Red Sky at Noon by Simon Sebag Montefiore

This is the third in Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Moscow trilogy. I have read the second one, One Night in Winter, but not the first, Sashenka; the books are only loosely connected and it’s not essential to read all three in order. Montefiore is better known as a historian and writer of non-fiction, but these three books are fictional – although based on real events from Russian history.

Red Sky at Noon tells the story of Benya Golden, a Jewish writer and former teacher who, in 1940, is given the death sentence for “terrorism, conspiracy to murder Comrades Stalin, Molotov, Kaganovich and Satinov, and membership of a counter-revolutionary Trotskyite group”. At the last minute Benya is given a reprieve and instead of being executed he is exiled to the Gulag of Kolyma and sentenced to ten years’ hard labour in the gold mines. Life in the camp is harsh and miserable, so when a chance comes two years later to join a penal battalion (a shtrafbat) formed to fight the Germans, Benya is quick to volunteer. The reward will be the opportunity to win redemption by the shedding of blood – either his own or the enemy’s.

The rest of the novel follows the adventures of Benya, his beloved horse Silver Socks and the assorted group of murderers, Cossack gangsters and fellow political prisoners who fight alongside him in the Soviet cavalry. Together they undertake dangerous missions behind enemy lines, facing death, capture or betrayal – or all three – and for Benya, there is also a romance when he meets a widowed Italian nurse, Fabiana. Of course, with Russia and Italy on opposite sides of the war, it’s clear from the beginning that their love affair is unlikely to run smoothly.

With so much happening and with such an action-packed plot and interesting historical setting, this could have been a wonderful novel, filled with drama, romance and excitement. However, I think Montefiore is probably a better historian than he is a novelist; although I have no doubts that he knows his Russian history, he never quite managed to bring the characters and events in this novel to life. The dialogue didn’t feel entirely convincing and there were only a few moments in the whole book when I felt any real emotional connection to Benya or the other characters, despite the horrors of war that were being described. I remember having similar thoughts about One Night in Winter, which was a more enjoyable novel in my opinion, but another one which made little emotional impact.

I haven’t mentioned yet that there is another thread to the novel, involving Svetlana Stalina. As Stalin’s daughter, sixteen-year-old Svetlana is a lonely and isolated figure, who has experienced little in the way of love and friendship as people are afraid to get too close because of who her father is. Svetlana’s story doesn’t really have anything to do with Benya’s, but it offers insights into life in the Stalin household and does add another layer to the novel.

I’m not sure if I would want to read more of Montefiore’s fiction – although Sashenka does still sound tempting – but I’m curious to know what his non-fiction is like. Has anyone read any of it?

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As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley

In this, the seventh book in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series, our twelve-year-old detective is sent away to boarding school in 1950s Canada, having been banished from her family home at the end of the previous novel. If you have never read a Flavia mystery before, this is probably not the best place to start; I would recommend reading at least a few of the earlier ones first, particularly the sixth, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, so that you will understand the reasons for her banishment and the choice of this particular Canadian school.

Anyway, back to As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust. Almost as soon as Flavia arrives at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Toronto, she stumbles upon yet another dead body – or rather, this one stumbles upon Flavia when it falls down the chimney in her room, having been dislodged by another girl who has climbed up to hide from a teacher. Why is there a dead body up the chimney? Who is it? Could it be one of the three missing girls who have all disappeared from the Academy over the last year or two? Flavia doesn’t know, but she’s determined to find out!

This is the first book in the series not to be set at Buckshaw, the de Luce ancestral home in the English village of Bishop’s Lacey. I have always found the setting to be part of the charm of these books, so although it was nice to have a change, I did find myself missing Father, Feely, Daffy, Dogger and everyone else from Buckshaw. There are plenty of new characters in this book to take their places – including an enigmatic and intimidating headmistress and a chemistry teacher who has been on trial for murder – but none of them felt as well drawn as the characters in the previous novels.

Still, I always enjoy a school setting because it brings back memories of the school stories I loved as a child, such as Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and St Clare’s books. Maybe Alan Bradley liked that sort of story too and wanted an opportunity to write one of his own; otherwise I’m not sure I really see the point in moving Flavia out of her usual setting. I had expected the storyline involving the Nide, which was introduced in the last book, to be advanced in this one, but actually we learn very little more about it – and what we do learn just made me more confused!

