Category Archives: Book reviews

Recommended Read – A Fine Madness by Alan Judd

A remarkable and meticulously researched novel from award-winning writer Alan Judd, exploring the life of literary genius Kit Marlowe, whose violent death composes one of the most fascinating unresolved mysteries of all time.  
 
In Elizabethan England, the Queen’s chief spymaster, Francis Walsingham, and his team of agents must maintain the highest levels of vigilance to ward off Catholic plots and the ever-present threat of invasion.
 
One agent in particular – a young Cambridge undergraduate of humble origins, controversial beliefs and literary genius who goes by the name of Kit Marlowe – is relentless in his pursuit of intelligence for the Crown. When he is killed outside an inn in Deptford, his mysterious death becomes the subject of rumours and suspicion that are never satisfactorily resolved.
 
Years later, when Thomas Phelippes, a former colleague of Marlowe’s, finds himself imprisoned in the Tower, there is one thing that could give him his freedom back. He must give the king every detail he is able to recall about his murdered friend’s life and death. But why is King James so fascinated about Kit Marlowe – and does Phelippes know enough to secure his own redemption?

Alan Judd’s rendering of the life of Christopher Marlowe is steeped in his intimate knowledge of Elizabethan times – whether it be the everyday life of gentlemen or the intricate spider’s web of the Queens intelligence agency. Cleverly constructed as a discourse by Thomas Phelippes as he is questioned about the death of the playwright, the novel not only describes what is known of some of the most important clandestine events of the time (for example, the Babington plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne) but also delves into the intellectual questions which were a part of politics – and life – at the time, questions about faith and morality as well as politics.

Such a novel has the potential to be dry or didactic, but that is not the case with A Fine Madness. Judd’s writing draws the reader in with his descriptive prose and clever use of dialogue which breathe life into people who have been dead for centuries. With his use of a clever plotting device the author creates a world of suspicion and fear where those who spy for the government can never feel secure in their own position as factions jostle for position at court. Against this backdrop we come to know something of Christopher Marlowe – a mercurial man, playwright, scholar, trusted confident yet enigmatic presence – with Judd’s writing based on the records that we have about this enigmatic man and the tavern brawl which led to his death. It is a mark of his excellent writing that Judd draws us in as we want to know what really happened, whether it was ‘just a fight’ or whether there was something more sinister behind it, yet all the time we are well aware that no one knows as the death of Christopher Marlowe remains one of the great literary mysteries of the last centuries.

A Fine Madness is a cleverly crafted novel balancing historical fact and fiction to create an honest portrait of the people and times with, at its centre, Christopher Marlowe seen not through rose-tinted glasses over the distance of time but as he most probably appeared to the men of his day – an intelligent man who questioned the hold of religion on men’s lives, energetic, a man who ‘burned too brightly’ and was gone too soon.

Part spy novel, part quest for intellectual truth and understanding; a study of duty, faith and friendship; I can highly recommend A Fine Madness to all lovers of historical fiction.

A Fine Madness can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Alan Judd here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Book Review – The Cardinal by Henry Morton Robinson

The Cardinal tells a story of a working-class American’s rise to become a cardinal of the Catholic Church. The daily trials and triumphs of Stephen Fermoyle, from the working-class suburbs of Boston, drive him to become first a parish priest, then secretary to a cardinal, later a bishop, and finally a wearer of the Red Hat. An essential work of American fiction.

Before anything else I must say that you should not be put off this book if you are not religious, or not of the Catholic faith. This is not a book about Catholicism (although there is much about Catholic beliefs and practice within its pages), at its heart The Cardinal is historical fiction, a saga of the greatest tradition, anyone who enjoys that style of novel will love The Cardinal.

