A Greyhound of a Girl – Roddy Doyle

Roddy Doyle A Greyhound of a Girl

Published: 2011 (paperback), Marion Lloyd Books, 168 pages
Children’s/Young Adult fiction

Review

This novel sensitively deals with themes of love and bereavement through the bond between four generations of women: girl, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. Exploring these themes through different stages of womanhood, the novel is perhaps less suited to male readers. The few male characters are generally sidelined in favour of focusing on the relationship between the four central female characters: Mary, a wisecracking twelve-year-old journeying into womanhood; Scarlett, Mary’s mother; Emer, Mary’s grandmother dying in hospital and Tansey, Mary’s great-grandmother who passed away from influenza.

Despite having passed away in 1928, Tansey plays a vital role in A Greyhound of a Girl. The novel is essentially a ghost story, of which Tansey is the ghost. Yet the novel is not a conventional ghost story: the story is not one of fright and shocks, but rather of the touching, unwavering bond between four women who support each other in dealing with death and their mortality.

Believing she ‘died too soon and [… ]died too quickly,’ Tansey returns to present day, ‘lingering’ as a ghost and unable to bare leaving a loved one. Tansey longs to comfort her daughter, Emer, in her dying days and young Mary and her mother are instrumental in making this happen. Together, the four women embark on a remarkable road trip of reflection and remembrance along the east coast of Ireland to the farm where Emer was raised with Tansey: ‘One of them dead, one of them dying, one of them driving, one of them just beginning’.

Do the four women reach their destination before Emer’s condition deteriorates? Struggling to maintain her ‘solid’ state, can Tansey remain as a ghost long enough to help give Emer a proper send off?

Overall 

Would I recommend this book? Yes
★★★☆☆

The novel has a non-linear structure, alternating between Mary’s present day point of view and chapters which journey back in time through the lives of Scarlett, Emer and Tansey. Doyle balances a poignant, heartrending plot with upliftingly witty and relatable characters; A Greyhound of a Girl will make a reader cry and laugh in equal measure.

If you are looking for an easy yet thought-provoking read, this could well be the novel for you.

The Notes: New Horizons

One week today and I will officially be a student teacher!

I am going back to university to do a one-year Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) in order to become an English teacher for secondary school. Ever since I can remember I have wanted to be a teacher or a spy; I think the former is significantly more achievable, but you never know!

I have always loved english literature and I cannot wait to hopefully help others find joy in it too.

A PGCE requires a lot of work and extra hours to be put into it. I intend, however, to review the children’s/teenage literature that I read and teach throughout the course. I’m sure my reading for fun won’t altogether cease this year, it will just be less frequent and regular.

I hope you enjoy the upcoming transitory shift in subject matter!

Dissertation notes

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The Bookshelf: New Additions

August saw many new additions to the bookshelf and I can’t wait to attack the mounting pile of books on my bedside table.

The following three are next up to be read:

1356 Bernard Cornwell

1356 – Bernard Cornwell

Published: 2012
Harper Collins
433 pages
Historical fiction

Known for his meticulous historical detail and impressively vivid battle scenes, Cornwell takes on another historical battle in this novel- the great Battle of Poitiers, 1356. Taking place during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), this was an improbable battle where clever tactics overcame numbers; an army of approximately 6,000 men defeated the opposing army more than triple its size.

I am intrigued to see how Cornwell’s battle scenes compare to others I’ve read and I am expecting good things… ‘The best battle scenes of any writer I’ve ever read, past or present’ George R. R. Martin.

The White Princess Philippa Gregory

The White Princess - Philippa Gregory

Published: 2013
Simon & Schuster
527 pages
Historical fiction

This novel picks up where The White Queen left off, and explores: Elizabeth of York’s relationship with Henry Tudor; Elizabeth’s feelings for the late Richard III; whispers that one of the lost princes is seeking to claim the thrown and of course the difficulties newly victorious Henry Tudor faces when trying to unite the country.

If the other novels in Gregory’s The Cousins’ War series are anything to go by, this novel will brilliantly combine sound historical research with a thrilling plot. I can’t wait to read it.

