Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier

I recently came across an article with a list of “best pirate books” and this one, by Daphne du Maurier, was included.  Even though I’ve read several of her books (years ago Rebecca  and, more recently, The House on the Strand) I had never encountered this particular du Maurier book.  In the mood for something completely different than the other novels I’ve read recently, I decided to give it a go.

Lady Dona St. Columb lives a life of leisure in Restoration-era London with her husband, Harry, and their two small children.  While Harry fills his time with card playing and hard drinking, the jaded Dona chafes under the societal constraints imposed upon her as a wife and mother.   One night she joins with friends to play an unkind prank on an elderly woman.  As she explained to Harry, ” the ridiculous prank on the countess was only a thwarted, bastard idea of fun, a betrayal of her real mood; that in reality it was escape she wanted, escape from her own self, from the life they led together; that she had reached a crisis in her particular span of time and existence, and must travel through that crisis, alone.”  Soon she’s off to Cornwall with the children, leaving Harry behind in London.

When she arrives at the country estate Navron, she finds a new kind of freedom, romping and playing with the children, getting dirty and enjoying the outdoors.  One day while exploring the nearby creek, she comes upon a ship at anchor in a secluded cove.  She has discovered the hiding place of La Mouette, the pirate ship of the frenchman, Jean-Benoit Aubery, who has been terrorizing the coast of Cornwall.  Befriending the ragtag group of pirates, she is drawn into their world and is soon falling for the frenchman himself. 

Will Dona choose freedom, excitement and romance, or will she do the “right”  thing and return to her children, husband and family responsibilites?  We are kept wondering til the end.

Reading a classic such as this one is always a pleasure on several different levels.  There is the pure enjoyment of a story that has stood the test of time, but adding to the experience is knowing that this book was written nearly 70 years ago as du Maurier lived alone in Cornwall while her husband was away during World War II, a time when women were just beginning to gain new freedom and independence.  It has been said that she may have written this particular book to explore her own fantasies of escape from a life of children and a chilly marriage to a distant husband.  Whatever the motivation, this book is filled with du Maurier’s beautiful, evocotive writing which lifts it head and shoulders above a typical pirate romance.

My Rating: 

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Mary Anning truly was a remarkable creature.  Born in 1799, she was struck by lightning at the age of one and survived.  Living with her family in the village of Lyme Regis on the southern coast of Britain, little Mary spent many hours on the beach with her father searching for “curies” or “curiosities” which were in fact fossils of many prehistoric creatures such as ammonites, crinoids and belemnites.  To Mary and her family, “curies” were a way to put food on the table.  They collected the specimens and then sold them to the tourists who visited the coastal resort each summer. 

When the three spinster Philpot sisters move from London to Lyme Regis, Elizabeth Philpot takes an interest in Mary and her fossils.  A collector herself, Elizabeth joins Mary in scouring the beaches and uses her connections in aristocratic circles to help her sell her finds.  When Mary discovers a “monster” embedded in the rock, she unknowingly uncovers the first documented dinosaur, the first of many finds to come, and Elizabeth must fight to see that Mary gets the recognition she deserves.

Chevalier has taken a real life person in Mary Anning and fictionalized her life and accomplishments.  At the time that Mary lived, science was a man’s world and hunting fossils was not considered a suitable pursuit for women.  It was seen as “an unladylike pursuit, dirty and mysterious.”   Although she made major contributions to the world of paleontology, Mary was never given the credit she deserved and was mostly forgotten, though several of her finds are still on display in museums today. 

Alternating between the voice of Mary and the voice of Elizabeth, the chapters emphasize the class differences between the two women and highlight their unlikely friendship, including both mutual admiration and, at times, barely disguised envy and jealousy.  Not just a book about fossils, Remarkable Creatures is also an examination of the roles of women in society, and in the world of science, at a time when being a spinster at the age of 25 or spending time in “unladylike” pursuits such as fossil hunting were looked upon with suspicion and derision.

