Chaucer: A European Life by Marion Turner

This newest biography of Geoffrey Chaucer, the medieval poet, diplomat and court official is a tour de force. Whereas other biographies of the poet have examined what can be gleaned of this amazing man’s life from various contemporary documents, art, funeral effigies, family trees, etc. as well as his marvellous fictive works, Marion Turner starts with the premise that one writes what one knows, drawing on the familiar to compose fiction and fabliaux. Assuming this was also what Chaucer did, even when translating and appropriating other sources, she uses his works as a primary source (as well as many, many relevant contemporary documents and the work of chroniclers) to make sense of the various events in his life. Afterall, whether it was to whom he dedicated a piece of work or a character like the real-life Harry Baily owner of the Tabard Inn in Southwark who hosts the Canterbury Pilgrims, Chaucer wrote what and who he knew. As a consequence, this biography not only takes on a rich and new relevance as Turner invites us to examine everything Chaucer worked upon and rewrote and reworked, such as his tribute to the Duchess, Blanche Lancaster, The Book of the Duchess, or his translation and retelling of The Romance of the Rose or his unfinished and arguably greatest or best-known work, The Canterbury Tales, as a critique of both his own life and the times. Further, as Turner delves deeper into Chaucer’s works, she also deconstructs them and their meaning, providing another layer of denotation to not just Chaucer’s life, but his poetry. So this book is both biography and a wonderful literary analysis.

The title alludes to the fact that though Chaucer was a Londoner by birth and for most of his life, a man of the court, streets and castles and estates beyond, he was also very much a man of the world, traveling to various foreign ports for king and country, negotiating royal marriages, loans, fighting wars, able to speak other languages (naturally, French and Latin, but also Italian), meeting with despots, mercenaries and nobles. He also encountered the works of some of the greatest writers of the era and allowed them to influence his writings – Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio among them. He was perceived as a man of worth – not because of his birth, but because of his formidable talents and skills and his ability to dine with princes and paupers. So much so, he was ransomed for the kingly sum of 16 pounds when he was captured by the French when still very young. He was a man of the world as much as he was of the kingdom of his birth.

Patronised by John of Gaunt and paid annuities by three kings, Chaucer bore witness to many great and tragic events of his age: royal ascensions, falls, death, births, the plague, wars, famine, riots and rebellions as well as unjust and just behaviour. Married to Philippa, the sister of John of Gant’s infamous mistress and later wife, Katherine Swynford, he was also close to the centre of power in more than physical ways. Chaucer witnessed the best and worst of human behaviour and relationships and among all walks of life – what love, war, power, avarice, lust etc can do to people, how it can bring out the best and worst – and never lost his fascination for writing about these and the people who experienced them.

Able to remain on the right side of the monarch and the powers surrounding him for most of his life, Chaucer, though famous within his own lifetime, also managed to fly under the sometimes very taut and tense radar surrounding his primary patron, Gaunt, who was variously accused of treason, plotting against the king and was, for an extended period, the most hated man in England as the peasants (and others) blamed him for all the country’s perceived ills. So bad did feelings run, that during the Peasants Revolt of 1381, and which it’s likely Chaucer witnessed from his rooms above Aldgate, Gaunt’s main residence, the palatial and beautiful Savoy, was utterly destroyed.

It’s testimony to Chaucer that, unlike other Lancastrian cronies during the 1380s and 1390s, he managed to stay in the king’s (Richard II’s) good graces and thus avoid punishment, exile or death when so many others failed. Turner beautifully extrapolates how and why this may have happened – in no small part due to Chaucer’s great understanding of human nature and ability to walk in others’ shoes regardless of birth, education, beliefs, and even sex – all of which we’re privy to through his works. Perhaps the greatest irony is that while Chaucer was able to describe in allegorical and rich detail the pathos, sadness and joy love can bring, and place in his character’s mouths all sorts of notions about amour and marriage, his own doesn’t appear to have been too successful.

