Tuesday, 15 July 2014

All Quiet in the Land of Downunder

Time has been getting away from me. I have wanted to read, review, blog, but life does not always let you fit in the 'sitting down' luxuries. The interweb frivolities.
 I have not finished any historical fiction books since I read and reviewed The Lion and The Lamb by John Henry Clay and this is why the blog has been quiet on the review front.

Currently reading the spectacularly good final to the Robyn Young's Insurrection trilogy, Kingdom, and when I do get time to read between life and sleeping, I am besotted with this terrific read.
Many of you who have seen my review of the first in the trilogy, Insurrection, will understand my elation at finding this new one by Robyn Young to be as spectacular as it is.  I enjoyed the second in the trilogy, but for me, it was that incredible trilogy opener, Insurrection that impressed me no end. It became one of my favourite books.

With hesitation then, I admit that so far, I am loving Kingdom as much and possibly even more. I don't know how it can be so, but it is. I did not think it would be possible for Robyn Young to ever write a book that could beat Insurrection on my favourites list. But, after 200 pages, I think she may have done it with Kingdom.

What else have I been up to?? Let's see. I have discovered MOOC courses. That has been a delightful experience and I recommend them to one and all.
I signed up to a course run by the University of Leicester called England in the Time of Richard III. It is three weeks in and I am enjoying it immensely. If you are interested, despite it being three weeks in (with three weeks to go) I think people can still join and catch up from the beginning.
I have also signed up for a course starting in September this year called Hadrian's Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier. Come join it with me if you think it will be of interest to you.

While my historical fiction accomplishments have been limited, I did get to read a small non fiction on Vikings.  While I strive to get more books finished so that I can post some more reviews, here is my review of that book.

Vikings by Gunnar Andersson

Vikings by Gunnar Andersson
This is the companion book for the Viking Exhibition called Vikings! It toured Australia and (as of the time of this review) is now touring Canada. In 2012 it toured Scotland and I have no idea where it went in between, or whether it went anywhere in that period between Scotland 2012 and Australia 2014.

I was unlucky enough to miss the exhibition in my own country, and lucky enough that a friend in Canada picked this book up for me as a gift when she went to see the exhibition in her country.

This book is what it is. A nice little book to own. Glossy cover, glossy pages with some lovely images. A paragraph or two to accompany each chapter and image. I do not recommend it as a detailed non fiction on Vikings. But I do recommend it as a lovely little coffee table piece to flick through, and as a gift for a Viking mad friend who didn't get to go to the exhibition.....


- MM



Wednesday, 18 June 2014

A Little Lamb: THE LION AND THE LAMB by John Henry Clay


The Lion and The Lamb
It is about time that books of this kind - set in this period of history and of an epic nature - begin appearing in bookstores. Books that cover similar, are generally old or dated ones now. Published many decades ago and no longer in print. In fact, I can not think of any recent ones at all that are set in this thoroughly fascinating period of history.
There are shorter books purpose written to be the kicking off point for a series, but I can not think of anything like The Lion and The Lamb, which has been released in the last four or five years. By anything like The Lion and the Lamb, I mean epic journey fiction set in Roman Britain.
There have been similar in epic feel, like Hawk Quest by John Lyndon. Only that comes much later in British history and is set in countries outside of the UK for the most part.

I was very impressed by this debut from John Henry Clay (who most certainly has an epic name to match an epic story). It was not without its naivete and its rough edges, but I think most readers can forgive that in a debut. There are debuts that hit their marks and perfect notes. Debuts you would not guess were debuts, but they are not common. Therefore, I forgive this book for being freshly whelped. It would be unnecessarily pedantic not to.

The book was riddled with characters I liked and characters I did not. I really liked Paul and Eachna and I really disliked Amanda and Patricia. But that's going to happen in every book. Some characters appeal, some do not. Then for each reader that will be different.
If you read this book I would like to know what you think of the characters (whether I know you or we are yet to know each other, please feel free to give me your opinion).
I was very fond of Eachna. For her toughness, her vulnerability, her disability. She was the kind of well rounded and flawed character that I like and that will keep me coming back.

