Book Review: The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse

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The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse, by Piu Marie Eatwell, is a meticulously researched account of a true story. At the turn of the nineteenth century a legal case, ‘Druce v Portland’, evolved into the stuff of dreams for the newly emerging tabloid press. The public couldn’t get enough of the family secrets and duplicitous lives being exposed. With a duchy that included a Nottingham estate and large swathes of land in London at stake this battle for a title and the wealth that it bestowed raged for over a decade.

In 1879 the 6th Duke of Portland arrived at Welbeck Abbey in Nottingham having succeeded to the ducal seat following the death of his eccentric second cousin who had ostensibly died without having produced an heir. Twenty years later a middle aged woman approached the church courts in London asking that her late father-in-law’s coffin be exhumed. She claimed that his funeral had been a charade, that the coffin would be found to be empty, and that the man in question had been leading a double life. She claimed that this Victorian businessman, T.C. Druce, had also been the 5th Duke of Portland, that he had sired several children, and that her son should now be the Duke.

The author unfolds the story as it would have emerged at the time. She ensures that the reader understands how other contiguous events would have coloured the public’s perception of the case. With increasing literacy came a demand for a press that entertained as much as informed. Newspapers vied for readers by providing details that laid bare the duplicitous lives of a supposedly moral society. This case offered it all: secret mistresses, illegitimate children, double identities, eccentric habits, abandoned wives, and the prospect of wealth and standing beyond most people’s dreams.

The publicity surrounding the case brought witnesses and claimants from around the globe. Each of these characters is introduced complete with their circumstances, background and personal histories. As well as court transcripts and newspaper articles the author has studied birth and death records, correspondence, photographs and notes held by the police, legal teams and the Portland estate. Much of this evidence was never presented in court and was subsequently locked away, remaining classified for the next eighty years.

What can now be told is a tale as convoluted, complicated and contrary as any fictional crime novel. It is a fascinating snapshot of life at the time involving as it does the aristocracy, their staff, the emerging middle classes, those who travelled to find a better life, and the unfortunates who were abandoned penniless to cope as best they could. Laws may have changed since that time but the role of newspapers in gathering and spreading misinformation looks all too familiar as does the public’s appetite for celebrity and gossip.

This is history brought alive. Unlike so many accounts there is no glossing over the weaknesses of the wealthy. What is known is presented in fascinating detail that the reader may decide for themselves why each character acted as they did. A colourful story written with flair that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

 

 

Book Review: The Last Leaves Falling

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‘look close and you see the hidden buds of spring’

The Last Leaves Falling, by Sarah Benwell, is not a comfortable book to read dealing as it does with the imminent death of a teenager. It takes us into a world coloured by exam stress; parental expectation; the excitement and pressure of future unknowns that, for the protagonist, have been stolen away. This is not another ‘Fault in our Stars’. It is a darker and harsher tale.

Sora is seventeen years old and has rapidly progressing ALS (motor neuron disease). He lives in Kyoto, Japan with his mother and feels a burden of guilt for her grief over his condition. Sora has been forced to leave his school which could not offer the access and support he would require as his body deteriorates. Discomfited by onlookers pity he chooses to spend much of his time alone in his room. From here he reaches out through internet chatrooms to teenagers who did not know him before, finding friends who will see beyond his condition but not shy away from what is to come as the adults in his life are wont to do.

The writing interweaves narrative with on line screenshots and chat threads. These work well at showing the importance of the internet in modern, teenage life. As Sora’s new friends agonise over schoolwork and university applications he must cope with his degenerating body. He obsesses over how it will feel to die and if there is a hereafter, frustrated by his doctor’s and mother’s refusal to discuss his concerns.

The story is undoubtedly bleak but there are chinks of light which are uplifting. The friends learn to appreciate how precious life is and that it should not be wasted. They allow themselves to dream.

The attitudes portrayed reflect Japanese culture but there are wider truths to consider. Throughout the world adults aim to guide and protect young people who may then struggle to find a way to have their voices heard. Sora turns to his friends when his mother’s love becomes a burden, finding relief when they listen and accept.

This is a powerful tale that is very well written. It is moving and challenging, exploring difficult issues with painful honesty. People die, then for those left life goes on. What matters is to use the time we have to create memories, to be open to new ideas, to live.

 

 

Book Review: A Pair of Silk Stockings

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A Pair of Silk Stockings, by Kate Chopin, is a collection of five short stories. This small, distinctively bound book is number 66 in the Penguin Little Black Classics collection. 80 classic titles have been published to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Penguin Books and retail for 80p each in the UK. I could buy three for the cost of a cup of coffee.

