Looking back, looking forward: November 2015


November was an interesting month reading wise. I feel I’ve read a good mixture of new books and old, some by authors who are new to me and others by authors I already know and love. Most of my reads were classics and historical fiction, but I also read one collection of short stories and one fascinating non-fiction book.

Let’s look back at November before looking forward to December.

Favourite books this month:


Lustrum by Robert Harris (2009) – This is the second part of a fictional biography of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero. I loved the first book, Imperium, and thought this one was even better.

The Last Enchantment

The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart (1979) – I enjoyed all three books in Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, of which this is the last.

Also read and reviewed this month:

The Silvered Heart by Katherine Clements (2015)
Master of Shadows by Neil Oliver (2015)
Death in Venice & Other Stories by Thomas Mann (1897-1912)
Dickon by Marjorie Bowen (1929)

Read but not yet reviewed:

The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson (1889)
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915)
Royal Mistress by Anne Easter Smith (2013)
The Georgian Menagerie by Christopher Plumb (2015)

Looking forward to December

As we move into December, I am in the middle of two books – The Storm Sister, which is the second book in Lucinda Riley’s Seven Sisters series, and The Sea-Hawk by Rafael Sabatini – and am enjoying both. The Sea-Hawk is the last book I need to read for my Ten from the TBR project, so you can expect an update on that (and another selection of ten books) later in the month.

I don’t have any other plans for December’s reading, so I’ll just see what I’m in the mood for. At the end of the month, of course, I’ll be posting my list of favourite books of the year. I feel that I’ve read a lot of good books in 2015, but not many that really stand out from the rest, so this year’s list could be either very easy to compile or very difficult! I’m hoping that some of my December choices will be the outstanding reads I’ve been waiting for.

How was November for you? Do you have any reading plans for December?

Dickon by Marjorie Bowen

Dickon Marjorie Bowen (1885-1952) was a very prolific author of historical fiction, romance, crime and horror, producing over one hundred and fifty books during her lifetime. Endeavour Press have gradually been making some of them available to modern readers and there are several that I’m interested in reading, but I decided to start with this one, Dickon, as it is set during one of my favourite historical periods: the Wars of the Roses.

The title refers to Richard III (Dickon, of course, is a nickname for Richard) and the novel follows Richard throughout his entire life, beginning with the moment when, as a child, he learns that his father, the Duke of York, and elder brother, Edmund, have been killed at the Battle of Wakefield. The book is divided into three sections; the first is called The Three Suns, which refers to the parhelion which appeared in the sky at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross, but could also be a pun on the three remaining ‘sons’ of the Duke of York – and covers Richard’s childhood up to the point where his brother wins the throne for York, becoming King Edward IV.

The middle section, The Bear and Ragged Staff (a reference to the emblem of the Earl of Warwick) concentrates on 1470-1472, the period of the rebellion of Warwick and George, Duke of Clarence. Finally, The White Boar takes us through Edward’s death and the period immediately afterwards – Richard’s own brief reign and his tragic end at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. There is no doubt that Richard suffered a lot of misfortune and tragedy and this is symbolised in the novel in the form of Jon Fogge, a man-at-arms whom Richard believes has been haunting him throughout his life, bringing bad news and bad luck to the Plantagenets.

Dickon was published in 1929 and I think it’s fair to say that it’s quite different from the majority of historical fiction that is being published today. The dialogue has a very old-fashioned feel, being sprinkled with words like ‘thou’, ‘thee’, ‘doth’ and ‘hath’, something that seems to have been dropped by most modern historical novelists, and the whole novel also has an air of innocence, with sex scenes only hinted at rather than explicitly described. I do like ‘older’ historical fiction but I suspect some readers will find this book too archaic and romanticised.

In her preface to the novel, Marjorie Bowen says that she has studied all of the known sources and “has violated no known fact, nor presented any character or action in any light that is not probable, as well as possible”. I did notice a few historical inaccuracies, but as I’m not completely sure how much material was available in 1929 and how much has only come to light in more recent years, I’m not going to be too critical. There are also a lot of controversies surrounding Richard III and his reign – there is no one version of events that has been accepted by everybody – so different authors and historians do have different theories and different interpretations. I was particularly curious to see how Bowen was going to approach the mystery of the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower, so I was disappointed to find that her solution was simply to ignore the whole episode!

