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Review: The Wolves of the North

The Wolves of the North
The Wolves of the North by Harry Sidebottom
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A strange one. Not entirely an unpleasant experience, but nothing more than that. Though, as I remember the first three in the Warrior of Rome series as being pretty good, it is a bit of a let down.

The cover claims it ‘“Blazes with searing scholarship” (The Times). Well hardly. There’s scholarship, yes – and god knows there’s plenty of it. But nothing approaching a blaze. A warm glow, maybe.

We’re I to be churlish, I might describe it as ‘boring.’ It’s not that I want non-stop action, in my Hist Fic, but some would be interesting. Something happening would be nice. Ballista, the hero of the Warrior of Rome books, has been sent on a trip by some Roman Emperor or other, to somewhere or other far away. He has a whole load of people with him, from soldiers, to old friends, to young boys and homosexuals (though that could cover any of them back then it seems) to eunuchs and courtiers. Think that got them all. They’re off over the Steppes in what is now Russia, going north, I think. Quite why, I never really did figure out. Maybe to negotiate with someone or other out there, to do Emperor-type business anyway. Ballista is travelling in the direction of ‘home.’ His home, where he is originally from in the north. The others, the more urbane of his party, are clearly out of their depth. They’re a long way away from where they’re from and where they’d prefer to be.

What we get here is pretty much a ‘what we did on our holidays crossing the Steppe and the people we pre-judged on the way.’ A character in the book describes the party as; “This strange caravan plodding across the Steppe.” Plodding is right. Me, I’d describe it (so far) as just a long-winded trip through Harry’s research on the tales and legends of Ancient Greek philosophers, storytellers, his library shelves. Northern World section. It sure is clear Dr. Harry Sidebottom has, in the break between (the last one) and ‘Wolves’, been reading his book(s) of Ancient Greek Legends. And he really, really wants us to know what he’s found out. So, far from being in the slightest concerned about a possible ancient serial killer in their midst, his characters spend the long evenings around the campfire on the desolate Steppe, swapping lines from Greek, Roman poetry and philosophy and phrenology and mathematics (possibly). As you would. All riveting stuff – if you’re one of Harry Sidebottom’s history professor colleagues. It has to be said, it isn’t easy to keep track of who’s who with the tribes mentioned. Which tribe’s side we’re on, who we’re looking out for, who we’re passing through the territory of and who were here over the last three hundred years. That sort of thing. There are so many mentioned that after the first three or four and I’ve not heard anything that is sticking, my brain just hears ‘blah, blah, blah, please stop and get on with the story, will you?’ You see, when he talks about all the other tribes, sometimes, as when they’re gathering for battle, it’s pretty much pointless. The names mean absolutely nothing to us. Us who aren’t ancient history professors. He might as well have made the names up. He did, for all I know. There are no names that even sound familiar to act as a point of reference, as it were. So why do it, if not for the reader’s enjoyment? Because I sure as fuck ain’t gonna call him out if he mentions a tribe that I know either didn’t exist in that area, or did, but not at that time. Because I don’t know. And I’m not likely to remember, should I read in another book that a tribe lived there at that time, that contradicts what he says. And who is to say it’s not HS who is right, the other book, wrong. I don’t know. And I don’t really care. As long as I get to know ‘all the tribes of the Steppe pledged allegiance,’ I’m happy enough. I’m really not that bothered to have them named, as I don’t know if they’re right or not. Who does? Other professors? And one often gets the feeling that this (and previous volumes) were actually written for them. Other professors.

Yeah, there was something about a killer stalking them, but we don’t come across the ‘why’ in the bits of the book it’s ok to describe to you here. It could have been a decent idea. It could have built up to be a ‘Deliverance,’ or ‘Southern Comfort’ or even ‘Predator,’ set 2000 years earlier – an unseen stalker picks off the party one by one. Could have had have them worrying about the who and the why and the when. The story turning tense and them turning on each other trying to find out who it was. But no. It has no meaning to us the reader either, as the characters killed either have no influence on the story development, or are plainly the uninteresting ones, so – meh! They get on with their meandering over the Steppe, their discussions of the local tribes’ customs and the killer in their midst is forgotten, until the end. Which is ok, the killer coming back into the story towards the end, but not ok, when he and the theme has disappeared, had no influence whatsoever on the story in betwween.

