March reading summary

March is over and I can’t say that I’m sorry to see it go. It’s been a stressful month for me at work as the woman I’ve been working with and sharing an office with for the last six years retired last week and the company directors decided to take the opportunity to restructure our department. This means that I’ve spent the whole month not knowing if my job would be changing, who I would be working with and even where I would be working. Things are settling down now and while I’m not exactly thrilled about the changes, at least I know what’s happening now and I’m hoping April is going to be a better month for me.

RomolaIn terms of reading, March got off to a great start with Ross Poldark, the first of Winston Graham’s Poldark series which I really enjoyed and finished just in time for the start of the BBC’s new adaptation. I also finished two long novels that I had begun in February. One of these was George Eliot’s classic novel set in Renaissance Italy, Romola, a detailed and demanding read but one that I loved; the second was Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh, the first in a trilogy set during the Opium Wars. Sea of Poppies ended on a cliffhanger but luckily I had a copy of the sequel, River of Smoke, so I could start that one straight away!

I managed to read two books for Jess’s Forgotten Histories challenge. One was Temeraire by Naomi Novik, an alternate history in which dragons play a part in the Napoleonic Wars. The other was City of God by Cecelia Holland, a novel set in Borgia-ruled Rome. I’m interested in reading more by both of these authors, particularly Naomi Novik – I have the second Temeraire novel, Throne of Jade, and also a review copy of her new novel Uprooted waiting to be read.

The TapestryI also read two Tudor novels this month – Dark Fire, the second book in CJ Sansom’s Shardlake series, and The Tapestry, the third and final volume of Nancy Bilyeau’s Joanna Stafford trilogy. I read some non-fiction too – An Accidental Tragedy by Roderick Graham, a biography of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Rebellion, the latest book in Peter Ackroyd’s History of England series. And I continued working through Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel books; The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel is a collection of short stories and although they were fun to read I’m disappointed that none of the Pimpernel sequels I’ve tried so far are as good as the original novel.

There were also two books that I started reading towards the end of the month but didn’t finish. I read the first three chapters of The Marigold Chain by Stella Riley, which I was interested in reading because I’d heard that it was similar to Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles; I wasn’t prepared for just how similar it was, to the point where it made me feel uncomfortable and I had to stop reading. I gave up on The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro as well. It was a very intriguing book with some fascinating concepts and ideas, but somewhere in the middle I accepted that I wasn’t engaging with either the story or the characters and couldn’t go any further. I’ll probably write more about that book soon as I did read more than half of it before abandoning it.

In April I’m hoping to read The Eustace Diamonds for Karen’s Anthony Trollope Bicentennial Celebration. Lory is also hosting an Elizabeth Goudge Reading Week and I would like to read something for that too. And of course, there’s Easter to look forward to this weekend!

What did you read in March? Do you have any plans for April?

The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay

The Last Light of the Sun I’m hoping to read Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven soon for the Once Upon A Time challenge, but first I need to tell you about another of his novels which I read a few weeks ago: The Last Light of the Sun.

This is the third book I’ve read by Kay and like the other two (Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan) it is set in a fantasy world that closely resembles a real historical one. A blue moon and a white moon shine in the sky, faeries wait to claim the souls of the dead, and ancient magical forces lurk in the forest, yet the world portrayed in The Last Light of the Sun can easily be identified as Northern Europe in the time of the Vikings, the Anglo-Saxons and the Celts.

In this re-imagined land, the Vikings have been renamed the Erlings, the Anglo-Saxons have become the Anglycn and the Celts have been transformed into the Cyngael. While the Erlings are sea-raiders who inhabit the islands in the far north, the Anglycn live in what is surely the country we now know as England, and the Cyngael live to the west, presumably in Wales. These lands of the Cyngael, on the western edge of the known world, are the last to see the light of the setting sun – and also form the final outpost of the new religion of Jad, the sun god.

Throughout the novel, we follow the adventures of three groups of characters from each of the three cultures I’ve described above. First, we meet Bern Thorkellson, a young Erling who has lost his lands and his freedom as a result of his father being exiled for murder. Desperate to escape and build a new life for himself, Bern joins a raiding party heading for the Anglycn shores. Meanwhile, in the Cyngael lands, two young princes called Alun and Dai happen to be spending the night at the home of a rival Cyngael warrior, Brynn ap Hywll, when it is attacked by another group of Erling raiders. Finally we get to know the family of the Anglcyn king, Aeldred, who has been trying to unite his people against the threat of the Erlings.

To describe the plot in any more detail would be difficult as it does become quite complex as the lives of each of these characters become entwined with all of the others. The author doesn’t really ‘take sides’ or favour one of the three cultures over the other two – perspectives and points of view are balanced fairly between the three and there are good people and bad within each group. Feuds and rivalries are formed, but so are friendships and loyalties as Erling, Anglcyn and Cyngael find that they need to adapt to a changing world.

One thing Kay does in this book, which I’m not sure I really like, is to occasionally leave his main characters behind for a while to explore the life of a completely new character who enters the novel for a few pages and then disappears, never to be mentioned again – as Kay himself describes it: “At the margins of any tale there are lives that come into it only for a moment. Or, put another way, there are those who run quickly through a story and then out, along their paths.” I can understand the reasons for this – to show us what is going on away from the central plot and the central characters – but I did find it slightly distracting.