My purchase of this book was unplanned. I picked it up from the display box sitting alongside a bookshop till, adding it to my acquisitions in much the same way as I may treat myself to a chocolate bar whilst at a supermarket checkout. Unlike a chocolate bar this pleasure will last.

Having read and enjoyed The Awakening I was interested in reading other works by this author. These short stories offer the same thought provoking challenge and depth as her novel but in bite size chunks. Her approach to the chosen subjects proved controversial at the time of writing and is, unfortunately, still relevant today.

Her themes include racism, privilege, freedom, prejudice and a women’s expected role in society. Her characters are presented fully rounded and all too believable, their varied lives personalities and emotions bared.

At less than 60 pages long this is a quick read but be warned, the quality of writing and questions engendered will linger.

 

 

Book Review: The Burning Man

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The Burning Man, by Christopher Fowler, is a highly entertaining crime thriller set in contemporary London. It is the latest in the Bryant and May series but can easily be enjoyed without having read any previous installments. I was unfamiliar with this duo and their sidekicks but am glad to have discovered them through this book.

It is Halloween and London is in the grip of riots sparked by the latest bank failure due to insider dealing. As a mob descends on the financial square mile a Molotov cocktail is thrown into a doorway where a homeless man is sleeping. He does not survive.

What looked like a macabre accident soon proves to be the start of something more sinister as further fire related deaths occur in subsequent days. The elderly Arthur Bryant and his partner John May of the Peculiar Crimes Unit are drawn to investigate despite the misgivings of their bosses at the City of London Police.

The story is told with humour but still provides a challenging whodunnit. There are twists and turns aplenty as suspects are investigated and links between characters are uncovered. Alongside the crime puzzle the reader is treated to fascinating detail on the history of the city. There is thought provoking social commentary that segues with the plot.

It was pleasing to find a crime thriller that manages to avoid many of the cliches of the genre. The writing has lightness but also depth and I did not manage to guess the denouement. A finely woven tale that offers up serious issues for consideration without demanding that it be taken too seriously. This was a cracking good read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday. 

Book Review: Adult Onset

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Adult Onset, by Ann-Marie Macdonald, is a powerful and hard hitting story about parenting, depression, memory and the scars that are carried within families.

The protagonist, Mary Rose, is a successful author who has put her writing career on hold in order to raise her two young children. She lives in fear of something hurting them, especially herself.

During the week in which the story is set her wife is working out of town leaving Mary Rose to cope on her own. As she struggles with the insatiable demands of her intransigent two year old daughter she considers her own upbringing and her sometimes fraught relationship with her parents, especially her mother.

When Mary Rose was her daughter’s age her mother gave birth to a son who died. In the months that followed she struggled to cope, relying on her older daughter, Maureen, for help. However, when Maureen was at school she would be alone with Mary Rose, often ignoring her and leaving her to cry. She was depressed and incapable of dealing with her younger child’s needs. Mary Rose has hazy memories of this time but struggles to order them or to fill in certain blanks that she believes hold the key to an injury which coloured her childhood.

Even aside from this traumatic time theirs was not always a happy home. Due to the Rh factor in her mother’s blood she suffered multiple miscarriages and a still birth as well as this early loss of a living child. Her three surviving children grew up aware of their dead siblings and Mary Rose carries guilt for the negative thoughts that she had about them at the time.

As the week progresses Mary Rose struggles to deal with her internalised anger, her memories and her feelings of isolation. To those around she appears to be coping but beneath the surface a crisis is brewing. She questions if her fear of abusing her child is because she herself suffered abuse that she cannot now recall. It becomes important to her to find out from her family what went on. Even when raised the detail of their memories often differs from her own, each having lived from their own perspective.

This story is a slow burner. It portrays the frustrations of full time motherhood by allowing the thought processes and narrative to be constantly interrupted by the minutae of life with a toddler and a school aged child. The flashbacks to Mary Rose’s mother’s life seem more compelling in these early pages. I was not truly drawn in until around half way through after which I could not put the book down.

It is easy to blame parents for their behaviour despite being aware that they raised their children by the mores of the time. It is easy to recall things said in anger and grant these words precedence over kinder thoughts. It can be hard to deal with conflicting memories from siblings when what is desired is an ally.

All of this is explored alongside Mary Rose’s current relationships with her family and friends. We see a life that is accelerating towards a precipice.

The denouement is beautifully done. I particularly liked the way in which the plot lines of Mary Roses’s books were woven in. This may not be a tale of happy ever after but neither is life. The important questions were answered, even if these were not always the ones being asked.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Sceptre. 

