Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover

Wendy Holden – The Duchess

Book Cover

Always Duchess, never Queen.

Publisher: Welbeck
Pages: 423
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: ?978-1-787-39624-1
First Published: 19th August 2021
Date Reviewed: 13th September 2021
Rating: 4.5/5

Wallis Simpson marries her second husband Ernest after a short relationship; Ernest is wonderfully caring, the complete opposite of her first, abusive, husband. The new marriage isn’t perfect – Wallis wants to move up in the world, if just a bit, whilst Ernest’s happy as they are, and Wallis still carries the metaphorical scars from her first marriage – but it’s good. But Wallis still hopes to enter a society closed off to her due to lack of wealth, a society her mother was unable to introduce her to, and due to a series of lucky events, she gradually makes the sort of acquaintances she always dreamed of. One of them is the mistress of the unwed Prince Edward, heir to the throne.

The Duchess, Holden’s second novel about figures in royalty who have been put in particular lights, puts Wallis Simpson in a more positive one than she ever was in life, at least not once she entered the life of Edward VIII.

(Nor, for that matter, since – during my research whilst I read the book I struggled to find any mention of good values or any descriptions that were particularly positive. There may well be factual accounts that are positive but they are not to be found in articles on the Internet. Most likely Wallis’ own ghost-written memoir would be positive but there are of course going to be biases in that.)

However this positivity is not constant. Holden’s story is not completely positive, indeed her descriptions of good points are balanced out by her fictional Wallis’ relentless drive to be high in society, which obviously echoes thoughts of the time. This said, as the book reaches its end it does very much move towards the idea that Wallis did not want to be Queen and did not want to marry Edward at all, at least not following his abdication, which does directly conflict with various thoughts, especially where recent research shows a possible case of abuse.

If it sounds like there’s a lot of fiction here, again, as noted above by the positivity not being constant – thus the commonly-held view of the conflicts and issues are included – the fact that Holden’s account is openly a novel allows further study and further question. It is all very well adhering to the most popular points of view when they haven’t changed since the 1930s and 1940s, particularly given the contents (see here the visit to Nazi Germany, the discourse with Hitler, the photo of smiling faces) but the fact remains that it is one based in those years in a society that was very British, against divorcees marrying into royalty, and all about tradition. And whilst things have changed – Camilla has married Charles, Meghan married Harry – they haven’t changed enough to support new viewpoints coming through into the public domain; Camilla will likely never be ‘Queen’, Meghan is seen as a big problem.

All that rambling to say that, whilst Holden’s Wallis is incredibly different to the accounts that are most easily accessible, and the presentation is that of a problematic prince who is needy and increasingly manipulative and has more say than Wallis, it’s impossible to say that this is far-fetched and too fictional. Is it quite a quiet book in its way, yes, does it break lots of new ground, no. And it’s intriguing why it ends on the note it does without going further.

But as I hope all this rambling and considering and pointing out has done, the fact that The Duchess presents such a highly different account and, possibly, interpretation, is very much in its favour. Wallis is still, today, ‘that woman’, and it’s worth looking at the information again, looking at it in terms of the time to view the biases openly, and arguably Holden has done an excellent job doing so.

Will The Duchess change minds? It could be said that it does something far more important – it pushes you to review what you thought, what you’ve heard, and what the actual truth might be.

Perhaps a couple of sentences would have sufficed: this book is brilliantly planned, written, and executed in all ways. That it provides a fair amount of historical information about real-life socialites, and detailed reasoning for the break-up of Wallis’ first marriage is more of a bonus, even though they are in fact quite extensive in terms of pages. Great stuff.

I received this book for review.

 
First Half Of 2021 Film Round Up

I’m in a mini rut this year with films; I’ve spent a lot of evenings socialising digitally and time spent in front of the TV has been for comedy shows. Having noticed it I’m planning more Cary Grant film nights for this second half of the year.

Film image Film image Film image Film image

Emma (UK/USA, 1996) – Of Jane Austen fame; Emma, thrilled with her past success in matchmaking attempts to find a match for her lower-born friend amongst Emma’s higher society at any cost. This one’s okay, though if I can compare, I preferred the latest one from 2020.