I was pleased to find that this book had a much stronger mystery element than the previous one and although some parts of the mystery didn’t feel fully resolved at the end, it was nice to see Flavia back to making her lists of suspects and searching for clues. Finally, don’t Alan Bradley’s books have great titles? This one is taken from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline: “Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust”. The title of the next one, Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, is also Shakespeare-inspired. I’m looking forward to reading it – despite not liking the last two books as much as the earlier ones, I do still enjoy spending time with Flavia!

This is Book #2 for my R.I.P. XII challenge.

The Fortune of War by Patrick O’Brian

This is book number six in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. I enjoyed the previous one so much I thought it would be a difficult act to follow, but I actually found this one just as good – and maybe even better. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin, I would recommend beginning with the first of the series, Master and Commander, and saving this review until you’ve caught up; otherwise, although I have tried to avoid too many spoilers in this post, you may come across something you would prefer not to know just yet.

The Fortune of War picks up the story shortly after Desolation Island ended. With his ship HMS Leopard declared unfit, Jack receives orders to return to England to take command of a forty-gun frigate, the Acasta. He and Stephen Maturin, accompanied by several other members of the crew, begin the long journey home as passengers on the courier ship La Flèche. Early in the voyage, however, they learn that war has broken out between Britain and America – the War of 1812 – and following a series of disasters, they are taken prisoner and find themselves brought to Boston, which is now enemy territory. At first, despite being wounded in the arm, Jack is not too worried; he’s sure there will be an exchange of prisoners soon and then they can be on their way again. The Americans, though, are convinced that there had been a spy on board the Leopard and are not about to let their suspects escape so easily!

I really enjoyed this book, after an initial panic where I found I couldn’t remember what happened at the end of Desolation Island. I think I need to stop leaving such long gaps between books! Luckily, though, Jack gives a recap to the Admiral in the first chapter and this serves as a reminder for the reader too. Once I settled back into the flow of the story, I loved it, particularly the parts of the novel set in Boston where Stephen’s spying activities come to the forefront. This leads to exciting scenes which are different from anything we’ve read in the series so far.

Stephen also has his long-awaited reunion with Diana Villiers, the woman he loves and who broke his heart at the end of HMS Surprise – but Diana has changed and it seems that his own feelings for her have changed too. Despite his disillusionment I found Diana much easier to like in this book than I did in the earlier ones, although with so much still unresolved by the end, I was left wondering whether they will find any happiness in the next book or whether their relationship will continue down its tempestuous path.

I have stopped worrying about the nautical terminology in these novels. I appreciate the authenticity O’Brian brings to the naval scenes, the level of his research and of course, his writing ability, but I know I’m never going to be able to follow everything that is happening; as long as I can understand the outcome of each battle or manoeuvre I’m happy! I think this must be the first book in the series where Jack has not actually had a ship of his own to command, but he and Stephen still manage to get caught up in two naval actions, both of which are closely based on real events from the War of 1812.

The next book in the series is The Surgeon’s Mate and based on the quality of the last two books I’m really looking forward to it.

Hamlet, Revenge! by Michael Innes

My first experience of Michael Innes’ writing came earlier this year when I read one of his short stories in the British Library Crime Classics anthology, Miraculous Mysteries. I knew I wanted to read more of his work, so I was was delighted to have an opportunity to read Hamlet, Revenge! via NetGalley.

Published in 1937, this is the second in his series of detective novels featuring Inspector John Appleby. However, Appleby doesn’t appear until the second section of the novel – the first part is devoted to setting the scene and introducing the very large cast of characters. As with many Golden Age mysteries, the action takes place in an English country house – in this case, Scamnum Court, which has been home to the Dukes of Horton for centuries. The novel opens with friends and acquaintances of the family beginning to arrive at Scamnum to take part in an amateur production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. When one of the guests is murdered during the performance, Appleby is called in to investigate.

This is a wonderfully complex mystery, even more so because Appleby doesn’t know exactly what type of crime has been committed. The murdered man was an important statesman whose death could have serious implications for the government, giving rise to fears that spies are operating at Scamnum Court. On the other hand, a series of revenge-themed messages received by the victim and several other guests indicate that this could be a crime of a more personal nature.

Mild curiosity ran round the table.

‘Yes. I had a telegram at the House just before coming down here. Just two words.’

This time Lord Auldearn spoke: ‘Two words?’

‘Hamlet, revenge!’

With a long list of potential suspects – we are told that there are more than thirty people involved in the play in some way – Appleby is kept busy trying to establish alibis and uncover motives, while avoiding the red herrings that are thrown in his way.

