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The Last Runaway
The Last Runaway
Price: £1.89

4.0 out of 5 stars A small world vividly created, 15 Jun. 2014
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This review is from: The Last Runaway (Kindle Edition)
Chevalier has a talent for absorbing the reader into the fictional world she has created. Her main tool for doing this is the attention to detail and careful research which she employs. Reading this novel I was convinced that she had been brought up as a Quaker and was an expert at making patchwork quilts. It was only when I read her account at the end of the book of the research she had undertaken that I realised that these matters were as new to her as they were to me.

This is a gentle book which confines itself to a small, local world, though important historical currents run though it. Honor Bright is a Quaker girl who emigrates from England to Ohio in the nineteenth century. Initially she is accompanied by her sister, who is going to marry a man from their community who has set up a business in the small town of Faithwell, but the sister dies before they reach their destination and Honor finds herself cast adrift among strangers. The book centres on her struggle to make a new life for herself and to conform to the conventions of this new society. In the process she becomes involved in the Underground Railroad, an informal organisation which helps runaway slaves to reach safety in Canada. Honor marries, but her husband's family have good cause to want nothing to do with the Railroad and it is the conflict between her conscience and her wish to conform which propels the plot.

Honor is a sympathetically drawn character and I found myself drawn into her struggle and eager to find out how it would be resolved.


Sacred Hearts
Sacred Hearts
by Sarah Dunant
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A deeply moving story, 15 Jun. 2014
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This review is from: Sacred Hearts (Paperback)
This novel is set in the convent of Santa Caterina in Ferrara in the year 1570. Dunant is a mistress of beautiful prose and in the opening pages she creates for us an image of convent life, apparently serene and ordered; but we are immediately aware of the currents of passion and rivalry that swirl beneath the surface.
In an explanatory note at the beginning of the book Dunant explains that at that time the dowries demanded from noble families for the marriages of their daughters had become so expensive that most could only afford to marry off one. The only acceptable alternative for any others was to become a 'bride of Christ' and enter a convent.
There are two principal characters. One is Serafina, a young woman, intelligent, talented and in love, who has been confined to the convent because she failed to marry the man her father had chosen for her. It is her desperate distress and fury that wakes the convent on her first night in her cell. The second is Zuana, the dispensary mistress. Like Serafina, she is not there because she has a vocation but out of necessity. As the orphan daughter of a doctor she has nowhere else to go, but unlike Serafina she understands that for her this is the best solution. At least it gives her the freedom to practise the skills she learnt from her father and to develop some of his ideas, though even here she has to keep certain of his books concealed. It is her sympathy for Serafina and ultimately her efforts to set her free that are the main springs of the plot.
For those reconciled to their fate life in the convent is not unpleasant. The nuns can meet friends and family in the 'parlatorio' and play with the children of sisters and cousins – the children they will never have. Santa Caterina is famous for the quality of its music and there are services and concerts to which the public are admitted. It is Serafina's beautiful singing voice which proves her salvation. But even these limited freedoms are under threat. The catholic church, reeling from the threat of Lutheranism and a series of scandals about the loose living of some of the monks and nuns, is determined to clamp down. The abbess, Sister Magdalena, is well aware that she is treading a tightrope and at the slightest excuse the convent may incur the wrath of the bishop and find their freedoms strictly curtailed. It is her struggle to maintain equilibrium between the various factions in the community that forms a second thread in the story.
I found my emotions deeply engaged in this novel but the most heartbreaking discovery comes in an author's note at the end of the book. Shortly after the period in which it is set the Council of Trent decreed that all convents must be strictly enclosed. From then on the nuns were only allowed to speak to friends and relatives through a grill; all public performances were forbidden; any windows that might give a glimpse of the outside world were bricked up and walls were raised to prevent any contact. For the young women like Serafina who were sent there it must indeed have seemed like a life sentence without hope of remission.