To be brutally fair, actually, once the caravan gets ambushed – as you know it must – the story warms up and begins to take on a new identity. From about the two thirds mark and to the end, it is actually quite good. Actually, in a similar way to the last one as I remember, I warmed to this one. Too late really, but I did warm. But then…The end. And that’s pretty much how it does end. Just stops. Of course you know it must end soon, as there are only a few pages left, but so suddenly and not even with a ’to be continued.’ I had to go back and see if I hadn’t missed something. I hadn’t.

Sidebottom has quite a sparse style, his writing. Often just enough to convey what he wants. You can tell he’s an academic though, not a natural novel writer. So, if you’re looking for an all-out, blood soaked, sword and sandals riot, like Anthony Riches’ Empire series, then this isn’t it. Though there are a couple of occasions where the body count rises and characters are killed off by more violent means than boredom – and, remember, something of a rarity for a Roman book; not a single, or double, eyebrow raised through the whole of the book. See Anthony R.: it can be done!

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Review: The Fort

The Fort
The Fort by Bernard Cornwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Try as I might – and I tried – I could not get a fix on this one. I couldn’t see to figure out what he wanted to, or was was trying to do, with the book. In the end – and after reading the historical afterword at the back – it seemed most likely that he just wanted to find out about the incident and write down his notes. For himself. Putting his name on it – and it helps if the name you can put on it is Bernard Cornwell of course – and selling it was a bonus.

But that doesn’t help us readers, does it?

It is about an incident in the American Revolutionary war – against the British, if your history isn’t up to it. The British are building a fort at a place called (back then) Majabigwaduce. Nowadays it’s called Castine. Though that didn’t place it any more for me. In fact, the name Majabigwaduce provided a block on me getting a fix on the book right from the start. Being unable – in your head – to pronounce the place where all the action takes place, is not helpful for, even prevents, creating a bond of any sorts while reading. And a daft name at that. Were it me, I’d have kept with the name it has now and explained the change in the notes.

As far as I could gather, it was after the actual revolution, and while there was still some doubt as to where it would go. The attack on the fort set up by the British, was the US’s greatest loss of shipping in wartime, until Pearl Harbour. Or something like that. Many a reputation ruined, some created. The person who comes out of the whole situation – and the book – worst, is Paul Revere. There seems very little point to him at all. Apart from being picked up by an early version US marketing machine, that is. The British are doomed to lose the war, but they win the battle here. Mainly because the US forces are so incompetant. More than they are anyway.

And I never did property figure out who was on which side. Who were ‘rebels’ who were ‘loyalists’ as both sides seemed to use the terms about themselves. The Fort skated around looking for a purpose in the first half. Kind of found something to hook onto when the actual attack on the fort began. But then lost its way again. Flashes of ok-ness, but nothing more from then on in. He’s written better.

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Review: 1066: What Fates Impose

1066: What Fates Impose
1066: What Fates Impose by G.K. Holloway
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have read a fair few books about the 1066 era now and I was beginning to think I’d maybe seen pretty much all there was to see in terms of how the story could be looked at. Stupid me. I was wrong. ‘1066 What Fates Impose’ has pretty much now set the Gold Standard for Norman Conquest fiction, just as Marc Morris’ ’The Norman Conquest’ has done for non-fiction of the period. In fact, I was drawn to compare the two a few times while underway, with ‘What Fates Impose’ coming out of it very well indeed. Both books have scope, sureness, readability and also a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek-ability (Face it, you got to enjoy a novel that can find place for lines (about Harald Hardrada) like “The old Viking warrior never felt comfortable in churches unless he was robbing them.”). It is also clear (to me) that G.K. has drawn many of the same conclusions as Marc Morris and also writes in a similar way that in its understatement, makes it easily understandable and accessible.

