Laura by Vera Caspary

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Published in 1942, Laura has all the ingredients of a classic forties’ noir.

It has atmosphere in abundance: the majority of the action seems to take place during dramatic thunderstorms or torrential downpours.

It has a gripping central mystery with a beautiful ‘femme fatale’ at its heart. Laura Hunt, a New York advertising executive, is found shot dead on her own doorstep, her face obliterated by the blast.

It has a cynical detective with a well-hidden heart of gold (Detective Mark McPherson).

And it has the whip smart, wisecracking dialogue one has come to expect of the genre:

Bony hands gripped the table.

‘Let’s have another drink.’

I suggested Courvoisier.

‘You order. I can’t pronounce it.’ (Caspary, 1942)

These elements alone would make this novel a must read. But, for me, Laura has a little something extra and that’s a discussion of gender politics that is still relevant today.

In Laura Hunt, we have a heroine who struggles to balance a burgeoning career with her personal life. Described as having ‘a man’s job and a man’s worries’, Laura’s status rankles with her fiancé Shelby Carpenter in particular:

‘When I went to work for Rose, Rowe and Sanders, I made thirty-five dollars a week. She was getting a hundred and seventy-five.’ He hesitated, the colour of his cheeks brightened to the tones of an overripe peach. ‘Not that I resented her success. She was so clever that I was awed and respectful. And I wanted her to make as much as she could; believe that Mr McPherson. But it’s hard on a man’s pride. I was brought up to think of women … differently.’ (Caspary 1942)

That these themes still – sadly – resonate today makes this gripping, atmospheric thriller even more fascinating. Definitely one that should be more widely read.

The Heart of Blade Duology by Sherry Thomas

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Ying-ying and Leighton are the stars of My Beautiful Enemy, the ‘main course’ of Sherry Thomas’s Heart of Blade duology. We first meet them – long before they meet each other – in the prequel, The Hidden Blade.

Set in the late 19th century, this novel examines how the couple’s childhood experiences shape them. In Peking, we see Ying-ying take centre stage in a wuxia narrative: a traditional Chinese tale that typically follows martial artists of almost superhuman abilities. In Ying-ying’s case, her life changes irrevocably when her nanny turns out to be one such martial arts hero and takes her as a pupil. Well. That would have livened up Mary Poppins. Meanwhile, back in England, we watch in horror as Leighton Atwood’s wicked uncle destroys his childhood before pursuing him to China, where Leighton escapes in search of a beloved family friend.

I would have appreciated a greater sense of an origin story here: more on Ying-ying’s training would have been good as she seems to go from 0 to 60 rather quickly. That said, The Hidden Blade is tremendous fun: fist-pumpingly feminist with a great cast of supporting characters and an utterly breath-taking action sequence at the end.

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Although it is meant to be ‘the main event’ as it were, My Beautiful Enemy disappoints in comparison. We catch up with Ying-ying (now known as Catherine Blade) and Leighton just as they reconnect, eight years after their last meeting. This encounter is rather awkward because Catherine had thought she’d killed Leighton after their love affair soured and he betrayed her. It’s such a pain when that happens at formal functions.

Thomas’s writing is top notch throughout both novels, and My Beautiful Enemy certainly has its fun moments – none more fun than this:

She lowered into a crouch, then leaped up atop the table, balanced upon an upside-down teacup. (My Beautiful Enemy, p. 189)

Yes, you read that correctly. Ying-ying executes a perfect handstand on a teacup. That’s certainly how I like to conclude breakfast.

Dining table gymnastics aside, this novel is often rather dull. We spend most of the prequel dying for Ying-ying and Leighton to meet but their romance seems oddly bloodless in the end. Additionally, the finale of My Beautiful Enemy is incredibly weak. I am talking Scooby Doo levels of silliness and subtlety.

All in all, these are well-written novels that skilfully evoke both period and place and boast a fantastic heroine. The prequel is by far the stronger book, however, with the main event being married by a limp and unconvincing romance.

Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen by Alison Weir

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The True Queen is the first in a projected six-book series focusing on each of Henry VIII’s wives. A well-trodden path indeed. However, Alison Weir, also a well-known historian, promises to examine new evidence and to consider this oft-fictionalised period from different angles.

In actual fact, I didn’t find much that was new in this volume. What I did find, though, is that the level of detail Weir includes here is so great that she frequently manages to be illuminating anyway. This is a potted, fictionalised biography of Katherine from her arrival in England in 1501 to her death in 1536. The novel is so throughly researched that Weir is able to fully realise events and flesh out characters that other fictional accounts have often just skipped over. Moreover, the way she chooses to depict Katherine’s marriages to the doomed Prince Arthur and to Henry feels very convincing.

As he opened the door to leave, she found she could no longer control her emotions and broke down completely, emitting great, tearing sobs that sounded like an animal in pain. All those years together, all the love that had been between them, the children they had conceived and lost, the joys, the sorrow, the things they had shared … They had been one flesh, and now Henry wanted to break them asunder and end it all. It was more than she could bear.

I particularly admired the fact that Weir didn’t impose 21st century values on Katherine in a bid to make her more relatable to contemporary readers. Katherine is very much a woman of the 16th century here, but we feel sympathy for her plight regardless.

That said, Weir’s prose can be dry and overly simplistic and her skills as a novelist are middling at best, something apparent in her rather emotionless depiction of Thomas More’s demise. She edges towards psychological realism at times, but too often the novel drags and feels like one of those stilted, lightly dramatised TV documentaries.

I would say that there’s just enough here to make the novel worth reading. But The True Queen doesn’t add a huge amount to existing knowledge and understanding of its subject. The second novel in the series, focusing of course on Anne Boleyn, is scheduled for release on May 18th. I’m certainly interested to see what insights Weir can bring to this topic, given that there are more fictional accounts of Anne than of Katherine.

Margot and Me by Juno Dawson

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This is the first Juno Dawson book I’ve read and, really, where on earth have I been?! Margot and Me is by turns hilarious, heartbreaking, gripping, warm and wise.

Our narrator is 15-year-old Fliss. We meet her just as she and her mum, who is recovering from cancer, are making the temporary move from London to Wales. They’re staying with Fliss’s grandmother, Margot, who isn’t exactly the warm and fuzzy type. As sparks fly between the generations, Fliss decides that she hates her cold-hearted grandmother.

However, when Fliss stumbles across Margot’s teenage diary, kept during the Second World War, she gets an unexpected insight into the events that shaped the older woman, and unearths family secrets into the bargain:

OK, I have to look or I’ll explode with curiosity. Margot at sixteen! I can hardly imagine it: some people just come out of the womb aged forty and she’s one of them. I’ll read just a tiny bit.

From this point, the novel switches between the two narratives: Margot’s wartime experiences, which are vividly rendered, and Fliss’s (often belly laugh-inducing) responses, interspersed with her experiences getting to grips with life at a new school. The voices of both Margot and Fliss are incredibly authentic and both narratives are equally involving.

Dawson’s writing is both funny and insightful. Her portrayal of serious illness is refreshingly unsentimental and unflinching. Along with Fliss and Margot, there is an endearing cast of supporting characters and Dawson’s depiction of Fliss’s burgeoning friendships is both hilarious and moving.

Fliss’s narrative is set in the late nineties, when I myself was a teenager. This brought the added bonus of a blissful bubble of nostalgia, evoking memories of things I hadn’t thought of for years (Vanilla Kisses Impulse! Kappa Slappers (I confess, I was one!)! Party of Five! Pop out hairbrushes from the Body Shop! Fido Dido ring binders! Virgin Megastore! Freddie Prince Jr.! Helen Daniels and her tragic demise!).

Margot and Me was one of the books that I felt I had lived rather than read. I will issue a weepie warning, though, but there is plenty of wit and warmth to make up for it.