Flood
Flood
Price: £3.61

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Perfect timing!, 8 Mar. 2014
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What amazing serendipity to have published this book at this particular time! Swinfen's Flood is set on the English Fens in the early 17th century, just after the Civil War; but the parallels with the current situation on the Somerset Levels are very striking.

That said, this book stands on its own merits as a really absorbing read. Swinfen conjures up the conditions of life at that period in that place very vividly and makes us understand how that unique way of life is threatened by the draining of the fens and the enclosure of common land. This is done through the story of one family of yeoman farmers living in a fenland village and the various members of the family are fully realised characters. In particular, her heroine Mercy grabs our sympathy. She is a strong girl, feisty enough to appeal to a modern reader without stepping beyond the bounds of the conventions of the period.

The narrative arc of the book is powerful enough to keep us turning the pages and the description of Mercy's trial for witchcraft is blood-chilling. The story comes to a climax with the flood of the title, with a gripping account of Mercy's attempts to save the lives of both friends and those who might be accounted as enemies, and an ultimate tragedy. If the romantic finale is a little predictable it still leaves the reader satisfied and offers hope for the future.

Highly recommended.


Lionheart
Lionheart
Price: £4.19

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Historical novel for those who don't know history, 20 Jan. 2014
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I very rarely give up on a book once I have started it but I came close with this one. During my apprenticeship as a writer of historical fiction two rules were drummed into me. 1) Show, don't tell. 2) Maintain a consistent point of view. Penman breaks both these rules.

'Show don't tell'. The early pages of Lionheart contain long passages of exposition, sometimes in the authorial voice but often under the guise of one character telling another what has been happening earlier or elsewhere. Penman has done her research, and boy don't you know it! Apart from filling in the political manoeuvrings of the Angevin dynasty there are disquisitions on various topics, such as the rulings of the Church regarding sex within marriage. I had the impression that this was a historical novel for people who don't know much history and there were moments when it felt more like reading a history text book than a novel.

'Point of view'. There are three options open to the author in this respect. One is the first person narrative, which allows for a very intimate relationship where the reader is privy to the narrator's every thought; but it has its limitations in that the author can only relate what the narrator directly experiences, unless they learn about it at second hand. The second is the third person narrative where the author identifies with a particular character and we see most of the action through that person's eyes, while allowing for digressions into scenes where the main narrator is not present. The third option is the third person omniscient, where it is the writer who is telling us the story and who knows exactly what every character is thinking and what is going on everywhere. This is the mode chosen by Penman, but while this allows her to flit from one character's mind to another's it does not give the reader any one person with whom he/she can identify and whose fate becomes of paramount importance. There is a plethora of characters right from the start of the book - Richard's extended family; the English and French court; the rulers of Sicily and Cyprus and their offspring etc etc. The book abounds with 'Count this' and 'Count that', cousins and nephews and step-daughters and half-brothers, legitimate and illegitimate, each of them given their pedigree, until I very quickly gave up trying to remember who was who - and soon after that, to care.

A particular case in point comes right at the beginning of the book. I have always understood that readers are like Lorenz's goslings - they imprint on the first character they encounter and wish to follow them through the story. Penman begins by introducing us to Alicia, an orphan girl caught up in a shipwreck and taken in by Joanna, Queen of Sicily. I immediately began to wonder what part this pathetic little character was going to play in the narrative. But within a chapter the focus had shifted to Joanna, and then, just as I began to get interested in her fate, we suddenly cut to France and the machinations of Richard's court. We do not return to Joanna until a third of the way through the book and poor Alicia is never mentioned again, except for one or two casual asides in her role as a lady-in-waiting. Why begin your story with her, if she has no importance whatever in the main narrative?

The first third of the book is occupied with the in-fighting in Richard's family and the story does not really get going until he finally starts out on the crusade. From that point the narrative picks up pace and certain personalities appear out of the general fog. Penman admits in her afterword that for a modern writer it is difficult to maintain the reader's sympathies for one long story of fighting and bloodshed but she does succeed in upping the tension and there are some well realised battle scenes. She labours, however, under one disadvantage. We know how the story ends. We know Richard is not going to be killed; and we know he will not succeed in freeing Jerusalem from the Saracens. So it is hard to build any dramatic tension. This might have been easier if there was one fictional character with whom we have identified and whose ultimate fate might be uncertain.

This is an unashamedly romanticised version of history. Penman admits that she did not originally like Richard very much until subsequent research changed her mind. In this book, he is the ultimate hero figure - brave, daring, honourable and clever. Perhaps. But he is also the man who ordered 2,500 helpless prisoners to be killed as a strategic necessity. Historians differ about whether he was a good king and a man to be admired. Penman points out, justifiably, that he was a man of his time when the main duty of a king was to lead his army - but whatever the facts of the matter, I found this Richard a bit too good to be true.

The romanticism is most blatant in the portrayal of Richard's relationship with his Spanish bride, Berengaria. She is shown as a gentle, biddable girl who willingly leaves her home and family with the prospect of becoming Queen of England and who rapidly falls in love with her husband. Richard admittedly is not portrayed as being in love with her, but he is shown as a skilful and considerate lover in bed. The facts were probably otherwise. Berengaria was a helpless pawn in the political machinations of the time and we have no reason to believe that she fell in love with the man she was forced to marry. And as for Richard, his desires may have been quite different. There are historians who think he was probably gay. Penman discounts this. But whatever the truth is, there were no children from the union and no evidence that the marriage was ever consummated. Certainly after his final return to his own domains Richard neglected Berengaria shamefully and never treated her as his queen.

The same romantic attitude is evidenced in the relationship of Henri of Champagne and Isabella, the only legitimate claimant to the throne of Jerusalem. After the murder of her husband, Conrad, she is forced within a week to marry Henri, although pregnant with Conrad's child. Penman would have us believe that there is an immediate erotic attraction between the two and gives us a detailed account of their wedding night to prove it. I am afraid that at this point the suspension of belief required to enjoy fiction failed me.

I found the author's manner of writing dialogue uncomfortable a times. American locutions like 'gotten' do not sit well with pseudo-antique terms like 'mayhap' for perhaps or 'naught' or 'wroth' meaning angry. And I disliked her expedient of shortening names to avoid confusion - Geoff for Geoffrey, for example, strikes too modern a note. Maybe people of that period did have pet names for each other, but we do not know them and they were probably quite different from ones we would use now.

If you want a good, red-blooded, swashbuckling story with lots of historical background thrown in, this is for you. If you want a warts and all, realistic account of a particularly bloodthirsty episode in human history, look elsewhere.


The Greatest Knight: The Story of William Marshal
The Greatest Knight: The Story of William Marshal
by Elizabeth Chadwick
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

4.0 out of 5 stars A quart in a pint pot?, 20 Nov. 2013
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THE GREATEST KNIGHT
Elizabeth Chadwick
In her author's note at the end of the book Chadwick comments that the life of William Marshall was so full of incident that to recount it in full detail would require thousands of pages. She adds that it has been necessary, therefore, to sketch some of it fairly briefly. This, I think, encapsulates the main weakness of the novel. A great deal happens, but it was not until halfway through that I began to feel a real connection with the hero.

The early chapters describe William's rise from the position of a penniless knight, dependant on the patronage of wealthy relatives, to that of tutor and later principal adviser to the son of Henry ll, heir to the throne and crowned in his father's lifetime as Young King Henry. This is achieved largely through William's success at the tourney, the dangerous jousting through which knights displayed their prowess with lance and sword. We see him develop from a lad known to his companions as 'slugabed' and 'guzzleguts' to a man respected for his martial skills and his unswerving loyalty to his lord. It is this loyalty and devotion to his conception of honour that chiefly characterise him, but apart from that I felt that the picture I was given lacked depth. He seems to have no close friends and his relationships with women are casual. Even when he takes a mistress she is marginal to his interest in fighting.

As the young King's behaviour becomes more erratic and his enmity with his father more bitter, William's character comes into greater focus. He is torn between his loyalty, indeed his love, for the young man and his horror at the depravity of his actions and I began to feel more involved with him. His devotion when Henry is dying and his grief at his death are genuinely moving.

It is when William decides to set out on pilgrimage to Jerusalem that the problem of fitting so much into one book becomes most acute. Chadwick points out that little is known about this chapter in his life and she therefore dismisses it in one chapter. Such an expedition would warrant a whole book in other hands and I felt slightly cheated by the lack of detail.

The turning point in the story for me came when William marries Isabelle de Clare. She is portrayed as a fully rounded and deeply sympathetic character and as William learns to love her and respect her judgement I found myself warming towards him. But there are still significant lacunae in the story. Frequently we are brought to a point where fates hang in the balance, only to find that in the next chapter the problem has been resolved 'off-stage' and the story moves on.

I think this is in part a problem for those writers who set out to fictionalise the lives of known historical personages. There are either too many facts, or too few; and the author has to choose between embroidering some and skating over others. In this case, I think Chadwick might have done better to begin her story later in William's life, with flashbacks to earlier days, rather than taking us through a succession of tourneys, which have little to distinguish one from the other.

At the end of the book William is only halfway through his eventful life and, in spite of these criticisms, I shall look forward to reading the next episode.


The Orpheus Descent
The Orpheus Descent
Price: £3.59

5.0 out of 5 stars Satisfies heart and mind, 17 Oct. 2013
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This is a remarkable book. The author, Tom Harper, succeeds in combining a story set in the 4th century BC with a modern thriller; a discussion of philosophy with dramatic action; myth with mysticism.

In the first story thread, the narrative is put into the mouth of the philosopher Plato and the chapters are headed by quotations from his various writings. But this is not the assured, clear-thinking Plato that we see from his writing but a middle-aged pupil of Socrates still feeling bereft from the loss of his mentor and wrestling with fundamental questions. He travels to Sicily in search of Agathon, another of Socrates's pupils, and en route he encounters the proponents of other philosophies, notably the adherents of Pythagoras, who believe that numbers hold the key to the universe. Pythagoras saw a close connection between numbers and music, and music is a recurrent theme throughout the book. Harper's thesis is that something happened to Plato during his time in Sicily which brought him to a state of enlightenment, which is expressed in his later work.

The second story, which is intertwined with the first, is about Jonah, a singer-songwriter with a rock group. Here the musical theme is repeated and Harper is very acute on the way music can transport us into a different state of being. The connection with the older narrative is made through Jonah's wife, Lily, an archaeologist engaged in a dig in southern Italy where the ancient Greek city of Thurii once stood. The discovery of a golden tablet engraved with mystic instructions is the mainspring of the story. The instructions seem to be a guide to entering the Underworld and returning and a Greek magnate, desperate to learn the secret of immortality, kidnaps Lily. Jonah's story is the tale of his desperate search for her.

The two narratives climax in a spine chilling descent literally into the Underworld beneath the volcano Etna on Sicily. Here the story switches between Plato and Jonah, as the fate of one mirrors the fate of the other. Dream and illusion are interspersed with reality until the protagonists and the reader hardly knows one from the other. Out of this chaos Plato finds the enlightenment he seeks and Jonah, a modern day Orpheus, leads his wife back to the living world.

This is a gripping story which expands both the emotions and the intellect.


Children of Tantalus: Niobe and Pelops (Tapestry of Bronze)
Children of Tantalus: Niobe and Pelops (Tapestry of Bronze)
Price: £4.38

4.0 out of 5 stars Please see my review of The Road to Thebes, 17 Oct. 2013
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I have reviewed this book together with the Road to Thebes. Please read both together as they form a pair.