I do have to confess why it was that I gave this book four stars out of five..and nearly gave it three and a half. Sometimes, the names of the people, the way settings were described, I felt this book was not set in the period it was supposed to be. It had this habit of not having any sense of place or era and you could be reading a story in Roman Britain, or Medieval Britain, or even, at times, when there were scenes with no definite indicators of period, with names like Paul, Amanda, Victor, Patricia flying around, it could even have been not in history at all. But in current day.
For what it is worth, I understand that the author is educated through his profession in this period, and he would know if variations of these names are commonly attributed to this time, but I do not think these kinds of names give a good sense of era to a book like this. I think it makes it sound like an episode of  Heartbeat.
This improved a lot later in the book though. I must admit.

A caveat. I will add an apology in advance to the author for such cavalier disregard of the names he chose for his characters, but hey, reader reviews are all about personal taste, not whether we are right or not.

That was my only big negative to the book. I am not mad for stories about love either, but I do not cry foul about that because the book makes no secret of its strong relationship plots. I expected it.

What more can I say? It's a great debut. It's an honest attempt at giving us, the readers of historical fiction, a real epic of this period to sink our teeth into. Its the harbinger of things to come from this new author and he will be welcomed out of the Hodder & Stoughton author stable by more readers of the genre as he develops his skills over time.
 It is all those things and I recommend you give it your consideration (and then make sure you get back to me on what you thought of the characters).


- MM


Monday, 16 June 2014

The 10 Must Read Books in the Historical Fiction Genre


I am frequently asked by people new to the world of the historical fiction genre (the non romance/non fantasy world that is), or by people who are beginning to dabble their toes in its waters, “what books should I read to get a feel for the genre?”  I actually get asked it so much that I thought I would compile a list of 10 books that I think all self respecting readers of the genre should tackle at some stage in their lives. It is also a list for those who are new to the genre or those who are trying to branch out and rediscover the broader arms of the genre. 

You are not going to like every book on this list. Heavens, I do not, why should you? In fact, there is a Bernard Cornwell book on this list that I only gave 1 star out of 5 to. But, I still think it is a must read book of the genre, whether I liked it or not. 

This is also not a list of my favourite books of all time in the genre. It includes some of them, about six, but not all of them. Because this list is not for me. It is for you.
It is not for me to impress my own tastes upon you. That is why I have not delved into my personal favourites top ten in order to compile this list. I have compiled with the help of my many years of watching and listening to people talk historical fiction.

I suppose you could still say that I have added in a great deal of my own personal opinion and you would be right to say it. While they aren't all my favourite historical fiction books, some of mine are there, but I have put a lot of my own experiences into the choices and it is only by luck that some of my favourites got on it. It is a selection that I think covers the diversity within the genre, battle reads, adventure reads, mystery reads. 

The idea of the list was for me to take all the historical fiction books I have read, add a little dash of personal taste, a teaspoon full of observational opinion, mix it all up and then use my experience with the genre to select the most diverse group of ten books I can think of. Books that cover the full gambit of most common story devices in historical fiction. Mystery, adventure, battle, invasion. A smattering of love and maybe a snippet of passion are sprinkled amoung the stories, if you have to have that in a historical fiction, but they are not major plot devices and play second fiddle to the main storylines.

If you were a stalwart of the genre, you would pick a completely different group of ten, I am sure. But these ten books are meant to cover a vastness of life and adventure for you to sample at will. If I have done my job properly with the list and you decide to undertake the challenge of reading all ten, then the reason for the selections will become clear. You will learn which types of historical fiction you hate, what types you think are enjoyable, and what types you really love. 

Once you have discovered all that about your own tastes, you will know what types of historical fiction you want to pursue within the genre. The only way to find out what sorts of reads you will like is to sample a cross section of them all. And I hope this is what I have given you here.

*NB These books are in no particular order. They are a list of ten, as opposed to a top ten. There are books that do deserve to be on this list. But for two reasons they have not made it. One: because I may not have read them yet so won't vouch for them. And two: there is only ten spots up for grabs not fifty.

***



What can I say about this one. Anybody who knows me knows that I am the mega fan of this series. I love it and it was the greatest historical fiction find of my life. It also happened to be THE book that lit my path into the warm bosom of straight up historical fiction. A guiding light to me, I discovered the entire unisex genre of non romance and non fantasy related historical fiction from this one beacon of light. Boy, do I owe it my thanks. 

