The Invention of Fire by Bruce Holsinger

The Invention of Fire This is the second in Bruce Holsinger’s series of historical mystery/thrillers set in 14th century England. A Burnable Book introduced us to John Gower, poet and ‘trader in secrets’, and followed his search for a book of prophecies containing a treasonous prediction foretelling the King’s death. In The Invention of Fire we enter Gower’s world again as he attempts to solve a second mystery. It’s not necessary to have read A Burnable Book first, although I would recommend doing so; I read it last year and enjoyed it, so have been looking forward to this new one.

The Invention of Fire begins in the year 1386 when sixteen dead bodies are found in a London privy one night. The cause of death is not obvious at first, but it soon becomes clear that the men were killed by a weapon few people in England have seen or even heard of. John Gower’s mission is to investigate the murders – an investigation that will lead him on a journey into the Kent countryside with his friend, Geoffrey Chaucer, and then across the sea to Calais where he is reunited with a face from his past. But when it is revealed that some of England’s most powerful men are involved in the crime, Gower becomes aware of the danger his own life is in – and of the implications of the new weapon on the future of warfare.

John Gower is an interesting character to build these novels around. He is a person who really existed in the 14th century, but one who is not particularly well known today. This gives Holsinger scope to use his imagination and create some fascinating fictional storylines for the character, while at the same time incorporating the few facts that we do know about the real John Gower: for example, his work as a poet, his friendship with fellow poet Geoffrey Chaucer, and the fact that he became blind in later life.

I have seen the John Gower novels compared with CJ Sansom’s Shardlake series and there are definitely some similarities. This book reminded me very much of Sansom’s Dark Fire which I read earlier this year; the time period is completely different, of course, but the plot is quite similar and both deal with the discovery of a new weapon. I have to admit, the weaponry aspect of this book didn’t particularly interest me, and with everything that has been going on in the world recently it’s depressing to read about the invention of new ways to kill. I was more interested in Gower’s personal story – his relationship with his son, his efforts to cope with his gradual loss of sight, and his conversations with Chaucer, who is working on The Canterbury Tales.

I had hoped there would be a third book in this series, but Bruce Holsinger has said that his next novel will be a ‘transhistorical fantasy’. That sounds intriguing but I hope he might still return to John Gower in the future.

It’s the last day of June…

…and summer seems to have reached the UK at last. I’m hoping it will stay for a while as I have a week off work coming up!

JuneLooking back at my June reading, I have read eight books this month and my favourite was Sharon Bolton’s wonderful Little Black Lies. I’ve loved all of her books (apart from Blood Harvest, which is the only one I still haven’t read) but I think this one is possibly her best so far.

Cyrano de BergeracAlso in June, I decided to set myself the challenge of reading the three plays on my Classics Club list and I’m pleased to say that this was a success! I read all three and enjoyed them all, especially the last two. I’ve never had a lot of interest in reading plays in the past but I feel much more enthusiastic about them now and will choose some more to read soon. The plays I’ve read this month are:

Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand

In another attempt to tackle my out of control TBR pile, I chose ten random books from my Goodreads to-read shelf. The idea is to go through them one by one, either reading them or deciding not to read them – so that in one way or another they can be removed from my shelf. I have read one of the ten so far (Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, which I loved and will be reviewing very soon) and I’m hoping to continue with some of the others in July.

Rebel QueenMy final three reads this month were all historical fiction, set in three very different time periods: Godwine Kingmaker by Mercedes Rochelle (Anglo-Saxon England), Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran (19th century India) and If You Go Away by Adele Parks (the First World War). I enjoyed all three of these, especially Godwine Kingmaker – my thoughts on that one will be coming soon too!

As we move into July I am still reading The Vicomte de Bragelonne by Alexandre Dumas; I’m loving it but it’s a very long book and I want to take my time with it. And because I can never just read one book at a time the way I used to, I’m also reading Linda Holeman’s The Devil on her Tongue, a novel set in 18th century Portugal. After this, I have a copy of The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins by Antonia Hodgson, the sequel to The Devil in the Marshalsea, which I can’t wait to start reading!

How has your June been? What will you be reading in July?

Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton

Little Black Lies As soon as I started to read Sacrifice by S.J. Bolton back in 2011, I knew immediately that I had found an author who would become a favourite and this was confirmed a few months later when I read another of her books, Awakening. Now writing under the name Sharon Bolton, her last four novels have been part of a series following the investigations of detective Lacey Flint – and while I have enjoyed the series, I was pleased to hear that her newest book, Little Black Lies, was going to be another standalone.