We follow Stephen Fermoyle from the outbreak of the First World War to the days leading up to the Second. At the beginning of the novel he is a new priest returning to America from Rome, and we follow him on his swift rise through the ranks of the church, facing both financial and spiritual challenges as the Depression takes hold and society has to find ways to care for the most vulnerable. As Stephen progresses in his career he moves back to Rome where we see the rise of facism in all its ugliness, and the threat it poses to the world, both religious and secular. Stephen also falls in love, probably the greatest challenge for a celibate priest, and one can only sympathise with a man torn between his love for a woman and his love for God. As the reader accompanies the priest on his soul-searching journey to find his way forwards through this dilemma, we are given a deeper understanding of the cost and rewards of following a vocation.

But The Cardinal is not a novel confined to the priestly, not only do we follow Stephen on his journey of faith, but also the members of his family who face trials and tribulations no different to the rest of us. The Fermoyles are a loving family of Irish extraction, a group of characters who follow their own paths through life whilst staying closely knit and offering support to each other through the tragic events which shape them. They are not a ‘sugar-coated’ family, the have their disputes and arguments, their rifts and tragedies, but through it all there is a love and faith which binds them together.

The Cardinal is a beautifully written novel with a well-crafted plotline, believable dialogue, and engaging characters which draw the reader in and leaves you wanting more – which is my one criticism of this novel. At the end we journey with the new cardinal from Rome back to America where new challenges await him; he is only fifty-one and there is potential for so much more in the lives of the Fermoyle family in general and Stephen in particular, so I found it disappointing that the novel ends at the point where Stephen’s work as a cardinal begins. Having said that, this is a beautiful novel which I highly recommend to anyone who is a lover of historical fiction.

‘The Cardinal’ can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

TWO EXTRAORDINARY PEOPLE. A LOVE THAT DRAWS THEM TOGETHER. A LOSS THAT THREATENS TO TEAR THEM APART.

On a summer’s day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a sudden fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home? Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London. Neither parent knows that Hamnet will not survive the week.

Hamnet is a novel inspired by the son of a famous playwright: a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written.

Hamnet was the son of William Shakespeare, but other than that we know little about him, save that he died young and was then immortalised by his father in what some believe is his best play. Miss O’Farrell brings this shadowy child to life in her compelling novel about life in Elizabethan times which is described in careful detail. Her beautiful prose brings to life the sights, sounds, and smells of the countryside, as well as the crowds and filth and stink of a capital city often ravaged by the plague. Her characters are beautifully drawn with a deft touch and an understanding of the emotional heart of us all.

It is an episode of the plague which opens this novel with Hamnet desperately seeking help for his sister who has suddenly fallen ill. Alongside this we have the story of how ‘the husband/father’ (William Shakespeare is never mentioned by name in the novel) meets and falls in love with the enigmatic Agnes. Both come from difficult backgrounds and recognise in each other a soulmate who can make them whole, they fall in love and are married. But Agnes comes to realise that she is perhaps not enough for him, and that her husband will never be completely whole until he is able to pursue a life revolving around writing and theatre in London. Agnes is strong enough, and understanding enough, to let her husband go, realising that this is perhaps the only way for her to keep his love.

Alongside this love story we see Hamnet’s struggle to save the life of his sister, a compelling tale even though we know the outcome from the historical record, (although we know that Shakespeare’s son died, we don’t know the exact circumstances). The death of the boy in the novel wrings at the heart-strings and is followed by a compelling description of the grief of a whole family in mourning. When Agnes hears about her husband’s new play, Hamnet, she travels to London to confront him, a journey which brings the novel to a fitting conclusion as the couple come to an understanding of how the loss of their beloved son has impacted both of their lives.

The death of a child is always heart-breaking – it seems to go against nature for a parent to out-live their son – and Miss O’Farrell has portrayed this with a sensitive touch which cannot fail to move the reader. Hamnet is a tale of love and loss, of how parents grieve in their own way for the loss of a child, and how this grief has the potential to tear them apart or to bring them closer together. As such, it is a tale for all people and all times, just like the tales told by Shakespeare himself.

