Monthly Archives: July 2015

Review of The Miniaturist by Jesse Burton

This is an intriguing book but I found it ultimately disappointing. Set in Amsterdam during the 17th century it tells the story of Nella, an initially naïve country girl trapped in a marriage of convenience to a wealthy merchant. The author admirably conveys the claustrophobic atmosphere of a city in the grips of extreme puritanism and Nella’s desire to become a ‘proper’ wife and to fit into this society. Little by little we come to understand that her husband, Johannes, is hiding a deep secret and that he is in rebellion against the laws and customs of the time. He is shown as an attractive man, but Nella cannot understand why their marriage is not consummated.

Another character who plays an important part in the story is Nella’s sister-in-law, Marin, who has been used to running the household and seems to resent Nella’s arrival. She appears to be a very strong personality but she, too, has a secret. As the story progresses we see these two strong people slowly disintegrate under the blows of fate, while Nella grows into someone capable of taking over her husband’s business and coping with, first, the death of Marin in childbirth and then the execution of Johannes by drowning.

So far, so good. The characters are believable and we become involved with their fates and the slow transition of Nella from a rather pathetic little girl to a strong woman is well portrayed. But here is what I find is the weakness of the book. Early in the story, Johannes buys Nella what amounts to an elaborate doll’s house, which is a miniature copy of the house she now lives in. Nella see an advertisement by the miniaturist of the title and orders some pieces of furniture for it. From then on, more and more items arrive, unordered, and each one shows an uncanny knowledge of the household. Later tiny dolls representing Nella and Johannes and Marin appear and the miniaturist appears to be able to predict what is going to happen to them. Nella makes repeated attempts to contact this mysterious person, who is apparently female, but only catches tantalising glimpses of her.

All through the book I waited to discover who this person is and how she knows so much, but the changes in the miniature dolls, echoing or foretelling what is happening to their real life counterparts, became more and more inexplicable and ultimately unbelievable. The book ends with no resolution to the mystery and I found this most unsatisfactory. If an author chooses to present her readers with a mystery at the start of a book, I feel we have a right to some explanation by the end of it. Did the author herself have any answer?The use of the miniatures is a clever plot device, but ultimately I felt Burton was cheating. There seems to me to be a trend in modern writing to introduce supernatural elements into otherwise realistic stories in order to add twists to the plot, but personally I think this is illegitimate. It is a pity, because the book stands on its own merits and does not need this extra elaboration.

Review of The Mistra Chronicles Books 1&2

Review of The Mistra Chronicles Books 1 and 2.

by James Heneage.

I love books that take me to exotic and unfamiliar times and places and these books do that in spades. They are set during the last days of the Byzantine Empire, when Constantinople is under threat from the Turks. I did not know that Mistra, on the Greek Peloponnese, was one of the last outposts of the empire but Heneage’s description has made me want to visit it.

His hero, Luke, is descended from one of the Varangians, exiles from England after the Norman Conquest, who formed the emperor’s elite bodyguard and who, we learn in a preface, escaped from Constantinople just before it was sacked in the Fourth Crusade with a great but mysterious treasure. He is in love with Anna, the daughter of the ruler of Mistra but his low birth means they are destined to be kept apart. His adventures take him first to the island of Chios, another unfamiliar place to me, and I was fascinated to learn about the importance of the trade in mastic and the labyrinthine villages constructed to save the people from pirate attacks.

The story progresses and both Luke and Anna are caught up in the machinations of the Turkish Sultan, the wily Venetians and Anna’s devious father-in-law. There are plenty of unexpected twists and turns to the plot and Luke and Anna are brave and far-thinking in their efforts to outwit them.

In Book 2 the action moves even further afield as Luke is sent to to the court of Tamburlaine the Great, the Mongol lord who swept through Asia minor in the fifteenth century. This is a part of history I knew little about and Heneage evokes brilliantly the exotic combination of barbarism and luxury surrounding Tamburlaine’s court. He was a bloodthirsty monster, massacring whole populations of cities that opposed him and leaving pyramids of skulls to mark his passage.

I was gripped by these stories but I have some reservations. Luke seems to me a little bit too perfect; a warrior who can overcome all opposition; a wily negotiator; brave and honourable – but I found my sympathy for him stretched to breaking point when he remains with Tamburlaine, as a trusted companion, even after the most terrible massacres. The excuse is that he is oath sworn and has a task to do, to persuade Tamburlaine to attack the Turks and so distract them from Constantinople and the writer shows that he is driven to despair by what he sees, but I kept thinking ‘why don’t you just ride away?’.

A more important criticism is the writer’s reliance on elements of the supernatural. Luke learns in a dream that Anna is in no immediate danger, so he can leave for the east; she knows that he is still alive by looking into the eyes of his horse. There are books which are entirely predicated on the existence of the supernatural, such as Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. I can happily accept that. But when they are used as plot devices in an otherwise well researched and realistic historical novel I think that is illegitimate. Most irritating is the use of the mysterious treasure rescued from Constantinople, which is unearthed and gazed upon with awe and wonder at the end of both books. We are never told what it is, only that it will ‘change the world’. I assume the author’s idea is that we will keep reading subsequent volumes in order to find out; but I fancy that the final revelation will be an anticlimax. What can possibly live up to the significance laid upon it? Does the author himself know what it is?

These caveats apart, I was hooked on these stories and would recommend them to anyone looking for a gripping historical read.

Newsletter for June 2015

Dear All,

There isn’t a lot to report for this month. I’m working on the last chapter of the new novel, and up against the publisher’s word limit of 100,000. I think I might just be able to bring the story to a conclusion within the limit but I wish I had a bit more leeway. The book has involved a lot of research, particularly the second half in which the hero becomes a merchant plying the Mediterranean in the years just before the First Crusade. There is so much fascinating information about the trade in spices and silk, the origins of which were a mystery to western Europeans at that time; but the political situation in the Middle East was very volatile and confused and I am constantly having to check up on who controlled which area at any particular time – Turks, Byzantines. Egyptians ?? And there is so much technical detail to discover. How many men did it take to row a galley? How long did it take to get from Amalfi to Alexandria? What were conditions like on board? It’s very interesting, but time consuming.

I’m afraid the writing has had to take a back seat in favour of the garden lately. While the weather has been so lovely it seemed a shame to stay indoors and it is looking so beautiful. The roses are glorious at the moment, and so are the peonies. The lupins and foxgloves are going over now, but the herbaceous border has been a blaze of colour for weeks. Now it is the turn of the delphiniums and the penstemons and soon there will be dahlias and cosmos and day lilies. It’s a lot of work, but worth every moment.

I had an enjoyable day last Thursday at the Authors North summer social, run by the northern branch of the Society of Authors. We had a half hour cruise on the River Dee in Chester and then ‘afternoon tea’ at 12.30 in the Town Hall, followed by a very interesting discussion which centred mainly on the problems and advantages of self-publishing. It was good to chat to other writers and share experiences and tips.

I’ve been a bit disappointed by the muted reception given to TWICE ROYAL LADY. There is one really good review on Goodreads and so far nothing on Amazon, or in any of the papers. It hasn’t made the sort of impact I was hoping for. If any of you have read it and can contribute a review I shall be very grateful – and remember, if you want a signed copy you only have to let me know.

I hope you are all having a wonderful summer.

Best wishes