Revelation (Matthew Shardlake 4) by CJ Sansom

“Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

RevelationHaving now disposed of wife number 5, loveable heart-throb Henry VIII is busily wooing lucky Catherine Parr, who unaccountably seems a little reluctant to become his bride. It’s unclear if her objection is to the weeping, stinking sores on his legs or to his habit of beheading earlier spouses – some women are just picky, I guess. However, Archbishop Cranmer is determined to bring the wedding about, since he hopes that Catherine will drag Henry back onto the path of Reform from which he has been straying in recent years. So when a man in Catherine’s entourage is found brutally murdered, Cranmer is determined that the murderer shall be found before any whiff of scandal can attach itself to the Lady, thus jeopardising the King’s plan to marry her. Meantime, a fellow lawyer and friend of Matthew Shardlake is also found brutally slain, in circumstances that suggest the two crimes may be linked. Shardlake finds himself working for Cranmer in the hunt for a man who seems to be on a murderous spree inspired by the Book of Revelation

This fourth book in the Shardlake series continues to show the troubled era of Henry VIII and the English Reformation through the various crimes in which Shardlake becomes involved because of his connection to the power brokers in Henry’s court. By this stage, Henry has changed his mind about religion so often that the whole issue has become fraught with peril for his subjects, with the result that sects and cults are growing, each with their own interpretation of the Bible and matters such as predestination, purgatory and hell. Fanatics preach extremism to the gullible, while Henry’s men purge those who believe in the wrong version, and heretics – who only a few years earlier would have been seen as orthodox – are burned at the stake. And some, so messed up by the confused preaching of the times, become crazed, seeking to gain entry to Heaven by following their own corrupted version of the Word. It all sounds very 21st century, in fact!

Our murderer here appears to be attempting to bring about the End Times by acting out the horrors in Revelation. I’m not a Bible person myself, but I must admit Revelation sounds great – I really must read it! Gore, cruelty, torture, shrieking and screaming, eternal damnation and demonic mayhem – not quite Jesus Loves Me, This I Know, ‘Cos the Bible Tells Me So (which is about as deep as my religious education went). Through his characters, Sansom makes the point that many Christians didn’t feel Revelation should be considered part of the Bible, but also that it was then, as it still is, an excellent excuse for all kinds of craziness being allowed to flourish in certain sects. Shardlake himself shows the other side – that all the different versions of the “true faith” and all the cruelties done in the name of religion make it increasingly hard for many to believe in a loving God at all, however much they would like to. As well as the murders, Shardlake finds himself representing a young man, so screwed up by hellfire preaching about sin that he has become a psychological wreck, convinced of his own eternal damnation. He’s one of the lucky ones, though – merely committed to Bedlam rather being burned at the stake, so far at least.

As always, this is a massive and slow-moving book, both adjectives which should put me off completely. But it’s the depth of the characterisation and setting that holds my attention. I’ve come to the conclusion it’s a bit like watching a long-running drama serial – spending time with the much-loved characters is actually more important than the plot. I’ve been listening to the books this time around, read by Steven Crossley, and he’s the perfect narrator for them. He maintains each voice consistently throughout the book, or the series if they are recurring characters, so that it’s always clear who is speaking. This isn’t always the case with audiobooks, since authors write for the page and allow punctuation marks to do a lot of the work, so if a narrator doesn’t clearly differentiate it can become confusing.

cj_sansom
CJ Sansom

All the regulars play a full part in this one, too, which is an added bonus. Shardlake is still the same honourable, decent, kind man as always, collecting waifs and strays as he goes. Barak and Tamasin are going through some problems in their marriage, and Guy has taken in a young apprentice, Piers. It’s the conversations between Shardlake and Guy that shed most light on the religious upheavals of the time, as each man tries to make sense of the many changes they have lived through. Theirs has become a deep and loyal friendship now, although there’s still room for them to disagree from time to time.

It’s redundant to say this is an excellent entry in the series, because they’re all excellent. I think this may be the only series to every book of which I have given the full five stars, and of course this is no exception. Highly recommended, book and audiobook both.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

TBR Thursday 279…

Episode 279

The TBR has been see-sawing during my little break – up, down, up, down, up – finally coming to rest down 1 to 199. However, it looks like the bookshops might be re-opening next week and I may be forced to go on a pilgrimage…

book buying gif

Here are a few I should be getting to soon…

Historical Fiction

The Slaughterman’s Daughter by Yaniv Iczkovits

The Slaughterman's DaughterCourtesy of Quercus via NetGalley. I normally avoid books with titles that make women seem like adjuncts of men – The Gigolo’s Wife, The Undertaker’s Widow, The Comedian’s Mother-In-Law, etc., etc. – but the blurb of this one broke through the barrier of my antipathy…

The Blurb says: An epic historical adventure novel—Fiddler on the Roof meets Tarantino—set in the Pale of Settlement during the final years of the Russian Empire.

The townsfolk of Motal, a small town in the Pale of Settlement where nothing extraordinary ever happens, are shocked when Fanny Keismann—devoted wife, mother of five and celebrated cheese farmer—leaves her home at two hours past midnight and vanishes into the night. True, the husbands of Motal have been vanishing for years, but a wife and mother? Whoever heard of such a thing. What on earth possessed her?

Could it have anything to do with Fanny’s missing brother-in-law, who left her sister almost a year ago and ran away to Minsk, abandoning his family to destitution and despair? Or could Fanny have been lured away by Zizek Breshov, the mysterious ferryman on the Yaselda river, who, in a strange twist of events, seems to have disappeared on the same night? Surely there can be no link between Fanny and the peculiar roadside murder on the way to Telekhany, which has left Colonel Piotr Novak, head of the Russian secret police, scratching his head. Surely that could have nothing to do with Fanny Keismann, whatever her past, whatever her reputation as a wilde chayeh, a wild beast . . .

Surely not.

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Thriller

The Chill Factor by Richard Falkirk

The Chill FactorAnother unsolicited one courtesy of the good people at Collins Crime Club, this appears to be a re-release to mark the 50th anniversary of the original publication. I’ve never heard of the book or the author, but the blurb makes it sound just my kind of thing… fingers crossed! 

The Blurb says: Iceland. In the winter it gets light at 10am and dark at 2pm. The daily announcement of the Chill Factor allows you to calculate how quickly you could die from exposure…

Iceland is erupting – and not just its volcano.

It is 1971, the height of the Cold War, and anti-American feeling among Icelanders is running high. When a teenager is found dead after a drunken night out, her clothes torn and face bruised, anger is directed towards the military personnel at the NATO air base at Keflavik who outnumber the local population.

British agent Bill Conran, invited by the Americans to uncover a Russian spy ring, comes to realise that this is no routine assignment. Unsure who can be trusted, and targeted by an unknown assassin, he discovers that Iceland, for all its cold beauty, has never been hotter.

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Crime

The Survivors by Jane Harper

The SurvivorsCourtesy of Little, Brown Book Group UK via NetGalley. I’ve enjoyed all of Jane Harper’s books so far, though to varying degrees. Her settings are always one of her main strengths so I’m all packed for a trip to the beach…

The Blurb says: Kieran Elliott’s life changed forever on a single day when a reckless mistake led to devastating consequences. The guilt that haunts him still resurfaces during a visit with his young family to the small coastal town he once called home.

Kieran’s parents are struggling in a community which is bound, for better or worse, to the sea that is both a lifeline and a threat. Between them all is his absent brother Finn.

When a body is discovered on the beach, long-held secrets threaten to emerge in the murder investigation that follows. A sunken wreck, a missing girl, and questions that have never washed away…

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Shardlake on Audio

Revelation by CJ Sansom read by Steven Crossley

RevelationContinuing my re-read of the Shardlake books via audio, this is the fourth in the series, again narrated by Steven Crossley. These books get longer as the series progresses, and this one clocks in at over 21 hours, so at the glacial speed I get through audiobooks I may be listening to it for several weeks!  

The Blurb says: Spring, 1543. King Henry VIII is wooing Lady Catherine Parr, whom he wants for his sixth wife. But this time the object of his affections is resisting. Archbishop Cranmer and the embattled Protestant faction at court are watching keenly, for Lady Catherine is known to have reformist sympathies. Meanwhile, a teenage boy, a religious maniac, has been placed in the Bedlam hospital for the insane. When an old friend of Matthew Shardlake is murdered, his investigations lead to connections to both, and to the prophecies of the book of Revelation. Shardlake follows a trail of horrific murders that are igniting frenzied talk of witchcraft and demonic possession. For what else would the Tudor mind make of a serial killer…?

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Amazon UK or Audible UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Sovereign (Matthew Shardlake 3) by CJ Sansom

Conspiracy theories…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When King Henry VIII is progressing to York with his young wife Catherine Howard, Archbishop Cranmer appoints Matthew Shardlake to go there to assist in dealing with the petitions the locals will be making to the King. But Cranmer has another task for Shardlake while he’s there. Sir Edward Broderick is imprisoned in York, suspected of taking part in a conspiracy against the King, and Cranmer wants him brought safely back to London so he can be questioned by the Tower’s skilled torturers. Shardlake is reluctant – the idea of torture appals him – but when Cranmer gives an order it’s unwise to disobey. So accompanied by his assistant, Jack Barak, Shardlake goes. And it’s not long before he witnesses a man dying, perhaps by accident, but perhaps by murder. Soon Shardlake is sucked into a plot involving politics, the murky past of the Royal line, and the future of the Realm. And he’s in danger…

I loved reading this series and now I’m enjoying them just as much again as audiobooks. Steven Crossley does a great job again – his Shardlake is now how I imagine him sounding, and I’ve grown used to his Barak, though he sounds a bit older and gruffer than he did in my mind while reading. In this one there are lots of Yorkshire characters, and Crossley does them just as well. As always, there’s a huge cast, but he gives each one a distinct voice and manner of speaking, which I find a great help in remembering who is who when listening rather than reading. First rate narrations – a real pleasure to listen to.