 

 

Book Review: Dear Beneficiary

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Dear Beneficiary, by Janet Kelly, is a modern farce about a woman of a certain age. The protagonist, Cynthia, had been ‘diligently married’ for forty years and is now rather enjoying widowhood. A brief affair with a much younger Nigerian man showed her that sex could be enjoyed, a revelation to this very proper housewife from Surrey. Although she was saddened when he had to return to his country it was also something of a relief as keeping him a secret from her family had been tricky at times, once involving several hours spent in a wardrobe.

She decided that to engage in modern life she should get on line so turned to her grandson for help. Excited by ‘the prospect of his certainly solvent if not well-off relative being encouraged to buy the latest technology’ she soon found herself the owner of a top of the range PC and smart phone, neither of which she can operate.

Almost immediately she is taken in by a Nigerian 419 scam which empties her bank account. Convinced that the money has been used legitimately by her former lover she ignores her bank manager’s attempts to help and decides to travel to Lagos to sort the matter out for herself, with unfortunate results.

The strength of this story lies in the author’s ability to show Cynthia’s many sides.

In some ways she is the foolish old woman that her family see her as with her inability to drive safely or operate technology but a stubborn refusal to recognise her limitations. She understands how she is seen by her children so often chooses not to tell them what is happening in her life.

She is vain and arrogant, expressing disdain for those her own age with their hobbies and sagging bodies. She is happy to believe her hairdresser when she exclaims at how young Cynthia looks, feeling smug about her skincare routine and regular swims. She preens herself and seeks compliments, feeling annoyed when others regard her as old.

Despite her aging, middle class conceits Cynthia is still an individual and wishes to make use of her remaining years. Having escaped the dullness of her married life and discovered that sex can be enjoyed she wishes to seek out lovers, accepting advances as the starving may accept food.

Cynthia is determined not to grow old without a fight and this determination comes to the fore when, in the direst of circumstances, she is required to plan a daring escape. Convinced of her own superiority she is surprised to discover that her companion, who she regards as brash and vulgar, has her own hidden strengths. Together they form an unlikely alliance.

The characterisations in this book are amusing with enough wit and wisdom to entertain. Ludicrous though some of the situations seem (as they should in a farce) I suspect that readers may be inspired to consider their aging relatives and friends anew.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Film Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

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Fifty Shades of Grey. The world and his wife (most especially his wife) are talking about it. I am reliably informed that the source writing is painfully bad. Having not read the book I do not feel qualified to comment.

Now there is the film chasing box office records and, once again, I was unable to join the conversation. Over the weekend I mulled the possibility of rectifying this.

The pros:

  • I would be educated in a popular phenomenon;
  • Watching the film would take less time than reading the book;
  • Jamie Dornan;
  • A bad film can be entertaining if viewers are ready to laugh at it;
  • Once watched I would feel free to express my opinion.

The cons:

  • I would be adding to the viewing figures thereby encouraging film makers to do this again;
  • I would be using time that could be better spent watching and supporting another film.

In the end the decision was made by my family. It transpired that they too wished to join the general conversation. I am amused that this of all films became a family outing. We haven’t laughed together as much in quite some time.

So, what did I think?

The first thing to note is that there is a lot less sex, violence, bondage and control in Fifty Shades than there is in Game of Thrones. All that pencil chewing, lip biting and undressing may be titilating to some (as Christian remarks, Ana does have a lovely body) but it is hardly shocking in the context of a large chunk of popular, post watershed viewing fed directly into our homes. What the GofT men do to women, indeed what Jamie Dornan’s character in The Fall did to his victims, is much more hard core than anything done in this film.

My second observation is to second all those commentators who have criticised the clunky dialogue. It is as corny and stilted in places as I was led to expect. It made us laugh out loud.

In some ways it reminded me of the Austin Powers movies. Replace the sixties technicolour with smouldering shades of grey (even the opening cloud sequence came across as contrived) and what is left is a supposedly hot, desirable man who has women falling at his feet when it must be obvious to all viewers that he is anything but.

Fifty Shades may not deliberately mock itself but it is ridiculous. The artful lighting and angles highlighted robotic, repetitive characters. They did not match their back story. The plot, such as it was, had too many holes.

As an example, Christian Grey is a rich and successful businessman, a self confessed control freak, yet his mother is able to walk straight into his home unannounced. What twenty-something year old bachelor is going to allow that? And what mother, allowed such access, wouldn’t have sussed out the red room on her first visit? Mothers notice locked doors and are a lot more savvy than their children are ever likely to comprehend.

I finally see where the Twilight link comes in although it was hard to pay attention with the distraction of The Contract. I’m sure that a few drinking games could be played around that. Perhaps this explains why staff appeared with wine at the mention of butt plugs.

So yes, it was dreadful, but the question has to be was it dreadful enough to become cult viewing? Despite our amusement I doubt I would choose to watch it again.