Chaucer by Peter Ackroyd

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I have always thoroughly enjoyed Peter Ackroyd’s work. It is well written, researched and erudite. This shortish book on the medieval poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, is no exception. Able to succinctly portray what was a varied life and view it through the lens of both contemporary sources and, at times, the man’s own works, Ackroyd gives the reader a well-rounded portrait of the man who earned the trust of royals, the loyalty of the most powerful house in the kingdom (Lancaster), the love of English people for his prose and earned, as a consequence, literary longevity.

Ackroyd also makes some delicious suppositions about Chaucer’s life, which were original and convincing (especially to do with the paternity of his second son, Lewis and the “raptus” charge against him brought by Cecily Champain). There are also fascinating titbits, such as the fact Chaucer is credited with introducing St Valentine’s Day to Britain. I also confess to enjoying the occasional bits of gossip Ackroyd presented and which you can’t help but feel that someone like the Chaucer he presents, a man with great insights and tolerance for human nature in all its foibles, would also have enjoyed.

An engaging and fascinating read. Highly recommended.

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The Secrets We Keep by Shirley Patton

I had the great fortune to be at one of the launches for this debut novel by Australian writer, Shirley Patton. Listening to her discuss the book, while sipping tea, learning that Shirley drew upon her own life and work experiences to write this tale, made me eager to read it and I was not disappointed.

Set in Kalgoorlie during the 1980s, the book centres, initially, on Aimee, a young social worker who relocates from Perth to take up a new role. There she meets not only an assortment of interesting characters: the irrepressible Lori, the kind ex-priest, Paddy, the psychic Agnes and Jack, as well as those who become her clients such as Kerry, Amber, and the dying Paul. But as Aimee becomes part of the close community and learns the secrets they both keep and entrust to her, she finds the ones she harbours harder to bear.

Whether it’s the politics of the day, the deleterious effects of mining, ageing, illness, loss, Indigenous issues and the lengths to which bureaucracy and the PTB go to cover up their intentions and regressions, spiritualism, romance and families, Patton’s tale covers it with aplomb. What I loved best about this book were the bonds forged between the women. So often novels cast women against each other, portraying them as competing – for a man, for recognition, pitting them as competitors, forming toxic relationships. The Secrets We Keep was so refreshing because, while it didn’t shy away from exploring differences and tensions, it examined the complexity and depth of a range of female friendships and relationships and the support, kindness, compromises and sacrifices people can make to ensure they work.

This was a lovely read that also evoked a sense of place as much as character and would appeal to anyone who enjoys a damn good read.

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Scotland: A History from Earliest Times by Alistair Moffat

This rather large book which covers Scottish history from the moment it was formed from fire and ice (like a leaf from George R. R. Martin’s epic), to the last referendum for Scottish independence, is poetic, inspiring, shocking, bloody, depressing, humorous and heart-achingly magnificent – often, all at once. Alistair Moffatt has recorded Scottish history from the point of view of the people – not only the lairds and royalty and figures familiar to so many such as Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, and even James VI and I, but also those who first trod its green lands, rocky outcrops and bubbling braes – the Vikings, explorers, soldiers, warriors, crofters, musicians, poets, bards, artists, and so many more. Acknowledging that mostly men populate this history, Moffat is at pains to insert womenfolk into his narrative, such as Sophia Jex-Blake – the first woman to matriculate from Edinburgh School of Medicine and who overcame great obstacles to do so – and that’s refreshing.

Infusing his history with richness and depth and ensuring that myth and facts both collide and yet are treated distinctly as well, Scotland and its myriad faces and peoples are brought to life. Front and centre is the complex and angst-ridden relationship with England. There are gruesome battles, efforts to wipe-out and control vast swathes of territory and clans, as well as the effective attempted genocide of certain Highland clans. Moffat unpacks the thorny politics and questionable negotiations that occur between the English and Scottish – some with self-interest at their heart, others with their country – either way, it’s all here in these remarkable pages. The divisions within Scotland – between north and south, east and west – are also clearly drawn, and often make those that divide England from its northern sister pale by comparison. As Moffat states at one point in the book, the Scots were crueller to each other than the English ever were to them.

It was only in the last couple of centuries, since the reign of the Hanovers started and Queen Victoria purchased Balmoral, that Scotland was embraced – not as it was – but as a reconstructed romantic, mystical land where bagpipes, kilts and dirks and the people that wore and wielded them dwelled. Starting with Sir Walter Scott and his literary efforts, it was continued down through the centuries coming to define and reduce what is Scotland and Scottish. Moffat doesn’t steer away from calling this out, nor acknowledging the contribution such tacky merchandising has made to giving Scotland a unified commercial and sometimes useful (if only to outsiders) identity.