My Rating:  

Twilight of Avalon: A Novel of Trystan and Isolde by Anna Elliott

If you pick up this novel expecting a story along the lines of the 2006 film Tristan and Isolde, or the Wagner opera by the same name, you may be surprised to find that this one is nothing like a courtly medieval romance despite the cover blurb that mentions friendship turning to love.  Elliott returns to the earliest versions of the Arthurian legends and weaves a story that is part legend and part original fiction.  Isolde is mourning the death of her husband, King Constantine, who was King Arthur’s heir to the throne of Britain.  The petty kings are scrambling for position, eager to fill the empty throne of the High King.  Isolde suspects that Con was murdered by Lord Marche, a character so obviously the “bad guy”  that he might as well be wearing a black hat.  Isolde, known for her healing skills, meets up with  wounded mercenary Trystan in the prison cells of  castle Tintagel and they team up to try and save Britain from both the evil Marche and the invading Saxons.

I appreciate the research that went into the writing of this novel and the fact that Elliott put a new twist on an old story.  Where it fell down for me was in the writing and editing.  In this world “tightness around the mouth” represents every emotion from anger to pain to alarm.  Faces are “tight with weariness”.  Isolde must tend to the wounds of literally every character in this book with mind numbing repetitiveness.  Castle walls “stand out black and jagged as broken teeth against the black of the sky.”  Huh?  Black stands out against black?  Where was the editor when the word “trail” was used for “trial” twice in the space of two pages?  There were quite a few of these mistakes throughout the book and once I started noticing them it was hard not to start actually looking for them.  Unfortunately they weren’t that hard to find.

This is the first in a planned trilogy of books, the next being Dark Moon of Avalon due out in the spring of 2010.

My Rating: 

Twelve by Jasper Kent

Twelve Voordalak, voordalak, voordalak . . . ah, yes! Vampire. Hmm, even the Dragon is getting a little burned out on the vampire spin, but at least Kent does vampires right in his debut novel, Twelve.

The Grande Armée of Napoleon Bonaparte is poised on Moscow’s doorstep in the autumn of 1812. In a desperate bid to stop the French, Captain Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov and his comrades enlist the help of the Oprichniki. The Oprichniki are twelve mercenaries from Eastern Europe, each is named for one of Christ’s disciples, including the enigmatic Iuda. The Oprichniki promise they can stop the Russian advance with their unorthodox guerrilla warfare, and Aleksei and his comrades are desperate enough to accept their help.

Kent does an excellent job of writing about this period of the Napoleonic Wars and the French invasion of Russian. The historical aspects of the novel never overshadow or supersede Aleksei’s story, but instead enhance the supernatural portions of the tale to lend believability to the overall novel.

The vampires are not sparkly teenage stalking caricatures of young adult novels, but creatures of blood with a lust for killing. The entire novel is well written and accurate in both history and legend.

So why is the Dragon ambivalent about this novel?

Aleksei was a likeable character, all of Kent’s characters were well drawn, including Iuda. I certainly enjoyed the story; and I positively loved the historical setting of the novel. The sub-plot concerning Aleksei and Domnikiia never interested me, and I had difficulty believing there was actually anything between the pair other than lust. Aleksei proclaimed love, but his adoration was never accompanied by action. At one point, he couldn’t wait to be rid of her, so I didn’t buy into his angst over her well-being.

This is highly subjective, but I would have enjoyed Twelve better as a war story that focused on Aleksei, Maksim, Dmitry, Vadim, and their war against the French, then the Oprichniki. I would have liked to have seen a more focused approach on these four men and their betrayals without all the pretensions to romance with Domnikiia.

There was more than one occasion where I felt the scenes were ponderous with information. The plot and Aleksei’s thought processes were so meticulously detailed in some passages that Kent lost the emotion of the prose in lieu of an almost technical rendition of the facts.

In spite of this, Kent’s prose did have a very comfortable feel so that the novel’s defects did not prevent me from enjoying Twelve. I think that Twelve is well worth the read, and I will certainly look forward to Kent’s next novel.

