The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George

It’s been a few years since I read Margaret George’s Elizabeth I – still the only one of her novels I’ve read – but I’ve always intended to read more and the publication of The Confessions of Young Nero, the first of two volumes on the life of the Roman Emperor, seemed a good opportunity. Until recently, this particular book wouldn’t have appealed to me (Ancient Rome has never been a favourite historical period of mine) but tastes changes and, having read the wonderful Cicero trilogy by Robert Harris, I now feel more enthusiastic about the subject.

The Confessions of Young Nero is a fictional account of the early years of Nero – or Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, to give him the name by which he was known as a child. Narrated in his own words, Nero begins by taking us through the events of his childhood, starting with one of his earliest memories: the time his uncle, the Emperor Caligula, tried to drown him. This is the young Nero’s first experience of the ruthless plotting and scheming which surrounds those close to the imperial family; it is never far from his thoughts as he grows older and, following the deaths of first Caligula and then his successor Claudius, becomes emperor himself.

Although, as I’ve mentioned, most of the story is narrated by Nero, there are several much shorter sections scattered throughout the book narrated by two other characters: Locusta, a poisoner whose skills are very much in demand, and Acte, the former slave who becomes Nero’s lover. This was one of the least successful aspects of the book, in my opinion. I really don’t think those sections added anything to the story and I’m not sure why those two characters in particular were chosen, as there were plenty of others who had just as much significance in Nero’s life.

Nero himself is portrayed much more sympathetically than I’d expected. Admittedly I don’t know a huge amount about him, but from the little I had previously read I had formed a very different impression of Nero than the one given by this novel. I can see from Margaret George’s author’s note that she has deliberately taken a revisionist approach to Nero’s story, believing that he has been unfairly treated by history and that some of the accounts we rely on for information about him were written to discredit him. I can accept this (it reminds me of the way Tudor propaganda was intended to discredit Richard III) but I personally found this version of Nero far too nice! Nothing was ever really his fault and on occasions where he did commit a wicked act, it was because he had been driven to it and left with no choice. I think a more complex, morally ambiguous character would have been of more appeal to me.

I did like the characterisation of the main female characters in the novel, particularly Messalina, Agrippina and Poppaea, three ambitious women each of whom wields power in her own way. Something which comes across very strongly throughout the novel – and especially when one of these women is involved – is the continuous sense of danger and the way in which anyone of importance in the Roman Empire had to be constantly on their guard against an attempt on their life.

Having such limited knowledge of Ancient Rome, I found the complicated family relationships difficult to follow at first, but I think Margaret George does an excellent job of clarifying them for readers like myself and by the time I was a few chapters into the book I was starting to get Nero’s family tree clear in my mind. As this is quite a long novel and only tells the first half of Nero’s story, it allows plenty of time to explore the major personal and political incidents which take place during this stage of Nero’s life; some of this was familiar to me, but much of it was new and I found it all fascinating. While important events such as Boudicca’s revolt are described in detail, Margaret George also devotes many pages to discussing Nero’s love of music, poetry and sport. I can appreciate how much research must have gone into the writing of this novel!

I’m pleased that I’ve read this book as I think I’ve learned a lot from it – and despite having some negative feelings about it as well as positive ones, I do want to read the rest of the story and will be looking out for the sequel. Meanwhile, I’ve been reminded that I have Margaret George’s novel on Mary, Queen of Scots on my TBR – I’m looking forward to it as that’s a period of history I’m much more comfortable with!

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

One day in 1945, Catherine Goggin, sixteen and unmarried, is banished from her small village in West Cork, Ireland, for committing the sin of becoming pregnant. Shamed by the priest in front of an entire congregation and cast out by her family, Catherine makes her way to Dublin in the hope of starting a new life for herself. When her baby boy, Cyril, is born several months later, she makes the decision to put him up for adoption – and from this point, Catherine steps into the background of our story. Our attention switches now to Cyril, growing up in the home of his adoptive parents, Charles and Maude Avery.

Charles is a rich but disreputable businessman with a weakness for gambling and womanising, while Maude is a temperamental, chain-smoking novelist who hates the thought of anyone actually buying one of her books. Unsurprisingly, they do not make good parents and never let Cyril forget that he is “not a real Avery”. The one bright spot in Cyril’s life is his friendship with Julian Woodbead, the son of Charles Avery’s lawyer. Julian is popular, sophisticated and daring; everything Cyril wants to be. As the boys grow older, however, and enter their teenage years, Cyril becomes aware that what he feels for Julian is not just friendship but love.