Shardlake is now thoroughly disillusioned with Reform, having seen that the new regime seems just as cruel and unfair as life ever was when England was part of the Roman Catholic church. His faith has been shaken to the point where he’s not sure if he still believes in God at all, and he, like most of his countrymen, now sees Henry as a tyrant to be feared rather than a monarch to be loved. So his feelings about the prisoner are ambivalent – he doesn’t support the conspirators, but he understands their hatred of the King.

Meanwhile, Barak’s attraction to one of Queen Catherine’s servants means he and Shardlake are around the Queen’s retinue quite often, seeing things that Matthew finds deeply worrying. The young Queen is behaving foolishly, and that is a dangerous thing for a Queen of Henry’s to do. And a third strand is that Shardlake befriends an old lawyer who has had a falling out with his only remaining relative, and wishes to make up with him before he dies, which his physician has told him will be soon. Shardlake agrees to take the old man back to London with him and help him find his nephew.

As always with these books, it is long and slow, going deep into the way people lived in Henry’s England – both those at the top and those in the ranks below. The secret at the heart of the book, the one which causes all the trouble and puts Shardlake in danger, is based on a real rumour current at the time, muddied by a real prophecy which many believed (even though it was originally fictional). I won’t go into it any more deeply than that since that would take me into spoiler territory, but it gives the book a feeling of authenticity, which is what I always like about this series. Sansom, a historian himself, never produces a plot that feels anachronistic or as if it couldn’t have happened. And the blend between the historical characters and the fictional ones is so seamless I often have to check who really existed and who didn’t. That’s the one downside of the audiobooks – they don’t include the explanation Sansom usually gives as an end note, clarifying what is real and what he’s invented.

CJ Sansom

An excellent book, which again deepens our knowledge of Shardlake and our respect for him, and in this one we get to know Barak better and meet Tamasin, who will become a major character in the series as it goes on. It could be argued that the books get too long and could do with an edit, and I’d usually be arguing that myself, but I love the way Sansom shows us all sorts of stuff along the way that may not move the plot along, but builds up a full and fascinating picture of the time. In this case, the King’s progress takes centre stage and we learn all about the massive organisation that went into it – not as an info dump, but naturally, as Shardlake himself learns about it. And we are given a gruesome glimpse into some of the torture methods Henry’s henchmen employed – it’ll be a while before I make another dental appointment, for sure.

Great stuff – highly recommended, both book and audiobook.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 264…

Episode 264

Three out, three in this week, so the TBR remains beautifully balanced on193…

Oh, by the way, in case you haven’t noticed it’s nearly Christmas…

Dickens at Christmas

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

As always, I’ll be spending the festive season in the company of my old friend, Charles Dickens. I was going to re-read The Mystery of Edwin Drood this year, but then Rose’s review of this one reminded me that it’s the only one of the novels I’ve never read. An unread Dickens! What a treat!

The Blurb says: One of Dickens’s most haunting and bizarre novels, The Old Curiosity Shop is the story of “Little Nell” and her persecution by the grotesque and lecherous Quilp. It is a shifting kaleidoscope of events and characters as the story reaches its tragic climax, an ending that famously devastated the novel’s earliest readers. Dickens blends naturalistic and allegorical styles to encompass both the actual blight of Victorian industrialization and textual echoes of Bunyan, the Romantic poets, Shakespeare, pantomine, and Jacobean tragedy. This edition uses the Clarendon text, the definitive edition of the novels of Charles Dickens, and includes the original illustrations.

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Christmas Fiction

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

Courtesy of Penguin Classics via NetGalley. I’ve only read Capote’s In Cold Blood before, and this couldn’t really sound any more different…

The Blurb says: Tender and bittersweet, these stories by Truman Capote, the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, are a captivating tribute to the Christmas season.

Selected from across Capote’s writing life, they range from nostalgic portraits of childhood to more unsettling works that reveal the darkness beneath the festive glitter. In the Deep South of Capote’s youth, a young boy, Buddy, and his beloved maiden ‘aunt’ Sook forage for pecans and whiskey to bake into fruitcakes, make kites – too broke to buy gifts – and rise before dawn to prepare feasts for a ragged assembly of guests; it is Sook who teaches Buddy the true meaning of good will. In other stories, an unlikely festive miracle, of sorts, occurs at a local drugstore; a lonely woman has a troubling encounter in wintry New York. Brimming with feeling, these sparkling tales convey both the wonder and the chill of Christmas time.

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Christmas Horror Stories

Spirits of the Season edited by Tanya Kirk

This is from the BL’s excellent Tales of the Weird series, one that I missed when it came out a couple of years ago. Should complement my Dickens reading nicely, and keep the porpy occupied while I eat turkey sandwiches…

The Blurb says: Festive cheer turns to maddening fear in this new collection of seasonal hauntings, presenting the best Christmas ghost stories from the 1860s to the 1940s.

The traditional trappings of the holiday are turned upside down as restless spirits disrupt the merry games of the living, Christmas trees teem with spiteful pagan presences, and the Devil himself treads the boards at the village pantomime.

As the cold night of winter closes in and the glow of the hearth begins to flicker and fade, the uninvited visitors gather in the dark in this distinctive assortment of Yuletide chillers.

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Shardlake on Audio

Sovereign by CJ Sansom read by Steven Crossley

It would have been nice if I could have rounded the post off with another Christmassy one, but I’ve already started this one and they’re always so long I might well still be listening to it at Christmas! I’m still thoroughly enjoying Steven Crossley’s readings of this great series…

The Blurb says: Autumn, 1541. King Henry VIII has set out on a spectacular Progress to the North to attend an extravagant submission by his rebellious subjects in York.

Already in the city are lawyer Matthew Shardlake and his assistant Jack Barak. As well as legal work processing petitions to the King, Shardlake has reluctantly undertaken a secret mission for Archbishop Cranmer – to ensure the welfare of an important but dangerous conspirator who is to be returned to London for interrogation.

But the murder of a York glazier involves Shardlake in deeper mysteries, connected not only to the prisoner in York Castle but to the royal family itself. And when Shardlake and Barak stumble upon a cache of secret documents which could threaten the Tudor throne, a chain of events unfolds that will lead to Shardlake facing the most terrifying fate of the age . . .

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Amazon UK or Audible UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Dark Fire (Matthew Shardlake 2) by CJ Sansom

Cromwell’s secret weapon…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It is 1540, and lawyer Matthew Shardlake has taken on the case of a girl who has been charged with the murder of her young cousin. The girl, Elizabeth, is refusing to speak, partly from shock perhaps, but she also seems to be full of rage. If she won’t plead she knows she will be subjected to torture, but still she keeps her silence. At the last moment, Shardlake finds that she is to be given a temporary reprieve – twelve days more in the Hole at Newgate prison before the torture begins, unless Shardlake can get to the truth of what happened before then. But then Shardlake learns that the reprieve has been the work of the King’s vicar general, Thomas Cromwell. And in return, Cromwell wants Shardlake to do a job for him – one that may save Cromwell from the King’s growing displeasure…

The two cases in this story are completely separate and quite different from each other, providing the kind of contrast that always makes the Shardlake books so enjoyable. While the Cromwell strand takes us deep into the machinations of the powerful men vying for the King’s favour, Elizabeth’s story is far away from politics, set in her merchant uncle’s home. This allows Sansom to roam widely through the streets of London, and the various types and classes of people who populate them.

Cromwell provides Shardlake with a new assistant, a tough young commoner by the name of Jack Barak who was once helped by Cromwell and now feels a great loyalty to him. Shardlake’s feelings are more mixed – he has been appalled by some of the things Cromwell has done in the name of Reform, including torturing and burning heretics, and is no longer as enthusiastic a Reformer as he once was. However, when Cromwell demands service a man has to be very brave or very foolish to refuse, and Shardlake is neither, plus he knows it’s the only way to gain time to investigate Elizabeth’s case.

Greek Fire, known in the book as “dark fire”

Cromwell has been told that the formula for an ancient weapon once used by the Byzantines, known as “dark fire”, has been rediscovered. Having told King Henry, he has now discovered that the men who promised to supply it to him have been murdered. Cromwell is already on extremely shaky ground with the King since it was he who arranged the marriage to Anne of Cleves, which turned out to be a disaster, and he knows that if he fails to provide the promised new weapon the King will be even more furious. Now the King has set his amorous sights on young Catherine Howard and Cromwell fears that, if she becomes Queen, then her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, will take Cromwell’s place as the second most important man in the land. So he tasks Shardlake with finding the murderers and, more importantly, with finding either the supply of dark fire he has been promised or at least the formula for it.

Elizabeth had been recently orphaned and sent to live in her Uncle Edwin’s family. She never fitted in with her cousins, two girls and a boy, all of whom seemed to enjoy teasing her about her less refined manners. But when she is accused of having killed the boy by throwing him down the well, her other uncle, Joseph, refuses to believe her guilty. It is he who begs Shardlake to take her case, and as Shardlake and Barak investigate, they will find that there are dark secrets in this family – dark and dangerous.