The efforts made by Scottish and English politicians to both erode and grow Scotland’s attempts at independence – even within the Union – is fully explored, from its origins centuries earlier to the last few years. The last chapter particularly, which follows Scottish progress and political machinations from the end of World War II – the sufferings of the people, the decline and growth of particular industries, the raw, blistering fights for power and control, unions, strikes, Thatcherism, etc. are all present and accounted for. So are the many tragedies that afflicted the people over this time – from the catastrophe of the sinking of the Iolaire, to Lockerbie, Dunblane and others, but also the triumphs of sportsmen and women, and the proud disbanding of the Cameronians after 300 years of service.

What I also loved about this book, apart from the ease and joy of being led through such tumultuous history by an erudite guide, was the focus on politics – whether it was the machinations of various kings and queens to wrest control of Scotland to local lads and lasses rising to become MPs and the country’s leaders, but also popular culture. Whether it was the poetry of Robbie Burns – the “heaven-taught ploughman”, or a self-educated collier or crofter, or the first on-stage appearance of Billy Connolly, the contribution actor, Deborah Kerr made to one particular industry, the socio-political impact of the film Trainspotting, or all quirky the side-notes about religious figures, inventors (and Scotland produced some of the greatest, especially during the period now known as the Scottish Enlightenment – something which blossomed as a direct consequence of universal education), artists, the Stone of Destiny, but also the pride Moffat clearly feels (and which imbues the entire book), in being able to say over and over: this was Scotland’s contribution to, not just the UK, but the world. It’s a mighty one indeed, just as this book is a fabulous addition to Scottish history which will be loved by history buffs, Scotophiles (I confess to being one), or someone who just enjoys a great non-fiction book that reads like a wonderful work of fiction – in other words, not dry, but capable of firing the imagination and passion.

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The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

When searching for historical fiction set in Scotland, I came across The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley. Having read and enjoyed The Firebird, I looked forward to this time-jumping narrative as well.

I was not disappointed.

Moving between contemporary times and the early 1700s, the book opens when famous author, Carrie McClelland relocates to the coast of Scotland, Slains, to finish a novel she’s writing on the early rising of the Jacobites and their fight to restore a young King James to the throne. Drawn to a particular area, Carrie can’t explain the strong urges she gets to not just write about the place she now finds herself in, but completely rethink not only the subject of her story, but the plot as well.

Renting a lovely little cottage close to the area she finds impossible to tear herself away from, what Carrie doesn’t count on is the attention of two handsome brothers – dashing, affable Stuart and the quieter, more bookish, Graeme. Nor does she imagine when she begins to write that the voices of the past, in particular of a woman named Sophia, will not only fill her head and heart, but dictate how her narrative unfolds.

As the days go by, Carrie finds that the ghosts of the past are very much in the present and that reality begins to mirror fiction. Unable to control what she writes, will Carrie be able to control her heart?

Moving between the past and present, this lovely book is not only a wonderful romance, it’s a serious and poignant examination of the early period of Jacobite rebellion and the risks and sacrifices those Scots who believed in an independent Scotland and who wanted to cast of the shackles of the newly-formed English Union, were prepared to make. Weaving fact through her fiction, Kearsley tells a story of high-drama, politics, loyalty, danger and love. Stirring in its passion (mostly for the rights and restoration of the Scots and their king), the book also evokes time and place so beautifully. It also explores the agony and ecstasy of being a writer and the relationship those who make living with words have with their agents, imagination, readers and the business that sustains them, if they’re fortunate, in so many more ways than simply financial.

A terrific read that offers so much.

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Leap by Michael C. Grumley

The second book in the Breakthrough series, Leap, is a fabulous read. Fast-paced without sacrificing plot or character, it carries the reader back into the lives and amazing discoveries of the group assembled in the opening book, Breakthrough.

The story begins a year after the life-changing events in the first book. Still reeling from various encounters (including interspecies), findings unearthed and relationships formed, the core group consisting of Alison Shaw, John Clay, Steve Cesare, Lee, Chris and Will are once more brought together when a Russian sub is discovered lurking off the coast of South America. More suspicious, a Chinese ship is found in a minor port. Seemingly abandoned, it’s not until night falls that activity commences and a mysterious cargo, clearly taken from the local jungle, is stored aboard. What’s the cargo? Why all the cloak and dagger? What’s its purpose and, more importantly, what do the Chinese and Russians know that the rest of the world (aka the US) don’t?

Determined to discover what the Chinese are up to, no-one is prepared for what’s uncovered and what the cost of that is – a cost that only becomes clear once it’s understood the lengths the Chinese will go to ensure no-one else learns what they have.

It will take not only Alison, John and Steve and their friends – including Dirk and Sally – every ounce of talent and courage to uncover what’s going on, but also the skills of Deanne and her gorilla Dulce. But is the price of such knowledge worth it?

I found it hard to tear myself away from this book. Grumley’s writing, the way he creates such sympathetic and rounded characters, including the primates and dolphins is really remarkable. Finished this and immediately downloaded and started the next one. Amazing.

 

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