It’s hard not to take sides on the 1066 period – for an Englishman, anyway – and this book, while presenting scenarios for what happened, on both sides, doesn’t end up sitting on the fence either. Clearly its sympathies are with the English. William is a Bastard, literally and figuratively, Harold is a reasonably normal chap (in his youth, at least), thrust into history’s spotlight. He was tricked, the English were unlucky, William was ungracious while knowing he was riding his luck, he got what was coming in the end.

The book has a good, flowing style, full of understated period detail that doesn’t get all prissy, know-it-all, or ‘in your face’ and thereby obscuring the story. It is written in a calm, precise, knowledgable and authoritative way that gave me total confidence that, based on what evidence there is, it could well have happened like this, if the people behaved in this way, for these reasons. In fact, I could go as far as to say it did occur to me that it read as though you have happened upon a translation of a particularly well-kept diary from someone (somehow) close to all the action and all the participants. There were a couple of ‘bumps’ but they were very minor and absolutely nothing to get in the way of the enjoyment as a whole. I won’t pick them out as they may not be bumps for you.

The story proper starts in 1045, though there is an opening chapter that is well worth going back to, after you’ve finished. It works wonderfully well as both a scene-setter and a scene closer. Actually, is there any point in repeating the story? The bare bones you probably ‘know’ already. There are as many versions of what might have happened as there are people writing them. The story here is thusly; the relatively newly formed country of England is coming off the back of wins and defeat at the hands of Vikings and assorted other invaders, and hopefully coming into a period of calm and peace. What it actually gets is internal rivalries based on the pre-English country states – what are essentially birth-pangs and old rivalries that are hard to forget. What England really needs, is a strong king with a son ready to take over in the fullness of time. What it gets is a king they can support, but one that doesn’t, cannot, or at the very least is unable to, produce an heir who will be of age when he passes on. A vacuum of sorts is created almost by accident. There are various contenders and pretenders, with varying degrees of eligibility – depending on where you stand, of course. What is surprising to realise about this period – and I’m pretty sure it went on over here in Denmark at the time as well – is that the King was effectively elected. Of course, the son of the previous King stood the best chance, but in the case of no close heir, the vote went to the Witan, a pre-democratic periodic gathering of the good and the great. Those with the land and money and the armies to back it up, anyway. On the other side of the Channel, unable to understand how anyone but the King and his family could be King…is Duke William, head of a minor province, called Normandy. He’s not had it easy either, doubtful parentage, the constant threat of assassination while growing up and then having to hold on to power through sheer force of will. By being the biggest, baddest most ruthless of the whole pack. To say his claim to the throne of England, is doubtful, is actually to imbue it with more authority than it actually has. So, what then transpires, is the stuff of legend and has kept historians, writers and seamstresses in business pretty much ever since.

From there on – and based solely on the reading I have done – the book follows the events as they are known to us. And by ‘known’, I’d say it really should be read often as speculation, based on what is perhaps the least unlikely scenario. The ’true histories’ of the period are ’true’ to the facts as paid for by the person behind the writer of the history. It seems like a history was never written without an angle, an axe to grind, a point to make. ‘Facts’ were made to fit where they were wanted to be fitted. I get the idea that nowadays, we consider it a ‘fact’ if conclusions can be drawn from the repeated use of similar descriptions of events, that therefore they must have, most probably, happened – in some form of other. Or where archaeology, or probability based on archaeology, can maybe back them up. There you go. While ‘What Fates Impose’ is not meant to be an actual history of the period, I can imagine objections to it from any academics out there could perhaps hinge on the portrayal of how Harold came to pledge allegiance to William and thereby support William’s claim that Edward promised him the throne. You’re either going to like it or you’re not. But you cannot deny it works with the background of the characters and situations set up in the book. But I’ve no doubt that some – often self-proclaimed (I’ve come across them) – ‘experts’ will take exception and maybe overlook the book as a whole. They’d be doing themselves a great disfavour.

