Tag Archives: book review

Recommended Read – I, Claudius by Robert Graves

Despised for his weakness and regarded by his family as little more than a stammering fool, the nobleman Claudius quietly survives the intrigues, bloody purges and mounting cruelty of the imperial Roman dynasties. In I, Claudius he watches from the sidelines to record the reigns of its emperors: from the wise Augustus and his villainous wife Livia to the sadistic Tiberius and the insane excesses of Caligula. Written in the form of Claudius’ autobiography, this is the first part of Robert Graves’s brilliant account of the madness and debauchery of ancient Rome, and stands as one of the most celebrated, gripping historical novels ever written.

I, Claudius is an enduring favourite of mine. A fictional autobiography of Claudius based on meticulous research and an incredible depth of knowledge of the Roman Empire places the reader at the heart of events in Rome. The Roman way of life – dress, food, customs, religion etc.– are woven into the story in such a way that the reader comes away from this novel with a deeper understanding of the time and place yet never feeling that they have been educated in any way. Graves’ light touch in this transfer of knowledge is balanced by his deft use of language which, particularly in dialogue, draws out the aspirations, jealousies, fears, hatreds and loves of real historical characters in a way which the source documents never could.

As well as a cleverly plotted novel I, Claudius is also a study of human psychology, to see how Claudius understands and manipulates those around him in order to stay alive is an underlying pleasure of this book. From the relative calm of the rule of Augustus this fictional autobiography details the cruel reign of Tiberius followed by the madness of Caligula all purportedly written from the viewpoint of an historian who likes nothing more than to study the past yet must spend his time balancing the politics of his present in order to stay alive.

It is necessary for Mr Graves to introduce us to a number of generations of the imperial family to tell his story and some readers may find the number of Latin names difficult at first, but I urge you to persevere for it is this richness of connections and understanding of family which underpins the novel and gives it a wholeness which many other historical novels focussing on the Roman  era do not have.

I, Claudius is a classic work of historical fiction telling a story of intrigue, lust, murder and dynastic politics from the point of view of a man who appears such a hapless fool that it is not worth the effort to kill him, yet this supposedly incompetent historian becomes, at the end of the novel, the next Roman Emperor. If you enjoy this read, which I hope you will, then you will be more than happy with its sequel – Claudius the God – which continues Claudius’ autobiography in recounting the reluctant emperor’s surprisingly successful reign.

I, Claudius is a classic in every sense of the word.

I, Claudius can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Robert Graves here

You can  find more of my Recommended reads here

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

On 21 June 1922, Count Alexander Rostov – recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt – is escorted out of the Kremlin, across Red Square and through the elegant revolving doors of the Hotel Metropol.

Deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the Count has been sentenced to house arrest indefinitely. But instead of his usual suite, he must now live in an attic room while Russia undergoes decades of tumultuous upheaval.

Can a life without luxury be the richest of all?

A Gentleman in Moscow is a novel full of engaging characters who surround Count Rostov as we are immersed in his life confined in the Metropole Hotel for 32 years. You may wonder how following the day to day life of one man in captivity for such a long period of time can create a storyline varied enough to fill a novel, and perhaps some people have not picked up this book for that reason – if so they have missed a gem. This book has been a favourite of mine since I first read it and was drawn into a country in upheaval, following the dramatic changes within Russia during the first half of the 20th century.

The novel begins with Count Rostov being condemned by a tribunal in Moscow as an unrepentant aristocrat, but because of a poem he wrote in his youth which showed a sentiment for revolutionary change he was not put to death, instead he was sentenced to spend the remainder of his life in his current residence – the Metropole Hotel. As we follow him through the long years of his confinment we come to know the Count as a learned man, a philosopher at heart, who is determined to adapt to his new way of life. Through his friendship with a young girl called Sophie he learns of the rich life behind the scenes of the hotel. Through friends who visit him he is able to follow the turbulent events taking place in his country from both sides – the oppressed and the oppressor. When an unforeseen event changes his life even further Count Rostov becomes a father in all but name and focusses his life on educating and raising a daughter to go out and face a world in which he can no longer partake himself.

This is a book full of humour, pathos, laughter, friendship and love. It is written in an elegant style with beautiful prose and insightful dialogue which subtly explore deep questions about the purpose of our lives and how we can make a difference through many small acts. The characters are well observed, the writing sophisticated, the humour at times gentle and at others farcical. It is a rich, multi-layered novel with much to offer even the most discerning of readers.