Hamnet can be found on Amazon   

You can find out more about Maggie O’Farrell here 

Recommended Read – The Slaves Of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

Measuring out the wartime days in a small town on the Thames, Miss Roach is not unattractive but no longer quite young. The Rosamund Tea Rooms boarding house, where she lives with half a dozen others, is as grey and lonely as its residents. For Miss Roach, ‘slave of her task-master, solitude’, a shaft of not altogether welcome light is suddenly beamed upon her, with the appearance of a charismatic and emotional American Lieutenant. With him comes change – tipping the precariously balanced society of the house and presenting Miss Roach herself with a dilemma.

Published just after the war (1947) The Slaves Of Solitude is set in 1943 and is a book about war from which war is remarkably absent. Set in the fictional town of Thames Lockdon (based on Henley-on-Thames) the novel reflects a provincial tranquillity where everything is touched by the conflict – from blackouts to food shortages, lack of small comforts to the arrival of the ubiquitous GI’s. Patrick Hamilton beautifully captures the narrow world and pettiness of middle England during the Second World War, portraying ordinary lives lived in extraordinary circumstance.

The central character of this novel, Miss Roach, left London after being bombed-out, and now resides at the Rosamund Tea Rooms with an eclectic mix of characters. In her mid-thirties, her prim timidity makes her the butt of the bullying Mr Thwaites, and she spends much of her time re-playing her conversations with him (and others) in her head. That is something which we all do, and Miss Roach finds herself with the same dilemma – does this re-playing of conversation clear up what was said or cloud matters even further! As the novel progresses, life brightens for Miss Roach (who hates to be referred to by her Christian name) when she meets a charming though somewhat enigmatic American soldier, and also befriends a German émigré – a woman not too far from her own age.

Building on the relationship between these three people and Mr Thwaites the story unfolds with gentle humour, quiet action and circuitous conversations. On the periphery of these interactions, we find Mr Prest who is seen as an oddity and ignored be his fellow residents at the Rosamund Tea Rooms, yet he pursues a secret life in London. As the book reaches its conclusion it is Mr Prest who is the instigator of Miss Roach’s ‘purification’.

The Slaves Of Solitude is a brilliantly written tragicomedy carefully detailed to evoke a specific time and place in which Miss Roach’s silent observations of her fellow guests tellingly reveal that this could be any time and any place. The characters are superbly drawn and the author has used his masterful knowledge of language to bring them to life with all their foibles; he handles the full range of human emotions with a light and deft touch which cannot but resonate with the reader.

For a gentle and humorous read you would find it hard to better The Slaves Of Solitude.

The Slaves Of Solitude can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Patrick Hamilton here

Recommended Read – Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder

When 14-year-old Sophie encounters a mysterious mentor who introduces her to philosophy, mysteries deepen in her own life. Why does she keep getting postcards addressed to another girl? Who is the other girl? And who, for that matter, is Sophie herself? To solve the riddle, she uses her new knowledge of philosophy, but the truth is far stranger than she could have imagined.

An addictive blend of mystery, philosophy and fantasy, Sophie’s World is an international phenomenon which has been translated into 60 languages and sold more than 40 million copies.

Sophie’s World is a unique look at the history of philosophy combined with an engaging and thought-provoking story. Who are we? Where do we come from? What is the purpose of life? These are questions which we all ponder at one time or another, yet many people don’t delve into philosophy in the search of answers because they feel that it will be beyond them. That is precisely why Jostein Gaarder wrote this novel. I used Sophie’s World when teaching philosophy to teenagers who, without exception, found it a fascinating way to study the subject.

Sophie’s World leads the reader on a journey through time from the earliest history of philosophical thought to the philosophers of today, presenting their ideas in a clear and concise manner. The style of this novel, with a teacher-student relationship in which Sophie is able to ask the questions we, too, would like to ask, is an excellent vehicle for the subject. Mr Gaarder’s writing is clear, the different styles for the philosophical discourse and the ‘story’ making it clear as to where we are at that precise moment. Some of the philosophical ideas may require re-reading to fully comprehend but it is well worth the effort.

