Saturday, 12 October 2013

Review - The White Princess by Philippa Gregory

This is the latest book in the 'Cousins' War' series written by popular historical novelist Philippa Gregory. The series follows the events of the War of the Roses and focuses primarily on the important female characters of the time. The recent TV drama series The White Queen was based on three of the books in the series. This instalment looks at what happens after the events of the TV show (and the other books), in the aftermath of Richard III's defeat, during the early years of Henry Tudor's reign. It is written from the viewpoint of Elizabeth, daughter of Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV, and Henry's eventual wife (and of course mother to the notorious Henry VIII).

Having read and enjoyed the other books in the series, and after reading a preview snippet of this one, I was really looking forward to reading The White Princess, but I have to say it was something of a disappointment. The book is well written and easy to read, as always with this author, and is well-researched. The heroine is believable, three dimensional and sympathetic. But the story I am sad to say is just a tad dull. Compared to the hundreds of books and numerous dramas/films about Henry VIII, his father Henry VII has had meagre attention. And this book proves why. He was not a flamboyant character at all, a fairly colourless historical  figure who was probably best known for his money-grubbing. So for Gregory to make him the hero in her novel was I think a mistake. She has tried to give him character and make him more sympathetic by showing him as a child bereft of tender care, growing up to be an adult who finds it hard to inspire love whilst at the same time yearning for it. She has depicted his unpleasant actions as the result of this childhood trauma and of his overwhelming fear at losing his throne. But these measures are not enough. To me, he comes across as a cold, uninspiring character. When Elizabeth suddenly admits that she has grown to love him, this statement seems completely unbelievable and lacking in sincerity. How, we ask, has this man who cannot inspire love in anyone but his own mother, managed to make this beautiful passionate woman care about him? A question the author does not really answer.

Not only is the relationship between the hero and heroine rather insipid, the plot too is uninspiring. It is fragmentary and episodic and seems to consist mostly of Elizabeth having babies and Henry fighting off various pretenders to the throne. The events which take place in the reign of Henry Tudor lack the drama of the earlier episodes of the Wars of the Roses. Even the one and only potentially 'juicy' happening of his reign - the 'Perkin Warbeck' incident - is not handled too well. Anticipation for this incident kept me reading, hoping for some sparks flying when Elizabeth and the mysterious pretender met. But there was barely any interaction between the pair and the whole Perkin incident was an unsatisfying as the rest of the book.

The book only really came to life and felt like vintage Philippa Gregory when Elizabeth was talking about her love for Richard III. Of course it's pure speculation on the author's part that Elizabeth and Richard were in love and having an affair - but this is historical fiction, not fact, and it certainly makes for an interesting story-line. And Richard is a far more compelling and charismatic figure than Henry Tudor. I can't help but wonder why Gregory didn't backtrack a little into the events of the earlier novels in the series (as she has done in all the others) and show Elizabeth's viewpoint of her meeting and falling in love with Richard, which was what I was actually expecting of the book. Perhaps the author was a little weary of going over the same ground and wanted to break new territory, but in my opinion this was not the best decision.

The book was certainly not a bad read. Some of the characters were excellent. The heroine herself and the scheming single-minded Margaret Beaufort, obsessed almost to insanity with her only son, especially stand out. There were also some very poignant episodes such as the fate of  young Teddy and the moments of love between Elizabeth and her first-born son Arthur, whom we know is to die young. The 'curse' (which in the earlier instalments of the series Elizabeth and her mother made to ensure the first born son of the killer of the princes in the tower) makes its reappearance here and provides some thought provoking moments, especially when we realise that both Henry Tudor's first born son and Henry VIII's first born son both died young. There is also a lot of interesting and lesser known historical fact within the fiction.

However, although not without its merits,  for me this has to be the weakest link in the series.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

The Secret of Buzzard Scar by Malcolm Saville - Review and Location Visit

A first for me, not only a book review but, as an extra element to merely reading the story, I also visited the very locations described in the book! 


Although I have quite enjoyed some of Malcolm Saville’s books, I wouldn’t say I was a dedicated fan. However when I found out that this story was set around my beloved home turf of Swaledale and Richmond, I was intrigued. This is a fairly gentle children's holiday adventure story with a slight mystery element. It is actually the last in a series (the Nettleford series) about a brother and sister, Sally and Paul Richardson and their friends. All the books are set in the children’s home town of Nettleford, except for this one in which the action moves to North Yorkshire.