Little Black Lies is set on the Falkland Islands, the British territory in the South Atlantic which is still the subject of dispute between Britain and Argentina. The events of the novel take place over one week in November 1994. The Falklands War which took place twelve years earlier is still fresh in people’s minds, but as the story opens the islanders have something new to worry about: the fate of a little boy who has disappeared on the islands – the third missing child in three years.

The novel is divided into three sections narrated by three different characters, each of whom may or may not be involved in the disappearances of the boys. The first of these narrators, Catrin Quinn, is someone who understands exactly what it is like to lose a child. Still trying to come to terms with the recent deaths of her two young sons in a car accident, Catrin is seeking solace in her conservation work and in plotting revenge on her former best friend, Rachel Grimwood, the woman she blames for the tragedy.

Next we hear from Catrin’s ex-lover, Callum Murray, a British soldier who took part in the Falklands War of 1982. Callum is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and is experiencing worrying lapses in his memory. Finally, Rachel has a chance to tell her side of the story – and unsurprisingly, her version of events is very different from Catrin’s.

Three different narrators and, as I’ve come to expect from Sharon Bolton, all three are flawed and all three are unreliable. The author delves deeply into the lives of each character, but although we get to know them very well over the course of the novel we can never be quite sure whether they’re being completely honest with the reader or with themselves. As I read, I suspected first Catrin, then Callum, then Rachel – and then I changed my mind – and then I changed it again. There are plot twists, there are surprises and there are revelations (one of them coming at the end of the very last page) and every time I thought I knew where the story was going, I was proved wrong.

I have praised the plot and the characters, but the setting also deserves a mention. The Falkland Islands are hardly a popular choice of setting for crime novels (with a population of fewer than 3,000 people, most of whom live in the capital, Stanley, violent crime is almost unheard of on the islands) but the fact that I’d never read a book set there before is one of the reasons I loved Little Black Lies so much. The landscape is beautifully described and the sense of isolation creates a wonderful, eerie atmosphere. This book is dark, powerful and emotional…and probably my favourite by Sharon Bolton so far.

I received a copy of Little Black Lies for review via NetGalley.

Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand

Cyrano de Bergerac How many ways are there to insult a man with a big nose?

“Solicitous: ‘But sir, how do you drink? Doesn’t it trail in your glass?’
Or else descriptive: ‘It’s a rock, it’s a peak, it’s a cape…No, not a cape, it’s a peninsula!’
Inquisitive: ‘Do tell me, what is that long container? Do you keep pens in it, or scissors?’
Twee: ‘How darling of you to have built a perch for little birds to rest their tiny claws’.”

These are Cyrano de Bergerac’s own words about his own nose and although it might seem from this that he can see the funny side, he is actually very sensitive about it. Because of his appearance he believes no woman could ever find him attractive – especially not his beautiful cousin, Roxane, the woman he loves.

The handsome Christian is also in love with Roxane but is afraid that he doesn’t have the ability with words to impress her. Cyrano, who is a talented poet as well as a great swordsman and soldier, comes up with the perfect solution: he will write love letters to Roxane and send them in Christian’s name. Not only will this help to further Christian’s romance with Roxane, it will also give Cyrano a chance to express his own feelings. The plan is a success, but who is Roxane really falling in love with – the man who is writing the letters or the man she thinks is writing them?

Edmond Rostand’s French play Cyrano de Bergerac (subtitled An Heroic Comedy in Five Acts) was hugely successful when it was first performed in 1897. The audiences must have loved the same things that I did: the action, the romance, the combination of comedy and tragedy, and the swashbuckling hero. I’m not fortunate enough to have seen a stage version of this play (or any of the film versions either) but I’m sure it must be great fun to watch, with its swordfights, battle scenes and witty dialogue. I enjoyed reading it on the page, but it’s not quite the same as being able to see it performed!

Rostand’s inspiration for the play was a real person, the novelist, playwright and soldier Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, but only a few elements of his life are included in the play; the rest is imaginary. And what a great imagination Rostand had! There are so many memorable scenes, ranging from Cyrano fighting a duel while simultaneously composing a ballad, to Roxane standing on a balcony listening to Christian declare his love for her while Cyrano hides in the shadows telling him what to say, to the play’s tragic and emotional ending.