G.K., has created believable, realistic, human characters from some of history’s most iconic figures. It is good to have Godwin Sr., and Harold’s background filled out, for instance. Only ‘Shieldwall’ by Justin Hill (of the books I’ve read on 1066 so far) does something similar with the Godwin family. That Harold had plenty of children and two ‘wives’, for instance, was something I hadn’t realised. He’s drawn as a fairly normal young man, one we’d recognise and like, if we met him on the street today. For instance, he meets a pretty girl, falls in love, wants to spend the rest of his life with her. But because he becomes King, there are other demands, other priorities that cannot be avoided. Harold grows up and develops into a true king as the book progresses. From wild, though sensible and caring at heart, to be a proper statesman and envoy. HE has kingly qualities, that’s for sure. Oh, what we lost at Hastings…

William is very different. The way he portrayed in the book, reading between the lines, seems due to his trying to make amends, to compensate, for the feelings of inadequacy he must have felt because of the lowliness – and doubtful parentage – of his birth. He has something to prove and feels he can only do it by any means possible, fair or unfair, lawful or unlawful. He knows what he’s doing, can’t help himself and knows he’ll come to regret it.

Throughout the book, there builds a feeling of a far greater loss being imminent. Greater than ‘just’ the English warriors being beaten on that October day at Senlac Hill. Again, like Marc Morris does at the start of ’The Norman Conquest’, G.K., hits us with a couple of very telling facts. Here, they are about the situation before and after the invasion. In 1066, England had a population of about two million. One hundred years later, the population was halved. No famine, no plague. Just William and “Norman civilisation.” Many times during the reading of the book, I got the strong sense – intentional or unintentional – that he feels a way of life, a tradition, a history and a bright future, was about to be wiped out. Not just half the population, something more.

Events unfold, bridges are crossed and then burned behind them and an unstoppable historical ball is set rolling. There are times when it seems like the least worst option, for William at least, is to press on with the whole sorry mess. So we move inexorably towards 1066 and October 14th and the battle. Even though I’ve read many books now, which detail the weeks and days leading up to and including the battle, even though we wouldn’t be who we are today without having been the Normans first – I’ve never had a feeling of encroaching dread like I did while reading the final third of this book. I think it says so much about the quality of the preceding passages and the quality of the writing and presentation of those last few days and hours, that it’s like while I know what happened and it can’t (obviously) be any other way, I still hoped, I still thought ‘we’ and Harold might just do it. The victory was there. The victory was there for us to lose. And we did. Our luck just wasn’t in that day. It could have been so different. The tension, is stomach clenching. I’m reading the words and another part of my brain is shouting to the English characters “go on, GO ON! I know it can’t be any other way, but still…might it? He dangles victory in front of Harold, it’s there for him to take, if only…And it’s gone. As it surely must have been. It really held me tight in its spell and have me hoping that this time Harold would win. That William would get the humiliation – and horrendously painful – death he’s got coming. Harold seems to have done everything right, except be finally lucky. I didn’t want to read on. I wanted to stop there and imagine what could have been…

‘What Fates Impose’ really is Historical Fiction par excellence. It’s going take a good book, a very good book indeed, to beat this re-telling of the 1066 story. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and I recommend it without hesitation.

 

 

*I should make it clear that I was contacted by G.K. Holloway, who had visited my blog and thought I might enjoy his book and would I like a copy in return for an honest review. The above is my honest opinion.

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Who’s that over there on the throne?

Arriving faster than a spaceship landing on a comet (a shade under two weeks from London to Denmark – that’s about a week less than ‘usual’), yesterday this little beauty arrived.
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Thanks again to the very wonderful folks at Goldsboro Books, that’s a signed, first edition of Bernard Cornwell‘s latest, number eight in The Warrior Chronicles series. I can’t say yet if there’ll be a number nine, but I wouldn’t bet against it.
The cover follows the previous design and looks absolutely fab-tastic. If I can say that? Anyway, a whole lot better than the up-dated paperback versions have been. Maybe I’ll put something together on that at a future date.
As I remember, I did find the previous one, The Pagan Lord, a little bit on autopilot, so here’s hoping this is better.