Despite this, his children went on to accomplish things their middle-class father, the son of a vintner, could once have only dreamed and which Chaucer, with his focus throughout his works on “gentillesse” as a worthy quality, despite rank, would have nonetheless appreciated. Some of the greatest bloodlines, houses and nobles descend from Chaucer’s grand-children. But the greatest gift he left us, and which Turner mainly celebrates and helps us to appreciate even more, are his works. But it’s as the “father of English Literature” that he’s best remembered – the man who gave the English their own poetry and voice in their own language, with eloquence, imagination, humour and beauty.  

This is a fabulous, erudite piece of scholarship that’s also beautifully written and easily understood. A wonderful addition to the Chaucer canon and a great read for anyone interested in history, poetry, literary analysis and, of course, the enigmatic, clever and always creative, Chaucer.

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The Dark Angel by Elly Griffiths

Isn’t it funny how, when you’re hooked on a series and the characters the writer has created, you develop a love/hate relationship with each new book? That’s what happens with me. I get so excited that a fresh instalment is there to lose myself in, then I absolutely hate it when I finish and have to wait for the next one!

This is how it was with The Dark Angel, book number 10. I had been longing for it to come out and, when it did, held off reading it for as long as I could – delayed gratification LOL!

Well, gratified doesn’t begin to describe how lovely it was to lose myself in Dr Ruth Galloways’ fascinating professional life and complicated personal one again. A personal life that is closely interwoven with that of DI Harry Nelson and his family – a family that’s also in the midst of its own difficulties.

In The Dark Angel, the usual setting of east-coast Britain is exchanged for a small Italian village when Ruth is called by an old friend, Dr Angelo Morelli, to help with identifying some bones. Treating it as a working holiday, Ruth takes her daughter, Kate, while her best friend, Shona and her whiny son also accompany them.

Where Ruth goes, trouble and mystery are never far behind – trouble in the form of Harry Nelson who, when he learns an earthquake has struck the region Ruth is in hurries to assure himself of her safety. Mystery is also lurking – not only with the bones, but also through the ritualistic murder of the town’s old priest which happens when Ruth is only days into her vacation.

As Ruth well knows, the present is always contingent on the past and the bones and the dreadful killing of the priest prove this over and again. But so do the Nelsons.

Left at home while Harry runs to his former lover and daughter’s side, his pregnant wife and adult daughter have to face some demons from Harry’s past, and those from more recent times as well – with tragic consequences. I didn’t see the ending coming here, and it is both heart-wrenching and adds a whole new layer of WTF to the personal lives of the characters we’ve grown to know, forgive, and love.

Once more, it’s the characters rather than the plot that make this such an excellent read. While the plot is good, it’s Griffith’s knack for capturing the sense of someone, of conveying their good heart (or otherwise), annoying idiosyncrasies, or sinister intentions in just a few words, through a look or gesture, that add so much to these novels. That, and the slow-burning complexity of the interpersonal relationships between the main characters – most of whom are very good people making unwise or selfish choices with huge ramifications and only now being forced to deal with the consequences… some of which will only be revealed in future books.

Not happy Jan – or should that be, Elly. In this instance, I want immediate gratification! J

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Europa Blues by Arne Dahl

25793827Europa Blues, by Arne Dahl, was a really different kind of crime book, even in the genre I am so enjoying, the broadly termed “Nordic Noir.” Not realising this was book four in a ten book series, I picked it up, seduced by the synopsis on the back of the book which explains that his novel is about a series of crimes involving the grisly death of a Greek gangster, disappearing Eastern European prostitutes and the macabre murder of a famous Jewish professor. From the start, it was pretty clear to me that the police involved in the investigations had complex lives and histories to which I was only partly privy and which no doubt earlier books explored. But (and this is testimony to the strength of Dahl’s writing), at no point did I feel this disadvantaged me. Such was the power of the prose and the way the principal characters were presented and their back-stories hinted at, I felt I knew them and any gaps and omissions were filled. Better still, I cared about these people deeply.