Alongside the philosophers we are introduced to fictional characters – Sophie, the philosopher, Sophie’s mother and friend, the Major and his daughter – all of whom are well-described and add to the well-rounded dimensions of this novel. Although Sophie’s World Might sound like heavy reading the ‘story within the story’ often has touches of gentle humour which lightens the mood, and none of the philosophical explanations is over long so the reader doesn’t feel ‘bogged down’ but encouraged to read on and find out who Sophie really is. This is a novel which I have read more than once, and each time I find something different to take away with me and ponder. Whoever you are and whatever your outlook on life, this novel will include your view and lead you to an understanding of where your personal philosophy comes from and how it fits into the whole world view.

Sophie’s World is a novel which everyone should read at least once in their life and I heartily recommend it to you.

Sophie’s World can be found on Amazon

You can find out more of my Recommended Reads here

Caravans by James A Michener

First published in 1963, James A. Michener s gripping chronicle of the social and political landscape of Afghanistan is more relevant now than ever. Combining fact with riveting adventure and intrigue, Michener follows a military man tasked, in the years after World War II, with a dangerous assignment: finding and returning a young American woman living in Afghanistan to her distraught family after she suddenly and mysteriously disappears. A timeless tale of love and emotional drama set against the backdrop of one of the most important countries in the world today, Caravans captures the tension of the postwar period, the sweep of Afghanistan’s remarkable history, and the inescapable allure of the past. 

It is rare for a country to undergo change as rapidly as Afghanistan did following the end of the Second World War which makes this novel a fascinating insight to the dividing line between past and present, old and new. Caravans looks forward to the modernisation of Afghanistan through the eyes of well-educated men who had studied abroad and could see the potential within their homeland. These key characters are aware that the mullahs could halt this progress but look forward in hope to a more progressive and prosperous society. This changed Afghanistan existed when Michener wrote his novel in 1963 not knowing that the mullah’s would eventually take power and the country lose much of the progress it had made. One wonders if Michener realised that the interference of western powers which he writes about would be responsible for much of the damage that has happened to Afghanistan in the years since he wrot

The plot of Caravans revolves around the journey undertaken by Mark Miller to try to find Ellen Jasper, a missing American woman. Whilst there is adventure in spades the plot is not action-packed or a great thriller in the classical sense, its allure lies more in the sweeping vistas described in detail, and the lives of the people of Afghanistan from the political elite to the nomads who wander ancient routes irrespective of modern-day borders. The author’s knowledge of life in this remote country is incredible and described in vivid detail, but what really strikes home is his ability to get to the heart of what makes people tick. This novel delves into the nature of evil and forgiveness, the roles assigned to gender, societal expectations and a search for the unconventional. The character of Ellen Jasper is selfish and self-absorbed and I found it impossible to warm to her as a person, yet found her musings on the meaning of life fascinating at times. This ability of Michener to create multi-faceted characters is one of the things I like about this book; these could be real people who lived in 1946 or who live today, the psychology has not changed.

In some way this novel is very different from Michener’s sweeping historical sagas which follow the history of nations over centuries (think of Hawaii, Centennial, or The Covenant) as this has a more intimate focus on a single event, yet it is a fascinating story for all that. If you like historical novels that make you think then Caravans should be on your reading list.

Caravans can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about James A Michener here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – Pompeii by Robert Harris

Pompeii

Another brilliant book from Robert Harris written with his usual flair for fast paced narrative which keeps the reader gripped throughout. This novel is very well plotted with a number of sub-plots which keeps you guessing as to where they will take you next. The tension around the massive eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD gradually builds up to an explosive climax (pun intended!), and although we know the horrific outcome for Pompeii and Herculaneum we don’t know what happens to the fictional individuals who feature in Mr Harris’ novel and so are kept guessing until the very end.

As with all his novels the author has conducted a huge amount of historical research which brings the ancient Roman Empire to life for us. The historically accurate depiction of life in ancient Rome – the cities and towns, luxurious villas and dingy brothels, senators and slaves, baths and aqueducts, great feasts and hunger, decadence and poverty – are impressive, the contrast between every-day life and the sudden cataclysmic eruption is gripping. Although full of incredible historical detail (information about the aqueduct is fascinating) Mr Harris deftly reveals this great depth of knowledge as part of the plot rather than a ‘knowledge dump’ which enables you to come away from Pompeii knowing more about Rome without feeling lectured to or as though the plot has been side-lined in order to educate you.