Maggie’s Christmas Miracle (USA, 2017) – A single mother with a demanding career finds luck when her son befriends a man who can be his tutor. Pretty average story however the two leads are two of the better actors in Hallmark/Lifetime/etc Christmas movie land so that makes it a lot better.

The Greatest Showman (USA, 2017) – A man works his way from a regular background to become famed for his circus. the plot is very so-so – it’s the music that’s good.

The Importance Of Being Earnest (UK/USA, 2002) – As per Oscar Wilde, two men pretend to be each other in order to better themselves and everyone is confused. Lots of fun.

Apart from the Cary Grant films, and the latest David Copperfield which was added to Amazon later than I’d thought it would be (thus I forgot to keep an eye on it) I’m not making any plans. I think this year that would be best.

 
May, June, And July 2021 Reading Round Up

It made sense to put these months together; it was getting late last month to write about my June reading, I’d only finished one book, and then I realised I hadn’t accounted for May either. I did a lot of reading during that week-long heatwave where I spent most hours of the day situated outside. I’m also thrilled to say I’m double vaccinated; the second dose gave me a weird half flu for a few days but I’m glad to have had it. Photos suggest bookshops still exist; I’m looking forward to visiting them.

All books are works of fiction.

Book cover Book cover Book cover Book cover

Christina Courtenay: The Runes Of Destiny – A young woman finds a Viking brooch on a dig site and is transported hundreds of years in the past where she is taken captive; struggling first to believe what’s happened, she must get used to her new life and not be distracted by the leader of the expedition abroad. A good, fun, follow up to Echoes Of The Runes that expands on the general idea and improves on it by leaps and bounds.

Diana Gabaldon: Dragonfly In Amber – Back in her own time, and twenty years on from when she spent two years in the Scottish Highlands of the 1700s, Claire Fraser Randall has returned to Scotland to try and find out what happened to Jaime during the Battle of Culloden. She’s brought her daughter, Brianna, who is yet to discover that her father was a man who lived 200 years previously; now Frank has died, Claire is about to change that. Where the first book was pretty much pure fantasy, the second offering builds on the history to deliver something very detailed and historical and, badly-placed sex scenes aside (why tell your daughter all that?), it’s a great piece of escapism. One can only hope that the person who, in the TV series, is told the truth about Claire, also learns it in the book series, too, at some point.

Gill Paul: The Second Marriage – First Lady of the United States Jackie Kennedy, and opera singer Maria Callas were connected – both had relationships with the shipping magnate Ari Onassis. Paul looks at the lives, loves, and marriages of both women, the connections between them, and the way context and social values affected them. Called Jackie And Maria in the US, this is a strong, bold, work of fiction that offers possible answers and a well-written story of two famous women.

Louise Douglas: The Scarlet Dress – Alice disappeared at the caravan park when Marnie was a young child and Will a young man rather in love with the holidaymaker. Years later, the park is being dismantled for redevelopment but hits a problem when a body is found in ground beneath a structure. Marnie has to remember the past, Will has to work with what’s gone on (it had a massive impact on him, leading to career as a thriller writer) and the mystery of what happened to Alice must be solved by everyone remaining whose lives were linked with the park. A good, fast-moving, mystery revolving around a close-knit group.

Book cover Book cover Book cover

Nicola Cornick: The Last Daughter – When Caitlin’s body is found in a long-sealed coffin, Serena is forced to confront the past that has alluded her for so long to try and work out how her modern-day twin came to be buried in the 1800s. In a second narrative Anne Neville, wife of a close friend of Richard III’s recounts the story of her earlier years and the strange story told to her by a mystical woman about a familial lodestone with a powerful magic. As strong as Cornick’s previous time slips, this looks at a possible answer to the mystery of the Princes in the Tower.

Rachel Hore: A Beautiful Spy – When Minnie is approached by a family acquaintance about potential work and later contacted by MI5, she finds herself a spy, spying on British sympathisers of communist Russia and living two lives that cannot be blended together. Based on a real life spy, this is an interesting work that focuses more on the person than the work, showing the reality of life as well as bringing to the fore a woman who could never be noticed.