The plot involves a holiday in which Sally and Paul are taken along with their friend Elizabeth Langton and her Vicar father when he swaps Parish for a couple of weeks with a Yorkshire clergyman so that his family can have a bit of a break.  Before they leave Sally and Paul’s father gives them a mysterious note in which they are told to visit a Mrs Quegley in her bookshop at Richmond. There begins a series of clues and intrigues and they also meet a rather unpleasant red-haried man whom they christen ‘Ginger Whiskers.’. When they arrive at the village where they are staying they immediately set off to explore, despite the rather inclement weather! They visit a mysterious ruined house called Crackpot Hall, and venture into an exciting cave at the top of a hidden valley. They also keep running into ‘Ginger Whiskers’ and begin to suspect him of nefarious goings on! What is his secret and what does it have to do with the cave and the ruined Crackpot Hall…?

There is a lot to like in this book but for me it is the realism throughout that impresses me the most, along with the contrast to the more usual (and fairly clich├ęd) holiday adventure stories. The almost workmanlike denouement at the end of the book may perhaps be a little tame for those readers who like the rather garish adventures of the Famous Five and their ilk, but I preferred this more realistic ‘adventure.' For me this was far more like my own childhood in which children wove fantasy scenarios around real situations and people, and I feel that readers will be able to identify with this sort of adventure far more than with the unlikely kidnappings and various nefarious goings-on of Enid Blyton’s more lurid tales. In some ways this was a type of ‘Northanger Abbey’ scenario in which the children build up all sorts of wild and wonderful theories of what could be happening before finding out the more prosaic reality. Such is life!

Realism also comes in the form of the setting. Like most of Malcolm Saville’s books this was set in a real place and, despite the unlikely name, Crackpot Hall actually does exist - as does the cave, the town of Richmond and the River Swale. Although a few liberties have been taken with the exact location of some places and a few real villages have been amalgamated to form the fictional village the children stay at in the book, it is possible to actually visit a lot of the locations in the story (And indeed I did visit them – see below) The author really captures the character of the place and re-creates in words a very real picture of the locations. He even weaves the lead-mining heritage - a huge part of Swaledale history and identity - into the plot. This evocation of real places is perhaps Malcolm Savilles’s greatest strength as a writer and sets him apart from most other children’s authors of the time.

Even the weather is more realistic than (and a direct contrast to) most holiday adventures I have read. Usually long hot days where kids bask in shorts are the order of the day. However in this book the rain is pretty relentless. Apparently the author is writing from the experience of a long wet holiday spent in Swaledale. I can’t help but wonder if there was also some ironic contrast intended here. Just as the reader expects a deadly villain but is given something more real, so the reader gets rather more realistic weather than the surely idealised holiday adventure sun. Even the (for me somehow irritating) habit children have in these books of going for a bracing early morning dip is contrasted with the unplanned near drowning in the treacherous and icy waters of the River Swale. As I was reading this book a few weeks ago when we were experiencing the coldest wettest spring since I could remember, this was actually a refreshing change for me: I was becoming heartily sick of reading about the long hot summers in children’s books whilst I was shivering in umpteen layers of clothes! (Ironically, as I am publishing this blog post the weather has made a return to those old-fashioned hot story book summers!)

Despite this being far more realistic than most children’s adventure stories, the author still keeps the reader hooked throughout the book by creating a sense of excitement, mystery and danger throughout. The story is populated by various mysterious characters such as Mrs Quigley, Mr Scarlett and Ginger Whiskers, there is a sense of menace in the creepy ruins and the scary dark cave. And there are very real dangers in the swollen rivers of the Swale and the perilous remains of houses and mines. This weaving of adventure and mystery over a more down to earth backdrop exactly evokes the way that childhood imagination – without the need for computers or video games it may be added – can create amazing and magical worlds within the framework of reality.

Perhaps not a classic in the genre, but this is a clever, thoughtful exploration of the contrast of fantasy and reality, as well as a cracking holiday adventure story.