As a stand alone book, I do not think it is the best in the series. When I first read it, it even took half the book before I got into it.
It is possible you will have the same experience and if you do, hang in there. Go on with the series - maybe the next two books - before you make a decision on whether or not to continue with it.




Not my favourite Cornwell by a long shot, but it is a unique and special book. Unlike any other one that deals with this particular subject matter. King Arthur.

For those with a specific hankering for Arthurian books, this is a must read. It may not appeal to you, but it is worth giving it a chance to see if it will.







There are a number of reasons I can give for having this book on the list. This is another unique one. There really isn't anything else like it. There are other books on Ghengis, but not like this one.
To write this book, the author lived with the Mongols for a time and I believe that comes through in the story. Surely it is worth reading it just to see how he adapted that personal experience to the story? Yes? No?

A well loved series, I think every reader of historical fiction needs to try this book (and maybe even the one that follows) to see what you make of it. From my observations, so many people who like this book go on to absolutely love the entire series. If you go on to love the series, then you will be glad I suggested you read this first book.




An absolute tour de force by this acclaimed author. Gates of Fire is, unequivocally, hands down, the greatest battle historical fiction ever written. A stroke of genius.

In my opinion, this was Steven Pressfield's masterwork. He has never done one as good as it, and I doubt he ever can again. Wherever that place was inside him that he managed to pull this book from, that place was drained of resources on its completion. He may try, but he will never write another book that can touch Gates of Fire. It is battle as poetry.


“A king does not abide within his tent while his men bleed and die upon the field. A king does not dine while his men go hungry, nor sleep when they stand at watch upon the wall. A king does not command his men's loyalty through fear nor purchase it with gold; he earns their love by the sweat of his own back and the pains he endures for their sake. That which comprises the harshest burden, a king lifts first and sets down last. A king does not require service of those he leads but provides it to them...A king does not expend his substance to enslave men, but by his conduct and example makes them free.” Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield


Oh bravo, Mr Pressfield. It stirs me still.





It has to be on the list. Yes, he's my favourite author, yes this is book one in one of my top two favourite series' of all time, but forget all that, this book, this series, is masterful beyond words. The best Viking historical fiction to date. 
It is rough, crude brutality rolled into a shieldwall along with Norse mythology (not in fantasy form) and blasts of humour. I have to have it on this list.
Discover this series if you dare!







This is a controversial choice. For the simple reason that the punters are split on this book. Half believe it is dull and boring, the other half (of which I am one) believe it magnificently written and the kicking off point for a really marvellous mystery series set in Tudor times. 

Read it, see what you think. It could be the best thing you have read, or the worst thing. You could go either way, but you probably need to find out which way that will be.




Something about this book captured my imagination and it has to make an honorary appearance on this list for that. It is so well loved. Not everyone does, mind you, but many do. Me included. 
The ending. Gosh. As the volcano starts to erupt, I can still smell the ash and feel the avalanche of pumice stone on my face.







How could a book that moved me so little end up on my list of ten? Easy. Everybody else likes it but me. Considering what I am trying to achieve here with this list, that is as good a reason as any for it to be here.

If you only try one Bernard Cornwell, let it be this one. From my experience, it is quite possibly the closest thing to a guaranteed winner. Something I cannot say about The Last Kingdom or The Winter King.






I have asked myself over and over, why The Hangman's Daughter should be on the list. Once I explain my reasoning then you may understand why I did it.
There are better mysteries out there. Others you will like more than this one. This one's gravitas, during my list decision making session, was its being not only a mystery set during a period of European history that is not covered a lot in historical fiction, but because it is a translation.  There are so few translations in historical fiction that can work. I think this one did most of the time.

There were times, however, where I feel it did lose something in translation, but overall, it is a good book and may awaken in you an interest in more translated historical fiction out of Europe. That can only be a good thing.
Plus it is dark and gothic and that is so in right now!





