of Tasmania, but her older half-sister is leader of the Opposition. An expert in conflict resolution, it’s believed Astrid will not only be able to pour oil over troubled waters by tempering the mood of those against the bridge, but prepare locals for the government’s solution (one backed by the Federal government) to ensure the bridge is repaired by the rapidly approaching opening date: by bringing in hundreds of Chinese workers.

Astrid arrives home to find not only the island and, particularly Hobart and Bruny in turmoil, but her family as well. Her father is suffering from dementia and quoting only Shakespeare, her mother is dying of cancer and while the family can come together and give the appearance of unity in their personal lives, in their professional, political lives, it’s a very different story.

Seeming to go along with her brother’s plans, when Astrid discovers what’s really going on, it’s game on. For what no-one knows is Astrid has her own agenda …

This novel is such a searing, intelligent and often funny (in that kind of I cannot believe this, but I sort of can way) read, I couldn’t put it down. The world and politics Rose constructs are utterly recognisable and just as infuriating and frightening. There’s a right-wing President in the USA who’s a buffoon, Brexit has caused long-predicted chaos, Australia is creating closer ties with China. Current prominent Australian political figures make an appearance – albeit with different names but not characters and you’ll have fun discerning who is who and enjoy Rose’s take on them. Not only is the politics scary and cause for despair (including the various groups who align with one side or the other and either represent or resist “progress” – mind you, Rose cleverly investigates this concept too – are they really resistant to progress or simply wanting to preserve the environment and the standard of living that comes with a pristine eco-system for the future? The answer is overt and satisfying – of course!), but the personal relationships in the novel are really well drawn as well. But, and maybe I am biased here, it is Tasmania and especially Bruny that shine. The locations are wonderfully drawn and even if you don’t know the area (I live in Hobart, so am very familiar with all the locales), you breathe the air, walk the streets, cross the channel with Astrid and the others, delight in and shudder at the quirkiness of (some) Taswegians, and become appalled at the entire project underpinning this novel – and that’s before the kicker twist.

Unashamedly political, but not one-sided, this is a great read that will have you suspending your disbelief and, hopefully, like me, enjoying every single word. Have already recommended it to everyone I know and bought multiple copies for gifts as well!

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