Narrated by Cyril himself, the story is divided into sections moving forward seven years at a time, taking us from the 1940s right through to 2015 and around the world from Dublin to Amsterdam to New York. Along the way we meet a range of characters who, while they may not be very realistic, are so vividly drawn they almost jump out of the page; I particularly loved the hilarious Mary-Margaret Muffet, Cyril’s first girlfriend, who has “very high standards” and who proudly announces to everyone she meets that she knows all about the world because she works on the “foreign exchange desk at the Bank of Ireland, College Green”. We also witness, through Cyril’s eyes, some of the most significant historical events to occur in his lifetime, including the bombing of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin, the impact of AIDS in the 1980s, the 9/11 attacks and Ireland’s referendum on gay marriage.

The main focus of Cyril’s story, however, is on his sexuality and how he comes to terms with it. As a young man growing up in Catholic Ireland, he quickly discovers that it is not at all easy to be homosexual in a society where people don’t even want to acknowledge that such a thing exists; his attempt to confess to a priest has shocking consequences! And so, for a long time, Cyril tries to deny his feelings even to himself (hence Mary-Margaret and one or two other women). Eventually he can suppress his love for Julian no longer…but things don’t go exactly according to plan.

Actually, things never do seem to go according to plan for Cyril and it would be difficult not to feel some sympathy! Sometimes it’s his own fault, as he does make a lot of mistakes and bad decisions, but he is also a victim of prejudice, intolerance and lack of understanding. With the novel jumping forward in seven-year chunks, we see not only how Cyril’s personal circumstances have changed in the intervening time, but also how attitudes towards homosexuality have changed – subtly at first, but quite dramatically by 2015. I couldn’t help feeling, though, that sometimes the messages Boyne was trying to get across came at the expense of the story.

Having read and enjoyed several of John Boyne’s novels over the last few years, I was really looking forward to reading The Heart’s Invisible Furies and although A History of Loneliness is still my favourite, I did find a lot to like about this one – his longest and most ambitious book yet. I should probably warn you that the humour is often very dark and sometimes not in very good taste, which won’t be for everyone, and that as Cyril’s sexuality forms such an important part of the story, it’s also quite explicit at times. I wasn’t sure whether it was going to be my sort of book or not at first, but after an uncertain start I found myself being drawn into Cyril’s story and then there was no question of not finishing it!

Following Cyril Avery’s life from birth to old age was a memorable experience! He’s a wonderful character…so complex and so human. Although the plot is built around a series of highly unlikely coincidences, I didn’t mind too much as it meant everything fell into place at the end. Not all of the characters get a happy ending, but some of them do and I was left with the hope that the younger generations of Cyril’s family would find certain aspects of their lives easier to deal with than poor Cyril did!

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

It’s 1746 and Richard Smith has just arrived in New York bearing a bill of credit for one thousand pounds. Presenting this to be cashed at the counting-house of the merchant Lovell on Golden Hill Street, the mysterious Smith causes quite a sensation. Who is he and where has he come from? Where is Lovell supposed to find such a huge amount of money? And what does Smith intend to do with it once he has it?

I would like to tell you more about the plot of Golden Hill, but I’m limited as to how much I can say without spoiling things for future readers. I think it’s enough to say that it’s a hugely entertaining story involving duels, card games, imprisonments and a chase across the rooftops of New York. One of the things which makes this book such an enjoyable and compelling read, however, is the air of mystery surrounding Richard Smith from beginning to (almost) end.

“There’s the lovely power of being a stranger,” Smith went on, as pleasant as before. “I may as well have been born again when I stepped ashore. You’ve a new man before you, new-made. I’ve no history here, and no character: and what I am is all in what I will be. But the bill, sir, is a true one. How may I set your mind at rest?”

His refusal to explain what he is doing in New York and why he needs so much money keeps the other characters – and the reader – guessing until the final pages. Is he really as rich as he seems to be or is he involved in some sort of hoax? Should Lovell trust him or will he be made to look a fool?

