John Oller: American Queen

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Kate Chase was the oldest daughter of Salmon Chase, a Republican lawyer and politician in the 1860s and 1870s.  Salmon Chase tried for but never attained the highest office, swapping parties and serving several presidents he worked hard and his daughter was his closest supporter and hostess.

Kate was talk, attractive and socially very adept, she bloomed in Washington society.  A grand political hostess, she was destined to marry well and on the surface it appeared that she did so.  Her  husband, William Sprague, was handsome, very rich and the youngest Senator to serve.  However this glittering match fell apart, fuelled by alcoholism, infidelity and violence, leaving Kate destitute at the end.

I had never heard of Kate Chase Sprague but she makes an engaging subject for a biography.  The insights into the government of the Union during the Civil War are really interesting and whilst Kate comes across as a not wholly sympathetic figure, she was definitely a woman ahead of her time.

Ann Turner: Heartsease

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Mary is a young, romantic girl whose ideas of love and marriage are brought crashing down to reality as she weds a spoilt young man in an arranged marriage. In Tudor times women must obey their men and keep home and family whereas the man can sow his oats wherever he pleases. After being beaten and humiliated by him, Mary must contend with being a widow and being summoned to court to serve Queen Catherine.

So far so OK. However the story then becomes farcical – Mary marries a Spaniard, moves to Spain, discovers her husband is a serial wife-killer and he is then murdered by his insane daughter. Forced to go to court to serve her erstwhile friend Anne Boleyn, Mary marries a shy lawyer but is then blackmailed into attempting to poison Anne. She is tortured and condemned to death alongside her husband and her treacherous brother.

Potentially there is a good writer hidden behind the ridiculous plot but she just can’t escape. There is enough material for at least three books here but the obsession with sex and the need to pile storyline on top of storyline means that this is not a well-developed novel, rather a potboiler.

Miranda Seymour: The Pity Of War

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England and Germany have been both close allies and bitter enemies over the past two hundred years.  In this book Seymour looks at the parallel histories of two great nations through the lives of a series of interesting and sometimes outrageous characters whose stories encompass this relationship.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book because although the history was known, the experiences made it seem so much more grounded in reality.  In particular the sufferings of the German nationals during the Second World War and the antics of the naive youth of the 1930s who visited Germany and became entranced by Hitler.

Little vignettes of extraordinary lives bring history alive!

C W Gortner: The Tudor Vendetta

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Brendan Prescott is languishing in exile in Switzerland until he hears that Queen Mary is dead and Elizabeth has ascended the throne.  Returning to England he is asked to undertake a personal and private mission for the Queen which leads him to the wilds of East Yorkshire.

Having read the first of Gortner’s books but not the second, I found it relatively easy to pick up some of the plot lines which was no mean feat as a character from the second tale plays a large role in this story.  The detail of Tudor life is impressive and the plot races along.  OK, it’s complete hokum from start to finish but it’s a fun journey.

Howard Jacobson: J

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Following an event the course of society has been changed. Everyone has quasi-Jewish names and the state controls life. I gave up at this point, about 15% into the book. Sorry but life is too short to carry on with this. I’m sure there is a group of book readers who really enjoy sub-‘1984′ style premises but the Jewish cliches and hints were so blunt and obvious that this book was becoming a drag.

That’s a personal opinion

Antonia Hodgson: The Devil in the Marshalsea

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Tom Hawkins is the son of an East Anglican cleric, expected to follow his father into the vocation, however Tom has a wild side and whilst studying at Cambridge he indulged in many vices. Denounced by his jealous stepbrother, Tom is cast off by his father and has ended up in London living the life of a rake and a wastrel. Unfortunately Tom is naive and moral which means that he incurs debt to such a level that he is threatened with prison. Gambling all on a final game of cards he wins but is robbed and thrown into the Marshalsea Prison.

The prison is a tough place to be, life hangs by a thread and the inability to pay for rent and board on the ‘Masters Side’ means almost certain death on the ‘Commons Side’. However a murder has taken place and Tom is charged with investigating this as the price for freedom. The regime running the Marshalsea is making a lot of money and any official investigation may bring that to an end. Tom struggles to find the truth as he is unsure of who to trust.

The depiction of life in 18th century London is excellent, the Hogarthian nature of life for all classes is shown. A man’s future is dependent on money and influence and the wheel of fortune throws individuals down as often as they are thrown up. Many characters in this book are drawn from life and the fictional characters are very believable. The plot is a little odd in the end but the journey to that ending is complex and enjoyable – a gripping little book.