A friend and fellow Malcolm Saville fan and I set out from Richmond to visit two of the main locations in the book – Crackpot Hall and the cave and waterfall at Swinner Gill. Despite the previous few days being warm and sunny – a marked contrast to the weather in the actual story – life began to imitate art as we set out on a cold and grey day with rain in the air. I hadn’t actually seem either the ruin or the cave before so I was almost as excited as the child protagonists as we set up the beautiful Swale Valley towards Carckpot Hall. This is a very impressive ruined house set high on the side of the valley with a wonderful view over the River Swale. However I didn’t feel any of the menace which the children attributed to the place in the story. To me it seemed a peaceful and starkly attractive place. But to childish eyes looking for adventure and danger, I could see how it could easily be converted into a haunted house or villain's hide-out.

Crackpot Hall

From Crackpot  we headed further above the Swale into the dramatic deep sided gorge of Swinner Gill. Here the pretty waterfalls contrasted with the gloomy grey remains of lead mining and here once again it is easy to see how the wildness of the place could spark off many vivid imaginings.

Swinner Gill

The cave entrance was actually quite a pretty spot where a dainty waterfall trickled over a profusion of rocks. The entrance itself however was anything but pretty. I had somehow expected a large welcoming cave mouth but this was a low blackly grinning tunnel in which one has to scramble quite a way on hands and knees in order to reach the large main chamber. Sadly the children in the story proved far more intrepid than us. After a few feet of scrambling through the tunnel on treacherously slippery rocks, juggling both torches and claustrophobia, we decided to beat a sensible retreat. In the parlance of those fictional adventures we would no doubt have been dubbed ‘feeble’ but age changes priorities somewhat and being labelled feeble somehow does not have the menace of the threat of a broken ankle! 

The waterfall and cave entrance

The visit was enjoyable and brought the book even more to life, however it made me realise that, as much as adults may enjoy reading children’s adventure books, they are far more suited to re-creating those adventures in their heads rather than in real life. It thus proved a fitting tribute to a book which contrasts fantasy and reality!

More info on the book and other Malcolm Saville titles can be found on the Malcolm Saville website

Saturday, 15 June 2013

TV Review - Horizon: The Secret Life of the Cat

Not a book review for once but a TV review. However as it features one of my favourite animals I felt I had to comment.

This was a Horizon special which comprised of 2 programmes following the study of a group of 50 cats in a Surrey village, fitted with GPS collars and special cameras. The aim was to find out just what cats get up to when they leave the house and their life of domestic bliss.

Although it was nice to see a documentary about one of my favourite, and most fascinating of animals, I was slightly disappointed in the main programme (The Secret Life of the Cat). I felt that there wasn’t enough actual ‘cat action’ in the programme. Bleeping computer screens, guff about how various technology had been developed and countless cat owners blathering on about their pets filled up most of the hour. The few minutes of actual cat footage which remained seemed to be almost shoved in as an afterthought, perhaps as the producers thought, oh dear this was supposed to be about cats we’d better actually show a few. Nor was there really much the average cat person didn’t already know about moggies: they like to roam about at night, they fight, they kill rats, mice and other furred and feathered critters, they sneak into other people’s homes and nick other cat’s dinners. The most telling information garnered was that about cats roaming habits. The revelation that cats shared the same territory at different times in a kind of ‘time share’ was very interesting. The ‘cats  eye’ view from the cameras was too, although once again they didn’t show enough of this fascinating angle.

The shorter follow-up programme the next day (Little Cat Diaries) was however a bit more insightful and showed more of the actual cats. In this instalment the focus was on three particular cats from the larger study: the top hunter, the top roamer (and boss cat of the neighbourhood) and a cat who had packed its fur and left its owners to take up residence in a house across the street. It also focused on a stray cat which was lurking around the neighbourhood and taking liberties with other cat’s homes and dindins. Hermes, the ‘top cat’ was particularly interesting as it was a hermaphrodite - although it seemed to actually have an overdose of testosterone judging from its propensity to ride rough shod over other cats' territory!