What a book to close out the ten. Pride of Carthage.
For me this book is up there with Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire as one of the best battle historical fictions ever written. Only this book has so much more to it. More characters, more lands, more cultures. It encompasses a vaster span of land mass than Gates of Fire and that really worked for me to give the story a real sense of place on the historical timeline. The reason I can't put it on the same exact pedestal as Gates of Fire is that there are times when I think Pride of Carthage waffles. For that reason, Gates of Fire pips it at the post.

This book may even get you to cry in the end. I have no shame in admitting that it made me cry. And books rarely make me cry. I can count the books that have done that to me on one hand. With fingers to spare.

You may also hate it, but isn't that the aim of this list? To stir you to action? To make you hate and love and, most important of all, to make you learn who you are as a reader in this genre?


- MM



Thursday, 12 June 2014

Don't Burn It: A BURNABLE BOOK by Bruce Holsinger


A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger
Once I got over my giggle fest at any mention of the road in London called Gropecunt Lane (immature I know, but I can't be a grown up about everything all of the time) I went on to delight in this charming and well written read. I can hardly even believe that it is a debut for that scholastic fellow, Bruce Holsinger, but it is. So believe it I must.

The absolute strength of this book is its characters. Sure, the writing is adept majority of the time and the manner in which the story laid itself out impressed me enough, but I liked the book for its memorable characters most of all. 

Then there is the meat of this book. Its reason for existing. The mystery plot.
The mystery plot did its job. Enjoyable, educational and significant enough to keep me coming back for more. However, I would not say the outcomes sneaked up on me. I could see down the line what was coming.
In saying that though, I was not all that disappointed by knowing who was up to what and why they were up to it and what they would do with what they had when they wanted to get up to what they were up to... That is going to happen in every mystery. Some readers will guess, some won't. Just so happened that in this book, I guessed.

I must not forget to mention another strength of this book that I overlooked earlier in this review. The description of setting and context. I am a sucker for a well strung bow. And A Burnable Book carried a qualified arsenal. The streets, the politics, but of them all, I think the portrait of life in the slums of London came through sharply. Even now, having finished the book a few weeks gone, that world of the London moll stays vivid in my mind.

Bruce Holsinger did a wonderful job in A Burnable Book, to bring this particular era of medieval England to life and I cannot wait for the follow up book to be released. 

I get so jaded with sorting wheat from chaff in the genre of historical fiction. When a great debut comes along and I get the scent in my nostrils of even better reads to come, I celebrate them. And therefore I celebrate A Burnable Book. I hope to discover more of these quality debuts.

- MM
 

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Interview with Author BRUCE HOLSINGER

 
Author, Bruce Holsinger
What better book to whet the appetites of readers of history and lovers of books, than a book about a book set in the volatile era of late fourteenth century England? Is there better? I do not think so. I am biased though. Given my tastes for historical fiction and the like.
As one of those readers and history lovers, I was very excited by the prospect of sinking my teeth into A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger when it finally manifested, appearing in book stores and libraries worldwide. 

Of course, the cover leaps out at you long before you set eyes on the premise, and that alone makes it a book hard to forget. But when I do flip it over and read the blurb, my breath catches in my throat for - as a borderline bibliophile and history addict – to find a book about a book set during the 100 Years' War....Well, lets just say I was like a moth to a flame. And I have seen plenty of other readers go down to its wiles since. We cannot help ourselves. Books about books. Ohh how delightful.

Given the chance to interview the author, Bruce Holsinger, I was inspired by a thousand questions regarding, especially, the history, but I showed some restraint and whittled them down to nine.
Bruce has risen to the challenge of my nine probing enquiries, and I hope you all, lovers of books and maybe of history too, enjoy the end result, and then go on to enjoy the book too.
 



 ***
A question I ask first in every interview..Do you think it is important to be as historically accurate as possible in an historical fiction novel?
Yes, I do--though accuracy and plausibility are two very different things. First, in order to be worthy of the designation, historical fiction shouldn't mess around with the historical record to any degree. If there is a departure from or violation of known historical fact (chronology, sequence, and so on) there should be a good reason for it, and it should be explained in an author's note. Second, though, historical fiction can't be satisfied with the known facts of history. In order to write a compelling story, an author has to make things up--has to lie about history, in other words! But these lies have to be plausible. I know for a near certainty that there wasn't a book called "Liber de mortibus regnum anglorum" floating around in late-medieval London: I made this book up for the purposes of my novel. But I also know and have learned enough about the history and literature of late medieval England to be confident that the existence of such a book is perfectly plausible--and that the story I've concocted around this fictional book is a feasible one. Perhaps it's in that space between accuracy and plausibility where the magic of historical fiction happens...


