Tag Archives: books

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 – A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir

Two women separated by time are linked by the most famous murder mystery in history, the Princes in the Tower.

Lady Katherine Grey has already suffered more than her fair share of tragedy. Newly pregnant, she has incurred the wrath of her formidable cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, who sees her as a rival to her insecure throne.

Alone in her chamber in the Tower, she finds old papers belonging to a kinswoman of hers, Kate Plantagenet, who forty years previously had embarked on a dangerous quest to find what really happened to her cousins, the two young Princes who had last been seen as captives in the Tower.

But time is not on Kate’s side – nor on Katherine’s either …

The use of dual timelines has become a common plot device in the last few years, but what makes A Dangerous Inheritance different is that rather than having one timeline in the present and the other in the past both of the main characters in this novel are historical figures from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Katherine Plantagenet was the daughter of Richard III, Katherine Grey was the granddaughter of Henry VII, and what is interesting about them is that they are each descended from one of the two men who could have been responsible for the deaths of the sons of Edward IV, the infamous ‘Princes in the Tower ‘. In this novel both young women are trying to find out the truth about the disappearance of the princes, and about the role which might have been played by their family members.

As a respected historian Ms Weir has used countless primary sources to weave together the lives of these two young women who found that having royal blood can be more of a curse than a blessing as they each posed a threat to the Tudor monarchs who needed to secure the succession. It would be easy to criticise both Katherines for bringing some of the problems on themselves through their own actions, but the reader should not forget that these were teenage girls who fell in love and suffered for it. As we follow their stories we find ourselves immersed in the life of the royal courts which are brought vividly to life by Ms Weir, every aspect is conveyed in rich detail from fashion to food, accommodation to customs, and much more besides.

If the stories of these two young women are not interesting enough in themselves the author uses their imagined access to both primary and secondary sources written within 100 years of the deaths of the princes to weave together a compelling murder mystery. What did happen to the sons of Edward IV? Did they die of natural causes? Were they murdered? Where were their bodies? Were they killed on the orders of Richard III or Henry VII? Or did they survive to pose a threat to the Tudor monarchy? Ms Weir again uses her commanding knowledge of the period to present both sides of an argument which has intrigued people for more than 500 years, and whilst the protagonists in this novel come to their own conclusion history itself still cannot prove one way or another what happened to the unfortunate princes.

If you are fond of novels set in the Tudor period or enjoy a good ‘whodunnit’ then I think you will enjoy A Dangerous Inheritance.

A Dangerous Inheritance can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Alison Weir here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

The Fire Court by Andrew Taylor

Somewhere in the soot-stained ruins of Restoration London, a killer has gone to ground…

The Great Fire has ravaged London, wreaking destruction and devastation wherever its flames spread. Now, guided by the incorruptible Fire Court, the city is slowly rebuilding, but times are volatile and danger is only ever a heartbeat away.

James Marwood, son of a traitor, is thrust into this treacherous environment when his ailing father claims to have stumbled upon a murdered woman – in the very place where the Fire Court sits. Then his father is run down and killed. Accident? Or another murder…?

Determined to uncover the truth, Marwood turns to the one person he can trust – Cat Lovett, the daughter of a despised regicide. Marwood has helped her in the past. Now it’s her turn to help him. But then comes a third death… and Marwood and Cat are forced to confront a vicious and increasingly desperate killer whose actions threaten the future of the city itself.

The Fire Court is an engaging ‘who dunnit’ set in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London. The fire which ravaged London in 1666 is well known, as are some of the buildings designed by Sir Christopher Wren to help with the rebuilding; yet how many of us have ever taken the time to think about the aftermath of the disaster? How was it decided who owned which patches of rubble? Who would be responsible for re-building? And, above all, where would the money come from to re-build? I must admit that I have given little thought to that in the past and am grateful to Mr Taylor for introducing me to the Fire Court.

Set up by the king to untangle the complicated ownership/leases/sub-leases etc. the Fire Court was made up of a number of judges who gave their time for free to find the most equitable way to get the re-building underway as quickly as possible. Surprisingly for the 17th century there was very little corruption and the work went ahead swiftly. It is against this backdrop that the story of The Fire Court takes place.

The author has conducted an unprecedented amount of research into the Fire Court itself and 17th century London in general which immerses the reader in a city full of the rubble and ash of the fire, the dirt and smells of the Restoration, the filthy streets, the bridges and the river, the clothing and food which were a part of everyday life. He also shines light on the position of women in a society which still saw them as chattels yet where some women were already attempting to achieve a more independent role. In this realistic world we are introduced to James Marwood as he becomes embroiled in a legal battle for ownership of and therefore permission to re-build the Dragon Yard, a battle which leads to murder and through which we follow Marwood and Cat Lovett on a search for truth and their own survival. This is a well-crafted murder-mystery novel with twists and turns which keep the reader guessing to the very end, and well worth a read on so many levels.

(I was given this novel as a gift and was part-way through before realising that it is the sequel to Andrew Taylor’s novel The Ashes of London but it is a novel which stands well on its own.)