Both stories are very well told, and Sansom keeps the balance between them well, never losing sight of either for too long. Although Barak’s job is to help Shardlake with the dark fire investigation, he is happy to help with Elizabeth’s case too, especially since in some ways she reminds him of himself when he too found himself in trouble at a young age. Despite having little in common, the rough commoner Barak and the cultured lawyer Shardlake gradually begin to find a mutual respect for each other, and even the beginnings of friendship.

CJ Sansom

As always, the historical setting feels completely authentic, both in terms of the high events surrounding the King and court, and in the depiction of how people lived and worked at this period. Sansom gives an amazing amount of detail about all sorts of things, from the dinner-tables of the high and mighty to the inns and brothels of the poorer parts of the city, and manages to do this seamlessly as part of the story so that it never feels like an info dump. It becomes an immersive experience, and I always feel a sense of dislocation when I return to the modern world. Both plots in this one are interesting, although I found myself more involved in the more personal one of Elizabeth and her family than in Cromwell and his political shenanigans. Brother Guy from the first book is now in London working as an apothecary. He and Matthew have become firm friends and he plays an important role in this book, which is an added bonus for me since he’s one of my favourite characters.

I listened to the audiobook this time, which is wonderfully narrated by Steven Crossley. I will admit his voice for Barak didn’t chime with my own idea of how he should sound at first but I soon got used to it. His Shardlake is perfect, though, and he uses a huge variety of tones and accents for the other people in what is a pretty vast cast of characters. It makes such a difference to ease of listening when each character is so clearly differentiated, especially in such a long book.

So, an excellent second outing for Shardlake and, in common with all the books in this series, gets my highest recommendation.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Dissolution (Matthew Shardlake 1) by CJ Sansom

Monastic murder…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It is the time of the Reformation, when Henry VIII has ordered his henchman Thomas Cromwell to strip the monasteries of everything valuable and then destroy them. Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer and one of the commissioners who are tasked with inspecting the monasteries prior to their dissolution. But now Cromwell has a different task for him. While acting as commissioner at the monastery of Scarnsea on the Sussex coast, Robert Singleton has been brutally murdered and an act of sacrilege has been carried out in the church. Cromwell sends Shardlake to investigate…

This is the first of the Shardlake books, a series which has been a firm favourite of mine for many years. Sansom seemed to spring fully formed onto the stage of historical fiction, setting exceptionally high standards with this first novel. As a historian, he clearly knows the period inside out, and Shardlake – a decent man trying to navigate his way through the murky manoeuvrings of the Tudor monarchs and their ever-shifting cast of right-hand men – is an excellent guide.

In this first book, Shardlake is a convinced Reformer. Cromwell may be rough and ready, a rare commoner in the corridors of power, but Shardlake believes that Cromwell too is working for the cause of reform, although he understands that Cromwell has to compromise occasionally to keep his Royal master’s favour. However, during his time in Scarnsea, Shardlake will learn many things that make him question Cromwell’s integrity and the morality of his own role in doing Cromwell’s bidding. He will also see the human cost of the dissolution of the monasteries – elderly monks and monastery servants thrown out onto the streets to fend for themselves in a world with no place for them. While intellectually he feels that the Catholic church has long abused its power and should be brought down, he finds himself sympathising with those of the monks who refuse to recant from the form of religion to which they have devoted their lives, even in the face of the King’s wrath.

But Sansom also shows us the corruption within the monasteries, both financial and moral, which Henry used as an excuse for his campaign against them. And in turn, we see how Henry used the fabulous wealth he looted from the Church to consolidate his own power by lavishing his cronies with the land and great houses that had belonged to the abbeys and monasteries. While Shardlake remains true to the new religion, we see the first signs of the doubts that will eventually lead him to take a more cynical view of the process of Reformation.

All this history is mainly why I love the Shardlake books, I’ve learned more from them than from all the weighty history books I’ve read over the years because Sansom has a true gift for humanising the history. His characters are of their time – he never allows anachronisms to creep in, either in language or in his characters’ thoughts. In this one, homosexuality features, since it was one of the accusations regularly used against the monasteries. Sansom avoids giving Shardlake 21st century opinions on the subject, but also allows him to have a level of sympathy with what he sees as a moral weakness rather than an unforgivable sin. It’s done very well, so that it feels true to the time but doesn’t make for uncomfortable reading for a modern audience.

CJ Sansom

However Sansom also realises the importance of strong plots and this one is excellent. He rarely takes us directly into court circles, but the plots usually have something to do with the main events of the Tudor period. I won’t go into this one too deeply for fear of spoilers, but one of the monks is related to the recently deceased Jane Seymour, giving a certain sensitivity to the investigation, while later it appears that there may be some kind of link back to the time of Anne Boleyn, and Cromwell’s betrayal of this woman who helped him come to power. Shardlake has the first of several assistants who appear throughout the series – Mark Poer, a young man whose career is already blighted by a scandalous liaison with a lady of the court. We also meet Brother Guy, the Moorish monk whose discussions with Shardlake allow Sansom to lay out the religious differences of the time.

I listened to it this time round, narrated by Steven Crossley who does an excellent job, providing the monks with a wide range of regional accents all sounding completely authentic. There are few women characters in this one, but those that there are, he does very well. Having thoroughly enjoyed revisiting this one through audio, I’ll now be happily looking forward to listening to the rest of the series over the coming months – or years, perhaps, since each book is exponentially longer than the last!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

TBR Thursday 243…

Episode 243

The TBR has remained steady over the last couple of weeks with a few drifting out and a few drifting in – still 208. The reading slump continues, the reviewing slump continues – fortunately, there hasn’t been either a chocolate slump or a cake slump, or life would be truly intolerable!

A couple of review-along announcements to start with:

  1. A Month in the Country review-along. This is one of my 20 Books of Summer and Sandra suggested we should read and review it at the same time. Sounds like a great idea to me, so we’ve set 31st August as the date for our synchronised reviews. Alyson and Christine (both non-bloggers at the moment, though I’m working on it 😉 ) have already joined in and anyone else is welcome to jump aboard! The rules are simple – either review it on your blog on 31st August or if you prefer leave your views in the comments section on my review and/or the reviews of anyone else who reviews it. I’ll put links to any other reviews on my own.
  2. Tender is the Night review-along. This didn’t win last week’s People’s Choice but Alyson suggested it would be fun to read it at the same time and discuss. Another great idea! Since then Sandra and Eva have said they might join in too, and again, anyone else is welcome! Same rules – we haven’t set a firm date for reviews yet, but I’m proposing 26th October. Anyone who’s thinking of joining in, especially you, Alyson, of course, please let me know in the comments if that date does or doesn’t suit you.

Doesn’t that all sound like fun? 😀

Here are a few more I might or might not miss dinner for…

Winner of the People’s Choice Poll

The Messenger of Athens by Anne Zouroudi

Excellent choice, People, especially since it will fit in well with my plan to read some lighter stuff for a while till my slump lifts! Tender is the Night stayed in the race but was always a furlong or two behind, and I fear the other two collapsed on the verge just a few yards from the starting line. This will be my introduction to Zouroudi and her detective, more or less, except for one short story I read and enjoyed in an anthology several years ago. It’s been on my TBR since 2014. I plan to read and review it by the end of August.

The Blurb says: Idyllic but remote, the Greek island of Thiminos seems untouched and untroubled by the modern world. So when the battered body of a young woman is discovered at the foot of a cliff, the local police – governed more by archaic rules of honor than by the law – are quick to close the case, dismissing her death as an accident.

Then a stranger arrives, uninvited, from Athens, announcing his intention to investigate further into the crime he believes has been committed. Refusing to accept the woman’s death as an accident or suicide, Hermes Diaktoros sets out to uncover the truths that skulk beneath this small community’s exterior.

Hermes’s methods of investigation are unorthodox, and his message to the islanders is plain – tell the truth or face the consequences. Before long, he’s uncovering a tale of passion, corruption and murder that entangles many of the island’s residents. But Hermes brings his own mystery into the web of dark secrets and lies – and as he travels the rugged island landscape to investigate, questions and suspicions arise amongst the locals. Who has sent him to Thiminos, and on whose authority is he acting? And how does he know of dramas played out decades ago?

Rich in images of Greece’s beautiful islands and evoking a life unknown to most outsiders, this wonderful novel leads the reader into a world where the myths of the past are not forgotten and forbidden passion still has dangerous consequences.

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English Classic

The African Queen by CS Forester

One from my Classics Club list. I’ve seen a couple of reviews that suggest this is one case where the film perhaps is better than the book, but since the film is brilliant that’s hardly surprising! And happily, I have the DVD lined up for a re-watch after I’ve read it…

The Blurb says: As World War I reaches the heart of the African jungle, Charlie Allnutt and Rose Sayer, a dishevelled trader and an English spinster missionary, find themselves thrown together by circumstance. Fighting time, heat, malaria, and bullets, they make their escape on the rickety steamboat The African Queen…and hatch their own outrageous military plan. Originally published in 1935, The African Queen is a tale replete with vintage Forester drama – unrelenting suspense, reckless heroism, impromptu military manoeuvres, near-death experiences – and a good old-fashioned love story to boot.

* * * * *

Fiction

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

And finally! What other choice could I possibly make for the final book in my mammoth Around the World in 80 Books challenge? This will be a re-read from a long time ago, and Oxford World’s Classics have kindly provided me with a copy, so the intro and notes will make it even more fun to read…

The Blurb says: One night in the reform club, Phileas Fogg bets his companions that he can travel across the globe in just eighty days. Breaking the well-established routine of his daily life, he immediately sets off for Dover with his astonished valet Passepartout. Passing through exotic lands and dangerous locations, they seize whatever transportation is at hand—whether train or elephant—overcoming set-backs and always racing against the clock.