Where did your setting for A Burnable Book come from? For example, did you have an interest in that specific period of history and those geographical areas first or did you choose them after deciding to write a novel?
I teach medieval literature as my day job (I'm an English prof at the University of Virginia), so I've always been enchanted by the poetry of late medieval England, particularly the circle of Chaucer, Gower, Langland, and other poets of the Ricardian age. But I wrote a few other novels before "A Burnable Book" that didn't get published, and those were set in the present, though with medieval background stories. I guess the honest thing to say is that my fiction writing over the last fifteen years led me to this period and setting, and when I set out to write a third novel with two unsuccessful ones in the drawer I vowed to tackle an era I knew something about--though as I write in the historical note at the end of the novel, I was also ignorant about a lot of this period I thought I knew so well.

Why Geoffery Chaucer and John Gower? What is it about these two real life friends that made you want them both as your major characters?
At the ending of his great poem "Troilus and Criseyde," Chaucer dedicates the work to Gower: "O Moral Gower, this book I direct to thee..." That's a pretty strong statement of friendship, though how we read it has always been open to debate. I personally read that statement as a bit tongue-in-cheek, and when I set out to write the novel I wanted to explore the darker side of this well-known literary friendship. One of my good friends who read the novel said that the relationship reminded her of the Mozart/Salieri dynamic in "Amadeus"--though of course those composers weren't friends, while we know Gower and Chaucer were. It's one of the clearest and most provocative instances of a male literary friendship in the Middle Ages, too, and it allowed me to explore a lot of themes that I wouldn't have been able to otherwise: the power of literature, friendship vs. family, and so on. One of my favourite relationship in historical fiction is the Aubrey-Maturin friendship in the Master and Commander series of Patrick O'Brian, and I suppose I have that  in mind as well as I flesh out the poetic friendship between Chaucer and Gower.


Your book is set against the tumultuous backdrop of fourteenth century England. The second stage of the 100 Years’ War has kicked off and your setting of 1385 is lodged between the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 and the treacherous Lords Apellants’ moves against Richard II which really gained its momentum in 1386. Can the reader expect to feel the intensity of that climate in your tale? Or does your story speak more to a politically oblivious London sub culture?
Great question! Yes, the intensity is building between the factions, and there have already been a lot of nasty Game-of-Thrones-type moves between Richard II and John of Gaunt: alleged conspiracies, open assaults, and so on. This particular moment, spring of 1385, was a really interesting one, falling just after the death of John Wycliffe and just before Richard's disastrous campaign in Scotland that summer. Since you asked, the sequel will be set in 1386 in the thick of the Wonderful Parliament, and in this case the machinations of the appellant lords against the king's faction will be at the center of the novel. "A Burnable Book" is very much a story of town-crown conflict, too, and the city bureaucracy is very much aware of the power struggles among the upper aristocracy. At the same time, it's a story of the London streets: butchers, prostitutes, pickpockets, and so on, so I suppose the political obliviousness is part of the story, but only for a portion of the characters and subcultures explored in the novel.

By all appearances, you seem to have gone to great lengths to inject a sense of realness into your book by using real life characters and a realistic social fabric. Has this been difficult and do you ever long for the freedoms offered by having purely fictional characters?
Yes I do! Staying true to history means staying true to the known facts of historical personages, and this can be a really tricky balance. In some ways it's easier to make up a character out of dust and nothing than to invent around the known facts of biography and chronicle. But I love this kind of creative challenge, and I'm eager to hear reactions to the various types of characters from readers. Are the real-life reincarnations (Gower, Chaucer, Swynford) as strong as the completely made-up characters? Are there other ways in subsequent novels that I might flesh out these characters, whether historically or otherwise? Character is a notoriously difficult part of fiction writing, and I'm just a beginner in many ways.