With three investigations on the go and one man down (he’s on extended leave in Italy), the A-unit, or National Crime Investigation Department’s Special Unit for Violent Crimes of an International Nature (what a mouthful!), is busy, especially when, after a street thug is brutally murdered by a woman in a train station, they begin to suspect that all the murders are linked. When they seek help from Interpol and Europol, their suspicions are confirmed. But it’s when they ask one of their own, the man in Italy, to do some investigating there, that the connections reveal themselves. What’s exposed goes back decades and into one of the most violent and cruel periods of human history. Not one to shy away from both the individual’s or country’s role in human suffering and genocide, through is characters, Dahl is highly critical of Sweden’s “neutrality” or ability to look the other way. Exploring huge issues such as complicity and national shame, Dahl uses history to also critique the present in an intelligent and searing manner.

The final twists and turns are both shocking and gratifying.

The way characters are developed; the use of literature and history and the sense of social and personal justice that pervades this book is so strong. I was drawn into the story and the relationships – professional and personal. The writing is sublime and always powerful – though humour, particularly between those who have worked together and known each other so long – relieves some of the bleaker moments: gallows’ humour indeed.

A magnificent book that makes me long to lose myself in another in the series.

4.5 stars.


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Book Review: Just One Evil Act by Elizabeth George

I was so excited when this book came out, I dropped all others I was either reading or about to in order to lose myself in the world of Inspector Thomas Lynley and his partner in crime, Sergeant Barbara Havers. And what a wonderful world it is – fraught with danger, beauty, secrets, betrayals, threats and promises – and this time against a magnificent and frustrating ItaliaJust One Evil Act (Inspector Lynley, #18)n backdrop.

After being ever so slightly disappointed in the portrayal of the grieving Inspector Lynley in the last couple of books, it was nice to have the sleuthing Earl return to form… but, just when George brings Tommy back, Havers goes off the rails and behaves in a manner that seems out of character to the fiercely loyal, street-wise and committed detective we’ve grown to know and love.

The explanation for Haver’s erratic behaviour is quickly established. It’s due to the disappearance of her neighbour’s daughter, Hadiyyah, a child Barbara adores (and whose father she clearly harbours deep feelings for). Watching Hadiyyah’s father, Taymullah, grieve for the loss of his child breaks Haver’s heart and she does all in her power (and beyond) to help him track her whereabouts, including hiring a private detective and putting her own job under threat (nothing new there).

Never one to worry about compromising her work or other’s opinions of her in a professional sense, when Hadiyyah is eventually located with her mother, Angelina, in Lucca, Italy, but is then kidnapped from the mercato, Haver’s common sense and uncanny ability to sum up a situation and work within it, vanishes. It’s not her desperation to help Taymullah at all costs, or that she makes some silly decisions that irks, it’s the fact that she not only puts her trust in someone who clearly demonstrates they are less than worthy, but that she also fails to share important information and confidences with her partner Lynley that somehow doesn’t ring true…not after all they’ve been through together.

But I am being pernickety.

For it’s due to Havers impulsive behaviour that New Scotland Yard is put on the case of the English child missing in Italy. Instead of being the one chosen to go to Italy and thus to Taymullah Azhar’s aid to help find his daughter and deal with the Italian authorities, much to Haver’s chagrin, Inspector Lynely is sent in her stead.

Once in Lucca, Lynley deals with the Italian law with aplomb. Not only is he fluent in the language, he is masterful at putting people at ease and being able to ferret out the facts. While on the surface, it appears as if Hadiyyah’s kidnapping is the result of a shady deal gone wrong, Lynley, and his wonderful Italian counterpart, the beautifully drawn Inspector Savatore lo Bianco, soon discover that the culprit is much closer than they think.

Like the twisting, narrow roads that bisect and wind around Lucca, so too, the plot turns and angles, and more and more people are drawn into the web being woven around the missing child. Secondary characters enter and exit, their personalities rich, seedy, daring and passionate – like the place in which they live. But nothing is simply black and white. In fact, most often even seemingly honest and respectable characters are cast in unfavourable lights, shadows, showing the depths to which even decent folk will stoop in the name of love, family and honour.

Distraught and angry at being left in London, Haver’s soon turns her fury into purpose but, as she closes in on the truth, her job and reputation don’t only go on the line, but look set to be destroyed once and for all.