Around the World in Eighty Days has been a bestseller for over a century, but it has never before appeared in a critical edition. While most translations misread or even abridge the original, this stylish version is completely true to Verne’s classic, moving as fast and as brilliantly as Phineas Fogg’s own race against time. Around the World in Eighty Days offers a strong dose of post-romantic reality but not a shred of science fiction: its modernism lies instead in the experimental technique and Verne’s unique twisting of space and time.

* * * * *

Historical Fiction on Audion

Dissolution by CJ Sansom

Sansom’s Shardlake books are my favourite historical fiction series of all time. I’ve been meaning to re-read them for ages but never seem able to fit them in. So I decided to try the first one on audio since on the whole I prefer listening to books I’ve already read. The narrator is Steven Crossley – I haven’t come across him before but the reviews of his narrations are very positive…

The Blurb says: The first book in the best-selling Shardlake series. It is 1537, a time of revolution that sees the greatest changes in England since 1066.

Henry VIII has proclaimed himself Supreme Head of the Church. The country is waking up to savage new laws, rigged trials and the greatest network of informers ever seen. And under the orders of Thomas Cromwell, a team of commissioners is sent throughout the country to investigate the monasteries.

There can only be one outcome: dissolution. 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.

Matthew Shardlake, lawyer and long-time supporter of Reform, has been sent by Cromwell to uncover the truth behind the dark happenings at Scarnsea. But investigation soon forces Shardlake to question everything that he hears, and everything that he intrinsically believes….

* * * * *

NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Audible UK or Amazon UK.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

FictionFan Awards 2018 – Literary Fiction and Book of the Year

A standing ovation please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2018.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2017 and October 2018 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

This year, there will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Vintage Crime Fiction

Genre Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

LITERARY FICTION

I’ve been so busy this year trying to catch up with my Classics Club list and various other challenges that I’ve read far fewer new releases than usual, but being a bit choosier means that I’ve enjoyed most of those I have read. As a result, the shortlisting has been extremely tough. In the end, I’ve decided not to include classics or any of the fiction I read as part of my Russian challenge since I’ve already posted about them in previous challenge summaries. All of which very neatly leaves me with five excellent contenders, so here goes…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd

As Hope Clearwater sits on the beach outside her home in the Republic of the Congo, she looks back over the circumstances of her life that have brought her here: her marriage to mathematician John Clearwater, and her later work at Grosso Arvore, a chimpanzee research project run by the world-famous primate expert, Eugene Mallabar. The two stories, though separate, have the common theme of the pursuit of scientific fame and the toll that can take on those who fail. There are other themes too – the war that rumbles on in the Congo, the evolutionary and genetic links between human and chimp – and a third story, of Hope’s love affair with Usman Shoukry, an Egyptian mercenary pilot fighting on the pro-government side in the war 

This is Boyd at his best and the narration by Harriet Walter does it full justice. The book sprawls across time and geographic location, bringing each to life and never allowing the reader to become lost. Each separate strand is interesting and engrossing and they are well enough linked that they feel like a satisfying whole. The writing and storytelling are of course excellent – when is Boyd ever anything less? It feels perfectly balanced, a story about chimps that has much to say about humanity, and says it beautifully.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

That Summer in Puglia by Valeria Vescina

When a PI tracks Tommaso down in London to give him the news that he has been left a large legacy, Tommaso tells him he doesn’t want it. To make the PI understand why his anonymity is so important to him, Tommaso agrees to tell him the story of why he left Italy – the story of his last summer in Puglia. That was the summer, long ago, when Tommaso met and fell in love with Anna. We know from the beginning that their relationship ended with some kind of tragedy that led Tommaso to cut all ties with home and take on a new identity in London. But it’s only after we follow Tommaso through the events of the summer that we find out what happened…

On the face of it, this is a straightforward account of a love affair, but the quality of the writing, the great pacing and, most of all, the superb sense of place make it so much more than that. It’s an intense character study of Tommaso, and it’s wonderfully evocative of the culture of Puglia, in the heel of Italy, in the 1980s – still strictly conservative in outlook, still largely in thrall to Catholicism, and with strong family expectations that children will follow the paths determined for them by their parents. A first-class début.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Eagle and Crane by Suzanne Rindell

Earl Shaw takes two small planes barnstorming round Depression-era California, tempting customers to go up for a scenic flight. One day, the pilots take up two young men, Louis Thorn and Harry Yamada. Daredevil Harry decides he will walk along the wing, and Louis, feeling challenged and a little humiliated, follows suit. Earl offers them both jobs as aerial stuntmen and so the act of Eagle & Crane is born – Eagle to represent the good ol’ US of A, and Crane to represent the villainous and untrustworthy Japs of Harry’s heritage. But the war is about to begin, and suddenly white America will begin to see its Japanese-heritage fellow citizens as more than a comic-book threat. And Harry and Louis will find their friendship altered and strained…

While the book has some elements of the thriller, it definitely falls far more into the category of literary fiction for me. Rindell’s research is skilfully fed to us through the development of her characters and her story, so that we gradually get a real feel for rural Californian life and attitudes in this period, and an in-depth look at the impact of the internment of Japanese-Americans. This third book cements her place as one of my favourite authors.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Springtime in a Broken Mirror by Mario Benedetti

Santiago is a political prisoner in Montevideo, Uruguay, in the 1970s. His family and friends are scattered, exiled from the country they call home. As Santiago sits in jail not knowing when – if – he’ll be released, he writes letters full of love to his wife, Graciela. For him, life is static, his memories of their love the thing that has sustained him through the torture and now the sheer stultification of his imprisonment. But for Graciela, life is a moving thing – she is still young, in a new city, with a job and a growing child, and for her the present is more vivid than the past. She finds herself increasingly attracted to Ronaldo, but knows that Santiago needs her love and loyalty. The crux of the story is deceptively simple – what will Graciela decide to do?

This is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve read in a long time, and credit must go to the translator, Nick Caistor, who has done a marvellous job. Although it’s based around the revolutions of South America, it is not about politics as such; rather, it is about the impact that political upheaval has on the individuals caught up in it. It’s about home and exile, loneliness, longing, belonging. It’s about loyalty and love, and hope, and sometimes despair. It’s profoundly moving – full of emotional truth. Wonderful!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2018

for

LITERARY FICTION

Tombland by CJ Sansom


This was an extremely difficult decision and I swayed back and forwards between Tombland and Springtime in a Broken Mirror several times, but in the end my love for the wonderful Matthew Shardlake won out…

It’s 1549, and young King Edward VI is on the throne. Since he is still a child, his guardians have appointed a Protector to rule in his stead, his uncle Edward Seymour. There is great poverty in the towns and cities while, in the farming lands of the north and west, landlords are enclosing common land for their own sheep, fermenting unrest amongst the smallholders and tenant farmers who relied on that land to eke out their own precarious living. Throw in the usual religious turmoil and an unpopular and unwinnable war against those pesky Scots, and the time is ripe for rebellion. It’s at this moment that Shardlake is summoned by Princess Elizabeth to investigate a murder of which one of her distant Boleyn relatives stands accused. And so he must head for Norwich, a city that will soon be at the heart of the East Anglian rebellion, led by the charismatic Robert Kett…

This is another completely satisfying addition to the series, confirming again my belief that Sansom is the best historical fiction writer certainly today and perhaps ever. He tells his story in a straightforward linear way, creating a great historical setting founded on in-depth research, a strong plot, and a group of brilliantly depicted characters who have all the complexity of real, flawed humanity. Shardlake himself continues to be one of the most appealing characters in fiction – irascible, often lonely, occasionally a little self-pitying, but intelligent, determined, dedicated, charitable and wholeheartedly loyal to those he takes into his generous heart. Superb!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

And now…

the nominees for the Book of the Year Award are…

FICTIONFAN BOOK OF THE YEAR 2018

THE WINNER

Five excellent contenders, but no hesitation in my mind as which deserves to win. This is a straightforward, factual telling of the story of Ernest Shackleton and his crew, and their failed 1914 bid to cross the Antarctic on foot from west to east. It’s also one of the most stirring and emotionally turbulent books I’ve ever read.

Then, at just about two o’clock, they saw where they were. A quirk of wind tore the clouds apart, and two wicked peaks loomed above a line of cliffs and the perpendicular faces of glaciers that dropped sheer into the sea. The coastline looked to be about a mile away, perhaps a little more. But vastly more important, in that single glimpse, they saw to their terror that they were only a short distance outside the line of breakers, the point at which the seas ceased to behave like swells and became combers instead, rushing faster and faster towards their own destruction against the land. As each swell passed under them, they could feel it tugging momentarily at the boat, trying to get hold of her and hurl her toward the beach. It seemed now that everything, the wind, the current and even the sea itself, were united in a single determined purpose, once and for all to annihilate this tiny boat which thus far had defied all their efforts to destroy it.

A wonderfully emotive journey that shows the human spirit at its very best. First published in 1959, this fully earns its reputation as a classic of non-fiction writing.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Thanks to all of you who’ve joined me for this year’s awards feature.

I hope you’ve enjoyed it – I’ve enjoyed your company!