My rating:

A.D. 62: Pompeii by Rebecca East

It’s no secret that I like time travel themes (see my reviews of Mary Modern and The Mirror).  This one sends bookish Harvard grad Miranda back to the first century Roman empire, and lands her in the ocean near the doomed city of  Pompeii.  Caught in a fishing net, she is soon sold to a wealthy slave owner, Marcus Tullius, and is put to work as a house slave.  At first Miranda is unworried, confident that she can return to her world at the touch of the transmitter implanted in her arm.  Unfortunately, something goes awry with the transmitter and Miranda finds herself stranded in ancient Rome.

Apparently Rebecca East is the pen name of a university professor.  I would venture to guess that her area of expertise is history or archeology, rather than english or literature.  The historical descriptions are detailed and interesting, if a bit reminiscent of a tour book one would purchase at a kiosk when visiting Pompeii.  The characters are rather thinly sketched, and what starts out a detailed historical overview eventually loses steam and degenerates into a typical Master/slave romance.  Even the impending explosion of Vesuvius is barely acknowledged in the end. 

This book had promise, but could have benefited enormously from a good editor.  There was much repetition of thoughts and ideas, and also more than one misspelled word.  Still, it wasn’t so bad that I gave up on it.  I bravely saw it through to the last page.

My Rating: 

City of Thieves by David Benioff

Lev Beniov is a grandfather who recounts for his grandson his memories of enduring World War II in Russia, but within the culmination of Beniov’s experiences, there was one week in 1942 that stands above all others.  Leningrad is under siege, and like the rest of the city’s residents, seventeen year old Beniov is starving due to the German blockade.  One evening he violates the curfew, is arrested and taken to the Crosses where he awaits execution with a young soldier named Kolya, who has been charged with desertion.  Rather than a death sentence, they receive an interesting assignment from a powerful colonel in the Russian army.  His daughter is getting married and his wife wants to make a real wedding cake, which means she needs eggs, a nonexistent commodity in the war ravaged city.  If Beniov and Kolya can find a dozen eggs for the colonel, they will be set free and their crimes forgotten.  Thus begins the real adventures of the two young men as they travel through a city and countryside replete with cannibalistic city dwellers, guerrilla partisans, and Einsatzgruppen (Nazi death squads).

While the story belongs to the timid and retiring Beniov, it is Kolya who steals the show with his bravura that alternately terrifies and exhilarates young Beniov.  Kolya is frightened of nothing and has never encountered a foe that did not bend either to his charm, his cunning or his terms of endearment.  He fearlessly sweeps Beniov along from one adventure to the next with barely a pause until both Beniov and the reader have no choice but to fall in love with him and his feral ways.  A friendship is formed and forged through the horror of war as they go behind German lines where they eventually comprehend the ultimate price of freedom. 

Benioff’s characters are so endearing and their trials so real I alternatively laughed out loud and wept for their tribulations.  I can’t recall the last time I read a book where I was so moved.  Their pain was so real I actually caught myself touching the pages in an effort to console the characters.  Beautifully written and wonderfully told, City of Thieves was well worth my time.

My Rating: 

Mistress of the Sun by Sandra Gulland

The death of her father and the disappearance of her white stallion set the stage for Louise de la Valliere (1644-1710), or Petite as she is affectionately called, to become a maid of honor in the glittering court of the Sun King, Louis XIV (1638-1715).  Petite is pretty, athletic, pious and loveable and soon draws the eye of the King, married for political reasons to the dreary, dowdy Marie Therese of Spain.

As Petite and the King carry on a clandestine affair, the intrigues of the court simmer around them.  Petite secretly bears Louis four children, two of which die in childhood and two of which are eventually legitimized.  Making the affair public and legitimizing the children has it’s consequences and sadly Petite is the one that is forced to make the sacrifices. 

The book centers around Petite’s struggle to reconcile her guilt over her role in the death of her father and her adulterous affair, with her devotion to God and desire to live a pious life.  We grow to love Petite and wish the best for her, but sadly, as intrigue swirls around her we come to realize her limited options in a world where being the beloved mistress of the King is not the easy life one might expect.

My Rating: