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Dr. Mark A. Patton "Mark Patton" (London, UK)
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Hand of Fire
Hand of Fire

5.0 out of 5 stars A truly original perspective on an ancient tale, 16 Nov. 2014
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This review is from: Hand of Fire (Kindle Edition)
If Isaac Newton’s maxim about “standing on the shoulders of giants” is true of scientists, one might expect it to be all the more true of writers, and yet, when today’s authors engage directly with the timeless giants of literature (Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Virgil), the results are often disappointing: they either change so much as to render the connection meaningless; or tell the same tale in prose far less elegant than the original poetry. Often, but not always, and certainly not in the case of Starkston’s “Hand of Fire.” Her version of the Trojan War differs from Homer’s only in terms of viewpoint, but that viewpoint is radically different; firstly because the story is told through the eyes of a female character (Briseis); and secondly because the cultural background of the narration is not Greek, but Asiatic (Trojan/Hittite/Luwian) – a cultural tradition that will be unfamiliar to most modern readers, but which has been assiduously researched by the author, a classicist by training. This research (both archaeological and textual) sits lightly on the page, but is presented in some detail, for those readers who are interested, on her website (www.judithstarkston.com). “Hand of Fire,” like Ursula Le Guin’s “Lavinia,” or Derek Walcott’s “Omeros,” is a modern work that offers a truly original perspective on an ancient tale.


Pilgrimage
Pilgrimage
by Lucy Pick
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.35

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A compelling tale of Medieval pilgrimage, 5 Nov. 2014
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Set in 12th Century Flanders, France and Spain, this is one of those historical novels in which historical fact and fictional narrative are so successfully woven together that readers may have to research the topics for themselves if they wish to know where the history ends and the fiction begins. The author is an academic historian herself, and she has drawn extensively on a genuine 12th Century manuscript, the Codex Calixtinus (a collection of sermons, hymns, liturgical texts and reports of miracles, all associated with the cult of St James, together with a travellers’ guide to the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostella). The protagonist, Gebirga of Flanders, a young blind noblewoman, makes the pilgrimage itself, with assistance from the codex’s author, Aimeric Picaut, but, in the process, is drawn into a vividly portrayed world of intrigue between bishops, kings and princes, for which nothing has prepared her. There is lots of carefully researched historical detail here, but the book manages, nonetheless, to be a true page-turner.


Omeros
Omeros
by Derek Walcott
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.88

5.0 out of 5 stars An epic that deserves to endure, 28 April 2014
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This review is from: Omeros (Paperback)
Not a collection of poetry, but an epic novel in verse. It must take some confidence, on the part of an author, to write consciously in the tradition of Homer, Virgil, Dante and Milton, but that is exactly what Walcott does here, continuing a conversation that began more than 2000 years ago, and bringing the New World into this conversation. There are echoes of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” in the way in which Walcott incorporates the everyday lives of ordinary people into his narrative (much of the story centres around the St Lucian fishermen, Hector and Achille, rivals in love for a housemaid named Helen; and around a pig-farmer named Dennis Plunkett, a former soldier who regrets the passing of the British Empire), but Walcott and his characters also meditate on the history of their homelands, with reflections on the Transatlantic slave-trade, the 18th Century battle for the Caribbean between Britain & France; and the treatment of native peoples in North America. Most of the narrative is written in hexameter (with some passages in pentameter), but rhyme is used only sporadically, giving this poetic narrative a surprisingly modern feel. The characters and the landscape leap off the pages of this gloriously crafted work, which deserves to endure for as long as the works that inspired it.


After Whorl: Donning Double Cloaks  (#3 - Celtic Fervour Series)
After Whorl: Donning Double Cloaks (#3 - Celtic Fervour Series)
Price: £1.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A powerful tale of ordinary people responding to extraordinary circumstances, 1 April 2014
This novel, the third in its series, follows directly on from “The Beltane Choice” and After Whorl: Bran Reborn.” Each novel carries us forward in time, but each novel also changes the viewpoint. In the first, we followed the fortunes of the lovers, Nara and Lorcan; in the second, those of Lorcan’s brother, the warrior, Brennus. In this third novel, the focus is on Ineda, who helped her grandmother nurse Brennus back to health after sustaining terrible injuries in battle against the Romans.
“After Whorl: Donning Double Cloaks” covers the period of a decade, beginning in 74 AD. The Brigantes, under their King, Venutius, fight a guerrilla campaign against the legions of the Roman Governor, Cerealis. Everything changes, however, with the death of the Emperor Vespasian in 79 AD. A new Governor, Agricola, is in post, and embarks on a far more ambitious campaign to conquer the whole of Britannia. The overarching narrative remains close to the account given by the Roman historian, Tacitus. Modern historians and archaeologists still argue over where (and even whether) the “Battle of Mons Graupius” happened, but in this novel it happens on the slopes of Beinn na Ciche.
The great political and military events, however, form only the backdrop to the novel, the real story being about the lives of ordinary people, and how these events impact upon them. How does an individual react to enslavement? If the master of the slave shows kindness, and offers protection from the brutality of others, what is the nature of the bond that forms between them? If, following a union that is neither an act of love nor a rape, an enslaved woman bears a child to an enemy of her people, what conflicting loyalties arise? What happens when she finds herself back among her own people?
It would be difficult to say more without spoiling the plot, but this is a powerful tale of ordinary people responding to extraordinary circumstances.


After Whorl: Bran Reborn (#2 - Celtic Fervour Series)
After Whorl: Bran Reborn (#2 - Celtic Fervour Series)
Price: £1.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A triumph of narrative clarity over historical obscurity, 16 Dec. 2013
The second part of a trilogy is perhaps the most difficult to write. The author has already introduced some of the key themes in the first part (prominent among the themes of The Beltane Choice was the conflict between the Brigantes tribe of northern England and the advancing legions of Rome in 71 AD), and almost certainly has in mind a final resolution in the third part, but does not want to give the game away in the second.

In After Whorl, Bran Reborn, we are still in 71 AD, and conflict between Romans and Britons remains at the heart of the story, but Nancy Jardine meets the challenge of the second volume by flipping viewpoints. Nara and Lorcan, the lovers at the centre of The Beltane Choice, appear only as minor characters in the current volume. Instead the focus is on Lorcan's brother, Brennus. His story, here, is very much a meditation on the theme of defeat, and on the possibility of resilience in the face of it. The "Whorl" of the title is a battle (a fictional one, since the military campaigns of the Roman Governor Cerialis against the Brigantes are documented only in the vaguest sense), a battle which the Britons have lost, and in which Brennus has been badly maimed. His people's freedom is forfeit, and his own world falls apart when a stranger arrives with unwelcome news. Potentially the star attraction as a captive in a Roman Triumph, he adopts a new and humbler identity, Bran. His whole life has been lived as a warrior, but now he is totally dependent on the elderly healer, Meaghan, who tends his wounds. She, in turn, becomes dependent on him, but he is ill prepared for this role. The book charts his struggle to reassert his identity, and to find a new role in life, assisted by Meaghan's teenage daughter, Ineda.

Nancy Jardine has done a superb job in creating such a vivid and believable story against a background in which neither history nor archaeology provides much solid material to work with. As in The Beltane Choice, historical figures such as Governor Cerialis and the Brigantian king, Venutius, remain in the shadows, the light shining instead on the hopes and fears of ordinary people; the work itself, a triumph of narrative clarity over historical obscurity.


Zeus of Ithome
Zeus of Ithome
Price: £1.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The struggle of the individual against the tide of history, 3 Nov. 2013
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This review is from: Zeus of Ithome (Kindle Edition)
Tim Taylor takes a little known chapter of ancient Greek history (the revolt of the people of the Greek territory of Messenia against the Spartans in 370 BC) and weaves it into a human story in which his fictional characters interact with historical figures such as Epaminondas, Asopichus and Pelopidas. Messenia, in the south-west corner of the Peloponnese, had been under Spartan domination since 720 BC, apart from brief periods of independence following revolts in 625 BC and 464 BC. The novel opens in 373 BC, at a time when the power of Sparta is waning. Its teenaged protagonist, Diocles, has known nothing but a life of servitude. When his cousin, Leochares, is set upon on the way home from a banquet, Diocles instinctively strikes out at the assailants, killing one of them. Only then does he realise that the attackers are members of the Krypteia, a Spartan death-squad. An outlaw, he is forced to leave his home, his family and his sweetheart, taking refuge in the mountains and living on his wits, but promising to return, some day, as his people's liberator.
The paucity of the historical evidence for the real historical events that lie behind the dramatic action of the book gives Taylor free rein for the exercise of his novelistic imagination. The most relevant source, on which he draws freely, is Pausanias's Description of Greece, written four centuries after the events themselves. The novel traces Diocles's journey through the Peloponnese and Boetia, to the Oracle of Delphi and on to Thebes, where he is befriended by some of the most powerful men of his day, and learns both the theory and the practice of the arts of war.
Perhaps inevitably, given the age of the protagonist, the novel is as much a Bildungsroman as it is an epic tale of conflict and the struggle for freedom. Diocles learns as much about himself as he does about the harsh realities of the world around him. Perhaps the most touching dimension of this is to be found in the portrayal of his relationship with his mother, who he has always loved, but does not fully understand until his journey nears its end.
There is an added poignancy, for those of us who have studied the Classical world, that comes from our knowledge of what Diocles and those closest to him, cannot know. The hard-won freedom of Messenia would last only a few decades, eclipsed not, as he might have feared, by a resurgent Sparta, but by the rise of a kingdom (Macedonia), and of a dynasty, of which he knows nothing.
Zeus of Ithome is a superbly well-crafted historical novel, which shows the struggle of the individual against the tide of history but which, at the same time, through what it leaves out, reveals to us the ultimate powerlessness of the individual in a way that the ancient Greeks would well have understood. Even in the face of such powerlessness, they might have insisted, the struggles of the individual, whether the fictional Diocles or the mythical Herakles, have value in and of themselves.