Richard himself is portrayed as sensitive, loyal and trusting, a brave warrior and a devoted brother, father and husband. His character lacks the depth and complexity I would have liked and sometimes seems too good to be true, although I can appreciate that this is one of the earliest pro-Ricardian novels, written decades before books like The Daughter of Time or The Sunne in Splendour, and that the author was trying to provide an alternative to the usual view of Richard as the hunchbacked villain of Shakespeare’s play.

If you’re completely new to this period of history and the life of Richard III, this book is maybe not the best place to start, but I did find it quite enjoyable and a good addition to my collection of Wars of the Roses fiction. I will be reading more by Marjorie Bowen.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

Death in Venice and Other Stories by Thomas Mann

Death in Venice When I decided to participate in this year’s German Literature Month (hosted by Caroline and Lizzy) I discovered that I already had two books by German authors unread on my shelves: Death in Venice and Other Stories by Thomas Mann and Wolf Among Wolves by Hans Fallada. I chose the Thomas Mann simply because the book was a lot shorter and I could be sure of finishing it before the end of the month, but now that I’ve read it I wish I had gone with my heart and chosen Hans Fallada, whose books I have read before and loved. I did find a lot to like and appreciate in Mann’s writing, but I’m not convinced yet that he’s really an author for me.

As well as the title novella, Death in Venice (1912), this edition includes six other stories by Thomas Mann. I read all of them, but will concentrate here on Death in Venice as it is by far the most famous story in this collection and the one I was most interested in reading.

Death in Venice tells the story of Gustav von Aschenbach, an ageing author suffering from writer’s block. He decides to travel in the hope that it will clear his mind and provide inspiration and the destination he settles on is Venice. Mann’s descriptions of Venice are beautifully written, even though at the time of Gustav von Aschenbach’s arrival the weather is dark, gloomy and oppressive, matching the overall mood of the story. I have been to Venice myself, so I found the descriptions of Aschenbach’s approach over the lagoon, his ride in the gondola and his trip across to the Lido particularly vivid.

While in Venice, von Aschenbach becomes intrigued by Tadzio, a beautiful young Polish boy who is staying with his family in the same hotel. Day by day, his infatuation with Tadzio grows; he finds himself watching out for the boy entering the breakfast room each morning and then tries to secretly follow him around Venice. Even when he learns that it may not be safe to remain in the city any longer, von Aschenbach is unable to tear himself away from Venice and Tadzio…and eventually, as the title suggests, his obsession will lead to a death in Venice.

Reading Death in Venice in 2015, it’s difficult not to feel disturbed by the story of a middle-aged man’s infatuation with a teenage boy – although I should point out that Aschenbach never touches or even speaks to Tadzio. The focus is on Aschenbach’s private feelings for the boy and how he chooses to deal with those feelings. I think at least part of his obsession can be attributed to an appreciation of beauty and the despair of a man who is growing older, knowing that his own youth is lost forever (towards the end of the novella, we see Aschenbach dye his hair and cover his wrinkles with make-up in an attempt to look younger). I found out after finishing the story that it was based on Thomas Mann’s real-life experiences and this made me think again about what he was trying to say and how he may have wanted it to be interpreted.

I found the other six stories in this collection a bit uneven, but they are all worth reading. Little Herr Friedemann (1897) – one of the earliest examples of Mann’s work included in the book – is a sad story of a man who was dropped on the floor as a baby and grew up with physical disabilities. Herr Friedemann has learned to cope with his lot in life and things aren’t going too badly for him…until he falls in love. The Joker (also 1897) has some similar themes, but I have to admit the details of this particular story have faded from my mind just a few days after reading it.

The Road to the Churchyard (1900) is a very short story about a widower who sets out to visit the churchyard and becomes irrationally angry with a boy (referred to only as ‘Life’) who is riding his bicycle along the path. This is followed by Gladius Dei (1902), in which a man called Hieronymus enters an art gallery in Munich and loses his temper when he sees a piece of immoral artwork displayed in the window.

Tristan (1903), one of the longer stories in the book, is a love story set in a sanatorium. It contains allusions to the legend of Tristan and Iseult, as well as some musical references and an exploration of attitudes towards life and death. Finally, Tonio Kröger (1903), another novella, follows the course of a man’s life from childhood to adulthood and, like Death in Venice, has some autobiographical elements.

I’m pleased to have finally read some of Thomas Mann’s work, but I found this an interesting book rather than an enjoyable one. I am not a huge fan of short story collections, though, so now I’m wondering whether I would have a better experience with one of his longer novels.