Goldsboro have sold out of the signed ones, but you can (and should) buy a copy at The Book Depository, here.

Enemy via Rome

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Highly relieved that this little beauty finally turned up.

I thought it’d got lost in the post, as it took well over a month from Goldsboro to here. Nobody’s fault, it seems, just ‘one of those things.’ It did have a sticker on the box suggesting it had come here via Copenhagen, but then they usually do, but usually a lot quicker.

Never mind, all’s well that ends well.

And yes, I did take the precaution of ordering another copy, so I now have two. Until Christmas, that is…

Review: Natchez Burning: A Novel

Natchez Burning: A Novel
Natchez Burning: A Novel by Greg Iles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow! What a great book that was! 800-odd pages and I’m still annoyed to have come to the end. Not often you can say that. But wait! Luckily for me (and you), it’s only the start – of a trilogy.

Stephen King says on the cover of the version I have; “Amazing. I defy you to put it down.” First, note an American that used ‘amazing’ instead of ‘awesome.’ Then, yes, he is absolutely spot on. It wasn’t Steven King’s recommendation that got me to buy it, admittedly, that was a blog post from the New York Times or some such a while back. Greg Iles’ background to the story, the premise and the seeming intermingling of fact and fiction, all sounded not just intriguing, but absolutely ‘me.’ And I was right. So, Stephen King and I have something in common at least. Then, the fact that it was in a 2 for £7.00 offer at a UK supermarket and it being the size of a house-brick, pushed me over the edge. And…I did indeed find it very, very hard to put down.

It’s not a simple story, despite the ‘A father accused of murder. A son who must face the truth,’ on the front. That dilemma, is just one of the many themes running through the book and whilst it maybe pertinent for the character of Penn Cage (the son), it isn’t what drives or influences the story in the largest way. In fact, there isn’t an easy way to sum it up. So I’m not going to try. There isn’t the space – despite the size of some of my recent reviews – to do the complexity, the nuance, the history, the scope of the book anything like full justice. A bare bones then.

It is fiction, though it is set in and around the real American town of Natchez. Which is where author Greg Iles lives and many of the places, institutions and some of the historical cases, are, he says, real enough. It is a very skilfully woven tale, in and out of reality and I did find it took a while to let go of the feeling that he is writing about real incidents, relating a true, his own possibly, story. That’s good. So the story and its themes are supposed, in a fictional setting, to light up and explain, as far as they can be ‘explained’ in the Ku Klux Klan’s case, the whys and wherefores, the feelings and motives that a purely non-fiction telling probably could not. If I say ‘deep south of USA, 1960’s, into early ’70’s then up to ’now,’ you’ll maybe begin to place the events of the period that the book is dealing with. Penn Cage is a lawyer, an author and Mayor of Natchez. But it is about his father, Tom Cage, that he gets a worrying phone call right at the start of the book. His father is very likely about to be accused of deliberately killing an elderly black lady. A murder. Penn Cage, being a lawyer, a good one and sure of his father’s innocence, should make it just a misunderstanding and make it go away. However, problems there soon are. He finds that his father won’t tell him anything about the incident he stands accused of. Won’t tell him if he did it. Of if he didn’t do it. Even if he might or might not have done it. Nothing. Penn Cage discovers that the dead lady, was his father’s nurse back in the 60’s. Also, that she knew and/or was related to, several people who died at the hands of a particularly nasty local off-shoot of the Ku Klux Klan. And these men, while elderly nowadays, have family who aren’t, but are highly – and securely – placed in the local community. Including law enforcement. Problem is, as characters find out to their cost, the law they are enforcing, is very often their very own. As it was back in the early ’60’s as well. As you soon found out, if you lived in the US south and were black. Penn and his father aren’t the only characters who feature. There is a full and complex supporting cast of interesting people, who are caught up to varying degrees, in the maelstrom of emotions, events and incidents, which soon turn out to be equally as destructive, as hurricane Katrina which blew through the area a few months before the story’s ‘present’ starts. Got that?