The Sultan's Wife
The Sultan's Wife
Price: £4.35

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A really enthralling book, 17 Oct. 2013
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This review is from: The Sultan's Wife (Kindle Edition)
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. From the opening pages the author plunges us into an exotic and unfamiliar world – unfamiliar to us, that is. We know from the start that we are in the hands of a writer who is completely at home with her setting.

The action takes place in seventeenth century Morocco, at the court of the Sultan Moulay Ismael. Johnson is adept at employing all our senses to create her scene. Visually, she gives us a picture of luxury and colour, contrasted with extreme squalor. She conjures up the scents and tastes of exotic perfumes and pungent spices and the sound of rain, or music – or the screams of men under torture.
It is a country subject to the whims of the sultan, built on slavery and terror; but also a place where beauty is prized and art and trade flourish.

In her two central characters Johnson has created people who grab our interest from the outset and our hearts very quickly afterwards. Nus Nus is a slave and a eunuch, but he is also a man of courage and integrity, capable great kindness. Over the course of the story we see him develop from a fatalistic acceptance of his position and the terrible wrong that has been done him to a man capable of becoming the warrior his tribe would have made him had he not been captured. At the same time, we learn that fighting is not in his true nature. Given a free choice he would be a musician, a talent that is to stand him in good stead as the story progresses. He is also highly intelligent. Originally bought by an English doctor, who treated him more like an apprentice than a slave, he has been taught to read and write in several languages, talents which have brought him to a position close to the Sultan. It is part of his job to keep the 'couching book' which requires him to witness and record the sultan's sexual encounters with his many concubines, in order to keep track of any issue and their place in the succession. Seeing how he grows from this position of humiliation to a man with his pride restored is one of the great pleasures of this book.

The second character is Alys, an Englishwoman captured by corsairs and given to the Sultan as a concubine. Ismael is captivated by her fair beauty, but before being taken to his bed she must convert to Islam. She refuses and it is Nus Nus who is given the task of persuading her, knowing that if he fails both their lives will be forfeit. In the process, he falls in love with her himself and is then forced to witness her violent rape by Ismael. A child comes of the union and Alys is transformed. Having reached the age of twenty-four unmarried she has almost given up hope of ever being a mother and her devotion to little 'Momo' is total. The main plot of the book turns on the efforts of Alys and Nus Nus to preserve his life from the jealousy of Zidana, the sultan's chief wife.

In Zidana and Ismael Johnson has created two characters to stand in stark contrast to her hero and heroine. Ismael is pathologically unstable, given to fits of uncontrollable rage in which he kills and maims without compunction, and which he seems to forget immediately afterwards. Zidana is a monster, in size and character. Clever, sly and ruthless she is an expert in poisons and a believer in the Black Arts. Between the two of them Nus Nus and Alys must steer a perilous course.

Half way through the book the scene switches to Restoration London and once again Johnson sets the scene masterfully. The city is still recovering from the Great Fire and we see the contrast between the great swathes that are still ruined and the magnificent new buildings that are rising amid the desolation. The royal palaces are as opulent as Ismael's but in a very different style. Portraits and tapestries showing scenes of life replace the abstract designs allowed by Islam and the women, by contrast with the all-enveloping clothing of the Moroccan ladies, flaunt their bosoms for all to see. Johnson has fun demonstrating how easily some of the Moroccan embassy are seduced by this new lifestyle. We are introduced to a number of people familiar from the history books, like Nell Gwynne and Samuel Pepys. But here, as in Morocco, Nus Nus and Momo are in constant danger.
There are enough plot twists and cliff-hangers to keep the reader avidly turning the pages. A truly satisfying read.