The Fire Court can be found on Amazon

You can find out ore about Andrew Taylor here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

The Words In My Hand by Guinevere Glasfurd

The Words In My HandThe Words in My Hand is the reimagined true story of Helena Jans, a Dutch maid in 17th century Amsterdam working for an English bookseller. One day a mysterious and reclusive lodger arrives – the Monsieur – who turns out to be René Descartes.

At first encounter the maid and the philosopher seem to have little in common, yet Helena yearns for knowledge and literacy – wanting to write so badly that she uses beetroot for ink and her body as paper.

And the philosopher, for all his learning, finds that it is Helena who reveals the surprise in the everyday world that surrounds him, as gradually their relationship deepens in a surprising story of love and learning.

We know the writings of the philosopher Réne Descartes but not so much about his private life. Historians often describe him as ‘a loner’, but was this really the case? We know that he had a daughter, Francine, with Helena Jans who was a maid in the house Descartes lodged in in Amsterdam in 1634. We know that they corresponded (although their letters do not survive), and we know that they continued to live close to each other for many years after the death of their daughter. The implication is that their relationship must have been both complex and important. Ms Glasfurd has taken this scant information to create a novel which is both beautiful and compelling.

‘The Words In My Hand’ is an atmospheric novel which brings 17th century Holland to life with all its sights and sounds, its varied people with their thoughts and prejudices, and the conflict created by new thoughts and ideas which opposed both tradition and the Church. Within this totally believable world we find a realistic and unsentimental story of love between two very different people who struggle to overcome the divide between them. The author seems to have delved into the depths of a woman struggling against the challenges which faced her gender and social class yet never bowing totally beneath them. The writing is descriptive, fresh, and cleverly constructed, the novel gentle paced in which great characters are described with subtlety and understanding.

As you read ‘The Words In My Hand’ you become immersed in Helena’s world and it can be difficult to remember that this is fiction, a tale of love and a search for knowledge which is totally of its time yet could be any time at all.

Readers who enjoy character driven novels which stretch their imagination and understanding are sure to enjoy this superb debut novel by Guinevere Glasfurd.

The Words In My Hand can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Guinevere Glasfurd here

You can find more of my Recommended reads here

 

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Longlisted for the baileys women’s prize for fiction 2017

A New York times book of the year

From Annie Proulx, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain, comes her masterwork: an epic, dazzling, violent, magnificently dramatic novel about the taking down of the world’s forests.

In the late seventeenth century two penniless young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in New France. Bound to a feudal lord, a “seigneur,” for three years in exchange for land, they become wood-cutters – barkskins. René suffers extraordinary hardship, oppressed by the forest he is charged with clearing. He is forced to marry a Mi’kmaw woman and their descendants live trapped between two inimical cultures. But Duquet, crafty and ruthless, runs away from the seigneur, becomes a fur trader, then sets up a timber business. Proulx tells the stories of the descendants of Sel and Duquet over three hundred years – their travels across North America, to Europe, China, and New Zealand, under stunningly brutal conditions; the revenge of rivals; accidents; pestilence; Indian attacks; and cultural annihilation. Over and over again, they seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource, leaving the modern-day characters face to face with possible ecological collapse.

Barkskins is a riveting read. I had assumed it would be just another historical novel following a few disparate characters but it turned out to be much more. Initially the reader is interested in the characters while the trees and forests are merely something of a backdrop, but as time passes in this wide-ranging novel it becomes obvious that these natural resources are not as limitless as the timber merchants think and we are led on an inexorable path towards ecological disaster. Have the Duke family realised in time that we need to do something to save our planet or is it all too late? The history of the development of the timber trade – the types of trees taken, the methods of cutting and working, the uses of the wood – is cleverly entwined in the story of these two families so that the reader absorbs a great deal of knowledge through osmosis, never feeling lectured to or bogged down with irrelevant information. The amount of research that Ms Proulx has conducted into the timber trade around the world – from North America to New Zealand – is impressive, as is the link to European trade, the whole coming together as an indictment on the dangers of colonialism.

Barkskins is cleverly written as a saga which follows the lives of two families arriving in North America at the same time and in the same condition but then following very different paths. The rich Duke family introduce the reader to the development of business and trade on the new continent while the Sel family show the awful impact that this immigration brought to the lives of the First Nation peoples of the United States, Canada and New Zealand. From the decimation of tribes by European diseases to the discrimination meted out to whole peoples considered to be ‘inferior’ simply because their culture and civilisation were not understood, to the scandal of the Canadian Residential Schools this is a novel which immerses the reader in a conflict of cultures which is still ongoing. Perhaps Ms Proulx in her last few chapters has presented us with a vison of hope in which there may be reconciliation as the First Nations people whose lives were once so closely entwined with the forest may now be the ones with the knowledge and skills to help us save our world from ourselves.

Barkskins is a long novel which might put some people off, but I urge you to read it. The plotting is a tightly-knit web, the characters well rounded – some engaging and loveable, others quite unpleasant, – the descriptions of the forests atmospheric, the prose as a whole beautifully written and engaging. If you are looking for something to keep you occupied on cold winter evenings then curl up with this book and lose yourself in a past world which has such relevance and meaning for our own.