There’s so much interest and incident, it really is hard to keep it short. But all of it, slowly, painstakingly revealed, fits well, is logical and entirely plausible – given the logic and plausibility of some of the characters – and always believable. The story wheels through many people’s lives, linking them to the story and building up a thoroughly compelling account of how the past is reaching out and taking hold of all their presents. For me, it is a book full of passion, anger, hope, regret, sadness, peace and longing. Personally, I read a real sense of longing for the past, sometimes to re-live those times, or maybe to alter them, or maybe even to just to understand them, put them finally in their place. The future seems on hold until the past is dealt with. That kind of thing.

The story is written in the first person when featuring Penn Cage (a name that still sounds like a thing, rather than a person to me, but there you go), third person for when other characters are involved. It is really well structured and well written, but subtle with it. It’s like it’s describing real events in real time, then and now (if that’s even possible) and we find our way forwards, together with the characters as they try to find out what is going on and how it all fits together. By not telling us (the reader) more than the characters know, Iles keeps us on the edge, of our seats and nerves (well, in my case anyway). An especially admirable feat when done over 800-odd pages. The story moves backwards and forwards in time seamlessly, as each character contemplates their part in how the story came to be and as it unfolds in the present. It seems to be done depending on whether what is happening now needs explaining with what happened in the past and I’ll admit I was a little thrown off balance a couple of times. Makes you pay attention though. It’s like the characters are daydreaming sometimes, transported by something they see or hear, back to a time when a relevant incident happened. However, it all hangs together and works extremely well. The Hurricane Katrina disaster that hit the area for real in 2005, is – I think – used as a way of explaining the storm of feelings that were caused by the racial tensions and conflict of the 1960’s, with the book charting the kind of clear-up operation from that emotional hurricane, still going on today. The characters find that what they did back then, they can’t escape from now. Their past, their past actions, is still the present, though they have tried to run and hide. Like the hurricane, as the books says; “The problem is, the past has crashed into the present.” The past has also left a trail of devastation into the present and the unravelling is what the book is all about.

There is no way I could give this anything other than the big five stars. I’m very much looking forward to the second volume. If you haven’t already – go investigate ’Natchez Burning’ for yourself.

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Speesh Reads’ unique Historical Fiction Timeline!

The specially observant of you may have noticed up top there a new Menu item ‘Historical Fiction – The Timeline!

It’s an idea I had the other day, being a trainspotter-type, of putting all the books I’ve read (and got, but not read yet) that could be called (loosely and tightly) ‘Historical Fiction,’ into a chronological timeline. That is to say, put them in order of the dates that they are written about.

I explain at the top of the page how it is ordered, but quickly now – it is a list of books ordered by the dates on which they start.

If I was wanting to give it an importance that clearly isn’t due…I would say that you could think “The 10th Century looks like it was an interesting one, I wonder what books there are that are set back then.” Well, though my list isn’t of course by any means comprehensive, you can now see which books I have read, reviewed or got, that are set in that century. Or another, should your liking be elsewhere.

I’m including as ‘Historical Fiction’ all my books that were written about the past when they were published. If I read a book that was an up-to-date thriller in 1969 (set in 1969) then it isn’t there. If I read a book ‘now’ that is set in 1969, it’s there. Get the picture? Same with George Orwell’s ‘1984.’ When it was written, it was set in the future, Science Fiction, even, now it’s in the past, but isn’t ‘Historical Fiction’ for me.

As ever, they are my interpretations of what is Historical and/or Fiction and it’s me who has combed through the books trying to find evidence of when the book is set. Certain books have missed this info out – some of the Bernard Cornwell ‘Warrior Chronicles’ for example – I’ve no idea why he leaves dates out on some but puts it in on others, with ones like that, it’s my best guess. If you have other ideas, other dates, I stand to be corrected, as the man in the orthopaedic shoes said. And you’re very welcome to tell me differently.

Hope you find it interesting and/or mildly diverting. I haven’t seen it done else where – as yet – so that’s why I’m daring to use ‘unique.’

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