Tombland by CJ Sansom

An England ripe for rebellion…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s the summer of 1549, and young King Edward VI is on the throne following the death of Henry VIII two years earlier. Since Edward is still a child, the guardians appointed by Henry have in turn appointed a Protector to rule in his stead, his uncle Edward Seymour. There is great poverty in the towns and cities while, in the farming lands of the north and west, landlords are enclosing common land for their own sheep, fermenting unrest amongst the smallholders and tenant farmers who relied on that land to eke out their own precarious living. Throw in the usual religious turmoil – the new Book of Common Prayer has just been foisted on a population tired of constant change and with newly developed religious opinions of their own – and an unpopular and unwinnable war against those pesky Scots, and the time is ripe for rebellion. It’s at this moment that Shardlake is summoned by his new patron, Princess Elizabeth, to investigate a murder of which one of her distant Boleyn relatives stands accused. And so he must head for Norwich, a city that will soon be at the heart of the East Anglian rebellion, led by the charismatic Robert Kett…

Generally speaking, when I see that a book has 800 pages I groan and run in the opposite direction. But with Sansom, I sigh and wish it was a few hundred pages longer. His ability to create an entirely immersive and believable Tudor world is second to none, partly because his own background as a historian means that the history is accurate. Sure, he manipulates it a little for literary purposes and he uses his imagination to fill in historical blanks, but he never strays far from actual events; and his characters are equally well and credibly depicted, whether they are real or fictional. Matthew Shardlake, as fans know, is a decent man with real empathy for the poor and disadvantaged, so it’s no surprise that this is a sympathetic portrayal of Kett’s Rebellion, showing him and his followers in a light that may be a little more idealistic than was really likely. But I bow to Sansom’s greater knowledge – maybe they did behave as well as he suggests – and I bow even more deeply to his skill in story-telling, because I was happy to buy into the idea of Kett as a principled leader and his followers as mostly disciplined and fair-minded men and women.

The bulk of the book is spent with the rebels, as Shardlake and his young assistant Nicholas get caught up in events. Nicholas is a son of a landowner, so has a different opinion from Shardlake initially, although his viewpoint is shaken as he is forced to witness some of the cruelties the poor are forced to suffer at the hands of the ruling class. Sansom uses him, though, to give the other side – to make the case for the landowners. Jack Barak is back, too, coping well after the events of the previous book. Being from lower stock himself, he is naturally drawn to the rebels, so with all three of the companions standing at different heights on the social ladder, it’s unclear whether their friendship will be enough to hold them together when the fighting begins.

Robert Kett at the Oak of Reformation
by Samuel Wale (c.1746)

The murder plot is how the book begins and ends, and it rumbles on as a background to the rebellion plot in the lengthy mid-section, but Sansom never allows it to be lost sight of entirely. John Boleyn, a landowner and distant cousin of Anne Boleyn, stands accused of murdering his first wife, Edith. Edith had left him and disappeared some years earlier, and he had eventually had her declared dead and married again. But now Edith’s newly murdered body has been found, displayed in a sordid fashion near John’s estate. Shardlake must find out where she’s been for the last nine years, and who, other than John and his second wife, might have wanted her dead.

The personal lives of the recurring characters are brought up to date, too. Jack’s relationship with his wife Tamasin is rocky, partly because she’s never forgiven Shardlake for the events in the last book (avoiding spoilers, apologies for vagueness). Young Nicholas is of an age to consider marrying and Matthew is concerned that he seems to have set his heart on a woman Matthew thinks is shallow and unworthy of him. Guy is old now and ill, and Matthew fears he may soon lose the man he considers his closest friend. And Matthew himself is feeling rather lonely. The old Queen, Catherine Parr, is dead and Matthew misses her more than a commoner should miss a queen. But he also misses his old servants, many of whom he had taken in as waifs and strays, and who have now grown up and left for lives of their own. So one of the things he wants to do in Norwich is look up his old maidservant Josephine, now married and living in the city. The last time she wrote to him, she was expecting her first child and he’s worried that it’s been some months and he’s heard no more.

CJ Sansom

This is another completely satisfying addition to the series, confirming again my belief that Sansom is the best historical fiction writer certainly today and perhaps ever. He tells his story in a straightforward linear way, without stylistic quirks or “creative” writing, relying instead on creating a great historical setting founded on in-depth research, a strong plot, and a group of brilliantly depicted characters who have all the complexity of real, flawed humanity. Shardlake himself continues to be one of the most appealing characters in fiction – irascible, often lonely, occasionally a little self-pitying, but intelligent, determined, dedicated, charitable and wholeheartedly loyal to those he takes into his generous heart. If I ever stand accused of murder, I hope I have a Shardlake to depend on. A great book in a brilliant series – my highest recommendation!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mantle, an imprint of Pan MacMillan.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 176…

Episode 176…

I had already typed this post yesterday, boasting about how I hadn’t had an increase in the TBR for five weeks. Then the postman knocked the door. So… up five to 232!! 

Here’s what’s rolling down the TBR tracks soon… a brilliant selection this week, I think!

Historical Fiction

Courtesy of Mantle, Pan MacMillan. This was one that arrived yesterday and I’m thrilled to bits! Possibly my most eagerly anticipated book of the year – all 801 pages of it! The Shardlake series is my favourite historical fiction series ever and a new one is better than being let loose in a chocolate shop! So for once when I say “can’t wait”, I mean it literally. I’ve already begun…

The Blurb says: Summer, 1549. Two years after the death of Henry VIII, England is sliding into chaos . . .

The nominal king, Edward VI, is eleven years old. His uncle Edward Seymour, Lord Hertford, rules as Protector. The extirpation of the old religion by radical Protestants is stirring discontent among the populace while the Protector’s prolonged war with Scotland is proving a disastrous failure and threatens to involve France. Worst of all, the economy is in collapse, inflation rages and rebellion is stirring among the peasantry.

Since the old King’s death, Matthew Shardlake has been working as a lawyer in the service of Henry’s younger daughter, the Lady Elizabeth. The gruesome murder of the wife of a distant Norfolk relation of Elizabeth’s mother, John Boleyn – which could have political implications for Elizabeth – brings Shardlake and his assistant Nicholas Overton to the summer assizes at Norwich. There they are reunited with Shardlake’s former assistant Jack Barak. The three find layers of mystery and danger surrounding the death of Edith Boleyn, as a second murder is committed.

And then East Anglia explodes, as peasant rebellion breaks out across the country. The yeoman Robert Kett leads a force of thousands in overthrowing the landlords and establishing a vast camp outside Norwich. Soon the rebels have taken over the city, England’s second largest . . . 

* * * * *

Horror

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. Another of the horror anthologies I’ve been lucky enough to acquire for this spooky season. The porpy and I will both need new hair-dos by the time we get through them all, I suspect…

The Blurb says: A young, inexperienced governess is charged with the care of Miles and Flora, two small children abandoned by their uncle at his grand country house. She sees the figure of an unknown man on the tower and his face at the window. It is Peter Quint, the master’s dissolute valet, and he has come for little Miles. But Peter Quint is dead.

Like the other tales collected here – ‘Sir Edmund Orme’, ‘Owen Wingrave’, and ‘The Friends of the Friends’ – ‘The Turn of the Screw’ is to all immediate appearances a ghost story. But are the appearances what they seem? Is what appears to the governess a ghost or a hallucination? Who else sees what she sees? The reader may wonder whether the children are victims of corruption from beyond the grave, or victims of the governess’s ‘infernal imagination’, which torments but also enthrals her?

‘The Turn of the Screw’ is probably the most famous, certainly the most eerily equivocal, of all ghostly tales. Is it a subtle, self-conscious exploration of the haunted house of Victorian culture, filled with echoes of sexual and social unease? Or is it simply, ‘the most hopelessly evil story that we have ever read’?

* * * * *

Historical Fiction

I bought this in August 2013 so it must be time to read it, I feel. It has lingered on the TBR because it’s quite long and is the first part of a trilogy. But I’m still as keen to read it now as I was back then…

The Blurb says: At the heart of this vibrant saga is a vast ship, the Ibis. Her destiny is a tumultuous voyage across the Indian Ocean shortly before the outbreak of the Opium Wars in China. In a time of colonial upheaval, fate has thrown together a diverse cast of Indians and Westerners on board, from a bankrupt raja to a widowed tribeswoman, from a mulatto American freedman to a free-spirited French orphan. As their old family ties are washed away, they, like their historical counterparts, come to view themselves as jahaj-bhais, or ship-brothers. The vast sweep of this historical adventure spans the lush poppy fields of the Ganges, the rolling high seas, and the exotic backstreets of Canton.

* * * * *

Crime

Courtesy of Quercus via NetGalley. A Gothic thriller from Elly Griffiths! I shall quietly ignore the hideous Gone Girl/Disclaimer reference in the blurb – do publishers really want to put people off?? Well, they’ve failed – I’m super-excited about this one!

The Blurb says: A gripping contemporary Gothic thriller from the bestselling author of the Dr Ruth Galloway mysteries: Wilkie Collins and MR James meet Gone Girl and Disclaimer.

Clare Cassidy is no stranger to murder. As a literature teacher specialising in the Gothic writer RM Holland, she teaches a short course on it every year. Then Clare’s life and work collide tragically when one of her colleagues is found dead, a line from an RM Holland story by her body. The investigating police detective is convinced the writer’s works somehow hold the key to the case.

Not knowing who to trust, and afraid that the killer is someone she knows, Clare confides her darkest suspicions and fears about the case to her journal. Then one day she notices some other writing in the diary. Writing that isn’t hers…

* * * * *

NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

* * * * *

 

Due to having totally run out of reviews and to having received Tombland (did I mention it’s 801 pages?), I’m disappearing for a bit to do some intensive reading. Don’t get up to mischief while I’m gone…

FictionFan Awards 2015 – Literary Fiction & Book of the Year 2015

Please rise…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2015.

