My Lady of Cleves: Margaret Campbell Barnes

★★★★

Margaret Campbell Barnes’s works have often cropped up in historical fiction lists, but this is the first book of hers that I’ve read and I’ve been very pleasantly surprised. Although My Lady of Cleves was first published in 1946, it doesn’t feel remotely prim or dated: only a certain elegant restraint hints at its age. It feels very much like a Norah Lofts story in that sense. Yes, it’s yet another Tudor historical novel, but Barnes rings the changes by focusing in on the least familiar and most appealing of Henry VIII’s many mistreated wives: Anne of Cleves. With grace, generosity and gentle humour, she gives this much-maligned woman her moment in the spotlight and pays tribute to the quiet pragmatism that allowed Anne to do what none of her five sister-queens managed: to keep both Henry’s affection and, more crucially, her head.

Continue reading

Heresy: S.J. Parris

★★★

Giordano Bruno: Book I

In my first version of this post I made a bit of an idiot of myself by getting S.J. Parris confused with C.J. Sansom and reminiscing happily about her Shardlake books. No doubt many of you wondered what I was on about, but Betty was the one who had the kindness to point out my error to me. Betty, thank you. There will be blessings stored up for you in heaven. My only excuse is that I read the Shardlake books fifteen years ago and obviously get easily confused about authors using their initials. For the record, Parris did not write the Shardlake books, but she certainly has written this series about the Italian scholar and philosopher Giordano Bruno. One of my most powerful memories from my first trip to Rome is of lunch eaten in the Campo dei Fiori, in the shadow of the great brooding statue of Bruno, and I’ve long been keen to learn more about him. Historical fiction was an appealing place to start. Parris’s first novel introduces us to Bruno in his mid-thirties, already hounded across Europe by the Inquisition for his heterodox beliefs. Finding refuge in England in 1583, he accompanies his friend Sir Philip Sidney to Oxford, where he swiftly finds himself caught up in a web of murder, danger and espionage.

Continue reading

Roman Blood: Steven Saylor

★★★½

Roma Sub Rosa: Book I

Time to meet another pioneering Roman detective, this one operating some decades earlier than Lindsey Davis’s engaging Falco. It’s 80 BC when we first encounter Gordianus, called the Finder, a man known in a certain section of society for his ability to find not only things but truth. Gordianus has previously worked with some of Rome’s leading advocates, but he’s always been fully conscious of his status as persona non grata in polite circles. This is usually reinforced by the status of the go-betweens sent to deal with him. And this is why he’s surprised when a very well-bred young slave arrives at the door of his sprawling, shabby old house one morning, offering him work. The slave’s name is Tiro. And the man who wants Gordianus’ help is Tiro’s master, a fresh young advocate just starting out on his career, named Cicero.

Continue reading

Mrs Osmond: John Banville

★★★★

I’m still trying to get my head around John Banville as a writer. The first novel of his that I read was The Sea, which I remember being lyrical and dreamy; then I turned to Dr Copernicus, which I found frustratingly dense. This new historical novel shares elements of both those other books, blending a poignant sense of loss with high style; but it also has other strong influences. Banville isn’t really writing as himself here. As I read more, I came to realise that Mrs Osmond is actually an ambitious tribute, elevated fan-fiction if you like, in which Banville imagines how Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady might have continued. The titular Mrs Osmond is Isabel, née Archer, and we first meet her as she returns to London in what might fairly be called the darkest period of her life.

Continue reading

1610: A Sundial in a Grave: Mary Gentle

★★★½

I have a mixed relationship with the author Mary Gentle, having now read two of her books: Ilario, long before I started this blog, and Black Opera some years ago. 1610 has been sitting on my shelf for over a year and, in the course of a warm, sunny weekend, I decided to give it a go. A sexual assault in the first few chapters gave me pause, but I pressed on regardless and soon found myself in the midst of a very enjoyable swashbuckler, populated with spies, rogues, kings, mathematicians and cross-dressing swordsmen – and taking in the France of Marie de’ Medici, the England of James I and, unexpectedly, Japan in the years before the Sukoku Edict closed its borders. I should stress that this isn’t a fantasy, but a rollicking historical adventure with a few hints of the mystical: best described, perhaps, as The Three Musketeers with added esoterica.

Continue reading

Snowdrift and Other Stories: Georgette Heyer

★★★

This post will be shorter than usual, because this book of short stories by the doyenne of Regency fiction is actually a reissue of Pistols for Two, which I wrote about some months ago. (I strongly advise that you read that post too, as only then will you get a full picture of my thoughts.) As I discussed the vast majority of the stories then, I’ll focus here on the three previously unpublished stories added to Snowdrift for its new release. These are all variations on a theme, namely encounters on the road; and, while they aren’t Heyer at her best, they do have a certain historical charm.

Continue reading

Smile of the Wolf: Tim Leach

★★★★

I was absolutely thrilled when I was offered a review copy of Tim Leach’s new novel. His first two books told the story of the Lydian king Croesus, a lyrical tale of a man who falls from majesty to slavery, and learns to live again, drawn from the Histories of Herodotus. This third book takes a new direction, unfolding among the icy crags and rolling valleys of 10th-century Iceland. It’s a tale of revenge; blood; vindictiveness; loyalty; and honour; but, more than anything else, it’s a story of friendship. This is the tale of the farmer Gunnar and the poet Kjaran, recounted with the tragic grandeur and poetic cadence of the great sagas, prickling with ice and flame.

Continue reading

Bite-Sized Fiction

Bite-Sized Books

I’m thoroughly enjoying this bite-sized books theme. It’s given me the chance to leap in at the deep end with all sorts of books, offering a taster of different genres or themes that might lead on to new explorations, but which don’t require too much investment of time or money. So here’s a further selection of stories to see you through commutes or short journeys. They include tales by some of the great names of modern literature, several of whom I hadn’t encountered before, namely William Trevor, Anita Brookner (shameful, I know), and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. From works of searing feminism to bittersweet studies of modern life and reworked fairy stories, there’s something here for everyone.

Continue reading

Ransom: David Malouf

★★★★

This book has been on my to-read list for a very long time. Such anticipation can lead to disappointment if a novel fails to meet expectations; but this one turned out to be well worth the wait. Simple and yet deeply poetic, it tells the story of an old man – Priam, King of Troy – who sets out to ransom back his son Hector’s body from the man who has killed him – Achilles, the ruthless warrior par excellence. Malouf’s book goes beyond the story as related in the Iliad, probing questions of majesty, nobility and, most importantly of all, humanity. Elegant and poignant, it centres on a moment of unforeseen compassion in the heat of war and breathes new life into its two famous protagonists.

Continue reading

The Belt of Gold: Cecelia Holland

★★★★

When Hagan and his brother Rogerius arrive in Constantinople in 802, on their way home to Frankland from Jerusalem, they see it only as a stop on their journey. They have fulfilled their pilgrimage and now look forward to resuming their lives among the mists and forests of their native country. But when an accidental encounter with a beautiful young woman and a gang of thugs leaves Rogerius dead, the heartbroken Hagan vows revenge. Little does he realise that this vow will draw him deep into the midst of the literally byzantine plots unfolding in the Queen of Cities, and entwine his future with that of the beautiful, charismatic, dangerous Empress Irene.

Continue reading