Rostand is credited with bringing the French word ‘panache’ into popular use (at least with the meaning we know today i.e. style and flamboyance). There are many examples of Cyrano’s panache throughout the play – and it is even his final word (although some translators give it the literal translation ‘white plume’). The edition I read was the Penguin Classics one with a recent translation by Carol Clark. I know this is not considered one of the better ones, so I do plan to read a different version of the play at some point. Any recommendations are welcome!

If You Go Away by Adele Parks

If You Go Away This is Adele Parks’ fifteenth novel but the first one I’ve read. Most of her others have contemporary settings and have never really appealed to me, but her most recent two are historical novels – Spare Brides, set in the 1920s, and this one, set during the First World War.

As the novel opens in March 1914, we meet Vivian Foster, a beautiful eighteen year old debutante who is enjoying the London season and not giving too much thought to rumours of war in Europe. Her main goal in life is to marry the rich, handsome Nathaniel Thorpe, but things don’t go according to plan and to avoid a scandal, Vivian is married off to Aubrey Owens, a man she doesn’t love. When war breaks out on their wedding day and Aubrey enlists as an officer in the army, Vivian finds herself living alone on his farm in the small village of Blackwell in Derbyshire.

The novel’s other main character is Howard Henderson, a talented and ambitious young playwright. Near the beginning of the war, Howard spends some time visiting the battlefields with a journalist friend and although he doesn’t take part in the fighting himself, he is shocked and appalled by what he witnesses. Returning to England he finds that he is under increasing pressure to enlist, but his experiences on the front line have left him convinced of the futility and barbarity of war. At a time when all fit and healthy young men are expected to go and fight for their country, Howard’s views make him very unpopular. When his path crosses with Vivian’s, a friendship begins to form and Howard must decide whether there are some things worth fighting for after all.

If You Go Away gets off to a slow start; I’m not sure that it was really necessary to spend so much time at the beginning giving us information on the backgrounds and personalities of our two main characters – I would have preferred to get to know them gradually through their words and actions. Once Vivian is in Blackwell and Howard is on his way to visit the trenches, though, the story really starts to pick up. While there is certainly a strong romantic element, this is more than just a love story – the scenes set in France and Belgium are vivid and dramatic, showing us the full horrors of war, while Vivian’s chapters also tackle other themes such as female friendships, unhappy marriages and the roles of women in society.

I disliked both Vivian and Howard at the start of the novel – particularly Vivian, who appeared to be very shallow and self-obsessed, interested only in money, clothes, parties and gossip. Fortunately, Vivian’s character does develop and change over the course of the novel and I eventually started to see another side to her. It seemed that being in the countryside away from the influence of her friends and family in London helps her to gain confidence and discover what is really important in life. As one of the village women tells her, “I do believe that one only earns the right to strong and cherished friendships once one has learnt to stand alone. You have to like yourself very much before you can expect others to”.

Through the characters of Vivian and Howard we see the changes that war brings to individuals, to communities and to the world. I have read a lot of other novels set during the Great War, but what makes this one different is that we are given the perspective of a conscientious objector. This is not an aspect of the war I’ve read about in any detail before and I found it fascinating. Because of the interesting questions and issues this novel raises, I found it a deeper and more thought-provoking read than I had expected it to be. There were one or two twists towards the end that I found difficult to believe, but I did enjoy this book and I hope Adele Parks will continue to write historical fiction as I think she does it very well.

Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of this book for review.

Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran

Rebel Queen I love historical fiction set in India and was instantly intrigued when I saw that Michelle Moran’s new novel, Rebel Queen, was described as the story of Rani Lakshmibai who rebelled against the British by ‘raising two armies — one male, one female — and riding into battle like Joan of Arc.’ Once I started to read the book, I found that it wasn’t quite what I’d expected, although that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I have read two of Michelle Moran’s other novels and while I think my favourite of the three is still The Second Empress, I still enjoyed this one and thought it was much better than Cleopatra’s Daughter.

Rani Lakshmibai (or Lakshmi as she is called throughout this novel) rules the state of Jhansi along with her husband, Raja Gangadhar Rao, until his death in 1853. As the raja has died leaving no biological male heir, Jhansi is annexed by the British East India Company, and during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 the rani and her people find themselves caught up in the middle of the conflict. By the rani’s side are her ten Durgavasi – a small, elite group of highly-trained, highly-skilled women who serve as both guards and trusted friends. It is through the eyes of one of these women, Sita Bhosale, that the story of Jhansi unfolds.