Son of Blood Jack Ludlow

Son of Blood – Jack Ludlow

Published: 2012
Allison & Busby
446 pages
Historical fiction
Book 1 of the ‘Crusades’ trilogy

11th Century Italy. Power plays. Battle scenes. Norman dominance.

This novel transports the reader back to the heart of a tumultuous time leading up to the First Crusade. Exploring Norman conquests, political and military strategies and the development of Dukedoms in Italy, the novel deals with complex issues. I am interested to see how Ludlow entwines these around the powerful de Hauteville family we know from his previous trilogy, Conquest.

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Have you read any of these books? What did you think of them?

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A Dangerous Inheritance – Alison Weir

A Dangerous Inheritance - Alison Weir

Published: 2013 (paperback), Arrow Books, 509 pages
Historical fiction

Setting the scene

Edward IV’s two young princes are in line for his throne. Yet, following the King’s sudden death in 1483, it is his brother, Richard, who is crowned King.

Did Richard III conspire to usurp the throne from his nephews the princes? What happened to the princes who, lodged in the Tower of London, were then never to be seen again?

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Richard III’s illegitimate daughter, Katherine Plantagenet, is disturbed by rumours of her father’s involvement in the disappearance of the princes. Eighty years later, their fate also haunts Lady Katherine Grey who feels compelled to investigate the mystery for her own reasons.

Through perilous investigations, can either of these young women come close to revealing the truth behind the mystery of the ‘Princes in the Tower’?

Review

Living decades apart, the lives of Katherine ‘Kate’ Plantagenet and Katherine Grey share several tragic similarities. Both young women experience the danger that comes with being royal and both are driven by an instinctual yearning to uncover the truth behind the mystery of the princes.

Kate Plantagenet’s experiences are recounted in third-person beginning in 1483 with news of King Edward IV’s death. She finds herself swept up in political turmoil when her father – the late king’s brother and Lord Protector to his sons and heirs – is controversially proclaimed king, after which no one sees the princes again.

Speculation mounts around whether King Richard, considered by many a usurper, had his nephews ‘done away with’ in order to secure his throne. Kate is naturally drawn to support her father whom she loves dearly, though gradually even she finds doubts creeping into her thoughts.

Whilst the mystery has a more immediate bearing on Kate, decades later, Katherine Grey is equally compelled by it. Initially examining the mystery because of an affinity she feels for Kate after seeing her portrait, she later has a child and finds her motherly instinct absorbs her further into it.

Katherine Grey’s tale, narrated in first-person, begins in 1553 when her sister, Jane, is declared Queen. Jane, a devoted Protestant, is a reluctant Queen who rules for only nine days before support for the Catholic Mary Tudor challenges her rule. Jane is overthrown, imprisoned and later executed for treason. So, before Katherine is yet thirteen, she has tragic experience of the complexity of having royal blood, and unfortunately for Katherine this is only the beginning. Whilst naïve and impulsive, she is a character we sympathise with throughout her turmoil.

A Dangerous Inheritance - Alison Weir

Both young women are rendered pawns in a game of ambition and alliances. They and their kin suffer tragedy at the hands of those who oppose them and the threat posed by their dangerous inheritance: their royal blood.

However, the novel seems as much an examination of the heroine’s love lives as it is the mystery of the princes. Given their royal blood and import in making alliances, both Katherines find themselves prohibited from having that which they truly desire- the man they love, rather than a man who would be an advantageous match. This is hardly surprising for the time, though Kate is particularly harshly used to make a good alliance and Katherine is cruelly denied marriage, despite their – somewhat dangerously – clear feelings for the men they love.

The tales of Kate and Katherine could easily have been split into two separate books. The interweaving of their stories seems to be reliant on a ‘supernatural’ element which is a little tenuous (Katherine feels drawn to a portrait of Kate, experiences dreams of her and strange moments of terror when wearing Kate’s old pendant). The stories of Kate and Katherine are also interesting enough as they are, they do not need an added supernatural element.