Smith’s secretive behaviour arouses both fascination and suspicion among the people he meets. Although he says very little about himself and his past, there is evidence that he has been well educated, travelled extensively in Europe, has a good knowledge of the theatre and an aptitude for dancing, acting and magic tricks – and yet he also makes a number of mistakes and blunders that suggest he may not be as sophisticated as he seems. To complicate things further, Smith soon falls in love with Lovell’s daughter, Tabitha, a character I found just as enigmatic as Smith himself. With her prickly exterior, sharp tongue and often spiteful behaviour, it’s difficult to know how Tabitha really feels about Smith, which is something else to ponder while you read.

Francis Spufford’s writing style is wonderful and perfectly suited to the story and the period; it’s clearly intended to read like an authentic 18th century novel and a lot of care has obviously gone into the choice of words and the way sentences are structured. Sometimes the narrator breaks into the story to speak directly to the reader, passing judgement on the actions of the characters, expressing annoyance (at having to explain the rules of the card game piquet, for example), and making amusing asides and observations. This is the sort of thing I tend to enjoy, although I know not everyone does! The narrative style is not just for show, though – there’s another reason why Spufford has chosen to tell the story in this way, although I didn’t understand until I reached the very end of the book.

Another highlight of the novel is its portrayal of New York at a time when, far from being the major city it is today, it’s a relatively small community still with a significant Dutch influence (seen in the design of the merchants’ houses and the names of the surrounding villages and neighbourhoods – Bouwerij for Bowery and Breuckelen for Brooklyn, for example). It’s a city in its early stages of development, just beginning to expand and prosper, and brought to life through Spufford’s vivid descriptions.

There’s so much to love about this unusual, imaginative novel. I had never heard of Francis Spufford before reading this book, but it seems that although he has written several non-fiction books, Golden Hill is his first novel. Naturally I am hoping that he’ll write more!

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (re-read)

Since I started blogging in 2009 (which seems so long ago now) I have discovered lots of great books, have tried genres I had never thought about trying before, and have been introduced to some wonderful new authors. One thing that has been sadly neglected, though, is re-reads of my old favourites – something that used to form such an important part of my reading life. Making more time for re-reads has been a goal of mine for the last few years, but I have never actually done it; I’m determined that 2017 will be different! I have re-reads of Rebecca and The Count of Monte Cristo coming up soon for the Classics Club, both of which I’m looking forward to, but before I get to those two, I’ve been revisiting a book I first fell in love with as a thirteen-year-old: Emily Brontë’s 1847 classic, Wuthering Heights.

For those of you who have not yet had the unforgettable experience (in one way or another) of reading Wuthering Heights, here is a quick summary. The novel opens in 1801 with Mr Lockwood, the new tenant at Thrushcross Grange in Yorkshire, paying a visit to nearby Wuthering Heights to meet his landlord, Heathcliff. Lockwood is hoping for some peace and quiet in which to enjoy his stay at the Grange and at first he is happy with what he sees in Heathcliff. It’s not long, however, before he discovers that what he had mistaken for quiet reserve hides a cruel and violent nature. After passing an uncomfortable night at Wuthering Heights, in which he is treated with hostility by the inhabitants and tormented by strange dreams, Lockwood retreats to the safety of his own lodgings, where he begs his housekeeper, Nelly Dean, to tell him what she knows of Heathcliff and his household.

Most of the novel is narrated by Nelly Dean, as she relates the story of Heathcliff’s first arrival at Wuthering Heights, a child brought back from Liverpool by old Mr Earnshaw, and raised alongside Earnshaw’s own children, Catherine and Hindley. As the years go by, the childhood friendship between Heathcliff and Catherine begins to develop into something more, but when Edgar Linton from Thrushcross Grange enters Catherine’s life, Heathcliff finds himself pushed aside. He devotes the rest of his life to causing misery for the Lintons – as well as taking revenge on Hindley who, unlike his sister, had never accepted Heathcliff as one of the family.

It seems that a lot of people who dislike Wuthering Heights approached it for the first time expecting a romantic love story and in that case I can understand why they would be disappointed. The relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy is hardly a conventional romance and although there is love, it is an obsessive and unhealthy love. When I first came to this book as a young teenager, though, I had no idea what it was about and no expectations whatsoever, so none of that bothered me. At that age, I loved it for the darkness, the melodrama and the passion. The blurb on the back of my old Penguin copy (not the one pictured above) describes Wuthering Heights as “perhaps the most passionately original work in the English language” and I think I would agree with that. Who could forget the moment Catherine declares her love for Heathcliff:

“If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it. My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.”

