Tag Archives: novel

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 more about Andrew Taylor here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

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Recommended Read – Lionheart by Sharon Penman

lionheartRichard I was crowned King in 1189 and set off almost immediately for the Third Crusade. This was a bloody campaign to regain the Holy Land, marked by warfare among the Christians and extraordinary campaigns against the Saracens. Men and women found themselves facing new sorts of challenges and facing an uncertain future. John, the youngest son, was left behind – and with Richard gone, he was free to conspire with the French king to steal his brother’s throne.

Overshadowing the battlefields that stretched to Jerusalem and beyond were the personalities of two great adversaries: Richard and Saladin. They quickly took the measure of each other in both war and diplomacy. The result was mutual admiration: a profound acknowledgement of a worthy opponent.

In Lionheart, a gripping narrative of passion, intrigue, battle and deceit, Sharon Penman reveals a true and complex Richard – a man remarkable for his power and intelligence, his keen grasp of warfare and his concern for the safety of his men, who followed him against all odds.

Most people have heard of the English king Richard I, known as the Lionheart, but do we really know the truth about the man? As with any medieval character much has been lost with the passage of time, and often much of what remains is distorted or written by those who came after and had an axe to grind. If you come to Lionheart with a background of legends then you will be expecting to read about a man who was a bad king, who put his love of battle and search for glory before the needs of his kingdom, even put that kingdom at risk for his own selfish reasons. Yet after reading this novel by Ms Penman you will most likely come away with a different view; it may be possible that Richard I is as maligned and misunderstood as that other Richard, King Richard III.

Ms Penman, who has conducted extensive research of the chronicles and first-hand accounts of the events of the Third Crusade, reveals a different Richard. Here we see a man driven by a genuine desire to retake the Holy Land for God, who knew the risks to his lands back in Europe but was prepared to accept these for the glory of God. It is true that he was a brave, almost reckless, warrior but he was also a fine tactician and general with a deep grasp of politics and human character which enabled him to bring a well-rounded approach to his plans and often a depth of understanding which his contemporaries did not see.

Surprisingly, Lionheart is not a book full of blood and gore, it takes many pages for the Crusaders to reach the Hoy Land, but it is engrossing in its revelation of the times and key people – revelations based on solid facts supported by both Christian and Saracen sources. It introduces us to a cast of well-rounded and believable characters whose weaknesses as well as strengths are fully exposed. Whilst not being the bad king that he is often portrayed to be Richard was a poor husband and probably a deeply selfish man (but that was not unusual for medieval monarchs who believed that they were the chosen instruments of God). Ms Penman also roots her novels in a realistic world which allows us to almost feel the heat and discomfort experienced by those who had never been out of Europe before, the comforts of court life, the food, the clothing worn, the terrible sea voyages undertaken.

Lionheart a is solid, detailed, character driven historical novel which delves into the political intricacies of the closing years of the twelfth century. It immerses the reader in the Third Crusade and will be enjoyed by anyone interested in history, religion and the enigma which was Richard I. I look forward to reading A King’s Ransom which will bring the story of Richard to its final conclusion.

You can find Lionheart on Amazon

You can find out more about Sharon Penman here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

 

Canvey Island by James Runcie

canvey islandIt is 1953 in Canvey Island. Len and Violet are at a dance. Violet’s husband George sits and watches them sway and glide across the dance floor, his mind far away, trapped by a war that ended nearly ten years ago. Meanwhile, at home, a storm rages and Len’s wife Lily and his young son Martin fight for their lives in the raging black torrent. The night ends in a tragedy that will reverberate through their lives. This poignant novel follows the family’s fortunes from the austerity of the post-war years to Churchill’s funeral, from Greenham Common to the onset of Thatcherism and beyond, eloquently capturing the very essence of a transforming England in the decades after the war. It is a triumph of understated emotion, a novel about growing up and growing old, about love, hope and reconciliation.

If, like me, you are a child of the 50’s or 60’s there is much in this novel which will take you back to your childhood and beyond, reliving stories and experiences which you may have forgotten yet which suddenly come flooding back to life as the author weaves together the stories of a cast of very real characters. As Martin and his mother fight for their lives during the terrible floods of 1953 your heart goes out to the young child then, as the years goes by, you see him change as he struggles with his emotions, and you sympathise with the way this one early experience structures the whole of his future life. Although Mr Runcie does not mention Post Traumatic Stress specifically it is clear from the way Martin interacts with the people he loves that this is the core of what drives him to his chosen career and blights his personal relationships.