As well as historically accurate the scientific information about the volcanic eruption which has been included works extremely well and gives an immediacy and truth to the narrative, as does the inclusion of Pliny who recorded the eruption and… (read it and see!) What the author has written about Pliny is an accurate rendition of what we know happened from his own and other historical sources and, as such, the reader can quite literally feel themselves right there in the centre of one of the most cataclysmic times in Roman history.

Pompeii is a well-crafted novel; the dialogue is totally believable which gives the reader an emotional attachment to the characters; the descriptions of the eruption are incredibly realistic and draw you in – you can almost taste the dust and feel pumice stone. I never hesitate to recommend books by Robert Harris and Pompeii is no exception; an easy to read, meticulously researched, fast paced page turner which will have any lover of historical fiction gripped until the very last page.

Pompeii can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Robert Harris here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – The Book Of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

WINNER OF THE COMMONWEALTH PRIZE FOR FICTION
Based on a true story, Lawrence Hill’s epic novel spans three continents and six decades to bring to life a dark and shameful chapter in our history through the story of one brave and resourceful woman.

Abducted from her West African village at the age of eleven and sold as a slave in the American South, Aminata Diallo thinks only of freedom – and of finding her way home again.

After escaping the plantation, torn from her husband and child, she passes through Manhattan in the chaos of the Revolutionary War, is shipped to Nova Scotia, and then joins a group of freed slaves on a harrowing return odyssey to Africa.

The Book Of Negroes is an incredibly moving story which draws you in right from the first page when we are introduced to Aminata, an eleven-year-old Muslim girl who can read the Quran and is already an accomplished midwife – not the naked savage which was how the peoples of Africa were described in a perverted excuse for the slave trade. Firmly rooted in historical fact, Mr Hill enables the reader to discover more about a multitude of aspects of life for those who were torn from their homes and sold into slavery. This is a compelling story moving from freedom in Africa to the indigo plantations of the New World, from initial freedom in New York to failed promises by the British in Nova Scotia and on the exodus back to Africa; and the character of Aminata is a believable and compekking companion on our journey.

The Book of Negroes in the title is an actual historical document and is the largest single document about black people in North America up until the eighteenth century. Containing the names and details of 3,000 black people who received freedom from the British at the end of the American War of Independence, Mr Hill has utilised this document as a source for the characters who people this novel. Some of these characters are real historical individuals, but the fictional ones are also totally believable as they are well drawn, both physically and emotionally, and give an insight into the traumatic lives that these people lived. The dialogue is also strong and believable, which allows the story to develop and flow realistically.

The author has great skill at descriptive prose, and the reader cannot fail to be moved by the beautiful rendering of the land or the visceral horrors of the Atlantic crossing, the contrasting life on slave plantations and in the city, the clothes and food of the different strata of society. But, above all, this is a beautiful and compelling, dark and harrowing, totally engrossing story of the slave trade.

As the world begins to openly face the history of slavery, I believe that The Book Of Negroes is a must read for all.

The Book Of Negroes can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Lawrence Hill here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – Dissolution by C J Sansom

Dissolution is the first in the Shardlake series by bestselling author, C. J. Sansom.

England, 1537: Henry VIII has proclaimed himself Supreme Head of the Church and the country is waking up to savage new laws, rigged trials and the greatest network of informers ever seen. Under the order of Thomas Cromwell, a team of commissioners is sent through the country to investigate the monasteries. There can only be one outcome: the monasteries are to be dissolved.

But on the Sussex coast, at the monastery of Scarnsea, events have spiralled out of control. Cromwell’s Commissioner Robin Singleton, has been found dead, his head severed from his body. His horrific murder is accompanied by equally sinister acts of sacrilege – a black cockerel sacrificed on the altar, and the disappearance of Scarnsea’s Great Relic.

