Thursday, 12 March 2009
SHE was the most sensational woman of her age. And way out of the league of any of today’s stars of stage, screen and scandal.
Sinuous Spanish dancer Lola Montez couldn’t cut her toenails without it making headlines across Europe.
She was Liszt’s lover and - temporarily - Alexandre Dumas’ good friend. Until his friend and her lover, a newspaper editor, died in a duel over her good name. Dumas coined the term femme fatale to define her.
But she wasn’t only Lola Montez. She was born Eliza Gilbert, stray daughter of the regiment - her milliner mother an offshoot of the aristocratic Olivers of Cork, her father a lieutenant who died of his first ill-judged drink of Ganges water.
Marion Urch’s novel is a page-turner: she follows Eliza through marriage, abandonment, affairs, a divorce that shocked society, and her reinvention as the sultry Spanish widow.
Lola Montez was briefly the power behind the throne - King Ludwig of Bavaria fell for her like a ton of bricks. But she wasn’t lucky for her lovers, and the king had to give up his throne.
Following her story is like tracking fame through 19th-century Europe.
Full of hot passion and blissfully ridiculous drama, An Invitation to Dance is spectacular fun.
CRIME passes down through families. A couple of youngsters turn up in court, then a few years later it’s their children.
By the time the prosecuting gardai are old and grizzled, it’s their grandchildren.
Swedish thriller writer Camilla Lackberg’s new murder feast is about a family steeped in crime.
The grandfather, Ephraim, was a simple con man. Posing as a preacher he brought his two beautiful little boys around to cure the sick.
But the ‘sick’ were people he’d bribed to pose as terminally ill patients so they could be miraculously healed.
The criminal family is so complicated that we could have done with a family tree. Two of Ephraim’s grandsons are the local burglars, and blackmail is rife within the clan.
Years after Ephraim became respectable (on inheriting money from a grateful parishioner), three bodies turn up in the village where the family lives.
One is fresh and bloody. It’s lying on the bones of two earlier murder victims - two girls who disappeared 20 years ago.
The local small-town cops start to investigate. Then another girl goes missing.
Lackberg has a sweet subplot about a shy officer finding romance. And some funny stuff about sedulously ass-kissing officers, and bone-selfish families.
Anyone who loves Scandinavian crime fiction will enjoy this laid-back thriller by the author of The Ice Princess.
WHEN the British were run out of America, they promised not to bring any Negroes “or other property” with them.
Weasel words; the British were caught between two promises.
They’d also pledged to free those who sided with them.
So they registered 3,000 ex-slaves’ names in The Book of Negroes - which is still kept in Britain’s National Archives - and brought them to Nova Scotia as ‘indentured servants’.
In Lawrence Hill’s best-seller, which won the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Aminata Diallo, stolen as a child from her African village, is the one registering the names.
It’s a page-turner. Amanita, a midwife aged 10, is stolen, survives a horror journey when one in three dies, observes a shipboard uprising.
Anus plugged to stop her diarrhoea, she’s sold on the block to a brutal planter.
She learns to read, is sold again, this time to a kindly(ish) Jewish civil servant, escapes to a shanty town.
She bears children to a peripatetic husband, loses them, teaches classes, is hired to register the ex-slaves.
She goes to Nova Scotia, then to Sierra Leone - and becomes the spokeswoman of the English movement for the abolition of slavery.
It’s a lot of action, and the story smells of research; but it's a great book on the history of slavery.
OZ was paradise for the scientists of the 19th century. But for the people who had lived there for thousands of years, it was paradise soiled, wrecked by the incomers who claimed their land and ruined it.
In Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant, a disturbed but brilliant young astronomer with a British expedition learns the language of the Aborigines of Sydney.
As he learns to speak to them, he becomes civilised. So he can choose to do right when he is confronted by his own garrison’s treachery.
The story is based on an actual person - Marine Lieutenant Warwick Dawes, who made the first grammar of an Aborigine language.
But Grenville has made him into the fictional Thomas Rooke, a scholarship boy making a naval career the basis for scientific research.
He’s a lovely character, and Grenville writes him beautifully.
Rooke’s respectful and mutually interested relationship with a brilliant Aborigine child is absolutely charming.
He realises that the Aborigines are using the child to learn as much about him - and the other whites - as he’s learning about them.
And he comes on that dreadful choice: which side should he take when the whites turn on the Aborigines?
It’s a delicate and fine piece of writing - and fascinating if you want to know about Australia and the Aussies.