Category Archives: Book reviews

Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England.

By Alison Weir.

Alison Weir’s writing is so accessible and compulsively readable. She is careful to weigh up evidence and say when something is inconclusive, but at the same time she manages to tell a fabulous story, with descriptions vivid enough to play in my mind. 

Remarkable in her own time and from the distance of 800 years, Eleanor’s story is fascinating: Riding like an amazon to the Holy Land astride her horse, getting an annulment from her marriage to the King of France and then riding straight off to marry his enemy, having an affair with her uncle (actually, probably having affairs with two different uncles at different points in her life…), sailing a stormy journey across the Channel at seven months pregnant with an infant in tow, and watching her many children grow up to fight and intrigue (often against one another, or their father).

In fact, it’s crazy how much moving about the Royals did. They were pretty much nomadic, riding or marching hundreds of miles, crossing mountain passes in winter (which Eleanor did at age 77), and thought nothing of nipping across the Channel as frequently as a modern day commute, whatever the weather. 

It is horrifying though, the way people viewed things. That a woman could wield such power and yet at the same time have so little of it. One month she’s de facto ruler of a Kingdom, the next she’s imprisoned for overstepping. It’s as though they realised that women were capable and intelligent, but they kept getting scared of this realisation.

Though I love history and am fascinated by it, my vivid imagination and empathic brain always struggle with it. There’s all these enthralling tales of Kings, Queens, Dukes, Empresses and their squabbles and plots and wars, but every time I read “so he laid waste to the whole region in revenge”, or “he was busy capturing this town that was under siege”, or “the soldiers rampaged through the surrounding lands” I just think of the ordinary people going about their lives. People trying to make a living, taking care of their homes, rearing animals, raising a family, kids playing …and then in sweep these armies to kill, torture, rape, plunder, and set everything on fire. Those that survived the onslaught faced famine as their ravaged lands could no longer feed them. And then probably, after all these lives, loves and hopes are swept away the two warring parties will kiss and make up, all chivalrous after their quarrel. It’s all a bit too much for my angry heart sometimes (that massacre in the ‘Holy Land’ is going to stick in my mind for the rest of my life). 

I am sure you will hear this again as it happens every time I read a history book*. It really plays with my poor sensitive soul! However, it doesn’t diminish the fascination I have with history or with Eleanor’s truly amazing life story. I really recommend this book as it’s so readable and yet thorough. Just brace yourself, it’s a bumpy ride!

*I am aware such things are not entirely consigned to the past, so I extend that to “anything about wars and armies at any time or place, past or present”.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. By JK Rowling.

Marketing has such an influence these days that my younger son (known on this blog as R) has been obsessed with Harry Potter for about a year without being familiar with the story or characters. We have an agreement that we’ll read the books together and after we’ve finished each one then we can watch the film of it, then move onto the next book. He’s only five so I’m hoping this will spread it all out somewhat so he’s as close to seven as possible by the time we reach the scarier stuff. I am also a believer in always trying to read the book of something before watching the screen version if you can. It’s better to build up your own mental pictures first.

Having read them more than a decade ago, it was a joy to start again, this time with a five year old’s interjections enhancing the experience: “oh mummy, I think this is going to be a good bit, I can just tell”, “why is Hermione so bossy? I think she’s like you because you’re bossy”, a twenty minute in-depth (yet inconclusive) discussion of what houses the sorting hat would put us in, and my personal favourite “do centaurs do person poos or horse poos?”

They’re at that age where magic and reality are indistinguishable and R is utterly convinced that he will be going to Hogwarts when he’s finished his current school. At random points in the day he will keep coming up to me in a panic saying “I forgot the spell for making the feather float!” or “do you think we can go and buy my owl today?”

He was so into the story and had excellent recall. Even if we missed a day he would still remember what had happened and exactly where we were up to. I think I need to up my game as a reader though. I haven’t done that much ‘out loud’ reading for years and I could only really manage distinct voices for one or two characters. I also shamefully let the side down when I started blubbing at the end. When Dumbledore gives Neville those 10 points it always gets me. R looked at me in disgust “mummy are you actually crying?”.

Reading is the best lesson and the best gift for kids. I had to make a diversion to explain that Diagon Alley is a pun. So he now sort of knows what a pun is, and it was quite a few days later when we were doing a wordsearch and he said “mummy, that one is done diagonally, like in Diagon Alley”. He also now knows the difference between duel and jewel thanks to this book.

Having worried that the kids just weren’t ready I now realise I was wrong. We are eagerly awaiting the next book.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. By Gail Honeyman.

Eleanor Oliphant has learned how to survive – but not how to live. Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend. Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything.

An enjoyable read with a narrative that speeds along nicely. What the author has captured well is the different perspective neurodiverse people can bring and there were some absolute gems that caused me to laugh out loud. The bit about school sports is particularly good. 

I did get angry as well, on Eleanor’s behalf. Her mum was clearly very mentally ill but nobody knew or helped, or intervened to protect the children. The support Eleanor herself received was very poor. Of course she was going to have mental health issues and struggle with her life, but they left her pretty much alone to deal with it. The letters from the foster carers are heartbreaking, with all their talk of ‘discipline’. It is bad that they weren’t allowed to know her history but at the same time, surely if you foster or adopt you are primed for the child having been through some kind of trauma. Seriously, if you foster a child and they have a major aversion to cleaning or setting the fire wouldn’t you think that just maybe it was a trauma trigger for them?

The one bit that didn’t quite convince me was the attitude of her colleagues. I can understand that they might leave her out due to not understanding her but the level of nastiness was more akin to school rather than grown adults. I don’t know, maybe I have just been surrounded by nice people for so long! I’m sure if she worked at my place of work she would not be treated like that.