Master of Shadows by Neil Oliver

Master of Shadows There were several things that drew me to Master of Shadows: the setting (the fall of Constantinople in 1453) was one, and the protagonist (the Scottish engineer, John Grant) was another. Most of all, I was curious to see what Neil Oliver’s fiction would be like. Oliver is best known as a television presenter and historian – he recently presented the BBC series Celts: Blood, Iron and Sacrifice – and although he has previously published some non-fiction, Master of Shadows is his first novel.

I have mentioned Constantinople, but much of the first half of the novel is actually set in Scotland, where the soldier Badr Khassan has come to fulfil a deathbed promise, having sworn to protect the wife and child of his friend, the late Patrick Grant. He finds Jessie Grant and young John just in time to interrupt an attempt on their lives by the men of Patrick’s enemy, Sir Robert Jardine of Hawkshaw. Pursued by the vengeful archer, Angus Armstrong, Badr and John leave Scotland and travel across Europe, making a living by fighting as mercenaries. Along the way they meet a mysterious female warrior called Lena who is also a target of the same group of Scots and who is hiding some important secrets regarding her own identity and John’s.

Eventually John arrives in Constantinople, one of the final strongholds of the Byzantine Empire, now under threat from the mighty Ottoman army. As the Emperor Constantine XI prepares to defend his city and Sultan Mehmet II gathers his forces outside the walls, two more characters come to the forefront of our story: Prince Constantine, the Emperor’s crippled son, and Yaminah, the girl he loves. The lives of John, Yaminah and the Prince come together during the dramatic Siege of Constantinople and the final days of the Byzantine Empire.

Master of Shadows is a combination of history, adventure and romance set against a backdrop of what is surely one of the most fascinating and significant periods in Europe’s history – the collapse of one empire and the expansion of another. I thought the book was generally well written and, knowing that the author is an archaeologist and historian, I also felt confident that it would have been well researched. However, he does take some liberties with certain historical characters; I really disliked Lena’s story, although I can’t explain why without telling you who she really is and that would be a spoiler! There’s also a supernatural aspect to the novel – John Grant is able to feel the Earth moving through space and can sense the people around him without using sight or touch – but this didn’t become such a big part of the story as I’d feared at first.

I had previously encountered John Grant as a character in Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolò series (under the slightly different name of John le Grant) and was quite fond of him, so I was looking forward to seeing how he would be portrayed by another author. Very little is known about the real John Grant; records show that a Johannes Grant was employed as an engineer by the Byzantine Empire and his expertise in counter-tunnelling prevented the Turks from invading Constantinople from under the walls. He was originally thought to have been German but more recent research suggested that he was actually Scottish. This lack of historical information has allowed Neil Oliver to create a whole backstory for John to explain how he came to be in Constantinople. The character is quite different from the one in Dunnett’s novels, but I did still like him (although I found it irritating that he is always given his full name of John Grant, sometimes multiple times in the same paragraph, and is never just referred to as John).

Master of Shadows is an interesting first novel – I particularly liked the Scottish chapters near the beginning and the romance between Prince Constantine and Yaminah – but there were too many little things that didn’t work for me. As well as the Lena storyline and the supernatural element I’ve mentioned above, there’s a lot of jumping around in time which makes it slightly difficult to follow what is happening. I’m not sure whether I’ll read any more of Neil Oliver’s fiction, but I might try one of his non-fiction books instead.

Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles

The French Lieutenants Woman I feel I’ve been making a lot of progress with my Classics Club list recently. I have just finished two books from the list – one by Thomas Mann and another by Robert Louis Stevenson – but before I tell you about either of those, I wanted to post my thoughts on a book I read almost a month ago. It has taken me a while to motivate myself to write about The French Lieutenant’s Woman because I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to say. I didn’t dislike it but I certainly didn’t enjoy it as much as I hoped I would or as I feel I should have done.

The story is set in the 1860s in the English coastal town of Lyme Regis (which Jane Austen readers will know as the place where Louisa Musgrove fell down the steps in Persuasion). Sarah Woodruff, the ‘woman’ of the title, spends her days standing alone on The Cobb, the town’s harbour wall, staring out to sea. Nicknamed ‘Tragedy’ by the people of Lyme, Sarah is considered to be a disgraced woman following a brief relationship with a French naval officer who abandoned her and married another woman on his return to France.

