Mrs England by Stacey Hall

After reading so many positive reviews of Mrs England, a new historical fiction by Stacey Hall, I simply had to read it. The title is bold and strangely evocative and the cover is gorgeous too, but it’s what lies between that is utterly compelling.

A slow burn of a book, it draws you in with beautiful prose and marvellously but economically crafted characters (this is high praise – Hall allows you to see and even understand a person with a deft few words). The titular character from which the book earns its title doesn’t appear for quite a while and, indeed, the story is told from the first-person point of view of Norland nurse, Ruby May. Quiet, efficient, in some ways Mary Poppins-like, Ruby is a woman who takes her work and the charges in her care very seriously. She knows her place and responsibilities. The Norland Institute motto – Fortitude in Adversity – is etched on her conscience. 

When circumstances send Ruby to Yorkshire to care for the four children of the wealthy England family, who are part of a greater dynasty who have made their riches from wool and milling, she meets the challenges of a new family, new charges and new area with aplomb. The master of the house, Mr England, is nothing like she expected, nor is his quiet, disinterested wife, the lovely but very fragile Mrs England.

As the weeks go by and Ruby settles in, the children responding to her genuine care and ability to nurture and bring out the best, she begins to sense that all is not as it seems in this strange but beguiling family. As letters go missing, information is misunderstood or misconstrued and mysterious goings-on begin to occur, Ruby starts to wonder if she has misjudged not only the family, but her own abilities. After all, Ruby has her own secrets, ones that if they should be revealed will not only threaten her livelihood, but that of those she loves.

This is one of those books that lingers in a strange and quite wondrous way. The telling is superb and even though in some ways not much seems to happen, it is like an ice-berg with nine-tenths occurring below the surface. You cannot stop turning the pages, wanting to know, to find out more. The story-telling is first-rate, each scene building on the last, persuading you to keep going so you can see the complete picture… and yet, it remains somehow elusive. And then, just when you think you have it all sorted and neatly wrapped up, Hall delivers one of the best OMG moments on the final page. It overturns everything and, if you hadn’t already gleaned why the book carries the title it does, this will cement it for you.

A really clever, completely fabulous read. 

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Restoration London: Everyday Life in the 1660s by Liza Picard

565274Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Liza Picard’s Elizabethan London, I knew I was in for a real treat when I discovered her book, Restoration London: Everyday Life in the 1660s. I wasn’t disappointed. Using sources from the era (in particular, extracts from Samuel Pepys diary) as well as almanacs, government papers, letters, tourists of the times’ impressions, Picard paints a wonderful picture of one of the most eminent cities in the world from 1660-1670, London.

Emerging out of the chaos of the last decade and a half, which saw one king (Charles I) beheaded and an Interregnum government headed by The Protector, Oliver Cromwell established, before the heir to the throne, the apparently, pleasure-loving but also diplomatic and lusty Charles II was restored, Picard immerses the reader in life during this last stage – a stage that involved the casting off of parliamentary rule and Puritan shackles and return to monarchy and all that entailed.

We enter stately homes, shops, ships as well as wander the streets and learn everything from what the rich, “middling” and poor ate (or didn’t), their superstitions, sexual habits, toileting, washing, and even how they cleaned their teeth. We discover the sicknesses they succumbed to (not forgetting the Plague that struck in 1665), the dreadful remedies offered; what they bought, wore, how they addressed each other and even their secret desires. Religion played a huge role in this period of conflict and xenophobia, and Picard doesn’t hold back on addressing this either and how and where people prayed and the kinds of communities they established.

The insights she gives are so beautifully written and, at times, imagined, and she has this wonderful quirky way of sometimes commenting on habits and idiosyncrasies of individuals or, indeed, the general populace, that had me bursting out laughing.

I will read this again in hardback (when the copy I ordered arrives) as I read this on Kindle and marked up so many passages, I need to be able to enjoy them again, but this time in print where I can access her extensive footnotes as well.

Highly recommended for lovers of history or even those who enjoy entertaining and really informative reads that keep an eye on the reader and the time they are writing from as well.

Can’t wait to read more by this wonderful lawyer-cum-historian.

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Book Reviw: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

You know you are in the hands of a masterful storyteller when you put a book down only because you have no choice – life drags you away aA Thousand Splendid Sunsnd it’s a physical and emotional wrench to let it go, even for a moment. When all you can think as you go about compulsory tasks are the story and the characters. While you are away, you wonder what they are doing, where the narrator is going to take them and you care about their fates deeply. Such is the effect of A Thousand Splendid Suns. The characters live beyond the pages – not merely at the end, but throughout the reading experience, so realistically and gorgeously have they been drawn.