Having a background in psychology, I was particularly interested in the recreation of a classic experiment into infant attachment, in which dogs were seen to display the same reliance and separation anxiety to their owners that infants did to their mothers. Cats however frankly didn’t give a toss when their owner disappeared and weren’t too ecstatic when they were re-united with them either. But I don’t feel that this demonstrated that cats didn’t love their owners, as the programme seemed to suggest, rather that they don’t have the same reliance on them for comfort or security.

In some ways the programme seemed to perpetuate the criticism non cat-lovers make about cats – that they are cold, unfeeling creatures who go around killing everything in sight. The latter point was exacerbated by a grisly chamber of horrors section in which an array of dead animals (and animal parts!) were paraded in front of the viewer. Watching this,  I began to think I had accidentally tuned into a re-run of a Saw film rather than a documentary! The single eyeball (which was all one cat had left of its prey) peeping coyly at me from inside a tupperware box was not a sight that will leave my mind in a hurry. One of the cat experts was quick to point out that the actual ratio of kills to cats was fairly low: only half a victim to each cat per week. What he should have added is that if the owners didn’t let their animals out at night when most cats do their hunting, the death toll could be lessened even further.

Strangely enough, by the end of the 2 programmes I felt that the study had actually provided as much insight into the behaviour of human being as cats. In fact the cats came off as considerably more capable than many of the humans, and in some cases more intelligent too. Cats seemed to have had the upper hand in most of the relationships, with one family admitting that they organised their life around the cat, another calling themselves the cat’s staff, rather than owners. The neighbourhood stray managed to inviegle itself into a new home without too much trouble. (Not a rare occurance for a cat in my experience, as most of our family cats have chosen us rather than the other way round.) I had to smile at the pride some of the owners displayed in their cats’ various accomplishments. As one owner said, it was like parents preening themselves at school parent’s evening!

Sadly though, some of the owners did not really understand their cats at all. The owner of Orlando, the best hunter in the village, proudly announced that his decimation of the local bunny population was because he didn’t eat cat food but preferred a diet of rabbits. However perhaps if she had actually fed him cat food and kept him in at peak hunting times, the bunnies may have been a lot safer. The ex-owner of Obi, the cat who had abandoned its old home for a neighbour's seemed rather peeved that the cat had left after 10 years, seemingly clueless that it was her own thoughtless behaviour in letting a new dog into the home and allowing it to attack the cat, which had caused the poor animal to up sticks. I was also surprised and disappointed that the old chestnut of putting the cat out at night is still going strong. Despite statistics showing that most cats are killed at night (being run over by motorists who cannot see them in the dark) and also the preponderance of hunting and killing taking place at night, most of the owners in the study were happy to let their cats roam in the small hours.

All in all, perhaps not as much new data garnered about cat behaviour as would be hoped, but worth a look. In fact worth the watch alone just to find out that ‘Pet Detective’ is actually an official job! Now that’s something they never mentioned as an option at school careers day...

Both programmes are available on BBCiplayer until 17th July

Horizon the Secret Life of the Cat

Horizon - Little Cat Diaries

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Agatha Christie describes my home....

Judging from this paragraph in her book 'The Clocks' she knew what it was like for books to run amok and take over! This may be a description of a bookshop but it also describes my house exactly....

"Inside it was clear that the books owned the shop rather than the other way about. Everywhere they had run wild and taken possession of their habitat, breeding and multiplying and clearly lacking any strong hand to keep them down. The distance between bookshelves was so narrow you could only get along with great difficulty. There were piles of books perched on every shelf or table. On a stool in the corner, hemmed in by books, was an old man in a pork pie hat with a large flat face like a stuffed fish. He had the air of one who had given up an unequal struggle. He had attempted to master the books but the books had obviously succeeded in mastering him. He was a kind of King Canute of the book world, retreating before the advancing book tide. If he ordered it to retreat it would have been with the sure and hopeless certainty that it would not do so...."

(The Clocks by Agatha Christe, Collins 1963 page 112)

NB - Not that I wear a pork pie hat and have a face like a stuffed fish (at least I hope not!)

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Book Review - Falling for Eli: How I Lost Heart, Then Gained Hope Through the Love of a Singular Horse by Nancy Shulins

Falling for Eli is the memoir of Nancy Shulins, and the story of how she healed the pain of infertility and the loss of her dreams of motherhood through the love of a horse called Eli.