Charles Smithson, who is staying in the town with his fiancée Ernestina Freeman, encounters Sarah while out walking one day and is intrigued when he is told about her background. The more he learns about Sarah, the more fascinated he becomes, but as he is still engaged to Ernestina, he will soon be faced with making some important decisions.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman is an unusual novel and I can definitely understand its appeal. Published in 1969 but set in 1867, there are times when it feels almost like an authentic Victorian novel and others when the author intrudes into the story to make an observation from a very contemporary perspective. In John Fowles’ own words:

“You are not trying to write something one of the Victorian novelists forgot to write; but perhaps something one of them failed to write. And: Remember the etymology of the word. A novel is something new. It must have relevance to the writer’s now – so don’t ever pretend you live in 1867; or make sure the reader knows it’s a pretence.”

This novel, then, is a mixture of old and new. It’s a book about the Victorian period – the culture, the science and literature, the conventions of society – as well as a book set in the Victorian period. The author (or the narrator – it’s difficult to distinguish between the two) plays an important role in the story, giving us his opinions of the characters and their actions, and even appearing as a character himself later in the novel. And this, I think, is probably why I had a problem with the book. It doesn’t bother me at all when a Victorian author stops to talk directly to the reader – Anthony Trollope in particular uses that technique a lot and it always seems very natural to me – but when a modern author does it, I don’t think it ever feels quite the same.

In addition to the narrative style, Fowles also incorporates other experimental or postmodern elements. The most intriguing of these, I thought, was his use of alternate endings. He gives us three to choose from: one traditional ‘happy ending’, another which offers some hope, and a third which isn’t very happy at all. By the time I had reached this stage of the novel, I had accepted that I wasn’t going to be drawn into the story emotionally and had no real preference as to how the story should end, so I found it interesting to read all four endings and think about which might have been the most likely.

I don’t want to sound too negative about this book. I loved the early chapters, particularly the memorable opening scenes where we see for the first time the lonely figure of Sarah gazing out to sea, and I also enjoyed the subplot involving Charles’ servant, Sam, and Mary, Ernestina’s aunt’s maid. I’m sure The French Lieutenant’s Woman must be a fascinating book to study at university or to discuss with a group, but when I’m reading for pleasure I prefer a novel that I can lose myself in, rather than one like this where I am constantly being pulled out of the story. Despite this, I did like John Fowles’ writing and would be happy to try more of his books, but maybe someone who has read them can let me know if they are all like this one?

Lustrum by Robert Harris

Lustrum Lustrum (also published under the title Conspirata) is the second of a trilogy of fictional biographies of the Roman statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero. The first book in the trilogy, Imperium, was one of my favourite reads of the year so far and I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed Lustrum even more. A note from the author at the beginning of the book states that both novels can be read independently, but my advice would still be to read them in order, particularly if, like me, you have never read about Cicero’s life before.

The three novels (the third is called Dictator) are narrated by Cicero’s slave and secretary, Tiro, a real historical figure believed to have invented an early form of shorthand and thought to have written a genuine biography of Cicero which was lost during the fall of Rome. Imperium is a recreation of the first part of Tiro’s biography and covers the beginnings of Cicero’s political career, ending just as he is elected one of Rome’s two consuls. Lustrum continues the story, taking us through the year of Cicero’s consulship and the four years that follow (the term ‘lustrum’ is the name given to a five-year period in Ancient Rome).

The period of Cicero’s life covered in Lustrum is a time of highs and lows. As consul for the year 63 BC, he faces the biggest challenge of his career so far when he uncovers a conspiracy led by the senator Catilina to assassinate him and overthrow the Roman Republic. Cicero is awarded the title “Father of the Country” for the part he plays in dealing with this threat to Rome, but even his newfound popularity can’t protect him from the further plots and machinations of his enemies Gaius Julius Caesar and Publius Clodius Pulcher.

What a great book this is! I was completely gripped from beginning to end, immersed in Cicero’s world, watching as he struggles with his conscience, tries to make difficult moral decisions and attempts to outwit powerful men like Caesar, Crassus and Pompey the Great (the First Triumvirate). I realise a book about Roman politicians may not sound very exciting, but this one really is.

While I found it difficult to keep track of some of the minor characters and the relationships between them (bearing in mind I have very little knowledge of Ancient Rome) there is some great characterisation when it comes to the more well known names. I particularly loved the portrayal of Cato the Younger! Caesar comes across very much as the villain in this trilogy, but remembering that we only see things from the perspective of Cicero (via Tiro), we are obviously being given a biased view of his actions. The same story told from Caesar’s point of view would clearly be very different.