Just as the sublime The Kite Runner told the tale of doomed male friendship, ATSS tells the story of two very different Afghani women: Mariam – shy, subservient, filled with self-doubt and yet, despite what life has meted out, is also honest and possessed of an innocence that is both her greatest strength and weakness. Then there is the beautiful, smart and kind Laila. Raised under very different roofs and with different expectations of their future, fate in the form of political and sectarian upheaval throws these women together and what happens before, during and after is heart-wrenchingly bitter-sweet.

Hosseini knows not only how to capture the reader’s imagination but our hearts as well. Told without sentimentality but nonetheless with an almost unbearable sweetness and pathos, ATSS unapologetically describes what the women of Afghanistan (and many men, children, families and thus communities) were forced to endure. The rampant misogyny, sexism and horrific abuses; terror, hope, the loss, the grind, the joy in the smallest and simplest of things; their constant sacrifices. Their resilience is formidable and humbling; their strength amazing – as is their capacity to forgive. By focussing primarily on Mariam and Laila (and those who play important roles in shaping who and what they become) Hosseini gives us a searing insight into not only the plight of those who are helpless pawns in a brutal battle for control of a weakened state, but Western prejudices, sense of entitlement and misunderstanding as well as revealing the ugliness and terrible beauty of a culture so few of us understand except through snatches from sensationalized news bulletins or from foreign correspondents with a brief to fill. That there are those resistant to as well as complicit in oppression, suffer because of willful ignorance and the brutality of others; the way in which religion and culture can impose horrific restraints when reduced to power struggles while at the same time gesturing to a proud nobility is evident in the novel. Inevitably, as is the case when religion, sex and gender become politicized, there are scapegoats who pay for the hubris and cruelty of others – for more than a lifetime. The damage inflicted can last for generations.

I didn’t want this book to end. My heart soared, it plummeted; I gasped, cried, held my breath and as I read felt physically pummeled then embraced, experiencing the 30 years the tale covers as a visceral thing that left me psychologically and imaginatively battered but richer in ways that count. But, I also felt ashamed. Ashamed for thoughts I may have harboured deep down, for prejudices I may not have even realized I held until this novel exposed them to me, and for that, I am grateful.

This is a beautiful, deeply moving book that I cannot recommend highly enough. It was a privilege to read and now to share.

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Book Review: Beer in The Middle Ages and Renaissance

If you’re at all interested in the history of ale, beer and brewing, specifically as it developed in Europe and England from roughly the 1200s through the 1600s, then this book is for you. The author, Richard Unger, delivers a well-researched but very easy to read book full of facts and some suppositions about the changing nature of one of the most important drinks in human history and how it altered from being a domestic product, replete with all sorts of medicinal wonders, to a heavily commercialised one that was governed and taxed and, for a long period, thrived, to being ubiquitous across parts of the Northern hemisphere.

The introduction is broad and does establish the fact that the book is very focussed on beer production in Europe during this period – England is really only an adjunct if you’re seriously wanting to learn more about brewing there. Explaining the various process of brewing, from malting to mashing to worting, Unger really describes what occurs, the equipment used and the variations between regions very well. Distinguishing between beer and ale as well, Unger sets the pace and tone for the rest of this fascinating book.

Providing a brief history of beer making beyond his main focus, the reader is, in the first chapter, taken back to 7000 BC, to Sumeria, Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, being brought forward to the Roman period before arriving in the Middle Ages.

The different additives put in brews, their names (gruit for example) and the importance of hops to the growing beer industry, the way it utterly transformed it, are explored very well. As is the resistance to hopped beer in England and other parts of Europe by ale-makers. Legislation increases as brewing metamorphoses into a commercial venture and governments recognise a profit to be made. Unger analyses this in detail and with accompanying tables which reveal consumption, exports and imports and other facts. The rise of guilds is touched on and the rapidly decreasing role of women in an industry they once dominated is, disappointingly, only given a few pages (though Judith Bennett dedicates an entire and excellent book to this). Price-fixing is also discussed as is, in the final pages of the book, the slow decline of beer and brewing as the consumption of spirits, wine, coffee and tea began to challenge beer’s dominance.

While it brushes on the social history of beer, it doesn’t really examine this in detail – that is left to other books, such as A Lynne Martin’s Alcohol, Sex and Gender in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. I wish Unger had spent more time on this, however, as I feel he would have been able to offer some insights. At times, I admit, I found footnotes missing where I felt they should have been and some of the “facts” conflicted with other studies I have read. But overall, this is an excellent account of a cultural beverage that has both united and divided the world for centuries.

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