Category Archives: Reviews

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.

THE LUMINARIES

Eleanor Catton is undoubtedly a very clever writer. She has taken what might have been a fairly ordinary mystery story set in the goldfields of New Zealand’s South Island and made it something worthy of the attention of the Booker Prize judges. How has she done this? In three ways. Firstly, because the story is set in the mid nineteenth century, she has chosen a style which is a pastiche of novelists of the period. This includes chapter headings giving a summary of what is going to happen; but more importantly it allows her to adopt the authorial overview permitting her to comment on the action and the characters as the story develops. Secondly, she has split the narrative between thirteen characters, all of whom know part of the story but none of whom know it all, so that the reader finds herself having to piece it together like a jigsaw puzzle. Thirdly, she has based the whole thing on the astrological situation prevailing at the time and place of the setting. Since I know nothing of astrology, I am afraid this was lost on me. The chapter headings ‘Jupiter in Sagittarius’ etc and the star charts at the beginning of each section meant nothing to me.
I read an interview with Catton in which she said that she found many minor characters in other books were insufficiently realized and became cardboard cutouts, so she wanted to make all of hers equally detailed. It is true that she gives a psychological profile to each of them; but it is words and action that bring a character to life, and I must admit that there were times when I found myself having to leaf back through the pages to remind myself of who a character was and what his part in the story was.
The Luminaries is an intriguing tale and I was gripped all through, but the ending left me feeling frustrated. I was waiting for a full explanation of all the strange events, but it never came. There is a trial, but since none of the witnesses tells the whole truth but adheres to a version they have decided on among themselves, this left me with many unanswered questions. After that, the book disintegrates into a series of fragments, snatches of dialogue that mean very little, and the only narrative thrust is contained in the increasingly lengthy chapter headings. From these it is possible to piece together some of the answers but there were still elements of the mystery that seemed to me to be unexplained; and I was left with the sneaking suspicion that the author did not know the answers either!
This caveat apart, I can recommend this book to those who are prepared to use their own deductive abilities and do not expect to be spoon fed the facts.

 

The Last Runaway by Tracey Chevalier

 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.

Review of Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

 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.

REVIEW OF FLOOD BY ANN SWINFEN

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.

Review of ‘Lionheart’ by Sharon Kay Penman

 

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 by Elizabeth Chadwick

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 Sultan’s Wife by Jane Johnson

 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.

Two wonderful reviews

THE LAST HERO:

I have been a devoted Mary Renault fan almost all my adult life. For me no book quite rivals The King Must Die, except perhaps Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall - and this from a first class English Literature graduate and a secondary school English teacher of 27 years standing! I have spent decades looking for something as good without success, until that is I recently discovered the Last Hero, on the day of my 53rd birthday. Admittedly I haven't finished it yet, but I am finding it spellbinding. De Bernieres (I am a great fan of his too) was quite right in his praise: it is just like Renault. The prose is tightly composed with none of the fussiness of similar novels in the genre; and the period details are most convincing. Simply put when I'm reading this book I find myself there, with the characters of the story! Thank you so much for making my dream of another novel of the quality of The King Must Die come true. If you have any plans to set  another novel in this time period I would be delighted to hear about it.
(Stephan Smart via website) 

OPERATION KINGFISHER:
I am always excited to see a new book out by Hilary Green. It amazes me that someone who writes such wonderful, gripping and exciting stories has trouble getting her work published when there are other authors out there who write terrible books and hit the bestseller list. After her last set of books which took place during the first world war, Hilary Green takes us back to world war two once again and this time we follow the escapades of two teenagers, half French, half British as they try to make their way back to England to join the fight for the allies. Along the way they are faced with much adversity, but also make friends and gain the respect of the resistance fighters for their bravery. Their mother also has a bit of a side story as she struggles to accept that the Germans occupying her country and her home are just ordinary people who dislike the war as much as she does. Like all the books I have read by Hilary Green this was tough to put down, and even better the ending left me thinking there could be a sequel. I for one would love at least one more story involving these wonderful characters. I know that their adventures and acts of bravery are far from over as there is still at least three more years left before V-E day by the end of the book. I can only hope there will be a sequel or two out of this story. I will be eagerly awaiting Hilary Green's next book, no matter what it's about. (Leigh on Amazon)