One again in this blog I am moving out of my comfort zone with this book. Normally I find it hard to concentrate on non-fictional memoirs, even those which are interesting (and sadly many are downright dull and poorly written). Also as someone who has zero maternal instincts for the human child (my maternal instincts are expressed only in the care of cats, dogs or horses) I wondered if I would be able to relate to that aspect of the subject matter.

From the first pages I soon realised that both fears were unfounded. The book is far better written than the average memoir and is certainly not dull. The writing flows and is as easy to read and as stylish as good fiction. It has warmth and humour, as well as emotional depth.

And what of the subject matter? The main theme of the book is of course the heart-rending inability of the author to fulfil her dream of motherhood. However you don’t have to have the same problem, or indeed even to be female to understand and empathise with this situation. Anyone who has had their dreams shattered in some way, or feels themselves set apart from the rest of humanity because they cannot do the same things as ‘normal’ people – be it through inability to have children, poverty, ill health or whatever – will find strength and comfort in this book. It is so easy to feel that you are alone and everyone else is having a better life than you. Nancy Shulin – through her incredibly brave honesty – gives the reader assurance that this is not the case. And she also shows how pain can be healed and life enriched once more by taking a different direction in life. The fact that I have read many comments about the book from a diverse range of people who seem to feel the book has helped them with their own various problems, seems to emphasise the universal nature of this book’s message.

Nancy Shulins heals her own pain through the love of a horse called Eli. There are many insensitive jokes made about women using animals as child-substitutes, but to 'animal people' this is a normal and indeed healthy practice. We are not talking about those females who dress up their little dogs in baby clothes and push them around in prams or carry them in handbags. In this instance the animals are substitutes for dolls (or even worse fashion accessories) rather than children and those sort of women have not really grown up. However I think that there is a very deep need in most mature females to nurture and protect something. The majority of women express this primarily with children. But then there are those whose nurturing instincts are – as in the case of the author - thwarted, and so turn to animals instead. Some of us actually prefer the animals themselves in the first place. But for most females there seems to be a part of us which is unfulfilled unless we are caring for and nurturing a living creature. As we bond with our animals we soon realise that they are not actually inferior substitutes for children. They become as important to us as if they were our own flesh and blood. Falling For Eli both highlights and celebrates this bond and should be required reading for anyone who doesn’t understand an animal lover’s closeness to their beloved horse, cat or dog: the sort of person who sees animals as possessions which can easily be replaced rather than living breathing beings. Perhaps this book could even enlighten such a reader as to the real nature of the bond between humans and animals.

But this is not just a book about the mothering instinct and its expression in the care of an animal. It is also a fascinating story of what it’s like to get the ‘horse bug.’ There is a rather crude myth (probably sniggered at by the same sort of people who laugh at women’s maternal affection for animals) which says that pre-pubescent and teenage girls use horses primarily as a male substitute and then lose interest when they find a real man. What a load of nonsense! Although she rode as a child, the author did not plunge wholly into the world of horses until an adult, giving lie to the fact that this ‘bug’ is the sole province of  teenage girls. It can strike at any age. And as the book also shows, if a horse is any substitute at all, it is as a substitute for a child not a man. (Maybe a man could be a – rather poor - substitute for a horse on the other hand!) Of course the reader soon realises that Eli is far more than a mere substitute. He becomes a being in his own right, who takes over the author’s life in so many ways. The author describes perfectly what it is like to own a horse, not just the mechanics, but the emotional ups and downs and the effect it can have on the whole of your life. For anyone who wonders just what owning a horse entails or what the world of the horse-lover is like, this book will tell them all they need to know. For those of us who have owned or loved horses or spent any time in the horsy world, the book gives us the affirmation that being ‘horse-mad’ is not suffering from some strange disease (as many like to tell us!) but is actually a very special privilege.

For me however the real strength of the book is that it highlights the amazing healing power of the horse. In my other incarnation as a reader and collector of children’s pony books, I have read thousands of stories in which a horse changes the heroine’s life forever. Perhaps it turns her into  a better person, maybe it heals a hurt inside. Reading this book makes you realise this does not only happen in fiction. Real horses also have the power to heal us and even restore our faith in life.