Are there periods of history that you would love to write in and why? And do you think you will one day?
I think so. I'm particularly intrigued by Roman Britain and have given some thought to setting a novel in that era, exploring the decline of Celtic culture in the face of Roman incursion. I'm also determined to write a present-day novel, though I'm not sure what form or genre that would assume.

You are working on a follow up to A Burnable Book. Will this be a sequel in final form? Or are you planning a multi book series?
I'm under contract to write a sequel (I have a two-book deal), but I would absolutely love to continue this as a five-book series. I already have a vision for it, and know exactly what Book 5 would do. So if "Burnable" and its sequel do well enough I'll hope to continue the series with three more books. More Gower, more Chaucer, more Edgar/Eleanor Rykener...

Is A Burnable Book written with a mind on the reader familiar with Chaucer and Gower? Or can the novice - who knows nothing or little about these men - pick this book up and relate to it do you think?
A novice should definitely be able to pick up the book and enjoy it. I assume no knowledge of the period or of these poets: it's a thriller, with a storyline that I hope keeps the reader turning pages without knowing anything about the Middle Ages, let alone about the life and career of John Gower. That being said, if you *do* know a lot about medieval literature you'll be able to catch a number of allusions and "inside jokes" that will make the story all the more entertaining--at least I hope so!


And now to the question I close every interview with..
Do you prefer ebook or paper?
 
This is an interesting question for me right now, as I'm in a somewhat transitional period. There's nothing I love more than curling up with a trade paperback, but I find myself increasingly drawn to e-readers for pleasure reading--and even for work. I did one of the near-final edits on "A Burnable Book" on my Kindle, sending it to myself as a Kindle doc and using the highlight function to bring out passages I wanted to come back and change. This was a really great way to see my own prose in a different light, and it worked wonders for my revision process. So I'm definitely a fan of e-readers, though as a scholar of manuscripts and early books I hate to think about the decline of print!


Thankyou for taking the time to do this interview, Bruce. I am sure that as people read this interesting novel, they will appreciate the insights and value the time you took to give them.
And thank you, Terri, for the wonderful opportunity to talk about the novel in this forum. I hope your group readers enjoy it and that they'll feel free to ask me any questions and make any comments they'd like!

***

Bruce Holsinger's Website can be found here:  http://www.bruceholsinger.com/
On social media the author can be followed via;
Twitter - https://twitter.com/bruceholsinger and Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/bruceholsingerauthor

- MM

nb* apologies to readers on any font formatting that looks weird. Blogger does this of its own accord and it isn't fixable.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

There is a Season: RAIDERS FROM THE NORTH by Alex Rutherford


Raiders From the North
This will be one of those reviews where I don't really have much to say. Due to a mood clash I am at a complete loss with Raiders of the North by Alex Rutherford, but I will try and loop some words together into what I would say is less of a review and more of a 'view'.

From time to time I want to push myself out of my comfort zone and try something I would not normally read and this book was one of those times. There are certain periods of history and cultures/countries from history that hold very little interest for me.
Rome and Romans for example.
I have more misses than hits when reading historical fiction based on them, because I have little interest in the era (from a fictional standpoint, I am much better with non fiction on them).

Sometimes it works out when I push myself to read in these eras. I have found some good books by doing it. But sometimes it does not work out...Enter stage right, Raiders from the North.

Sadly for Raiders from the North (and I am sad about it as I think for anybody who is not me, this could be a very good read) I pushed myself out of my comfort zone at the wrong time in my life.

It's Autumn, the sun is shining, the garden is having its last growth spurt before winter. Birds are nesting, singing, darting about. Forget winter wonderlands, here is an Autumnal wonderland. And I'd much rather be in it, enjoying the last of the seasons sunshine, getting my hands dirty in the soil and going for long walks in the hills, than shut away indoors reading a fiction story set in a period of history I have no interest in.

I think I have realised that if I am going to force myself to read books in a least favourite era, I should save it for Winter when the outdoors are not calling me away. Or perhaps even during the scorching heat of Summer, when I seek escape behind closed doors, in an airconditioned room.

I know I have not given this book its due. Another time, another place, another day, another Season and this may have been a very different review full of robust commentary.