Another reason people have for not liking Wuthering Heights is the unpleasant, unsympathetic characters. Well, I can’t argue with that. They are certainly unpleasant – not just Heathcliff and Cathy, but most of the supporting characters too, from Nelly herself, who puts the child Heathcliff “on the landing of the stairs, hoping it might be gone on the morrow”, to the elderly servant, Joseph, “the wearisomest self-righteous Pharisee that ever ransacked a Bible to rake the promises to himself and fling the curses to his neighbours”. And although I’ve always had a soft spot for Hareton Earnshaw, Hindley’s son, I struggle to find any sympathy for any of the others. But again, not liking the characters has never been a problem for me where this particular book is concerned.

This is not the first time I’ve re-read Wuthering Heights but it is the first time for quite a few years. I was worried that I would feel differently about it, but I’m pleased to say that I still loved it. I did find different things to notice and appreciate this time – with more knowledge of Emily Brontë herself than I had during previous reads, I could think about the ways in which she may have drawn on her own life for inspiration in writing her novel (the descriptions of Hindley’s drunken behaviour, for example, were surely influenced by Emily’s experiences with her brother Branwell). I also found myself constantly noting down favourite passages and phrases, such as the wonderful description of Cathy’s relationship with the Lintons as “not the thorn bending to the honeysuckles, but the honeysuckles embracing the thorn”.

I thoroughly enjoyed my re-read and am looking forward to re-reading more old favourites during the rest of the year.

What do you think of Wuthering Heights? Do you love it or hate it?

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Books On My Spring TBR

Top Ten Tuesday

I have a lot more than ten books on my TBR for this spring, but for the purpose of this week’s Top Ten Tuesday – hosted by The Broke and the Bookish – I’ve put a list together of ten that I’m particularly hoping to read in the next few months.

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The remaining books on my Classics Club list:

1. The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

2. I, Claudius by Robert Graves

3. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (re-read)

4. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (re-read)

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A few from my NetGalley shelf:

5. The Shadow Queen by Anne O’Brien

6. The Outcasts of Time by Ian Mortimer

7. The Wild Air by Rebecca Mascull

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Because I’ve just finished the first book in the series (Wintercombe) and can’t wait to read the next:

8. Herald of Joy by Pamela Belle

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For Lory’s Elizabeth Goudge Day in April (my choice of book could change, but I definitely want to take part):

9. Towers in the Mist by Elizabeth Goudge

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Because I always look forward to new books from this author:

10. Dead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton

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Have you read any of these? Which books are on your spring TBR this year?

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

It’s been some time since I last read a Tracy Chevalier novel, but having enjoyed some of her books in the past, I was pleased to have the opportunity to read her latest one, At the Edge of the Orchard.

The story begins in 1838 in the Black Swamp of Ohio, where James and Sadie Goodenough are attempting to make a living from the harsh, inhospitable earth on which they have settled. With the help of their five children, James is working hard to establish an orchard with enough apple trees to satisfy the requirements to legally claim their piece of land. Sadie, who does not share her husband’s ambition, longs to move on and start again somewhere else – somewhere more comfortable and welcoming. Finding solace in the strong cider and applejack produced from the fruits of the orchard, Sadie’s is a miserable existence from which there seems to be no escape.

Time passes and we jump forward to the 1850s where the youngest Goodenough son, Robert, has made his way alone to California. What happened to the rest of the family? Why does Robert never get a reply to the letters he sends home to his brothers and sisters? We’ll have to wait until later in the book for these questions to be answered, but in the meantime we read about Robert’s work with the plant collector William Lobb, gathering seeds and plants to sell to gardeners in England. Having grown up surrounded by trees, this is the sort of job that interests Robert – yet there is still something missing from his life, and when he is finally given a chance of happiness, he will have to decide whether to take it.

I enjoyed At the Edge of the Orchard and found it a surprisingly compelling read. I say ‘surprisingly’ because, despite the title and the picture on the cover, which should have been clues, I wasn’t fully prepared for so much information on trees: in the orchard sections, we learn about different types of apple tree – the qualities of ‘eaters’ versus ‘spitters’; the taste of James’ favourite Golden Pippins; and the methods used to graft one tree onto another – and in the California sections we are given a wealth of information on the giant sequoia trees of Calaveras Grove. I have to admit, although I do appreciate the beauty and importance of trees, I have very little interest in them. I’m impressed that Tracy Chevalier managed to hold my attention from the first page to the last; I was never bored and would never have expected a book about trees to be so engaging!