As Count Rostov muses towards the end of the novel ‘it was, without question, the smallest room that he had occupied in his life; yet somehow, within those four walls the world had come and gone’. I urge you to join him within the four walls of his attic room and experience the rich delights of this novel

A Gentleman In  Moscow can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Amor Towles here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here 

Recommended Read – A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger

A stunning debut historical thriller set in the turbulent 14th Century for fans of CJ Sansom, The Name of the Rose and An Instance of the Fingerpost.

London, 1385. A city of shadows and fear, in a kingdom ruled by the headstrong young King Richard II, haunted by the spectre of revolt. A place of poetry and prophecy, where power is bought by blood. For John Gower, part-time poet and full-time trader in information, secrets are his currency. When close confidant, fellow poet Geoffrey Chaucer, calls in an old debt, Gower cannot refuse.

The request is simple: track down a missing book. It should be easy for a man of Gower’s talents, who knows the back-alleys of Southwark as intimately as the courts and palaces of Westminster. But what Gower does not know is that this book has already caused one murder, and that its contents could destroy his life. Because its words are behind the highest treason – a conspiracy to kill the king and reduce his reign to ashes…

A Burnable Book is a medieval thriller with London in 1385 as its main setting, but it is not London as we know it. It may surprise some readers to discover that it was really three cities at that time – the walled city of London with Southwark and Westminster beyond. Each of these areas is described in fascinating detail, from the houses to the places of work, the bishop’s palaces to the slums, the law courts to the brothels. Bruce Holsinger has conducted an incredible amount of research which enables the reader to feel that they are there, experiencing the sights and sounds and smells of medieval London. I found the detail of the developing legal profession particularly fascinating as the Inns of Court came into being during this period at the end of the fourteenth century. Here we learn something of the education system which underpinned this legal system, the serjeants-at-law and other members of the legal profession, all within the framework of a novel which keeps the reader engrossed until the last page has been turned.

A Burnable Book is set during a turbulent time in English history with renewed tensions with France, Scottish incursions to the north, and friction amongst nobles all vying for power. This political intrigue is the backdrop for a story with Chaucer and his contemporary writer, Gower, as two of its main characters. Whilst planning his Canterbury Tales Chaucer has written a fictional poem which is then taken and used by enemies of the king who present it as a prophesy of his death, then work to fulfil that prophecy. Can Gower prevent this from happening? (An interesting plot device is the use of playing cards, which were fairly new to England at this time, and which introduce an element which would not be out of place in a modern crime novel).

Mr Holsinger has created a believable cast of characters (some based on real historical figures), they are well rounded with strengths and weaknesses which we will all recognise and who are brought to life by well crafted dialogue which gives the reader a feel for the time without being too anachronistic and difficult to read.

A Burnable Book is a good read; there are admittedly one or two weaknesses in the plot but these can be forgiven by a reader who likes to immerse themselves in past times, and one cannot fault Mr Holsinger’s knowledge and ability to present this in a style which draws the reader in. If you like crime novels, thrillers, and history, then this is a book for you.

A Burnable Book can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Bruce Holsinger here

You can afind more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – Sworn Sword by James Aitcheson

January 1069. Less than three years have passed since Hastings and the death of the usurper, Harold Godwineson. In the depths of winter, two thousand Normans march to subdue the troublesome province of Northumbria. Tancred a Dinant, an ambitious and oath-sworn knight and a proud leader of men, is among them, hungry for battle, for silver and for land.

But at Durham the Normans are ambushed in the streets by English rebels. In the battle that ensues, their army is slaughtered almost to a man. Badly wounded, Tancred barely escapes with his life. His lord is among those slain.

Soon the enemy are on the march, led by the dispossessed prince Eadgar, the last of the ancient Saxon line, who is determined to seize the realm he believes is his. Yet even as Tancred seeks vengeance for his lord’s murder, he finds himself caught up in secret dealings between a powerful Norman magnate and a shadow from the past.

As the Norman and English armies prepare to clash, Tancred begins to uncover a plot which harks back to the day of Hastings itself. A plot which, if allowed to succeed, threatens to undermine the entire Conquest. The fate of the Kingdom hangs in the balance …

Sworn Sword is a novel set in the years immediately after the Norman invasion of England in 1066. The story of William The Conqueror and the battle of Hastings is well known although few people stop to consider the aftermath. The English did not take happily to their new rulers and there was discontent everywhere, but nowhere was this more evident than in the north. This novel deals with the early uprisings against the Normans which led to the ‘Harrowing of the North’.

