Wideacre, Philippa Gregory, 1987

Mansion Monster

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Wideacre is a dark, twisted and uncompromising tale of grand estate life back in 18th century Sussex, England. The debut novel by Philippa Gregory, acclaimed British writer of historical fiction and non-fiction, was first published 30 years ago and has since become sort of cult favorite among literary fans, there has also been lingering rumors and demand for a movie version throughout the years.

Wideacre is a fictional mansion in the English countryside that includes a vast area of land, green fields, forests, meadows and a village called Acre where everyone lives as tenants of Sir Harold Lacey, the lord of Wideacre. The heroine of the book, if you can call her such, is Sir Harold’s eldest and only daughter, beautiful and spirited Miss Beatrice Lacey, favoured child of her father who taught her to ride in age of four and throughout the years she grew up to be a brisk outdoors woman and valuable help for her father in matters of farming and forestry.

However, soon enough Beatrice realizes being in a receiving end of destiny’s cruel joke. Despite being first born child and much more worthy and capable heir than her weak younger brother Harry, as a woman she can never inherit and run Wideacre, that is enforced by the law. Beatrice can only expect an arranged marriage somewhere far away from the land she loves so passionately but she decides to defy the law and the destiny.

This sounds like a commendable effort of a woman seeking her lawful rights in a time that would likely have suffragettes hang in public but it is something quite different. For Beatrice, the end justifies any means and I do mean ANY. She stoops into fraud, adultery, being grossly indifferent to people of Acre, murder, accessory to murder and perhaps most notoriously, incest. And she almost wins, however it is a Pyrrhic victory as during the process she has sullied and ruined everything she held dear at first place.

The immense unlikeableness of Beatrice is both the strength and weakness of Widecare, she certainly makes a memorable main character but distracts the reader from enjoying this well written and researched novel because one is too eager to see Beatrice getting her comeuppance. Despite the lurid aspects, I still recommend this to anyone with interest and fondness for English mansions and life in them as Wideacre tells and describes the everyday life and work in mansions and what role these places played in economy and society at the time. This is the first part of a trilogy and I have never read the second and third book, Favoured Child and Meridon but apparently, Beatrice’s wicked witchery proved ongoing.

More Than Dreams, Pamela Bullard, 1987

Feministic TV-world Artefact from the Eighties

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Katherine “Kate” Marchand is a forty-something CEO of Boston-based TV-station WLYM. She wakes up 5am after her regular five hours sleep, brushes her teeth while computer inside her head switches to Work and Today’s Schedule-mode, which involves countless duties and tasks of being the CEO of America’s most prestigious TV-station. This is indicative of the tone of More Than Dreams, WLYM is not “one” of the most prestigious TV-stations in America, it’s THE most prestigious, elevated to that position by the iron fist of Kate Marchand. However, this is not a story of a high-strung career woman who learns that she has pursued things she never really wanted, no ma’am, author Pamela Bullard reveres her heroine and would not have her any other way.

Pamela Bullard has worked many years in television as a local reporter for ABC and news anchor for WGBH, she has also lecturer in Harward and Boston University and it’s hard to escape the impression that Kate Marchand is her would-be alter ego: Kate is the only female TV-station CEO in United States (the story is set to 1982), shelves in her office groan under the weight of Emmy’s and Peabody’s, her work ethics are second to none, she is pragmatic to the bone, intelligent, talented, capable, visionary, flawless. Her only human weakness is her emotional dependency on her latently unfaithful husband Jonathan who is a world-class neurosurgeon.

Obstacle of More Than Dreams is that despite the author’s own support and infatuation for her protagonist, the Ice Queen, boss-from-hell Kate Marchand makes a tough character to like. Bullard tries to soften her by revealing that she suffers a chronic back pain, due to grenade incident during her time as heroic war reporter in Vietnam.

In the beginning WLYMS’s eleven o’clock news have been second in ratings for two consecutive weeks, due to the female anchor having lost her sparkle, and because Kate does not tolerate one hiccup in her well-oiled machine, she sets out for new blood… face. So enter Kim Winston, a recently widowed and a mother of one, New York small time TV-reporter destined for bigger and better things. Kim comes to WLYM and quickly lifts the station even higher spheres, not just as a stellar news anchor but also with her uncompromising and earth-shaking special reports about state’s corrupted youth welfare system, human trafficking ring and ruthless drug lords.