Topaz Eyes
Topaz Eyes
by Nancy Jardine
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Topaz Eyes, 29 Oct. 2013
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When Keira Drummond, an Edinburgh-based translator, receives an invitation to a gallery opening in Heidelberg, she sees it as an opportunity to revisit a city she worked in and loved some years previously. The invitation, however, turns out to be a pretext for an unexpected gathering, at which a plan is hatched to re-unite some family jewels long-since dispersed, for an exhibition. The plan has been drawn up by Jensen Amsel, a wealthy collector, and also present are Zaan de Raad, an antique dealer, and Teun Zeger. The three men are distant cousins. Keira, though connected to the family, is not related to them by blood, and knows none of them. Fascinated by the prospects, she becomes deeply involved in a quest that takes her to Minnesota, New York, Vienna and back to Heidelberg. It soon becomes apparent, however, that others are on the trail of the jewels and, sensing that she is being followed, Keira does not know who she can and cannot trust. This is a skilfully paced and plotted novel, in which the various story-lines only come together at the very end.


I Know You Know
I Know You Know
Price: £1.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A thriller worthy of Hitchcock, 24 July 2013
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This review is from: I Know You Know (Kindle Edition)
A thoroughly good read, superbly plotted and paced. It's difficult to add more to what has already been said without spoiling the plot, which would be a real pity. If only Alfred Hitchcock were still around to make the movie...


Shaman's Drum
Shaman's Drum
Price: £1.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars To end at the beginning..., 24 July 2013
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As with all fantasy novels, the starting point is to suspend disbelief but, as with all good fantasy novels, this suspension of disbelief leads us, via a journey through the unexpected, to insights into the real world in which we live. The starting premise is the aftermath of a "war of religion" arising from a "war on terrorism," and at the end of which "organised religion" is banned. Time and place are unspecified, expect that a visit to Glastonbury features, and doesn't involve a flight or sea-journey, so we must presumably be in Britain. The religions "banned" are specifically "those that proselytised," "those that made war," and "those that used terrorism," and seem to include Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. Their place is taken by various forms of paganism (including druidism, the cults of Ra & Isis, Diana and Odin, which seem rapidly to have become as sectarian and as rigidly organised as the religions of the modern or ancient worlds have ever been. The world conjured up is at once familiar and unfamiliar, a world in which shamanistic shape-shifting and dark magic coexist with limousines, pizza parlours, showers and sofas, providing much potential for humour, sensuality and adventure, but also for reflection on the human proclivity for dividing one group against another, and the question of whether this can be overcome through love.


Breath of Africa
Breath of Africa
by Jane Bwye
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A book of breath-taking scope, 18 Jun. 2013
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This is a book of breath-taking scope, spanning three decades. The story of a group of friends and their complex and interwoven personal lives is set against the backdrop of the momentous political upheavals of Kenya in the second half of the Twentieth Century in a way that, for me, recalls Doris Lessing's masterpiece, "The Golden Notebook." Bwye also has something of Lessing's talent for evoking the physical landscape of Africa, counter-balancing its permanence with the changeability of the human institutions and relationships that exist within it. The book addresses serious themes (colonialism and its inheritance; the the interaction of expatriate and indigenous communities; the plight of the individual caught up in the sweep of history), but it does so with a lightness of touch that comes from being anchored in the experiences of the characters and, most of all, rooted in a deep love and profound understanding of a particular place.


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