In Sworn Sword the knight Tancred is involved with the battles for Durham and York in 1069, the first of the serious Northumbrian uprisings. An integral part of the plot revolves around a secret which could lead to the uprisings spreading throughout the kingdom and potentially to the defeat of the Normans and restoration of English rule. Can Tancred and his friends find out the truth behind this secret and save Norman England? (No spoilers here, but the secret is based on historical fact).

Sworn Sword is a fast-paced action and adventure story which will appeal to fans of Bernard Cornwell who enjoy realistic and historically accurate renditions of warfare. Mr Aitcheson is a historian whose knowledge of the period immerses the reader in all aspects of life in Norman England from life in the cities and on the road, to the political discord and rivalries which form the basis of the plot of Sworn Sword during the turbulent years following Hastings. The key events in the novel did actually take place and many of the key characters (Guillaume Malet, Robert de Commines, Eadgyth etc.) are real historical personages. Where the author has shown skill is weaving his fictional characters into this historical background to create a believable adventure story which is just the beginning of Tancred’s struggles as the Northumbrian risings grow stronger.

An enjoyable read.

Sworn Sword can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about James Aitcheson here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – Dictator by Robert Harris

There was a time when Cicero held Caesar’s life in the palm of his hand. But now Caesar is the dominant figure and Cicero’s life is in ruins. Exiled, separated from his wife and children, his possessions confiscated, his life constantly in danger, Cicero is tormented by the knowledge that he has sacrificed power for the sake of his principles. His comeback requires wit, skill and courage – and for a brief and glorious period, the legendary orator is once more the supreme senator in Rome. But politics is never static and no statesman, however cunning, can safeguard against the ambition and corruption of others.

Riveting and tumultuous, DICTATOR encompasses some of the most epic events in human history yet is also an intimate portrait of a brilliant, flawed, frequently fearful yet ultimately brave man – a hero for his time and for ours. This is an unforgettable tour de force from a master storyteller.

Dictator tells the story of Cicero, the great Roman statesman and orator, from the time he was forced to flee Rome to escape Julius Caesar to his eventual death*. Written in the style of a biography (purportedly by his former slave and secretary, Tiro) it gives us a glimpse into the tumultuous times which saw the death of the Roman Republic and the birth of an Empire. Tiro collated the works of Cicero as well as recording speeches in the senate verbatim (he developed the first system of shorthand, we still use some of his symbols today – &, etc., i.e., NB, e.g.), and it is his works which Robert Harris has drawn on to create his descriptions of the key characters in the early days of the Roman Empire, the political turmoil and martial conflict which they lived through.

It would be impossible to write about this period of history without a focus on politics, but Mr Harris cleverly entwines this with the personal lives of his characters, people whom he brings to life in all their complexity. We see their loves and hates, their strength of character, the ebb and flow of their allegiances; and it is these well-rounded characters who breathe life into this engrossing novel. Mr Harris is a skilful author who creates a believable Cicero, a man of lowly birth who rose to the greatest heights in the Roman Republic, a man of incredible intellect who had the gift of holding an audience in the palm of his hand with the strength of his oratory; a Cicero who we can all believe in and sympathise with. The descriptions of Roman life, the cities, travel by sea and on land, all are well researched and believable as Mr Harris utilises his apparently simple style to great effect, weaving a world which we can almost feel and smell and taste.

Many people believe that Cicero was one of the greatest Romans, not only as a politician and statesman but also a philosopher with deep insights into the human condition, a man who studied the ethics of the Greek masters and tried to apply them to his own time. All of this is portrayed in Dictator through Cicero’s own letters and speeches, bringing to life a man of personal courage whose strong principles had a profound impact on his world, for good and evil. I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in history and the human condition.

*I saw Dictator on the shelves in the library and it immediately appealed to me; it was not until I was half way through the book that I became aware that it is the final part of a trilogy about Cicero by Robert Harris. I enjoyed the book immensely and will definitely go back and read the first two parts – Imperium and Lustrum. If my review of Dictator appeals to you then I would recommend reading these two books first!