Rosanna Ley: The Orange Grove – When Holly bakes a cake to celebrate her business news, she knows it’s one her mother has never made, but doesn’t know why. Ella is shocked by the news but agrees to Holly’s proposal, that they go to Seville together to research products and meet vendors for her forthcoming orange-based shop. There’s just that trepidation – Ella visited Seville when she and and husband Felix were younger, but Felix left early to look after his mother, and Ella stayed on. She wasn’t entirely alone. A great book that blends interesting business trip with a past holiday spirit and an excellent look at the extraordinary in the ordinary.

All these books have helped me through the last months, with their balance of fun and escapism with excellent studies and commentary. The fantasies, too, have included their studies. The Gabaldon definitely took a while to read – a few hours in the garden every week or so (it took over four months) – but I’m glad I decided to carry on with the series and am looking forward to getting back to the adaptation.

I’m currently about a quarter of the way through Sharlene Teo’s Ponti and have just begun Tyler Keevil’s Your Still Beating Heart. The first was a present last Christmas and a long-awaited read that I’m enjoying, the second a newer book that employs the second person, which had me intrigued.

It’s been a while: how are you all and what have you been reading?


Charlie and Rachel Hore (A Beautiful Spy) discuss the life and work of a female spy in the years between the First and Second World Wars, the man who inspired James Bond’s M, and how Rachel took care to do right in her representation of a real person.

To see all the details including links to other apps, the episode page can be found here.

 
Gill Paul – The Second Marriage

Book Cover

Life can be operatic.

Publisher: Avon (HarperCollins)
Pages: 412
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-36626-1
First Published: 18th August 2020
Date Reviewed: 21st July 2021
Rating: 4.5/5

In the mid 20th century, Jackie Bouvier married the man who would become president of the United States only to be assassinated two years later. In the same few years, the wildly popular opera singer Maria Callas was in her prime. The two would come to be in relationships with Greek shipping magnate – one his mistress, the other his wife. Paul imagines this period in American history, focusing on the women’s individuality, lives, marriages, loves, and the people they may have been away from the cameras.

The Second Marriage (Jackie And Maria in the US), is a literarily thrilling and very bold book that begins with strong characterisation and continues with the author’s excellent balancing of the known facts and rumours. Structured in the form of an opera with its Acts, the book blends both your regular story with moments of high drama and tragedy, rather mirroring the life of the characters; it also shows that even the ordinary is not. Favouring exploration, Paul pays heed to, as well as moves away from, the presentations and opinions of the time, covering all bases before looking into the reasons the two women might have been one way or another way and so on. (For example, Callas certainly appears haughty in interviews (to this reviewer, at least) but, says Paul, was this a persona? Was she fed up of the way she was treated by the press?

On the subject of mainly separate lives, it should be noted that Paul has created a few scenes in this regard – the two women are not known to have met. However, they were linked in more ways than one; whilst both had a relationship with Ari Onassis, through him and Jackie’s family was a further link. Jackie’s sister, Lee, is rumoured to have had an affair with JFK, and a relationship with Onassis whilst he was seeing Callas. And related to this in terms of rumours, Paul has taken rumours such as miscarriages and secret children to create her tale. The use of these ideas – often things that could have damaged a women’s status at the time – allows for an exploration of agency without a requirement for foresight.

Of the lack of foresight – which is good – and staying in context, Paul’s version of Onassis asks many questions in its subject. You see a womaniser who simply had money (and whilst not directly referenced by Paul, recent focus on him has included alleged abuse of Callas) who was nevertheless pined for. It’s another bold choice by Paul, letting the history be itself, letting the reader come to their own conclusions, and moving away slightly (through Onassis) from the idea that a reader relate to characters.

The characterisation, in itself, is sublime, particularly, not surprisingly, when it comes to Jackie and Maria. The characters are brought wonderfully to life, as well as if they’d been narrated in the first person, and the scenes echo reality.

It is perhaps the active focus on Jackie and Maria here, rather than the book, that may divide opinion. Paul’s versions of these women focus here on the men in their lives, marriage, love, and children. As much as they are individuals and the focus of the story, the women are secondary to the men, and this is where the expectation of the reader comes in. The context of the women being secondary is correct in its time and Paul makes no bones about Jackie and Maria’s relative dependence, but a reader wanting more of the idea of a strong woman might be disappointed with the way they are strong. Are Paul’s Jackie and Maria strong, yes, but they are still restricted by the mores of their day, even if they are the one making money. (Maria also said in at least one interview that she had wanted a family.)