As for rating it, I can only give it 2 stars and attach this 'view' to it. Hopefully this will fully explain why it is that this book got those miserable 2 stars. I do not really think it is a 2 star book, if that makes sense to you. I think the book is probably a 3 star or even maybe a 4 star. The writing is good, the story seemed intelligently done.
I can only rate based on my experience and while I think the book deserves more stars, my personal experience with it, dictates that I give it only 2.


- MM


Sunday, 6 April 2014

Don't Tell Me A Story: MEADOWLAND by Thomas Holt


Meadowland by Thomas Holt
This book had so much going for it. The author is a really good writer. He exhibits a few flaws when writing an historical fiction of this style, but at the heart he is really good at the art of writing none the less.

Naturally, when you start talking about flaws and faults, you have to attach an aside to that to make it clear that by flaw or fault I mean only in my personal opinion. I would never presume that something I think is a flaw would be a flaw to anybody else. My issues with the book are mine alone and may not be shared by others. 

Now, having kicked off with a negative, something I am generally loathe to do, let me speak now of these flaws and faults..

Meadowland had a fantastic start, as so many books do. Only it was not the actual writing that massacred that terrific start, it was the style of story it became.
It begins with a young Greek scholar. Stethatus who ..well..let him tell you himself, straight from the pages of Meadowland;

My name is John Stethatus. I was born in the year of Our lord 990. I live in the great city of Constantinople and serve his Imperial Majesty Constantine X, Emperor of the Romans, in the capacity of clerk to the exchequer; which means, in practice, that my world consists of a few streets, a small office, a chair and a table.
I was born in the City, have been outside it only four times, and never wish to leave it again.

And there we have him, John Stethatus. Clerk to the Exchequer, who in the year 1036 is given the burdensome task of carrying the payroll to the troops in Sicily under the protection of a handful of men from the Varangian Guard (sword for hire warriors of Scandinavian descent).
Sounds like the kind of story you like? Thinking that doesn't sound so bad? And so it doesn't. I thought so to. That part of the story was a real blast. The author writes it with humour and cleverness and I thought I'd stumbled upon an under rated treasure.
With the combination of two of my favourite things, Scandinavian warriors and adventure journey, and liberally anointed with some smart humour, I found myself wondering...Where had you been all my life, Meadowland?

Then, just when I thought it was safe to go back into the water, it turned me on my head and dumped me into a completely different tale. The journey story of John Stethatus and his Varangian offsiders changed into a storyteller tale, where the Northern men sat about a fire and told John Stethatus the story of how - together with Leif Erikson - they discovered America.

It was not the tale of these men discovering America that I found flawed - after all, the subtitle of the book is A Novel of the Viking discovery of America - it was the fact that stories within stories is one of my least favourite book styles, especially when done in this way. If someone is going to do it, then they should do it in the first person narration style of, for example, Bernard Cornwell's Saxon series, Christian Cameron's Ill-Made Knight. A narration that has the main character retelling the story of their life from the beginning.
Meadowland was not like that. You spend the first chapters getting to know the Greek clerk and his Scandinavian guards. You enjoy their humour, their camaraderie. You find yourself excited for their journey and wonder (at least I did) on how they will get so off track from their mission to Sicily, that they will end up pushing ashore in the wilds of America.
But they don't get off track. What they do is get off their cart and sit by a fire and then tell the story in a broken up, disjointed manner instead.

I was bitterly disappointed. BITTERLY!

As a novel, it was not bad. It lost my interest when it changed styles and I struggled to read it after a while, but over all it was not bad.
The writing does get modern from time to time and I was uncomfortable with that, as I always am when it comes to historical fiction. Felt the author was sometimes deliberately just writing in his own language because he did not always desire to write in a neutral way. But the humour kept me in there. Sometimes so subtle that if you aren't concentrating you will miss it, it was this author's greatest asset.
For example. Page 83:

No, that's fine,” Eyvind said. “I could do with a breath of air.” he sighed, then turned back to me. “One thing,” he said. “You may've noticed, we Northerners like to give each other nicknames. Mostly it's because we're an unimaginative bunch when it comes to our regular names. We haven't got many to choose from, and most of the ones we've got begin with Thor-. When four of your neighbours are called Thorstein and the fifth is Thorgils and the sixth is Thorbjorn, it's a damn sight easier to say Red or Fats of Flatnose. Well, that was the occasion on which I got my nickname, and I've been Bare-arsed Eyvind ever since. I just thought I'd mention it,” he added, “in case one of the others uses it, and you're wondering who they're talking about.”
Then he ducked his head under the low doorway and went out.

