Downton Abbey – the film

We originally started watching Downton Abbey in box set form – and there are a lot of episodes. Great entertainment, but in the end, we stopped watching. Like any soap opera, the twists and turns in the plot seemed more to do with maintaining peak audiences rather than telling a story.

And then Downton Abbey the film appeared in our local cinema. Great. Watch the finale, and cut out the box sets. We had seen enough to know who the main characters were. We had followed the story of Lady Sybil and the romance with the chauffeur, Tom Branson and cried when she died. But we had stopped watching when the unending sage of Bates, and the rise and fall of his fortunes that stretched the bounds of credulity.

The film is a great feel good movie and ends with lots of happy ever afters and the promise of even more. The King and Queen are coming to Downton (Edward VII and Queen Mary) – just staying for the night. Apparently, you do not invite the monarch, the monarch invites themselves. And turns up with retinue, takes over the running of your house and the kitchens. But it is a great honour. And everyone bows and curtseys and melts into extreme sycophancy. Anyone for a republic?

The film is unlikely to be a candidate for the Oscars and possibly does nothing to promote the monarchy, but is quite entertaining, although the ending was just a little too drawn out in its syrupy sweetness.

What the Wind Knows by Amy Hamon

I must admit, I was giving up with finding a good read. There is an awful lot of dross out there. But this book is different. A love story, an historical account and a little bit of time travel. I must admit that at times I was reminded of “The Time Traveller’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger at times. Once time travel enters into the equation, questions about predestination arise, and the circularity of time, and as is so often in Dr Who plots, the question of if and how the timeline can be changed. This book is a glorious mix of romance, history, politics and science fiction at its best. Definitely a “Margaret’s recommendation”.

The setting is … when? Anne Gallagher, a successful author, based in New York finds herself in Ireland, in 1921 at a crucial time in the history of Ireland. And as I read, Britain is now at the same juncture in history, where identity, nationhood, economics and politics all collide in the Brexit question. In Ireland, in the early 1920s, these questions led to a civil war, and no-one benefits from a civil war. For us, in Britain, these questions are leading to an erosion of the United Kingdom, and as a result, the viability of Great Britain as a political unit also hangs in the balance. The history of all the peoples of the British Isles are inextricably linked, culturally, economically, politically. So inextricably linked that the actions of one country or state have the potential of destabilising the British Isles. Surely the lessons must be that we have a moral duty to all the people of the British Isles. And this is a lesson that has yet to be learnt by the English. Democracy says that whoever wins the vote, wins the day. Yet surely this is a recipe for tyranny, and many peoples of the British Isles will say English tyranny. For the English reader, What the Wind Knows is an uncomfortable read.

The Last Lie by Alex Lake

I had just finished reading Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller. This book would be completely different. Or so I thought. Until the ending, then it was a case of Déjà vu. Woman metes out revenge. Woman is empowered. And a moral question. Is vengeance to be applauded in a woman, where it would not be so in a man?

Dial M for Murder and the marriage of Tony and Margot. Hmm. Similar premise, husband Tony, funded by the wealth of his wife, Margot, wishes to dispose of Margot and divorce is not an option. Different means of achieving end. But in the intervening years, there has been a dramatic shift in the agency of women. Margot is the damsel in distress and needs to be rescued. But in the Last Lie, Claire, a woman of wealth is married to Alfie, who wishes to dispose of wife and keep her wealth. But Claire, unlike Margot, does not need to be rescued. She untangles Alfie’s evil and in return, plans to kill Alfie. It is the wicked husband who needs to be rescued.

The book is in two parts. Part 1: Alfie is in the ascendancy and it is a psychological thriller – will Claire escape, will Claire be saved. Part 2. Claire’s story. Claire rescues herself. No knight in shining armour required. All great stuff.

Or is it? In the end I was left wondering whether these two protagonists actually deserved each other. Both were self-absorbed, oblivious to the other, both see their spouse as a means to an end. Claire wins. Alfie is imprisoned. And again, moral questions left hanging, as empowerment is handed to the female.

 

 

 

The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

I enjoy reading Jodi Picoult’s books, for here is an author who understands that human beings are not two dimensional, simple beings but multi-dimensional, complex beings, capable of good and bad, love and hate, fear and courage. The Storyteller was no exception to this and is a story that will haunt me for a long time. But I found the ending disturbing, but not surprising. Yes, the Jodi Picoult twist was there, although by halfway through the book, I had wondered about the identity of Josef Weber, the elderly German teacher who had befriended Sage Singer, a young woman in her twenties grappling with grief for her mother and disfigurement. Twisting through the narrative was a gothic horror story that would have given Mary Shelly a run for her money. A story of an upior, a vampire, or to be more accurate, two brothers who were vampires, monsters in the world and a young woman, who is a baker, Ania. And running behind the story is the story of Minka, surviving against the odds, a survivor of the holocaust. It is also a story of two brothers, Reiner and Franz who are absorbed by the Nazi machine and become SS officers assigned to Aushwitz.