Mr Runcie has cleverly structured his novel so that each chapter is written in the first person by one of the main characters and so enables us to delve more deeply into their emotional drives and feelings. Through this Mr Runcie is able to explore different views on ideas which have evolved over the years to shape the world we live in today– the role of women, nuclear disarmament, environmental protection, racism – there is something in this novel which will resonate with everyone. The author of Canvey Island has got to the heart of what it meant to grow up in the second half of the twentieth century. As you read this novel you are immersed in the sights and sounds of a period of rapid change – the life of a fisherman on Canvey island, the Christmas gifts which people gave in the 1950’s, the ubiquitous Avon Lady of the 60’s, the women’s camps at Greenham Common, the long hot summer of 1976, the Winter of Discontent 1979. Anyone who has lived through those times will recognise the detailed research which the author has carried out to enable him to bring these snapshots of British life sharply into focus.

Above everything else, though, Canvey Island is a novel about people – the emotional description of a family funeral juxtaposed against that of a state funeral as the nation pays its last respects to Churchill, the struggle of a child who misses his mother yet sees his father forming a new relationship, moving from the excitement of early romance to the domesticity of married life, coming to terms with your own mortality. This is a lovely piece of social history built around characters who are flawed yet draw sympathy and understanding from us. Mr Runcie writes with sensitivity and truth which makes this novel quite compelling in many ways, although I felt the ending was a little abrupt and would have liked perhaps one more short chapter to see what happened to Martin next.

This is an absorbing read although not a fast paced thriller, but if you are interested in people and what makes them tick then you are sure to enjoy Canvey Island.

Canvey Island can be found on Amazon

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

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

Vikram Seth’s novel is, at its core, a love story: the tale of Lata – and her mother’s – attempts to find her a suitable husband, through love or through exacting maternal appraisal. At the same time, it is the story of India, newly independent and struggling through a time of crisis as a sixth of the world’s population faces its first great general election and the chance to map its own destiny.

The search for ‘A Suitable Boy’ for Lata to marry is the over-arching theme which runs through this novel, yet the book is really so much more than that. Set in an India learning to stand alone after independence this novel is a true saga, bringing together diverse characters from all levels of society whose lives and interactions leave us with a surprising depth of understanding of the historical and political situation at that time. To give insights into the religious conflicts Mr Seth also introduces the reader to two families – one Muslim and one Hindu – who have been friends for many years. Their friendship continues despite the religious rioting and death which accompanied Partition and it is, in fact, an affair of the heart which threatens to shatter the relationship. We are also introduced to a range of characters from different levels of society – politicians, businessmen, landowners, poor workmen, and the untouchables. Anyone who has ever lived in India will recognise the truth of these characterisations and realise that in many ways the years since Partition have been slow to bring change to this ancient structure of Indian society.

In his novel Mr Seth has created a world of closely connected people with believable characters, and many readers will recognise aspects of themselves in the well scripted dialogue and familial descriptions. From the over-anxious mother to the over-bearing politician, the bullying brother to the pushy friend, the man obsessed by love to the woman who prefers her independence, it is easy to become attached to many of these characters as they go about their everyday lives. Alongside this A Suitable Boy weaves a rich tapestry of the complexities of Indian society – the religious festivals which underpin all aspects of life, the family structures, the duties of sons and daughters to their parents, the complex and sometimes corrupt political system, arranged marriages, caste, education – the list is endless and endlessly fascinating.

At it’s heart this is a novel about relationships and the conflicts that arise when we place personal freedom and self-fulfilment against our duty and responsibilities to others. The characters created by Mr Seth are multi-faceted and none of them are completely good or completely bad; they are real people and as such the author does not offer any easy answers to the conflicts which they face, just as there are no easy answers in real life. What comes across clearly is that the decisions which we make, whether at a personal or political level, have consequences for ourselves and others, and sometimes the only thing we can do is to choose the path of least harm as we make our way through life.

As well as the clever characterisation and plotting in A Suitable Boy Mr Seth also uses his considerable skill with words to paint a picture of life in India – the heat and dust, flora and fauna, fashion and food, all are cleverly integrated into the novel in such a way that anyone who knows India will easily recognise the land and its people, and those who are new to that country will come away from the book with clear mental images of what makes India such a fascinating place.

Although I have enjoyed reading it I would give two caveats to my recommendation of A Suitable Boy. Firstly, it is a wonderfully complex novel full of rich and nuanced language, but it is a saga in the true sense of the word (the edition which I read is 1,350 pages long). If you like a story which can be read in a day or two then this book is not for you. Secondly, there are passages of prose telling something of the history of the times immediately after Independence, and also a number of political speeches which do tend to slow the pace at times; it is, however, possible to skim over some of these without any loss to the story. There is also a fair amount of Indian vocabulary for the reader to contend with and a wordlist at the end of the book would probably be useful. Having said that, if you enjoy well written books which cover all aspects of life from birth to death, love, friendship, jealousy, loss, grief etc., and are willing to put in the time, then you will enjoy reading A Suitable Boy.

Please note that there are no spoilers here; if you want to know if Lata and her mother found A Suitable Boy you will have to read the book!

A Suitable Boy can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Vikram Seth here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here