After a slightly overwhelming start (due to the number of characters and the detailed background information on Scamnum Court), once Appleby arrives on the scene and begins his inquiries the pace picks up and the story becomes quite gripping. It’s the sort of mystery I love: one with plenty of clues and several possible solutions – although of course only one is correct, and we have to wait until the end of the novel before everything is revealed. It’s also a very erudite and literary mystery; as well as lots of discussion and analysis of Hamlet, there are also a number of other literary allusions and references. If you know your Shakespeare you will probably get more out of the novel, but if not, don’t worry as it isn’t completely essential.

Although this is described as an Appleby novel, much of the story is actually written from the perspective of one of the other characters, Giles Gott, an academic who also writes crime novels under a pseudonym. As Michael Innes himself is a pseudonym (he also wrote using his real name of J.I.M. Stewart), I wondered whether Gott was a way for Innes to project some of his own personality into the story. There seems to be a previous friendship between the characters of Appleby and Gott, whom I have found out also appears in the first book in the series which I haven’t read yet; I don’t know whether he is in any of the others.

I really enjoyed Hamlet, Revenge! and am looking forward to reading more by Michael Innes.

This is book #1 for the R.I.P XII challenge.

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten books I loved in my first year of blogging

Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by The Broke and Bookish) is not something I participate in every week, but sometimes a particular topic appeals to me and I decide to put a list together. This week’s ‘throwback freebie’ theme gives me a chance to look back at some of the great books I read during my first year of blogging (from October 2009 to October 2010) – it seems so long ago now! This list could have been much longer, but I have narrowed my choices down to the following ten:

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1. The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier (read May 2010)

I also read and loved My Cousin Rachel in 2010, but I’ve chosen to feature this one here as it’s a less well-known du Maurier novel which really deserves more attention!

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2. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë (read February 2010)

Despite having read both Charlotte Brontë and Emily Brontë as a teenager, I didn’t get round to trying one of Anne’s books until 2010. I loved The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and went on to read Anne’s other novel, Agnes Grey, later in the year.

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3. Wild Swans by Jung Chang (read April 2010)

The first of two non-fiction books on my list, I found this memoir of Communist China shocking, fascinating and completely riveting.

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4. The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox (read May 2010)

I loved this complex and atmospheric mystery set in Victorian England – and I thought the sequel, The Glass of Time, was even better.

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5. The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas (read June 2010)

Dumas is a favourite author of mine and although this book is much less famous than The Count of Monte Cristo or The Three Musketeers, I still loved it. A book about a contest to grow the world’s first black tulip may not sound very exciting, but this one certainly was!

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6. Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd (read June 2010)

2010 was the year, thanks to blogging, that I discovered Persephone Books. This one, about a woman who returns home after four years trapped on a desert island only to find that war has broken out in her absence, is still one of my favourites.

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7. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (read November 2009)

This was one of the first books I reviewed on my blog. I loved it and, despite the length, I would like to read it again one day!

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8. A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy (read July 2010)

I also read and loved Tess of the d’Urbervilles in the same year, but, as with the du Mauriers, I want to highlight this one because it is the less well-known of the two.

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9. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (read November 2009)

This moving account of Brittain’s time as a VAD nurse during the First World War is the second non-fiction book on my list. It’s both heartbreaking and inspirational!

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10. Middlemarch by George Eliot (read August 2010)

Having previously had two failed attempts to get into Middlemarch, I joined in with a readalong in the summer of 2010 – and was glad I’d given it another chance because I loved it.

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Well, I’ve enjoyed my little trip down memory lane! Have you read any of these books? If you’ve been blogging for a while, as I have, which books do you remember loving in the first year you started your blog?

Historical Musings #30: Exploring Australia

In a comment on my last Historical Musings post – on the subject of nautical fiction – Yvonne mentioned that books set in Australia often feature a sea voyage, which is understandable as transportation (the relocation of prisoners) played such a big part in Australian history. I hadn’t read any of the books Yvonne referred to – and this made me think of how few historical fiction novels set in Australia I have actually read!

I have searched through my blog archives and it seems that the only Australian historical novels I have reviewed are The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally, about two sisters from the Macleay Valley who serve with the Australian Army Nursing Service during the First World War, and The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman, the story of a lighthouse keeper and his wife living on a remote island off the coast of Australia in the 1920s. There’s also The Ghost Writer by John Harwood, but that book is only partially set in Australia and not entirely historical either, although it does include some wonderful 19th century ghost stories!