I really enjoyed this book and found it very hard to put down. Even the out of character behaviour of Havers, as far-fetched as it sometimes seems (and you have to read the book to understand) made sense within the narrative, albeit with a big suspension of disbelief.

And, while I revelled in the evocation of Italy and Italians, I wondered how non-native speakers or anyone with no Italian language would find reading the book as it is liberally peppered with Italian words, phrases and even conversation. I can speak it quite well and found it distracting and, at times, the amount of it unnecessary. There isn’t always a translation offered either and I imagine that would be very frustrating if not off-putting as sometimes a key description is hinted at and various character traits are revealed with just a word or two of Italian. Without an English equivalent, some readers would lose the benefit of that additional piece of prose or subtle clue and fleshing out of individuals. Nonetheless, like all George’s books, the prose is beautiful, the dialogue crisp when it needs to be, languorous as well – just a wonderful read.

This is definitely a return to form for Lynley. Though, I did wonder at the end how the mess Havers created would be resolved. The denouement is surprising, even if it does have someone else acting in a way that a reader would not have anticipated – but in this instance, it’s a very pleasant surprise.

Bring on the next Lynley – please!

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Book Review: Inferno by Dan Brown

Dan Brown’s books come laden with so many expectations – and not all good. Savaged by many critics, and often unfairly, it is for his fans to decide whether or not one of his books deserve the kudos the sales suggest and, if you go by those alone, then his books are not only popular, but eminently readable.

Inferno, the fourth Robert Langdon book, is a strange and ofttimes predictable beast. While I have thoroughly enjoyed the previous Langdon outings (love a book that makes an academic an intellectual and action star – shades of Indiana Jones – and has as its core mystery literature, art and symbols) Inferno, for all that it presages the passionate poet Dante, flames and the burning heat of hell, left me mostly cold.

Once again, a quest features and a puzzle that’s centred on a famous work lies at the heart of the mystery, a mystery that begins when Langdon awakes in hospital in Florence with no memInferno (Robert Langdon, #4)ory of how he got there or why. When strangers try to take his life and a beautiful and clever female doctor offers rescue and potentially some answers to the blanks his memory has become, Langdon jumps (literally) at the chance.

Pursued relentlessly, able to solve cryptic questions and read the stories into and behind famous and old art, Langdon moves around Europe and Turkey, discovering friends and enemies with abandon. All the while, the reason for his memory lapse and deadly pursuit starts to become clear – and, if Langdon doesn’t find the answers required of him in time, then not only is his life forfeit, but the safety of the world is at stake.

Blending very relevant and fascinating modern science conundrums and a pressing social issue (no pun intended), Langdon is once again up against an all-powerful megalomaniac who will stop at nothing to see his vision realized.

Brown has the formula for these “intellectual thrillers’ down pat now. Only, the rush of Angels and Demons, the development of plot and character that made his earlier works retrospectively well-liked, has been sacrificed to a degree for too much didacticism. In many ways, Inferno is part travelogue and part historical, literary, art, and scientific treatise, as if Brown wants to prove his research and travel credentials by packing all the information into the novel. As a result, some of the characters function as little more than mouthpieces who serve this purpose alone. We are given asides about art, buildings, and scientific research – not all immediately pertinent to the story – that could have been delivered more subtly or not at all. They tell don’t show and the story suffers as a consequence. Perhaps this is also why so many of the characters are black or white in terms of their ideologies and motivation. Even when Brown tries to paint shades of grey (and he does) they are tinged with obvious good or evil hues that makes them unsurprising and sometimes dull.

For all that, this is still a page-turner, even if sometimes I was turning them because I wanted the tale to end. Overall, however, it’s a good holiday, escapist read. I knew what I was getting and in that sense, wasn’t disappointed. I do think some critics judge Brown as if he should have written War and Peace, Mrs Dalloway, or The Dubliners or at least judge him by weighty and incomparable literary criteria, when what he does write is thriller cum potboilers that are, as sales and other evidence attest, definitely crowd pleasers.

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