Overall

Would I recommend this book? Yes, to anyone with an interest in this era.
★★★☆☆

The novel is very well-written, presenting the intricacies of court life with historical authenticity and induced me to shed a tear at one heart-breaking moment. It will excite the curiosity of anyone interested in this era as Katherine Plantagenet, a figure we know so little about, is rarely presented as vividly as Weir brings her to life.

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The Master of Bruges – Terence Morgan

The Master of Bruges - Terence Morgan

Published: 2010 (hardback), Macmillan New Writing, 313 pages
Historical fiction

Setting the scene

The fortunes of journeyman painter, Hans Memling, change entirely when a humble sketch provides him with an unforeseen lifeline.

The small sketch, an un-commissioned likeness of the Princess of Burgundy, serves a part in sparing Memling’s life at war and salvaging him from impoverishment.

Newfound prosperity is accompanied by striking connections with powerful political figures. But Memling’s connections lead him far beyond Belgium and right into the very heart of civil-war wounded England.

Here, in Plantagenet England, Memling’s life takes a turn for the even more unexpected. Entangled in the final stages of the Wars of the Roses, tragedy and political turmoil surrounding him, Memling plays a surprising role in one of history’s greatest unsolved mysteries.

Review

‘Not all of the painting needs to be confined to the frame.
The truth sometimes lies outside’. 

This is a multi-themed novel about love, art and the tumultuous politics of the Wars of the Roses, all with an underlying emphasis on truth.

Written in the first-person retrospective narrative of Hans Memling, fifteenth century painter, we are treated to a story of ambiguous romance juxtaposed with a fresh, original outlook on over three decades worth of historical events and figures from the late middle ages (spanning 1460 to 1494).

The novel is split into two main parts. The first part of the novel begins in 1460 and centres around the Burgundian court and Memling’s burgeoning career as a painter in Bruges. Memling tells of his acquaintance with Charles, Duke of Burgundy, having sketched his beautiful daughter some years earlier, a sketch most precious to Charles. We read of the prospects this association provides Memling and of his equivocal relationship with the Duke’s daughter, Princess Marie.

The second part of the novel contrasts significantly to the first. Memling is invited to England by Sir John Donne (who in reality commissioned Memling to paint a triptych for him) and in 1482 we are transported from Bruges into the midst of Plantagenet England. Here, Memling’s eyes provide the reader with remarkable access to the English royal court. We closely witness the personal and political motivations behind the reigns of three English monarchs: Edward IV, Edward V and Richard III and hear of Henry Tudor’s endeavour to claim the thrown.

The Master of Bruges - Terence Morgan

Interspersed throughout the novel and detached from the narrative of events, are short chapters in which Memling contemplates the craftsmanship of painting. These thoughtful chapters show the author’s passion for Memling’s work and provide a continuous theme from start to end. They consequently ensure that the second part of the novel – where Memling, ‘artist to the great’, seems to become Memling, ‘confidant to the great’ – isn’t too far removed from the first part.

Some scenes are very well handled, such as the search for a particular casualty in the aftermath of the Battle of Nancy (France, 1477). A later death in the novel is also noticeably beautifully handled and is a highlight of the book- though it would spoil the plot and interesting twist to mention more. The novel would perhaps have benefited from more description, for example in the battle scene there is room for a bit more ‘gruesomeness’, though being written almost in diary form it is understandable that this is not the case.

It is also interesting to note that the novel is very sympathetic to Richard III. Richard III has traditionally been villainised through history, being accused of infanticide and considered essentially a throne-snatcher. Morgan uses the artistic license that comes with historical fiction to offer an absorbing, alternative theory of events surrounding Richard’s route to kingship.

Overall 

Would I recommend this book? Yes
★★★☆☆

Morgan’s debut novel is a smart, interesting read with a good pace. It is well written, presenting a convincing narrative voice which is at times comedic. It is also pleasingly well-researched, incorporating many of the key events of the time, including the introduction of printing set up by William Caxton, a character Morgan weaves imaginatively into the novel.

If approaching this book without prior knowledge of Memling and his artwork, you will finish with an instilled interest in his work and an understanding of the context that goes with it.

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