In case you missed them last week, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

.

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2014 and October 2015 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

.

There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Factual – click to see awards

Crime Fiction/Thrillers – click to see awards

Literary Fiction

.

…and…

Book of the Year 2015

 

THE PRIZES

 .

For the winners!

.

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

.

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

.

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

LITERARY FICTION

.

I’ve read far less new literary fiction this year because I’ve been re-reading some old favourites, which don’t count for these awards. However there have still been a few great novels that are either new or new-to-me. This hasn’t been such a hard decision as some of the other genres – while each of the books is excellent, the winner is a truly stand-out novel…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

f daniel kehlmannF: A Novel by Daniel Kehlmann

.

This is a brilliant novel, sparkling with wit and intelligence. The fact that I have no idea what it’s about really didn’t affect my enjoyment of it in any way. F is for family, or failure, or faith, or fraud, or fear, or fate. Or possibly it isn’t. The one thing I do know is it’s impossible to sum up in a few words. The story of three sons of a missing Father – one a priest who has lost his Faith in God, one a Financial broker who is waiting to be Found out for committing Fraud and one a Failed artist and successful Forger – and an event which the reader knows about but the characters don’t. The writing is superb – Kehlmann can squeeze a mountain of characterisation into a few telling phrases, allowing him plenty of space to treat us to some fairly tongue-in-cheek philosophical asides. And he forces the reader to collude with him in mocking, but affectionately, the worlds of art, literature and religion. It’s also pretentious, absurd, marginally surreal at points and wickedly funny. And one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Docherty 2Docherty by William McIlvanney

.

On a December night in 1903, Tam Docherty lifts his new-born son and declares that this one will never go down the pits – this child Conn, his youngest, will work with his brains, rise out of the poverty of his heritage. The book covers the next twenty years or so, telling the story of Conn and his family, and most of all of Tam himself, a man who may be “only five foot fower. But when yer hert goes fae yer heid tae yer taes, that’s a lot o’ hert.” In some ways this is quite an intimate novel, concentrating on Tam’s family and the small community he is part of, but through them it’s a fairly political look at the lot of those at the bottom of the ladder in the early part of the twentieth century, a time when the old traditions are about to be challenged, first by the horrors of WW1 and then, following close on its heels, by the new political ideas that will sweep through Europe between the wars. McIlvanney writes beautifully, both in English and Scots, with as keen an ear for speech patterns and banter as for dialect. A great novel.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

the blue guitarThe Blue Guitar by John Banville

.

Olly Orme used to be a painter, but his muse has left him. He’s still a thief though. He doesn’t steal for money – it’s the thrill that attracts him. Usually it’s small things he steals – a figurine, a tie-pin. But nine months ago, he stole his friend’s wife, and now that theft is about to be discovered. This is Olly’s own story, told directly to the reader in the form of a narrative being written as events unfold. The tone starts off light and progressively darkens, but there is a delicious vein of humour throughout the book, observational sometimes, self-deprecatory at others. Olly is a narcissist, but his ability to admit his faults with a kind of saucy twinkle makes him an endearing character. In truth, other than Olly’s character, there’s nothing particularly original or profound here. But it’s the language! The fabulous prose! I could forgive a lot to someone who makes me enjoy every word, whether deeply meaningful or dazzlingly light. And Banville dazzled me while Olly entertained me – I’ll happily settle for that.

Click to see the full review

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Two Years Eight Months 2Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

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Back in the 12th century, disgraced philosopher Ibn Rushd has a love affair with Dunia, a princess of the jinn, and they have many children together. Centuries later, not far in the future from our own time, the slits between the jinn world and our own have been lost for many years and Dunia’s descendants have spread throughout the world, unaware of their jinn heritage. But after a great storm lashes the world, strange things begin to happen – people finding their feet no longer touch the ground, people being struck by lightning and finding themselves afterwards possessed of strange powers, people suffering from what are either terrifying hallucinations or perhaps even more terrifying reality. It appears the jinn are back… Rushdie ranges widely, through philosophy, politics, religion, terrorism, the importance of words, language and stories, optimism and pessimism, the disconnect of modern humanity from the planet, and so on. It’s all handled very lightly, though, with a tone of affectionate mockery more than anything else. And, much to my surprise, it’s deliciously funny. It’s being pigeon-holed as magical realism but not in my opinion – this is satire masquerading as a fairy tale. A book that surprised and delighted me.

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2015

for

BEST LITERARY FICTION

 

the way things were

The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer

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When Skanda’s father dies, it falls to Skanda to accompany his body back to India for the funeral rites. The death of his father and the experience of meeting up with many of the people he knew in childhood leads him to remember and re-assess the recent history of his family, from the period of the Emergency in the mid-70s until the present day. Like his father, Skanda is a Sanskrit scholar, with a penchant for finding linguistic cognates – seeking out the shared roots of words across languages ancient and modern. And this book is about roots, or about what happens to a person, and by extension a society, when it becomes culturally detached from its roots. But the book isn’t just about India’s past. It also looks at the politics of the present from the time of Mrs Gandhi to today. A strongly political novel, it is in no way overly optimistic, but unlike so much of the misery writing coming from India, this has a sense of hope – a message that India must and can choose its own future, not by rejection of its past, recent and ancient, but by understanding it and building on it.

That might all make the book sound unbearably dull, but in amongst all the politics and philosophising are a group of exceptionally well drawn and believable characters, whose story is interesting not just for what it tells us about India, but in itself. I was particularly pleased to see a strong female figure front and centre in this one. Uma, Skanda’s mother, is without exception the most intriguing female character I have come across in Indian fiction and, for me, she is the heart of the book; and is in many ways the personification of this post-colonial class that Taseer is portraying. The quality of the prose and the depth of insight make this an enlightening and deeply thought-provoking read – an exceptional book from an author who is emerging as a major voice in literature.

Click to see the full review

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And now…

the nominees for the Book of the Year Award are…

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FICTIONFAN BOOK OF THE YEAR 2015

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THE WINNER

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lamentation

It is 1546, and an increasingly ailing Henry VIII has swung back to the traditionalist wing of the church – in fact, some fear he might be about to make amends with the Pope and take the country back to Catholicism. The constant shifts in what is seen as acceptable doctrine have left many sects, once tolerated, now at risk of being accused of heresy. And, as the story begins, Anne Askew and three other heretics are about to be burned at the stake for preaching radical Protestantism. At this dangerous time, Henry’s last Queen, Catherine Parr, has written a book, Lamentations of a Sinner, describing her spiritual journey to believing that salvation can be found only through study of the Bible and the love of Christ, rather than through the traditional rites of the Church. Not quite heretical, but close enough to be used against her by the traditionalists. So when the book is stolen, Catherine calls on the loyalty of her old acquaintance, Matthew Shardlake, to find it and save her from becoming another of Henry’s victims. And when a torn page turns up in the dead hand of a murdered printer, it’s clear some people will stop at nothing to get hold of the book…

I have long held that Sansom is by far the best writer of historical fiction, certainly today, but perhaps ever; and I’m delighted to say that this book is, in my opinion, his best to date. Brilliantly written, impeccably researched, full of great characterisation, and the combination of the personal and the political is perfectly balanced. A superb novel – in fact, a superb series – and a truly worthy winner.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Thanks to all of you who’ve stuck with me through this year’s awards feature.

I hope you’ve enjoyed it – I’ve enjoyed your company!

 

FictionFan Awards 2015 – Crime Fiction/Thrillers

A round of applause please…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2015.

In case you missed them last week, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

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All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2014 and October 2015 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

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There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Factual – click to see awards

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

Literary Fiction

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…and…

Book of the Year 2015

 

THE PRIZES

 .

For the winners!

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I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

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Nothing!

THE JUDGES

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Me!

* * * * * * * * *

So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

CRIME FICTION/THRILLERS

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Despite the fact that I’ve grown more and more unenamoured with a lot of contemporary crime, I’ve still had lots of good reads this year, though on looking back several of them are reissues of older books or have taken a slightly quirky approach. But simply because I read more crime than any other genre, this is still the section that is hardest to decide. So because the choice was so hard, I’ve decided also to list the nominees that didn’t quite make it into the final list. All of these books were great reads, and I look forward to reading more from each of these authors in the future.

NOMINEES

 

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

the voices beyondThe Voices Beyond by Johan Theorin

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Young Jonas is spending the summer on the island of Öland at the resort owned by his family, the Klosses. One night, he takes his dingy out onto the sea. Drifting in the darkness, a sudden shaft of moonlight shows a boat approaching and he doesn’t have time to get out of the way. He manages to climb aboard the boat before his dingy is sunk, but what awaits him there is the stuff of nightmares – dying men (or are they already dead?) on the deck stalking towards him and calling out in a language he doesn’t understand. This brilliantly atmospheric opening sets the tone for a book that combines a mystery in the present day with a story that takes us back to the USSR in the days of Stalin. Plot, writing, research, characterisation – all top quality, and it finishes off as atmospherically as it began. A great read – frankly, this could easily have been the winner.

Click to see the full review

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the zig-zag girlThe Zig-Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths

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Set in Brighton post-WW2, this is a great start to a new series from the author of the Ruth Galloway series. Edgar Stephens and Max Mephisto served in a secret unit known as the “Magic Men” during the war. Now Edgar is a police detective and Max has gone back to his profession as a stage magician. When a dismembered corpse turns up, it has echoes of one of Max’s tricks, and as Edgar investigates it appears the solution may lie in their wartime past. Both place and time are done very well, with the shadow of the war still hanging over the characters and the world they inhabit. With an intriguing, complex plot, an interesting slant on a unique (and not entirely fictional) aspect of the war, some very enjoyable humour and a touch of romance, this is a great mystery of the traditional kind. And best of all, unlike the Ruth books, it’s written in the past tense.

Click to see the full review

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vertigoVertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

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As Paris waits uneasily for war to begin, Roger Flavières is approached by an old college friend, Gévigne, who puts an odd proposition to him. Gévigne is concerned about his wife, Madeleine. She has been lapsing into odd silences, almost trances, and seems bewildered when she comes out of them. Gévigne knows she’s been going out during the afternoons but she says she hasn’t – either she is lying, which Gévigne doesn’t believe, or she has forgotten. Gévigne wants Flavières to follow her, partly to find out what she’s doing and partly to make sure she is safe. This is, of course, the book on which the Hitchcock film was based and, for once, despite my love for all things Hitchcock, on this occasion I think the book is better. Hitchcock’s decision to elevate the importance of the vertigo aspects, as opposed to the book’s study of the effects of obsession on an already weak mind, somehow makes his Ferguson a less complex and intriguing character than Boileau-Narcejac’s Flavières. And the ending of the book is much more satisfying than that of the film. An excellent read.

Click to see the full review

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you zoran drvenkarYou by Zoran Drvenkar

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Back in 1995, a massive snowstorm brought traffic to a halt on the road between Bad Hersfeld and Eisenach. As people huddled in their cars overnight, trying to keep warm, The Traveler stepped out of his vehicle and worked his way along the line of cars, murdering the people inside. By the time the snowploughs got through, twenty-six people were dead and there was no trace of The Traveler. In the present day, Ragnar Desche has found the frozen body of his brother Oskar and is out to get revenge against whoever killed him and stole the massive stash of heroin he was keeping for Ragnar. And four teenage girls are worrying about the fifth member of their little clique who has been missing for nearly a week… This is a great book, written almost entirely in the second person through the eyes of each of the huge cast of characters in turn. Drvenkar handles this unusual technique superbly, forcing me to identify with each of them, however unlikely. It’s noir dark shot through with just enough gleams of light to keep it bearable, pacey and tense, grim and disturbing, no punches pulled – and quite stunning. I’m still not completely sure it shouldn’t be the winner…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2015

for

BEST CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

 

lamentation

Lamentation by C.J. Sansom

.

It is 1546, and an increasingly ailing Henry VIII has swung back to the traditionalist wing of the church – in fact, some fear he might be about to make amends with the Pope and take the country back to Catholicism. The constant shifts in what is seen as acceptable doctrine have left many sects, once tolerated, now at risk of being accused of heresy. And, as the story begins, Anne Askew and three other heretics are about to be burned at the stake for preaching radical Protestantism. At this dangerous time, Henry’s last Queen, Catherine Parr, has written a book, Lamentations of a Sinner, describing her spiritual journey to believing that salvation can be found only through study of the Bible and the love of Christ, rather than through the traditional rites of the Church. Not quite heretical, but close enough to be used against her by the traditionalists. So when the book is stolen, Catherine calls on the loyalty of her old acquaintance, Matthew Shardlake, to find it and save her from becoming another of Henry’s victims. And when a torn page turns up in the dead hand of a murdered printer, it’s clear some people will stop at nothing to get hold of the book…

I have long held that Sansom is by far the best writer of historical fiction, certainly today, but perhaps ever; and I’m delighted to say that this book is, in my opinion, his best to date. A huge brick of a book, coming in at over 600 pages, and yet at no point does it flag. Like the earlier books, this one is completely immersive – the length of it is matched by its depth. The fictional aspect is woven seamlessly into fact, and the characters and actions of the real people who appear in the novel are consistent with what we know of them through the history books. The combination of the personal and the political is perfectly balanced, and Sansom never fails to take the consequences of events of previous books through to the next, meaning that the recurring characters continue to develop more deeply in each one. There’s always a long wait between Shardlake novels, but they are invariably worth waiting for. And as England moves on to dealing with the aftermath of Henry’s death, I very much hope that Shardlake will be there to lead us through it…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Next week: Best Literary Fiction Award

Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
JANUARY

SMILEYS

Cleo from Cleopatra Loves Books came up with the brilliant idea of looking back over her reviews of the last five years and picking out her favourite books of the month from each year. She kindly agreed to let me borrow her idea (which saved me from stealing it!). I was a bit later in starting reviewing than Cleo, really getting properly underway in about April/May of 2011, so for the first few months I might have to be a bit creative in my 2011 selections.

So here are my favourite January reads…click on the covers to go to the full reviews, though it must be said my early reviews were somewhat basic…

 

2011

 

broomsticks over flaxboroughNo reviews in January 2011, so here’s one from May 2010. I have loved the Flaxborough Chronicles since my teens and Broomsticks over Flaxborough is my favourite – as always, Colin Watson pulls back the respectable net curtains of the town of Flaxborough to let us see the wickedness behind. In this case, we are treated to a coven of middle-aged, middle-class, sex-obsessed Satanists, nicely contrasted with the ‘Lucys’, a superclean team of door-to-door marketers selling soap powder. These books could be cosies were it not for the vein of sly humour that runs through them, giving them a distinct edge and making them wonderfully enjoyable reads.

 

2012

 

dead scaredThe second instalment of Bolton’s Lacey Flint series, and perhaps my favourite. The plot about a spate of students committing suicide couldn’t be much darker, and there are bits that are very unsettling and downright creepy. Having been unsure about Lacey’s character in the first book, Now You See Me, I felt in this one she had become more open and much more likeable, less of a loner and now with a sense of humour and considerably less angst – all to the good. A great entry in a great series.

 

 

2013

 

brooklynThis book, set in the 1950s, takes us from small town Ireland to Brooklyn, in the company of Eilis Lacey, a young girl forced into economic migration through lack of employment and the expectations of her family. This was the second of Tóibín’s books that I read, after the astonishing The Testament of Mary, and confirmed his place as one of my favourite writers. His prose is beautiful, and his small, quiet plots allow his characters to become utterly real. A writer who never fails to move me deeply.

 

 

2014

 

the papers of tony veitchTony Veitch has disappeared and it seems like half the city is looking for him. Laidlaw’s one of the searchers. Tony’s name has come up in connection with Eck Adamson, a drunk and down-and-out, now dead; and it seems Laidlaw’s the only man who cares. McIavanney’s use of language is superb, particularly the way he catches the tones and patterns of Glasgow dialect. Glasgow, as the sum of its people good and bad, is the character that is at the heart of the book and McIlvanney makes us weep and rejoice for it in equal measure. A love letter from a man who sees the violence and darkness of the city, but also sees it as a place of courage and heart and humour – and ultimately integrity.

 

2015

 

lamentationHenry’s last Queen, Catherine Parr, has written a book describing her spiritual journey to believing that salvation can be found only through study of the Bible and the love of Christ, rather than through the traditional rites of the Church. Not quite heretical, but close enough to be used against her by the traditionalists. So when the book is stolen, Catherine calls on the loyalty of her old acquaintance, Matthew Shardlake, to find it and save her from becoming another of Henry’s victims. The most recent entry in the Shardlake series is also the best – the fiction is woven seamlessly into the fact, and the picture that Sansom paints of the last days of Henry VIII’s reign is both authentic and terrifying.

 

If you haven’t already seen Cleo’s selection for January, why not pop on over? Here’s the link…

Lamentation (Matthew Shardlake 6) by CJ Sansom

lamentationHeresy hunt…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It is 1546, and an increasingly ailing Henry VIII has swung back to the traditionalist wing of the church – in fact, some fear he might be about to make amends with the Pope and take the country back to Catholicism. The constant shifts in what is seen as acceptable doctrine have left many sects, once tolerated, now at risk of being accused of heresy. And, as the story begins, Anne Askew and three other heretics are about to be burned at the stake for preaching radical Protestantism. At this dangerous time, Henry’s last Queen, Catherine Parr, has written a book, Lamentations of a Sinner, describing her spiritual journey to believing that salvation can be found only through study of the Bible and the love of Christ, rather than through the traditional rites of the Church. Not quite heretical, but close enough to be used against her by the traditionalists. So when the book is stolen, Catherine calls on the loyalty of her old acquaintance, Matthew Shardlake, to find it and save her from becoming another of Henry’s victims. And when a torn page turns up in the dead hand of a murdered printer, it’s clear some people will stop at nothing to get hold of the book…

I have long held that Sansom is by far the best writer of historical fiction, certainly today, but perhaps ever; and I’m delighted to say that this book is, in my opinion, his best to date. A huge brick of a book, coming in at over 600 pages, and yet at no point does it flag. All the Shardlake novels are set close to the throne, with Matthew caught up as a pawn in the political machinations and religious manoeuvrings of the nobility as they jostle for power and position at court. Matthew himself, as a lawyer, is richer and more privileged than most people, but still is powerless and vulnerable amongst these great folk, while his physical weakness as a hunchback leaves him reliant on others when danger beckons. It is Matthew’s intelligence on which Catherine depends – his ability to question witnesses and to see his way through the labyrinth of plots and betrayals.

Catherine Parr
Catherine Parr

But although this makes the Shardlake books more cerebral than many of the sword and dagger historical novels, there’s plenty of action in them too. Jack Barak is back as Matthew’s assistant in his legal business, and as always becomes involved in the investigation. Tamasin, Jack’s wife, is expecting their second child, and we see both Matthew and Jack struggling to reconcile Jack’s love of danger with his responsibilities as a husband and father. And Matthew has a new assistant too – Nicholas, a young gentleman sent by his parents to study law. Like Jack, though, Nicholas quickly shows he’s ready to put his life in danger to help Matthew. And by his careful development of the character of Shardlake, Sansom makes it entirely credible that he should gain such loyalty from the people around him. Matthew’s old friend Guy is here again too; and, since he is still loyal to the church of Rome in his heart, his discussions with the more reformist Matthew allow Sansom to shed light on the religious divisions in society as they shift and change during this turbulent period.

Catherine Parr's book - Lamentations of a Sinner
Catherine Parr’s book – Lamentations of a Sinner

I’ve read many ‘proper’ histories about the Tudor times, but I can honestly say that Sansom always gives me a much deeper understanding of what was actually going on, especially amongst those below the top rank. I’m no expert, but I never spot any historical inaccuracies or inconsistencies, and I find the Tudor world that Sansom describes wholly credible. This book, like the others, is completely immersive – the length of it is matched by its depth. The fictional aspect is woven seamlessly into fact, and the characters and actions of the real people who appear in the novel is consistent with what we know of them through the history books. By the time of this novel, Shardlake’s old employer Cromwell is dead, but his long-time adversary Sir Richard Rich is still up to his political games. And we get a first glimpse of a newcomer to court, young William Cecil, ambitious, but loyal to Catherine and the reformist cause. With Henry declining, we see his children growing in importance as England begins to consider what will follow his reign – who will hold power while young Edward is still a child.

CJ Sansom
CJ Sansom

There is a secondary plot in the book, of a feud between a brother and sister over a will, and this gives us an insight into the day-to-day working life of Shardlake and his employees, while showing us that the legal profession is just as riddled with power struggles and divided loyalties as the court. We also see Shardlake at home, his house populated by the various strays he has picked up in previous books. And it’s by showing all these different aspects of Matthew’s life that Sansom builds up a complete picture of the man – honest and loyal, struggling to find his own faith within the religious turmoil going on around him, and with a huge sense of responsibility to the people around him: a responsibility that weighs him down and leaves him guilt-ridden for exposing them to danger. The combination of the personal and the political is perfectly balanced, and Sansom never fails to take the consequences of events of previous books through to the next, meaning that the recurring characters continue to develop more deeply in each one. There’s always a long wait between Shardlake novels, but they are invariably worth waiting for. And as England moves on to dealing with the aftermath of Henry’s death, I very much hope that Shardlake will be there to lead us through it…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 40…

Episode 40

 

I’m thrilled to say the TBR has dropped to an almost bearable 106 – due in part to some brutal weeding out of books that have been languishing there for so long I can no longer remember why I wanted to read them in the first place. So with a song in my heart and a merry tra-la, here’s a bumper bunch of some of the upcoming delights…

Crime

 

the seventh linkCourtesy of NetGalley, a nice little cosy to start the ball rolling…

The Blurb saysThe village of Frog End may be peaceful, but that doesn’t mean that the Colonel’s life there is quiet – not with his friendly but nosy neighbour Naomi, desperate to know what he’s keeping in his new shed; the curious Miss Butler, who tracks his every move with her German U-boat captain’s binoculars; and the attentions of the local vicar, who’s keen to involve him in church affairs. That’s not forgetting the demands of the aloof, imperious cat Thursday, who seems to have adopted the Colonel.”

 * * * * *

lamentationComing out on 23rd October, at last, at last! The new Shardlake!

The Blurb saysAutumn, 1546. King Henry VIII is slowly, painfully dying. His Protestant and Catholic councillors prepare for a final and decisive power struggle; whoever wins will control the government. The Catholics decide to focus their attack on Henry’s sixth wife, the Protestant Queen Catherine Parr. As Catherine begins to lose the King’s favor, she turns to the shrewd, hunchbacked lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, to contain a potentially fatal secret. The Queen has written a confessional book, Lamentation of a Sinner, a memoir so radical that if it came to the King’s attention, it could bring her and her courtly sympathizers to ruination. The London printer into whose hands she entrusted the manuscript has been murdered, the book nowhere to be found.

Shardlake’s investigations take him down a trail that begins among printshops in the filthy backstreets of London, but leads him once more to the labyrinthine world of court politics, where Protestant friends can be as dangerous as Catholic enemies, and those who will support either side to further their ambition are the most dangerous of all.

* * * * *

Factual

 

napoleonNetGalley, what would I do without you? Napoleon was one of my early heroes based, I think, on a Ladybird book when I was about 8. Time to discover if he was worthy of my worship…

The Blurb saysAndrew Roberts’s Napoleon is the first one-volume biography to take advantage of the recent publication of Napoleon’s thirty-three thousand letters, which radically transform our understanding of his character and motivation. At last we see him as he was: protean multitasker, decisive, surprisingly willing to forgive his enemies and his errant wife Josephine. Like Churchill, he understood the strategic importance of telling his own story, and his memoirs, dictated from exile on St. Helena, became the single bestselling book of the nineteenth century.

An award-winning historian, Roberts traveled to fifty-three of Napoleon’s sixty battle sites, discovered crucial new documents in archives, and even made the long trip by boat to St. Helena. He is as acute in his understanding of politics as he is of military history. Here at last is a biography worthy of its subject: magisterial, insightful, beautifully written, by one of our foremost historians.”

* * * * *

Fiction

 

the new worldHave I mentioned that I love NetGalley? Andrew Motion’s second follow-up to Treasure Island – despite some reservations over the first, his writing impressed me so much this is a must-read…and isn’t the cover the most gorgeoous thing you’ve seen in years? 

The Blurb saysJim and Natty are shipwrecked on the coast of Texas, blown off course on their way home from Treasure Island. But they have stolen something they should have left well alone, something that will haunt them until what was taken has been returned…

On their journey they encounter Native American tribes, a wandering group of European Circus performers, deracinated warriors, eccentric pioneers, some landscapes of great serenity and others of terrible savagery, until, at last, they reach the mighty Mississippi.

The New World is an adventure story, a race across America, a Western, a travelogue, a love story and a lament for an indigenous culture in the years before its destruction. Andrew Motion has achieved that singular thing – a story that is both very moving and very exciting, and always written with a remarkable clear beauty.”

 * * * * *

emma austenProbably my least favourite of Austen’s books, though I know it has its own legion of ardent admirers. I admire rather than love it. But time for a preparatory re-read…

The Blurb saysBeautiful, clever, rich – and single – Emma Woodhouse is perfectly content with her life and sees no need for either love or marriage. Nothing, however, delights her more than interfering in the romantic lives of others. But when she ignores the warnings of her good friend Mr Knightley and attempts to arrange a suitable match for her protegee Harriet Smith, her carefully laid plans soon unravel and have consequences that she never expected. With its imperfect but charming heroine and its witty and subtle exploration of relationships, Emma is often seen as Jane Austen’s most flawless work.

* * * * *

emma mccall smith…because, on 6th November, the Austen Project rolls back into town with Alexander McCall Smith’s version! Will it be a another Trollope-esque turkey? Or will it match McDermid for amazeballsness…?

The Blurb (which makes me shudder a bit) saysFresh from university, Emma Woodhouse arrives home in Norfolk ready to embark on adult life with a splash. Not only has her sister, Isabella, been whisked away on a motorbike to London, but her astute governess, Miss Taylor is at a loose end watching as Mr. Woodhouse worries about his girls. Someone is needed to rule the roost and young Emma is more than happy to oblige.

At the helm of her own dinner parties, and often found either rearranging the furniture at the family home of Hartfield, or instructing her new protégée, Harriet Smith, Emma is in charge. You don’t have to be in London to go to parties, find amusement or make trouble. Not if you’re Emma, the very big fish in the rather small pond.

But for someone who knows everything, Emma doesn’t know her own heart. And there is only one person who can play with Emma’s indestructible confidence, her friend and inscrutable neighbour George Knightly – this time has Emma finally met her match?

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

 

Dominion by CJ Sansom

dominionWhat if?

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

In a departure from his Shardlake series, Sansom has created here an alternative recent history – what if Britain had surrendered to Germany after Dunkirk? What if Nazi sympathisers were running the government? What if Churchill had never become Prime Minister and instead was leading a resistance movement? Sansom creates a world that is so similar to the real world and yet so different that I eventually found I was having to make an effort to remember what was reality and what was fiction.

The plot follows a group of members of the resistance as they try to protect a man who holds a secret that mustn’t fall into the hands of the Germans. We get to know each of the main characters well – Sansom gives us enough of their backstories to let us understand their motivations and each is, in his or her own way, easy to empathise with. Although he doesn’t shy away from describing the atrocities against the Jews and Russians, even the German characters come across as understandable and oddly sympathetic, however horrifying their thoughts and actions.

CJ Sansom (waterstones.com)
CJ Sansom
(waterstones.com)

As always, Sansom’s excellent descriptive writing creates a completely believable world and this is both a strength and a weakness of the book. I felt that sometimes he got so wrapped up in expanding on the world of his creation that he slowed the plot down to a level that prevented the tension from building quite as much as it should in what is fundamentally a thriller. I was also left a bit uncomfortable about the way he made some real-life right-wing politicians into Nazi sympathisers for the purposes of his plot, particularly some who in real life had served either in the forces or in Churchill’s government. Overall, though, I found this to be an interesting, cleverly constructed and well-written book that indeed left me wondering ‘what if?’. Recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link