Madonna of the Seven Hills: Jean Plaidy

★★

Lucrezia Borgia: Book I

I’ve always felt I should read Jean Plaidy’s books. She’s ubiquitous in the historical fiction sections of bookshops and libraries, and she writes about periods that I find interesting. It was only a matter of time. Last winter, I went slightly wild at the Book Barn and came away with a pile of her novels, which I’m only now starting to tackle. I chose to begin with the first of her two novels about Lucrezia Borgia, which may have been a mistake, as it hasn’t done much to win me over. Over-seasoned, two-dimensional and extremely dated, it feels like stepping back in time for all the wrong reasons.

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Lavinia: Ursula Le Guin

★★★½

As a child, I read Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet, which I loved for its wizards and fantasy (I hope to reread it soon). In my early twenties, I read her Left Hand of Darkness, which was one of the first books that made me think seriously about gender. And now I’ve turned to what I thought would be a comparatively straightforward historical novel: her book about Lavinia, princess of Latium, who becomes the wife of Aeneas. But Le Guin is never simple. Her Lavinia is a bright, demanding person: full of questions. She probes at the limitations of the way she has been preserved for posterity, rebelling against the strictures of a poem in which she doesn’t even get to speak. Playful, intelligent and just a little bit angry, this novel reimagines one of the great epics of the Western tradition. Le Guin, and Lavinia, take Virgil to task for his omissions but this isn’t just a scolding. It’s also a great love letter from one author to another: a tribute to the power of story-telling, which can give the figures of the past a voice.

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Rome: The Art of War: M.C. Scott

★★★½

The Rome Novels: Book IV

You certainly can’t accuse Manda Scott of doing the same thing over and over again. The first two novels of this series were written in the third-person; the third was in the first person; and this book is knitted together from an interweaving series of first-person testimonies from a dizzying number of characters. Nor do we remain in Judea, where I was just getting settled in. Instead, we’re whisked back to Rome for the final showdown in the Year of the Four Emperors, as the anxious Vitellius clings to power on the Palatine, and Pantera attempts to smooth the ground for his chosen candidate Vespasian to take the throne. But forces are at work against Pantera, led by an enemy as cunning and ruthless as himself. More to the point, someone in his inner circle is betraying him…

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Rome: The Eagle of the Twelfth: M.C. Scott

★★★★

The Rome Novels: Book III

War! Blood and dust! I hurried straight on to the next book in Manda Scott’s Rome series which, again, took me to a place I wasn’t expecting. Disconcertingly, after two novels focused on Pantera, we step away from him completely for much of this volume and instead follow Demalion of Macedon, a young horse-trader turned legionary in the XIIth Legion. If the first book centred on Rome and the second on Judea, this volume takes us to even more exotic regions: to Armenia and Hyrcania under the rule of the Parthian King of Kings. Knowing that I was in good hands, I pushed impatience about Pantera to the back of my mind, and let Scott unfold her story in her own compelling time.

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Rome: The Coming of the King: M.C. Scott

★★★★

The Rome Novels: Book II

When I saw the second book in Manda Scott’s Rome series in the library, I pounced on it. It picks up the story in 66 AD, a couple of years after The Emperor’s Spy concluded. Nero is emperor; Seneca is dead; the Empress Poppaea is dying in childbed; and our subtle protagonist Pantera is heading south to Judea on the heels of the man who started the Great Fire of Rome. Pantera has wise and loyal allies, but he is the only one with the skills to track down the zealot Saulos. For Saulos, too, was trained as a spy by Seneca and Pantera knows that he is stepping into a cat-and-mouse game with a man as dangerous as himself, made even more lethal by the fiery convictions of faith. As tensions simmer below the surface in Caesarea and Jerusalem, it requires only one spark for the whole of Judea to flare into bitter internecine war. And Saulos, as we’ve seen, loves a good fire…

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Cleopatra: A Life: Stacy Schiff

★★★★★

What do you think of when you think of Cleopatra? The asp? The siren lure of Egypt? Danielle de Niese, dripping with jewels? Elizabeth Taylor? Whatever we think of, it’s almost certainly incorrect. In this beautifully-written biography, Stacy Schiff tries to peel away the centuries of accretions in the form of purple prose, propaganda and the overheated male gaze, to reveal the ruler beneath. Don’t judge this book by its cover. The publisher has done the author no service in that respect. It’s packaged like a lightweight historical novel, with the traditional faceless woman in historical costume and lashings of pink and gold. It deserves better. Intelligent, gripping and extremely readable, this is the best biography I’ve read in some time.

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The Silver Pigs: Lindsey Davis

★★★

Marcus Didius Falco: Book I

Falco and I have been waiting for a long time to get to know each other. Now, as I come to the end of my review copies (just three to go before I have a clean slate!), I’ve decided to treat myself to an introduction to everyone’s favourite Roman sleuth. As you’ll have noticed, I tend to avoid historical mysteries, simply because they’ve become so much of a cliché in recent years; but I’m willing to make exceptions for Falco and for Cadfael, both of whom were in on the act before it became a bandwagon. Thanks to Master and God, I already knew that I loved Lindsey Davis’s writing style. This first Falco novel isn’t as polished as her more recent work, but it was heaps of fun and I’m eager to carry on.

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Vindolanda: Adrian Goldsworthy

★★★★

One of my forthcoming scheduled reviews questions the current trend for historians to write historical fiction. It’s become something of a fashion but it doesn’t always work: good historians may tell stories with novelistic flair, and good historical fiction writers have to get their facts right, but the two genres do demand a different skill-set. Not everyone can make the transition from one to the other. So I was amused to see that Adrian Goldsworthy, the celebrated historian of the Roman Empire, has decided to try his hand at a novel. Naturally, I couldn’t resist; and I’m pleased to report that Goldsworthy is one of the rare breed who can make the leap. Focusing on the men based at the forts along the northernmost frontier of Roman Britain, he tells a story full of battles, diplomacy and honour, with a very enjoyable ‘odd couple’ pairing at its heart.

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Feast of Sorrow: Crystal King

★★★½

The young cook Thrasius is purchased for an exorbitant sum of money in 1 BC by the wealthy Roman epicure Marcus Gavius Apicius. It proves to be a match made in heaven. Although he’s only nineteen, Thrasius has already made a name for himself as the inventor of mouthwatering delicacies, and Apicius harbours designs to become gastronomic adviser to Caesar himself. Together, master and slave embark on a quest to create the most dazzling and most delicious banquets that Rome has ever seen. It’s a collaboration that will enter history, making Apicius’ meals a byword for luxury, producing the world’s earliest surviving cookbook, and probably its first cookery school.

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Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio

Valentin: David with the Head of Goliath

(Musée du Louvre, Paris, 20 February-22 May 2017)

Around 1610, a French teenager arrived in Rome, hoping to study as a painter. His name was Valentin. Although he was just too late to meet Caravaggio, his artistic formation took place in a community beholden to the sharp contrasts and uncompromising realism of the older artist. Valentin would become known as one of the most gifted of the ‘Caravaggisti’, but this exhibition gives him credit as someone who was able to develop and transcend his sources. We move from rowdy Roman taverns, full of cardsharps, fortune tellers and impromptu concerts, to face-to-face encounters with brooding saints. Every room testifies to this underrated painter’s flair and intensity.

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