What this book does then is provide an excellent exploration of the time period and an idea (sometimes more a possibility, as discussed) of the women at hand. Jackie Kennedy’s life following the death of JFK – her worries for herself and her children both in terms of being the next target (JFK’s brother, later standing as a presidential nominee, was killed) and money. In the years since her life, her story has been seen as one of likely Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, her strength due to the needs of the day. Maria Callas, as said, was seen as haughty, and to some extent Paul has used this, showing a measure of on-stage persona and discussing the idea of such a thing. There is, moving towards support for Paul’s choice, a lot to be said for honing into specifics. Paul’s ideas can be found in further research and she allows focus on things that weren’t in focus at the time.

The Second Marriage is, then, full of thought, facts and various people’s rumours, and a fully-fledged look at some fascinating lives. This is a book very much worth reading and a book that will push even the most escapist of readers to do further research, both to see where Paul has diverted and created, and more about Jackie and Maria in general.

 
Nicola Cornick – The Last Daughter + Podcasts (Zen Cho, Rosanna Ley, Gill Paul)

Book Cover

Solving the mystery.

Publisher: Harlequin (HarperCollins)
Pages: 355
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-27852-6
First Published: 8th July 2021
Date Reviewed: 19th July 2021
Rating: 5/5

Serena’s twin, Caitlin, disappeared in her late teens and Serena could not remember the last time she saw her. Now, years later, a body has been found in a centuries-old tomb that nevertheless matches Caitlin’s DNA. Serena needs to try again to remember what happened that last day she saw her sister and find out the solution to the mystery that doesn’t make any sense. As the story unfolds, we also hear the story of the Wars of the Roses from the experience of Anne, the wife of Francis Lovell, loyal ally of Richard III.

The Last Daughter is a dual-narrative timeslip that looks at a purely fictional mystery as well as an in-context reason for the mystery of the princes of the tower (the book is called The Last Daughter Of York in the US).

Cornick’s blending of history and the present day, with its splash of fantasy, is as strong as ever. The research and fictionalisation of the early life of a lesser-known person, Anne FitzHugh, is wonderful. (And for this, Anne’s narrative could certainly be said to be better than Serena’s.) The way the fantasy is brought in aligns with the sort of superstitions of the time.

The use of location is also strong. Bringing to life a house in ruins (Minster Lovell Hall) as well as a castle (Ravensworth), you get a greater sense of the day to day life of those living in the wars of the 1400s.

In this book it is the way in which the timeslip happens rather than the timeslip itself that is the most fascinating thing. Cornick uses a lodestone that has been revered for decades as the item that creates havoc, and with the science behind the well known object, it’s a convincing idea. Similarly to her other books, the author uses a few time periods to explore and examine her concept, which makes the story all the more fun, even if in this case it includes tragic circumstances.

The most compelling aspect of the book in terms of the present day is the way in which Cornick deals with the mystery of the Princes. Whilst it may not solve it quite as you might expect – this is a fantasy after all and we don’t know what happened – the author does do something that few people have; Cornick removes the ‘either, or’ factor from the equation. Certainly so doing means that the reader’s focus is on the story she has constructed, but it is and was always going to be inevitable that the reader is at least distracted by the idea Cornick sets forth. The question of ‘what if?…’ here allows the medieval-minded reader to look at the whole thing in an entirely different way and prod at possibilities that tend to get overlooked or just left out completely.

The Last Daughter offers a compelling story of historical mystery told with Cornick’s trademark uniqueness of narrative strength. The timeslip element is different, fresh, and the book a great addition to the author’s list.


Charlie and Zen Cho (Black Water Sister) discuss traditional Chinese beliefs, smashing up shrines, and Jane Austen.

Charlie and Rosanna Ley (The Orange Grove) discuss whether one of her main characters, Ella, made the right decision with the situational contexts at hand, the viability of a shop focused on orange-related products and set up in Dorset, the Seville producers of those products, and the secrets of the flour-free cake that starts the whole thing off.

Charlie and Gill Paul (The Second Marriage) discuss the lives and loves of Jackie Kennedy and Maria Callas from their early married years until later life, the womanising ways of the men in their lives, and the opera and celebrity that in Gill’s book links them all.

To see all the details including links to other apps, the episode pages can be found here.

 

Older Entries