By Glauco92 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Bust of Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Rome
Tiro himself remains in the background, as he did in Imperium, but there is a small amount of character development for him; he even finds a love interest, although nothing really comes of it. But at the heart of the story, of course, is Marcus Tullius Cicero. The portrait of Cicero given to us by Tiro is generally very positive – he is clever and ambitious and usually (though not always) tries to do what he believes is best for the Roman Republic. But he also has a lot of faults and flaws: his arrogance and overconfidence lead him to make some poor choices and he is not above entering into dubious political alliances with men such as his fellow consul, Hybrida, whom he knows are corrupt or incompetent and don’t have Rome’s best interests at heart.

One of the things I love about the way Robert Harris portrays Rome is that he manages to make it feel historically accurate yet strangely contemporary at the same time. There are debates over foreign policy, a court case involving a sex scandal and questions asked over politicians’ expenses, all things which still happen in modern politics. As with Imperium, the scenes set in the senate are particularly dramatic and full of tension, making me wish I had been there to hear one of Cicero’s famous speeches for myself.

Lustrum was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction in 2010. I am grateful to the Prize for pointing me in the direction of Robert Harris; as well as the two Cicero books, I also loved An Officer and a Spy (the 2014 winner). I’m now looking forward to finishing this trilogy with Dictator and also to reading more fiction set in the Roman Republic and seeing how other authors portray the same characters and events.

Non-Combatants and Others by Rose Macaulay

Non-Combatants and Others Rose Macaulay is an author I’ve been interested in trying for a while (since reading Dorothy Dunnett’s The Spring of the Ram, which is set in Trebizond, and discovering that Macaulay had written a book called The Towers of Trebizond). I don’t have a copy of the Trebizond book, though, and do have a copy of Non-Combatants and Others, so it made sense to start with this one.

Non-Combatants and Others, published in 1916, is set during the First World War and, as the title suggests, it tells the story of ‘non-combatants’ and other people who didn’t or couldn’t take an active part in the war. Our heroine, twenty-five-year-old art student Alix Sandomir, is the daughter of a Polish activist father who died in a Russian prison and an English mother, Daphne, who is a pacifist. As the novel opens, Daphne has gone to New York to promote peace, while Alix has remained in England, staying with family in the countryside.

At first Alix may seem to be a rather selfish character. She takes no interest in politics or in helping the war effort; unlike her aunt and cousins, she refuses to get involved in volunteering, nursing, driving ambulances, helping refugees or knitting for the soldiers. Instead she buries herself in her drawing, and at the first opportunity she goes to London to lodge with another set of cousins while she continues her studies at art school. She finds her new companions easier to live with, as they, like herself, are doing their best to ignore the fact that the country is at war.

We soon find, though, that this is just Alix’s way of trying to cope. Her health is not good – she walks with a limp following a childhood illness, and she has a very sensitive, nervous disposition which means she has trouble handling stressful situations. She is also worried about her younger brother, Paul, and the man she loves, Basil Doye, who are both fighting on the front line. Although Alix would love to be able to help in some way, she is frustrated by her own uselessness and decides that the solution to this is simply not to think about it. It is only when she learns the truth about Paul’s experiences in the trenches that she finally has to face up to reality – and when her mother returns from her latest conference, Alix must decide whether she too should join the battle for peace.

Non-Combatants and Others is an unusual novel but a very interesting one. I think what fascinated me the most about it was that it was published in 1916! With hindsight, we know that in 1916 the war would continue for another two years; when Rose Macaulay wrote this book she had no idea how much longer it would last or what the outcome would be. The novel is only two hundred pages long but manages to touch on a wide range of issues which affected those involved – or not involved – in the war: the role of women, the work of the VAD nurses (there’s a very moving chapter set during a visit to a London hospital), the reintegration of wounded ex-soldiers back into society, and the effects of shell shock.

I read an edition of this book published by Capuchin Classics which has a foreword by Sarah LeFanu. When I turned back to read the foreword after I finished the novel I was surprised to find that LeFanu was also discussing a short story called Miss Anstruther’s Letters as if it should have been included in the book. It seems there must have been another edition which included both Non-Combatants and Others and Miss Anstruther’s Letters, but this one does not, which was slightly disappointing. I hope I’ll have a chance to read that short story at some point in the future. I also mentioned a few weeks ago that I was looking for historical fiction novels written by classic women authors and I have since discovered that Rose Macaulay wrote a book called They Were Defeated, set in the seventeenth century. Has anyone read it?