It is hard to inject genuine and subtle humour into one's writing and Thomas Holt does it with great success. I see he writes dark comedy novels under the name Tom Holt. I can see him doing that and I expect they would be funny stories if this book is anything to go on.

I would try this author again. No shadow of a doubt. While his storytelling style was no favourite of mine, his writing did quite charm me.

- MM

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

A Medieval Feast: SUNRISE IN THE WEST by Edith Pargeter


Sunrise in the West by Edith Pargeter
When I am reading a Edith Pargeter book you best not interrupt me. Don't ring me, don't text me, don't tap me on the shoulder, don't ask me if I want coffee and a biscuit.
It isn't that I would get violent with you, or swear at you or throw your biscuit across the room, but there is a very good chance that I will not answer your phone call, read your text, respond to your soft tap or give you an answer on that coffee. You must forgive me, in advance, for I will be so thoroughly absorbed in the book that I may not even know you are there. I need time with these Pargeter novels.They take some work and I always need good solid reading sessions when I start them, because brief reading sessions do not allow me the time to absorb what is going on.

So, just quietly put the coffee and biscuit on the table next to me and let us assume that at some stage I may notice them.

One of my favourite historical fiction books is A Bloody Field By Shrewsbury, also by this author, who is better known for writing the Brother Cadfael series under the name Ellis Peters. I don't have much time for the Cadfael series, but when it comes to her non-mystery historical fiction novels I have all the time in the world.

It is the writing really. There is something so priceless about the writing techniques this author uses. They are special and, in my opinion, beyond compare. Of course, I acknowledge there are historical fiction authors currently writing that are very skilful, with a style all their own, it is just that Pargeter is unique in a way that has no modern comparison.
I don't think the technique is without its faults though. For me, sometimes she bogs down in the methodical nature of her writing style and forgets that she still has to write something that will captivate an audience. I also don't like the way 'And' is used to begin sentences in every other sentence. I am a fan of using 'And' to start a sentence myself, but I feel Edith Pargeter goes a little too far with it. Using it too frequently.

The Sunrise in the West story is a luscious and elegant journey through the fairly unexplored medieval politics of thirteenth century Wales. It is the first novel in the well respected collection of four books, the others being The Dragon at Noonday, The Hounds of Sunset and Afterglow and Nightfall, all of which, thankfully, I own and treasure in one volume called Brothers of Gwynedd. I haven't read them all as I write this review, but I soon hope to and the reviews will pop up here as I go.

The book is not for the fainthearted. This is no sanguineous pulp fiction extravaganza or action adventure sprint race. Nor is it an uncomplicated read or light novel for someone who doesn't like to be challenged. Edith Pargeter will indeed challenge you if you try her books. There is no doubt of that. She will challenge you on how you think historical fiction should read and even, more importantly, she will challenge you to slow the heck down when you do read.
Unless you are ready for a slow, literary degustation menu, you will never stick with this book and you probably won't appreciate what you are reading. If you like speed reading and want to read as many books as you can in a month, I do not recommend this one for you. I think you will be incompatible with the writing style. It is not good for reading styles that involve a rush to turn the next page.
You are welcome to prove me wrong though.

While this book, as the first in the series of four, may not always be the greatest read you will ever partake in, it will surely be an eye opener for you. And any non-speedreading self respecting fans of historical fiction or medieval novels should make sure they get to it.
Reading books like these will remind you of how historical fiction should be written....with magnificent languishing prose, a rich comprehension of dialogue that is untainted by modern phrases and words, depth of character and culture, with historical settings thick with local knowledge and meticulous research. And let us not forget, with an eloquence and class that I once thought had been left behind in the Classics.

4 stars out of 5.


- MM