Kate and Kim form a winning pair in business but also get as close to friends as  Kate allows herself to, they are drawn to each by their mutual intelligence, talent and stamina. One cannot help but feel a little left out as Kate treats most of the people she comes in contact with more or less thinly veiled contempt because they fail to meet her standards. But things go little pear-shaped when Kim falls into sack with Dr. Jonathan in what proves to be the weakest link of this otherwise decent novel. He makes the first move and Kim goes along with it because she has poured two bottles of Dom Perignon into herself and thinks that Jonathan is her late husband(!) Dr. Jonathan’s motives are left cloudy, surely even the most cheat-happy husband, especially one who is supposed to be so smart, would think twice before taking advantage of his wife’s best friend and employer.

Now, that betrayal is not the dramatic highlight of More Than Dreams, a good part of it is almost prosaic story of how committed Kate is to her work, albeit instead the Staten Island ferry, this Working Girl whisks to work in her Jaguar from her suburban mansion. There is also some gritty realism in Kim’s exposés and the end of book teeters towards action as Kim, Kate and WLYM end up to bad side of the Uzi-wielding drug dealers.

Written and published a decade before internet’s arrival, More Than Dreams offers a nostalgic view to the TV-world and news anchors, to time when people actually cared a great deal about who provided them their daily dose of doom and gloom. At one point Kate shuns cooking programs in favor of prime time soaps, deeming cooking shows passé. Hello, Mrs. Marchand, MasterChef, Come Dine With Me, The Taste etc. etc. called and said up yours.

Agents Love Dangerously – Agenten lieben gefährlich, Heinz G. Konsalik, 1980

Roller coaster ride through “Green Hell”

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Heinz G. Konsalik (1921-1999) was a profilic German author of manly reads, mostly in genres of war and adventure, which frequently touched the world of doctors. Heroine of Agents Love Dangerously is young, intelligent, head strong and beautiful (of course) German science woman Ellen Donhoven, privileged daughter of medicine tycoon. Ardent to prove her father that she can make it on her own, she embarks an expedition to fountainhead of Rio Juma, in the deepest heart of Amazonian rain forests, to research dart poisons of native Indians for their possible pharmaceutical purposes. She is accompanied by an international group of (male) scientists, native guide and a genius cook who knows 34 ape and 11 snake recipes. Also on board are Rudolf Forster, a brilliant and handsome, but too kind for his own good, doctor who is openly but one-sided in love with Ellen and captain José Cascal, representative of Brazilian government, who is not all that meets the eye.

Now this plays little like a B-movie plot and the approach is certainly straightforward and unsubtle. The expedition begins to fall apart almost immediately due to mysterious mishaps, which may or may not have something to do with Cascal (OK, they may). However, instead turning back to the civilization while they still can, the group puts itself in harm’s way by soldiering on to unmapped jungle of millions square kilometers wide just because they wish not look unmanly in eyes beautiful Dr. Ellen.

Even with matters of equality in her mind, Ellen apparently has no objections for this type of fool-hearty chivalry. Indeed, she is not particularly good example of “Woman of the 80’s” as she falls head over heels for an alpha male who suddenly appears out of nowhere rescue the increasingly doomed expedition. Strong-jawed American adventurer Cliff Haller, who mysteriously occupies a parachuted bungalow in middle untouched wilderness with his strikingly beautiful, and deadly jealous, half-native mistress Rita. Apparently Ellen does not mind stealing another woman’s boyfriend either.

You probably guessed that Haller is not exactly who he says he is, which comes apparent as the story proceeds towards “Town of Death”, a top-secret missile base hidden in a jungle valley. In the aftermath most of the expedition meets their demise in various violent ways and Brazilian special troops wipe out an entire village of natives, which is Konsalik’s recommendable effort to shed light into the destruction and genocide of Amazonian native tribes.

If one is not too upset by that genuinely disturbing passage in otherwise lightweight material, or the ruthless vivisection doctors Ellen and Rudolf perform on helpless jungle mammals, Agents Love Dangerously is fun and hyperbolic reading entertainment within rather streamlined 318 pages. Reader does get some insight of the unforgiving conditions in Amazonian rain forest, although the constant use of word “hell” gets repetitious, and the story paints an intriguing picture of Brazil as fascist, semi-police state and enemy of United States – back in freezing year of Cold War 1980 – which provides variety to same old Cuba and Soviet Union.

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