Of course, this is not just a book about trees – it’s also a book about human beings, following the stories of several very different characters. At first, the Goodenoughs don’t seem to be a very pleasant set of people. James is decent enough, but with a tendency to be violent when things annoy him and a frustrating single-mindedness when it comes to growing and nurturing his precious apple trees. His wife, Sadie, is a deeply unhappy woman but any sympathy I may have had for her was destroyed by her bitter, spiteful nature and needlessly cruel actions. It wasn’t until later in the novel that I found some characters I could like and care about. In fact, a series of letters written by two of these characters broke my heart…the sense of loneliness and desperation they each felt came across so strongly.

The novel is carefully structured, moving backwards and forwards in time to ensure that certain things are kept hidden until it becomes necessary for us to know them. A mixture of styles are used to tell the story too, from the letters I’ve mentioned above to conventional third party narration and several passages narrated by Sadie in a very distinctive voice of her own. Although the story of the Goodenoughs is fictional, we also meet several real historical figures: the legendary Johnny Appleseed is one you may have heard of, but the English tree collector William Lobb was also a real person. There are so many different elements to At the Edge of the Orchard and they all come together to form one fascinating, enjoyable and very moving novel.

I’ve now read four Tracy Chevalier novels and so far they have all been very different, covering such diverse subjects as the Dutch art world (Girl with a Pearl Earring), fossil collecting on the south coast of England (Remarkable Creatures), religious conflict in 16th century France (The Virgin Blue) and now the trees and orchards of 19th century America. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of her books now that I’ve been reminded of them!

Thanks to HarperCollins for providing a review copy of this book via NetGalley.

Historical Musings #24: Ireland

Historical Musings

With St Patrick’s Day less than a week away – and to join in with the Reading Ireland Month being hosted by Cathy and Niall – I thought I would devote this month’s post to a discussion of historical fiction set in Ireland.

The first books to come to mind when I think of Irish historical fiction are two very big novels by Edward Rutherfurd – Dublin and Ireland: Awakening (published in the US as The Princes of Ireland and Rebels of Ireland), two books taking us through the entire history of Ireland from the year 430 to the 20th century. I read these books years ago and they gave me an excellent overview of Irish history.

Another novel set in the distant past – and fitting perfectly into the St Patrick’s Day theme – is Joan Lesley Hamilton’s The Lion and the Cross, a novel about the life of Patrick himself.

I love a good family saga and I can think of two set in Ireland. The first is Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier; although the name of the country in which it is set is never actually named, it’s obviously supposed to be Ireland. The second is Cashelmara, one of several novels written by Susan Howatch which I read a long time ago and remember loving. The story is set in 19th century Ireland, but the lives of the characters cleverly mirror the lives of several Plantagenet kings. This – along with Howatch’s Penmarric and The Wheel of Fortune – is on my list for a re-read.

Staying in the 19th century, why not try The Convictions of John Delahunt by Andrew Hughes, a dark and atmospheric historical crime novel about a young student at Dublin’s Trinity College who comes up with a very dubious solution to his money problems. I am currently reading Hughes’ second novel, The Coroner’s Daughter, which is also set in Dublin and, so far, is a great book too. I can also highly recommend The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters by Michelle Lovric, only partly set in Ireland but featuring a wonderful set of Irish characters. And you may have seen my review last week of The Good People by Hannah Kent.

Moving forward into the early decades of the 20th century, there’s The Secret Scripture by Irish author Sebastian Barry. Like all of Barry’s novels, it’s worth reading for the beautiful writing alone. Of the other books of his that I’ve read, On Canaan’s Side and The Temporary Gentleman are set partly, but not entirely, in Ireland.

There’s also Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor, a novel written in the second person (which is quite unusual) and telling the story of the actress Molly Allgood and her relationship with the playwright John Millington Synge.

Another Irish author whose books I enjoy is John Boyne, but most of his are not actually set in Ireland. However, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, which I’ve recently read but haven’t reviewed yet, takes place in Ireland as well as in several other locations around the world, and spans several decades from the 1940s to the present day. Finally, I want to mention The Herbalist by Niamh Boyce, in which a mysterious stranger arrives in a small town in 1930s Ireland – and also Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, which gives some insights into the life of a young Irish immigrant in 1950s America.

Have you read any of these books? Can you recommend any more historical fiction set in Ireland? If not, I hope I’ve given you some ideas for future reading here!