Barkskins can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Annie Proulx here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – The Soldiers Story by Bryan Forbes

In the uneasy post-war peace of occupied Germany, a British soldier is billeted to a bombed Hamburg hotel. Alex’s days are spent investigating Nazi war criminals, but it is a chance meeting with a German university professor in a shabby back-street bookshop that changes his life. Having befriended the professor and his wife, Alex falls in love with their only daughter, Lisa, only to discover that the professor may not be as innocent as he first appeared. The stale aftermath of a long and hideous war has left the old society in ruins. There are still many secrets to uncover and Alex has to ask himself what is more important – love or truth? As he digs deeper into the professor’s past Alex is forced to recognise that he cannot have both.

This is an absorbing novel in more ways than one. We follow Alex as his life moves from war to peace, from seeing the Germans as enemies to trying to help them on the road to recovery. When he finally leaves the armed forces Alex, like so many men who served in the Second World War, has to re-adjust to civilian life. The Lincolnshire farm where he grew up seems confining, he feels rootless and unable to find his way. In this sense ‘The Soldier’s Story’ is a tale of lost youth. Interwoven with this is a love story, an English soldier falling in love with a young German woman at a time when ‘fraternisation’ was still frowned on; how would her family, and his colleagues, react? If this were not enough, a photograph from Auschwitz places Alex in an impossible situation. What should he do? Should he put his love for Lisa before justice for those who suffered and died in the war? Should he follow his heart or do his duty?

‘The Soldier’s Story’ is a well written novel, peopled with many facetted characters who struggle to do right in a world which is never simply black and white. The dialogue is engaging and believable, helping to bring the characters to life. The descriptions of bomb-damaged Berlin, the Russian sector, the drab people struggling to come to terms with defeat, all combine to give an insight into a fascinating period of history. ‘The Soldier’s Story’ is not a dry history book, although through its pages we achieve a greater understanding of the years immediately following the Second World War, the true destructiveness of conflict, and the loss of innocence which it brings. This is a great piece of historical fiction which I heartily recommend to anyone who has an interest in history, the Second World War, morality, human nature and love.

The Soldiders Story can be found on Amazon 

You can find out more about Bryan Forbes here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

The Summer Before The War by Helen Simonson

It is late summer in East Sussex, 1914. Amidst the season’s splendour, fiercely independent Beatrice Nash arrives in the coastal town of Rye to fill a teaching position at the local grammar school. There she is taken under the wing of formidable matriarch Agatha Kent, who, along with her charming nephews, tries her best to welcome Beatrice to a place that remains stubbornly resistant to the idea of female teachers. But just as Beatrice comes alive to the beauty of the Sussex landscape, and the colourful characters that populate Rye, the perfect summer is about to end. For the unimaginable is coming – and soon the limits of progress, and the old ways, will be tested as this small town goes to war.

What a gem of a book! This is the first time I have read anything by Helen Simonson and it reminds me very much of the novels of Jane Austen. Like the best books by Austen The Summer Before The War is filled with a range of characters who are portrayed with a subtle blend of warmth and wit. From the strongly independent heroine to the young men looking for a wife, and from a formidable aunt to the ‘society ladies’ with their fears of scandal it is easy to both laugh and cry with the inhabitants of Rye during that last halcyon summer before the outbreak of war and the loss of innocence, the innocence both of individuals and of a society which was already on the cusp of change.

This novel has a strong plotline which brings to life the evolving world of the early twentieth century, its tight dialogue a good vehicle for the portrayal of social norms, women’s suffrage, divorce, upward mobility, pregnancy outside of marriage, and a hint of forbidden homosexuality. Through her carefully crafted prose Ms Simonson brings to life the small provincial town of Rye in the months before the war, which makes the changes forced upon it and the losses it endures during the conflict all the more poignant. This depiction of Rye is mirrored in the pace of the book which may seem slow and genteel at first, but there is soon an increase of pace as war looms and personal conflicts grow, a pattern which is engrossing and draws the reader in.

The Summer Before The War is a gently satirical novel, full of wry social commentary yet with a depth and sensitivity to the writing which reflects the authors shrewd observation of people and their interactions. The slower pace and genteel setting of the first part cleverly serves to emphasise the darker times brought about by war both on the home front and in the trenches. Ms Simonson has obviously conducted a great deal of research and shows a keen understanding of this period and the impact that war had on individuals, families and communities at that time, communicating this effectively through her delightful cast of characters. She is skilled in creating an absorbing, emotional, and engaging prose that leaves us in no doubt of the heartache caused by the war across the whole social spectrum in Rye from the wealthy to the poorest boy, Snout, who embodies so many young people who lied about their age to seek adventure but found hell instead.

This novel has all the ingredients which make for a good saga – love and loss, prejudice, family conflict, hidden secrets from the past, and a lovely twist in the tail. It may not be a novel for everyone but I found the similarities to Jane Austen’s style strangly compelling, certainly anyone who enjoys Pride and Prejudice or other novels of that style will enjoy reading The Summer Before The War.

You can find out more about Helen Simonson here

The Summer Before The War can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here