Sita Bhosale grows up in a small village many miles from the city of Jhansi and, like the other village girls and women, she lives in purdah, secluded from the view of men outside her family. After her mother dies in childbirth, her father tells her that there will not be enough money to provide a dowry for both Sita and her little sister. With very few options open to a young woman who fails to marry well, he suggests that she begin training for a position in the Durga Dal, the rani’s personal guard. Following several years of hard work, Sita has learned all the skills she needs – she can ride a horse and knows how to use a sword, a pistol and a bow – and soon she is on her way to Jhansi to become the rani’s newest Durgavasi.

As our narrator, Sita is a character who is easy to like. I enjoyed watching her train for the Durga Dal, I was fascinated by her descriptions of her early days in Jhansi where everything – the rani and raja’s court, life in the palace, the absence of purdah – is new and strange, and I sympathised as she found herself the target of the raja’s beautiful, scheming cousin, Kahini, one of her fellow Durgavasi. But from the title, Rebel Queen, and the description of the novel, I had expected this to be the story of Rani Lakshmibai rather than the story of Sita. We don’t really get to know the rani at all until the second half of the novel and only a few chapters at the end are spent on the events of the Sepoy Rebellion (the promised ‘raising of armies and riding into battle’), which was disappointing.

The author assumes the reader has no prior knowledge of Indian culture or history, so she has Sita explain to us how the British East India Company came to be in India, the meanings of customs such as purdah and the Hindu caste system, and the basics of Ayurvedic medicine. While I already knew some of the things Sita tells us, there were still lots of facts and details that were new to me, so this was both an entertaining and an educational read. However, I was surprised to read that the British were flying ‘the red and black Union Jack’ from the buildings of Jhansi, and this made me wonder about the overall accuracy of the novel!

Despite the few problems I’ve mentioned, I did find this an interesting and compelling story. I do think it would have been good to have had at least part of the novel written from the rani’s perspective, but I still enjoyed getting to know Sita and the women of the Durga Dal.

Note: This book has been published in the UK as The Last Queen of India and I think the UK title and description are more appropriate, giving a better idea of what the story is about. However, I have referred to the US edition throughout this post, as this was the version I received for review through NetGalley.

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

The Importance of Being Earnest This is the second play I’ve read this month as part of my personal challenge to read the three on my Classics Club list during June. I’m really regretting my previous reluctance to read plays because it has meant that until now I’ve been missing out on some great ones like The Importance of Being Earnest. It was silly of me to keep avoiding this particular play, because I’ve enjoyed everything else I’ve read by Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Canterville Ghost, A House of Pomegranates and two more of his short stories); why did I assume I wouldn’t enjoy this one too?

At the beginning of the play, Algernon Moncrieff is being visited at his London home by his friend, Jack Worthing, whom he has always known as Ernest. Jack is from Hertfordshire, where he is guardian to eighteen-year-old Cecily Cardew, whose grandfather found and adopted Jack as a boy. When Algernon finds a cigarette case inscribed to ‘Uncle Jack’ from ‘Little Cecily’, Jack is forced to admit that his name isn’t really Ernest – Ernest is a fictional brother he has invented so that he can escape from Hertfordshire from time to time with the excuse that his brother is in trouble and needs his help.

Algernon then confesses that he has also created an imaginary friend – an invalid called Bunbury who conveniently summons Algernon to his deathbed whenever he needs to get away from his responsibilities in London for a while. Leading double lives (which Algernon refers to as ‘Bunburying’) has so far been very successful for both men, but this is about to change when Algernon falls in love with Jack’s ward, Cecily Cardew, and Jack falls in love with Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen – two women who are each determined to marry a man called Ernest.

Things quickly become very complicated from now on, with the action moving to Jack’s country estate where a series of misunderstandings, deceptions and mistaken identities follow. I don’t want to give away any more of the plot than I already have because I’m sure there are other people out there who still haven’t read or seen this play and I would hate to spoil the fun for you. And this is a fun play to read. I think Oscar Wilde’s famous humour and wit come across particularly well in the play format; even when reading it on the page it’s easy to imagine the lines being spoken aloud.

Some of the best lines go to Lady Bracknell, one of the ‘formidable aunt’ type characters you so often find in fiction. Although this is the first time I’ve read The Importance of Being Earnest in its entirety, I do remember reading the famous handbag scene at school. I was looking forward to reaching that part and fortunately it is in the first Act so I didn’t have too long to wait; it was lovely to finally be able to read it in its proper context!

There’s obviously a lot more I could have said about this wonderful play, about its themes, its characters and its use of language, but I hope you’ll forgive me for keeping this post short. I have another play to go and read!