Thinking of books that I read in the years before I started blogging, the only ones that come to mind are Colleen McCullough’s family saga, The Thorn Birds, and All the Rivers Run by Nancy Cato (of which I can remember nothing other than that I enjoyed it at the time). I obviously need to read more Australian novels! I found an interesting list at Goodreads but I’ve only heard of a few of those books…so where should I start?

Can you recommend any good historical fiction set in Australia?

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New to my historical fiction shelves since last month’s post:

* The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin
* The Autumn Throne by Elizabeth Chadwick
* The Snow Globe by Judith Kinghorn
* The Crow Garden by Alison Littlewood
* Snowdrift and Other Stories by Georgette Heyer
* The Last Hours by Minette Walters
* The Pearl Sister by Lucinda Riley
* The Stolen Marriage by Diane Chamberlain

Have you added any new historical fiction to your TBR recently?

Ship of Destiny by Robin Hobb

This, the third of Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders novels, brings the trilogy to an exciting and satisfying conclusion. Having become quite attached to the characters and swept away by the story over the course of the three novels, I’m sorry to have come to the end – but I have to admit, I’m also happy that I’ve finished and can now move on to the Tawny Man books and rejoin old friends from Hobb’s Farseer trilogy. First, though, I need to post my thoughts on Ship of Destiny – and as this is a trilogy which really needs to be read in order, I can’t avoid spoiling elements of the previous two books here; if you think you might want to read them I would recommend going no further with this review until you’ve read both Ship of Magic and The Mad Ship.

Ship of Destiny picks up each of the trilogy’s many storylines from where they left off at the end of The Mad Ship. For much of the novel, our main characters are divided into small groups, each having separate adventures of their own, until fate eventually brings them together in a dramatic sequence of events which brings The Liveship Traders to a close.

First of all, there’s Malta, who has escaped from the aftermath of the earthquake in Trehaug and has found herself sailing down the hazardous Rain Wild River in the company of the childish and petulant Satrap of Jamaillia. Malta’s betrothed, Reyn Khuprus, is desperately searching for her, with the reluctant help of Tintaglia the dragon. Newly released from her cocoon, Tintaglia would prefer to be getting down to more important business, such as saving her species from extinction.

On board the liveship Paragon, Althea Vestrit, Brashen Trell and Amber the wood-carver are getting closer and closer to the Vivacia, the Vestrit family liveship which Althea has her heart set on reclaiming. But Vivacia has already bonded with her new captain, the pirate Kennit, and with Althea’s nephew Wintrow; Althea could be facing disappointment when she finally catches up with her beloved ship. Meanwhile, Ronica and Keffria are trying to rebuild and reform Bingtown following the Chalcedean invasion – but for this they will need the cooperation of Serilla, the Satrap’s Companion, whose priority seems to be to obtain power for herself.

When I wrote about The Mad Ship a few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was particularly intrigued by Amber, as she made me think of another character from the Farseer trilogy. That character, of course, is the Fool, and I was pleased to find that my suspicions were confirmed in this book. Amber recarves Paragon’s figurehead to resemble Fitz, there are discussions of destiny, and there are exchanges like this:

“You’d have to be a fool to think you could change the course of the whole world.”

She was silent until she broke out in a shaky laugh. “Oh, Paragon, in that you are more right than you know, my friend.”

Other characters continued to interest me too, particularly Malta. Who would have thought the annoying, selfish girl we met in the first book would mature so quickly and turn out to be such a shrewd negotiator? Kennit, on the other hand, goes from being a complex and strangely sympathetic character to a villain whose treatment of Althea and Paragon made me lose all respect for him – although I did find his final scenes in the book quite moving.

On reaching the end of The Liveship Traders, I didn’t feel as bereft as at the end of The Farseer trilogy, which I think is partly because, while there were plenty of characters I liked and cared about, I never felt as close to any of them as I did to Fitz. I was less emotionally involved with this trilogy, but I did still thoroughly enjoy it; I loved the world Robin Hobb created here and I was impressed by her ability to handle multiple storylines and keep track of who knows what! Also, as someone who doesn’t read a lot of fantasy, I found the dragon element fascinating, which is probably fortunate as if I’m going to continue working through Hobb’s novels I will eventually need to read The Rain Wild Chronicles which, judging by the titles, sound very dragon-heavy! First, though, I’m looking forward to the Tawny Man trilogy – I have my copy of the first book, Fool’s Errand, ready and waiting…