Dictator 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 Balloonist by James Long

The BalloonistLieutenant Willy Fraser, formerly of the Royal Flying Corps, has been delegated the most dangerous job on the Western Front – a balloon observer hanging under a gasbag filled with explosive hydrogen, four thousand feet above the Ypres Salient, anchored by a slender cable. Swept across enemy lines after his balloon is damaged, Willy is hidden by Belgian farmers, whom he grows close to during his stay. With their aid, he manages to escape across the flooded delta at the English Channel and return to his duties. But once he’s back in the air, spotting for artillery and under attack, Willy is forced to make an impossible decision that threatens the life of the woman he has come to love.

This novel by James Long is divided into two distinct parts. The first finds Willy Fraser in Berlin during the last few days before the outbreak of the First World War and follows him as he makes his way to Belgium keeping just ahead of the rapidly advancing German war machine. This well researched section tells of the heroic stand of a neutral country which fought hard for every inch of land as her army retreated to the final Yser enclave which the Belgians were able to maintain for the long years of war which lay ahead. This stand by a greatly outnumbered and ill-prepared army allowed the French and British the time to strengthen the border and halt the German race for Paris.

Two years later we find Willy Fraser serving as a balloonist, a role which few people know much about. Mr Long’s detailed research of the few first hand accounts of these men (few of them lived long enough to write about their experiences) is the framework on which this novel hangs. Tethered balloons flying at almost a mile high were sitting targets for enemy planes and artillery whilst the balloonists had to combat terrible conditions as they observed the enemy lines and called in attacks onto the big guns which were turning the trenches into desperate killing fields. There were numerous ways for observers to die – failed parachutes, burning up with their balloons, or being cut adrift and coming down behind enemy lines to name but a few – and life expectancy was short. The historical accuracy of The Balloonist draws the reader in, educating on little known aspects of the war without ever seeming to preach.

Added to the historical background of this novel is the story of Willy’s journey into himself, his character and motives which change as he lives through tumultuous times. It is here that I find the one weakness in the story as there are perhaps a few too many co-incidences bringing the main characters together at key moments but this is, after all, fiction so if you are able to suspend belief at times, and enjoy an action packed and pacey ‘boys own’ storyline you will enjoy The Balloonist.

The Balloonist can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – The Woman in the Photograph by Stephanie Butland

An empowering, thought-provoking feminist novel that will change the way you see the world. Perfect for fans of Elizabeth Day, Claire Fuller and Joanna Cannon.

1968. Veronica Moon, a junior photographer for a local newspaper, is frustrated by her (male) colleagues’ failure to take her seriously. And then she meets Leonie on the picket line of the Ford factory at Dagenham. So begins a tumultuous, passionate and intoxicating friendship. Leonie is ahead of her time and fighting for women’s equality with everything she has. She offers Veronica an exciting, free life at the dawn of a great change.

Fifty years later, Leonie is gone, and Veronica leads a reclusive life. Her groundbreaking career was cut short by one of the most famous photographs of the twentieth century.

Now, that controversial picture hangs as the centrepiece of a new feminist exhibition curated by Leonie’s niece. Long-repressed memories of Veronica’s extraordinary life begin to stir. It’s time to break her silence, and step back into the light.

The Woman in the Photograph takes the reader on a journey exploring the development of feminism in the UK from the 1960’s to the present day. It is innovative, thought-provoking, imaginative and moving. By following the career of Veronica we live fifty years of social history, charting the changing roles of women and discovering how far they have come yet how far they still have to go. The ‘descriptions’ of photographs that Veronica takes at key moments in feminist history give a real snapshot (pun intended!) of a particular time and place and are a testament to the authors descriptive writing and the clarity of her well-drawn characters.

Ms Butland has conducted in depth research for this novel which is crammed with information yet is never wordy or didactic, instead the reader experiences those years through the eyes of three very different women – Veronica, Leonie, and Erica – and is drawn into their lives and loves, their hopes and fears, their successes and failures. The Woman in the Photograph is unapologetic in this focus on the individual in the feminist movement but should not be seen as a simple history, it is so much more than that. This novel is also about the human heart with love and loss at its centre.

I must admit that when I first picked up The Woman in the Photograph I was not sure if it was for me, fearing that it might attempt be too moralistic and push feminism on the reader, but that is not the case. If you take the trouble to pick up this book you will certainly learn about the history of feminism but also enjoy a jolly good read.

The Woman in the Photograph is available on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here