Dr Matthew Shardlake, lawyer and long-time supporter of Reform, has been sent by Cromwell into this atmosphere of treachery and death. But Shardlake’s investigation soon forces him to question everything he hears, and everything that he intrinsically believes . . .

Dissolution is at its centre a medieval detective story with the required twists and turns to keep the reader guessing as to ‘who dunnit’. A strong, well-paced plot which weaves together a well-researched historical background with good characterisation and realistic dialogue makes this a novel which you may find difficult to put down.

The settings of the novel, whether in London or on the Sussex coast, are well drawn so that the reader can almost feel the cold, taste the food, and touch the buildings which breathe life into this book. The juxtaposition of life for the monks in the monastery with that of the peasants who live in the nearby village is carefully drawn and focusses attention on why so many people at that time were keen for the monasteries to be reformed. It was a time of deep mistrust when true feelings were hidden as an act of self-preservation for many whilst they payed lip-service to the new rules.

Commissioner Shardlake is a realistic character with a deformity which creates a refreshing vulnerability in the ‘hero’ of a novel. An astute man he is aware from the very beginning that the truth is being hidden from him not only to cover up a murder but also to try to preserve a way of life which it is becoming increasingly obvious really has no future. Sansom cleverly uses Dissolution to lay out the reasons why people wanted reform – the wealth of the church, corruption in the use of relics and selling masses, the use of Latin to keep the ordinary people apart from the religious leaders etc. At the beginning of the novel Shardlake is a true supporter of the reformation, but as he conducts his investigations and discovers the tactics his superiors are willing to employ to achieve their ends he is led to disillusionment and begins to question his own motives and feelings.

Sansom holds a PhD in history which has enabled him to write authoritatively about the historical context and the driving forces behind the main characters in his novel, but his style is never scholarly or stuffy but rather easy and lending a flow to the writing which entices the reader to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next. In Dissolution historical research gives an authentic backdrop to a compelling murder mystery, and I look forward to finding out more about Matthew Shardlake in the next book of the series.

Dissolution can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about C J Sansom here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

Sometimes when he didn’t know he was being watched Meggie would look at him and try desperately to imprint his face upon her brain’s core . . . And he would turn to find her watching him, a look in his eyes of haunted grief, a doomed look. She understood the implicit message, or thought she did; he must go, back to the Church and his duties. Never again with the same spirit, perhaps, but more able to serve. For only those who have slipped and fallen know the vicissitudes of the way . . .

A classic historical family saga taking the Cleary family from 1915 New Zealand to 1969 Australia and Europe. In The Thorn Birds Ms McCullough has created a family of incredibly realistic characters who fight the struggles of life on two fronts – the harshness of life in the Australian Outback and personal conflicts which shape the people they become.

Australia with its heat and dust, it’s fires and floods is the panoramic backdrop for an unconventional love story which would lose much of its impact without this realistic depiction of just how harsh life was for people who struggled to live off the land. From the wealthy Clearys to itinerant sheep shearers and cane cutters, and the ubiquitous swagmen, Australia is revealed in all it’s unforgiving nature through sight and sound and scent.

At the heart of The Thorn Birds is the love between Meggie and Ralph, a priest who puts his faith and career in the Church before his love for the woman who is the other half of himself. Ms McCullough has crafted a fascinating plot which juxtaposes the difficulties of living this love with the difficulties of living in the outback. The central characters of this novel are totally human, incredibly flawed yet strong, and I’m sure that all readers will recognise something of themselves in them.

Love hurts. That may seem a trite saying but it is one most people can relate too, and in The Thorn Birds we see the raw emotion and hurt that can be caused by such love. This is a powerful telling of human emotion where duty and desire are the two sides of a coin which can never fully be seen or realised at the same time. One must take precedence over the other, sometimes duty sometimes love, but always the other call is there drawing the characters into situations they find incredibly difficult, even heart-breaking, but which they would never be without.

The Thorn Birds is a well-crafted powerful novel written in descriptive prose and realistic dialogue which cannot fail to move, and as such I highly recommend it.

The Thorn Birds can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here