The Road to Thebes: Niobe and Amphion (Tapestry of Bronze)
The Road to Thebes: Niobe and Amphion (Tapestry of Bronze)
Price: £4.38

4.0 out of 5 stars Tapestry of Bronze - The Children of Tantalus and The Road to Thebes, 3 Oct. 2013
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CHILDREN OF TANTALUS &
THE ROAD TO THEBES
(Tapestry of Bronze series)
by Alice Underwood and Victoria Grossack

These books are a fascinating foray into the world of Greek mythology. The writers have succeeded in taking the ancient legends of Pelops and Niobe and re-telling them as exciting and romantic novels. Pelops, the younger son of King Tantalus of Lydia, chooses exile after being attacked by his own father, and his sister Niobe runs away with him to escape a forced marriage. Their subsequent adventures take them to Athens and then to Pisa, where King Onomaius is challenging all suitors for the hand of his daughter Hippodamia to a chariot race. If they are beaten, their lives are forfeit and their heads are exhibited on stakes in front of the palace. In a thrilling account of the race Pelops, aided by Niobe, who arranges to sabotage the King's chariot, wins, kills Onomaius and takes his throne.

From then on Pelops' behaviour becomes increasingly unstable and autocratic, while Niobe's apparently hopeless love for the the musician Amphion takes centre stage. We are introduced to the complex politics of the various city states and the varying characters of their rulers, which are woven into the 'tapestry' of the series' title. There are enough plot twists to keep you turning the pages and the characters are vivid and sympathetic enough to make the reader care about their fates.

My only reservations arise from the sense that, in making their story appealing to a modern reader, the authors have lost the sense of strangeness, of a very different way of life and system of belief, that we get from the myths themselves. The gods are frequently mentioned and the need to honour and appease them motivates the actions of the protagonists; temple building and animal sacrifices are important ways of placating them. But I missed the sense of all-consuming power which placed religious ritual at the very heart of society. This was an era when, not many years ago, the King was ritually slaughtered every spring and his blood spread on the fields. Also, I feel that the character of Niobe, appealing as it is, does not completely fit the period. In their effort to create a feisty heroine to fit modern tastes the writers have given her competences that I do not believe a woman of that period could have had. Niobe is brave and intelligent, which could be true of a woman of any era, but her scepticism about religion and her ability to organise complex building projects seem to belong to the modern world.

Perhaps as a writer who has immersed herself in a study of Mycenean civilization, I am unduly critical. These caveats apart, I can recommend these books as an enthralling excursion into a world which is, sadly, becoming less and less familiar.


Death Comes to Pemberley
Death Comes to Pemberley
Price: £1.89

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Death Comes to Pemberley, 31 July 2013
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I was disappointed by this book. As a sequel to Pride and Prejudice I was hoping for something with the same vitality as the original, paired with P.D.James's flair for ingenious plotting, but I found neither. Perhaps James was seeking to adopt a style more in keeping with the early nineteenth century, when the original book was written, but I found her prose plodding and verbose. Because so much of the story depends on a previous knowledge of events in the original book, there is a great deal of summarising of the 'back story', with characters reminding each other of past events in order to ensure that the reader is up to speed. Even when the plot moves on, much of the action takes place 'off stage' which again requires it to be related at second hand.
The murder mystery itself seemed to me to lack James's usual flair for unexpected plot twists. There is only ever one suspect and as the evidence stacks up against him we know that at some point there must be a revelation that proves his innocence, but when it comes it struck me as unconvincing. The idea that a young man at the point of death, from some undisclosed sickness, could find the strength to deal the blow which leads to the victim's death takes some believing, but even less credible is the fact that he waits months, until the suspect is brought to trial and found guilty, before confessing. He does not, after all, face any danger that he will be accused of murder in his turn, since the actual death was an accident; and he knows anyway that he has not long to live. There are other revelations to follow, but again they are all delivered at second hand.
Meanwhile, we have to sit though the inquest and the trial itself, where the same evidence is repeated over and over again by various witnesses. And when the final denouement is reached, this has to be explained to us repeatedly by each participant. This is interspersed with long internal soliloquys from Elizabeth and Darcy about the effects of their marriage on those around them, their responsibilities to Pemberley and its occupants, and their previous relationships.
There is a well known adage constantly quoted to aspiring writers; 'Show, don't tell.' In this respect I am afraid 'Death comes to Pemberley' falls short.
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