The ending. Earlier in the book, Sage reads Minka’s book, the story of the upior. Sage writes of her grandmother “It is, as if she knew, even at that young age, that you cannot separate good and evil cleanly, that they are conjoined twins sharing a single heart”. Minka survives, the only member of her family to do so, she survives the Lodz Ghetto, Aushwitz and Belsen and she survives with her humanity intact. Josef Weber also survives, an SS Officer, who takes on a new identity and so escapes justice. Josef becomes a new creation, and at the end we realise that Josef Weber has become an amalgam of himself and his brother, both SS officers. Reiner/Franz survive by becoming indispensable pegs in the Nazi war machine and both subordinate their humanity, to do anything else would mean death. Of the two, Reiner is more of a monster, yet Franz, who in a different world, would have been a mild mannered academic, similar to Josef Weber, becomes almost as monstrous as his brother. Good and evil, conjoined twins sharing a single heart. And how easy it is to move from one to the other if survival is at stake. The question has to be answered for Josef Weber, was he seeking redemption and forgiveness for what he and his brother did so many years ago.

Sage, the granddaughter, acts instinctively, and then realises that the situation at the end was not all that is seems. And so, the conclusion of the book is a blank page, similar to the ending of Minka’s fable, there is no happy ending. Just another page to be turned.

The book is well written. But the ending is disturbing. Possibly, because there is no redemption and no forgiveness. The ending does not bring closure.

The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain

A novella. Not my choice, but I hope to join a reading group which will be discussing this book.

There are two cities called Paris, the city that gets all the headlines, the city of Charlie Hebdo, of the Bataclan attacks. The city where Francois Hollande prances around, a vain peacock, and where Marie le Pen aims to replace M. Holland. And the other city called Paris, where the Seine sweeps through gently, the city of light, the city of culture, with cafes and small shops, a city where beauty and culture are appreciated. Are they really the same place? Laurent Letellier crossed over from one city to the other, when he swapped a career in banking to running a book shop with living accommodation above. This is the Paris of Laure Valadier also. Laure is a gilder. She is also an elegant French woman, as indeed all French women are supposed to be. Laure dresses well. Lives on her own (well, there is a cat, Belphégor, who is central to the story).

 

The separate worlds of Laure and Laurent collide one night when Laure is mugged, a vicious assault that leaves her in a coma and Laurent finds her discarded handbag (a beautiful, expensive mauve handbag), a bag containing Laure’s life but without keys, money or phone. Laurent resolves to return the bag to its owner, having read the red notebook in the bag (this is where I take exception – a red moleskin notebook in a mauve handbag?).

Laurain treads a delicate path through this story. Laurent, in his quest, could quite easily be mistaken for a stalker, but it is Laure who initiates the contact at the end of the book.

I found this book an enjoyable read, but I needed to read it twice. The first time I galloped through to find out what happened. The second time was a more leisurely read, and I delighted in so many things, the references to Modiano (Accident Nocturne or Paris Nocturne is definitely on my reading list), the question of memory. Plus I need to know just what is a pot au feu. The book is short, but us a delight to read. Highly recommended.

 

This Happy Breed

A play by Noel Coward at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford. October 2016

Thoroughly enjoyable. A story of the suburban classes, and perhaps this is where its greatest charm lies. Of course, the Gibbons may be a suburban family living in a standard semi, that strata of society which so many of us inhabit. The squeezed middle as it is sometimes called. But the house was large enough to house 3 teenagers, one grandmother and one aunt as well as Ethel and Frank. Five bedrooms? Plus, there was a maid. Quite a large establishment – not the standard 1930's three bedroom home. How things have changed.

The play is set against the backdrop of British history, or rather, British history is projected onto the lives of this family. A twenty year slice of history neatly placed between the two wars of the twentieth century. We begin the play a few months after the end of WWI with the backdrop of hammering as Frank is putting up curtain rails as the family move in. And the play ended, just before that start of WWII, and again to the sounds of hammering as Frank is now taking down the curtains as he and Ethel are moving out. Coward finished the play in 1939, at a time when it was assumed that we would go to war against Germany, but no-one knew when. There was a gasp from the audience when Queenie prepares to go to Singapore in 1939 to join Billie Mitchell, the boy next door. We the audience know more, we know what is going to come hurtling around the corner

 

 

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

There are several categories of books, serious books that you are supposed to read, dreary books that are so dire that they are never finished, great books which live with you and change your life, page turning books which leave you wanting for more, not always great literature, but very enjoyable.

The Invisible Library falls into the latter category. This Who can resist a book where science fiction meets fantasy, where there are dragons and vampires, magic and science, and a Victorian world exists in an alternative universe. This is an extremely enjoyable read, so much so that I have acquired the next book in the series, The Masked City.

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

There are several categories of books, serious books that you are supposed to read, dreary books that are so dire that they are never finished, great books which live with you and change your life, page turning books which leave you wanting for more, not always great literature, but very enjoyable.

The Invisible Library falls into the latter category. Who can resist a book where science fiction meets fantasy, where there are dragons and vampires, magic and science, and a Victorian world exists in an alternative universe. This is an extremely enjoyable read, so much so that I have acquired the next book in the series, The Masked City.