This is a beautifully written novel, though, and as well as being an entertaining story, it’s also very thought-provoking in places. I particularly liked these two quotes:

“It happens this way. Small things, accidents of timing and congruence: and then all that flows in our lives from such moments owes its unfolding course, for good or ill, to them. We walk (or stumble) along paths laid down by people and events of which we remain forever ignorant. The road someone else never took, or travelled too late, or too soon, means an encounter, a piece of information, a memorable night, or death, or life.”

“A hard truth: that courage can be without meaning or impact, need not be rewarded, or even known. The world has not been made in that way. Perhaps, however, within the self there might come a resonance, the awareness of having done something difficult, of having done…something.”

I’ve loved all three of the Guy Gavriel Kay novels I’ve read so far and am looking forward to reading his others, beginning with Under Heaven. Have you read any of his books, and if so do you have a favourite?

The Tapestry by Nancy Bilyeau (with giveaway)

The Tapestry The Tapestry is the third book in Nancy Bilyeau’s wonderful Joanna Stafford trilogy, which is set in Tudor England and follows the adventures of a former Dominican novice whose life has been torn apart with the dissolution of the monasteries. I loved both of the previous books in the series – The Crown and The Chalice – and had been looking forward to reading this one for more than two years. I’m pleased to be able to say that it was worth the wait!

When we first met Joanna Stafford in The Crown, she was Sister Joanna, a novice nun at Dartford Priory. With the priory under threat of closure by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, Joanna became embroiled in a quest to find the legendary crown of Athelstan. Then, in The Chalice, she learned of her role in a mysterious prophecy and found herself caught up in another dangerous plot. As The Tapestry begins, Joanna is hoping to avoid any more involvement in quests and conspiracies. All she wants to do is settle down to a peaceful life in Dartford, weaving her tapestries and caring for her cousin’s little boy, Arthur. Unfortunately, people more powerful than herself have other plans for Joanna…

It seems that Joanna’s tapestries have come to the attention of King Henry VIII, who summons her to Whitehall Palace with a special commission. Almost as soon as she arrives at court, however, she discovers that her life is still in danger. Someone in the palace is spying on her – but who and why? Meanwhile, Joanna’s close friend Catherine Howard has also come to court and it is thought that the King is about to make her his fifth wife. Remembering the fates of Henry’s previous wives, Joanna is determined to do whatever she can to protect her friend as well as herself.

Like the first two Joanna Stafford novels, this is an exciting and compelling story. There are so many books set in the Tudor period that it must be difficult to find a new way to approach the subject, but this is exactly what Nancy Bilyeau has done here. I would describe these books as historical thrillers, as they are not exactly mysteries in the traditional sense – although they do all have an element of mystery in them, in this case the question of who is trying to harm Joanna. What really makes them stand out for me is Joanna herself; she’s such an interesting character, being both a former nun and also a member of the Stafford family – a niece of the late Duke of Buckingham and therefore related to the King himself.

As usual, the historical background has been well researched and some of the important events of the period are incorporated into the story, including Henry VIII’s fourth and fifth marriages to Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard, and the downfall of Thomas Cromwell. We get some insights into what is going on elsewhere in Europe too, first through the character of the artist Hans Holbein who befriends Joanna at Whitehall, and later when Joanna embarks on a journey across Germany, a land badly affected by famine and unrest.

The Tapestry is not a romance, but there are two men who have been possible love interests for Joanna since book one – the former Dominican friar and apothecary Edmund Sommerville and constable Geoffrey Scovill. I have enjoyed watching Joanna’s relationships with both Edmund and Geoffrey develop throughout the three novels and in this final book Joanna has an important choice to make which will bring this thread of the series to a conclusion.

If you’re new to these books I would recommend reading The Crown and then The Chalice before you pick up The Tapestry; that way you’ll be able to follow Joanna’s story from the beginning. I have loved the whole trilogy and am sorry to have reached the end of Joanna’s adventures now, but I’ll look forward to reading whatever Nancy Bilyeau writes next!

The Tapestry: US Publication Date: March 24 2015; UK Publication Date: April 24 2015

The Tapestry blog tour

I read The Tapestry as part of the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour. Please see the tour schedule for details of more reviews, interviews and guest posts.

Giveaway

Now here’s your chance to win one of three signed hardcover copies of The Tapestry.

You can enter the giveaway here: https://gleam.io/iyF4a/the-tapestry

Rules:
Giveaway starts on March 16th at 12:01am EST and ends at 11:59pm EST on April 3rd.
Giveaway is open to residents in North America and the UK.
You must be 18 or older to enter.
Winners will be chosen via GLEAM on April 4th and notified via email.
Winners have 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.

The League Of The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel After reading The Scarlet Pimpernel a few years ago I was pleased to find that Baroness Orczy had written a whole series of Pimpernel books. I slowly (very slowly – this is only the third one I’ve read in three years) began to work my way through them in chronological order, but as I haven’t been particularly impressed by either this one or Sir Percy Leads the Band, I’m now wondering if I really want to read all of the others.

The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel was published in 1919 and is a collection of short stories, unlike the first two books I read which were both full-length novels. I don’t often choose to read short stories but as I’m also in the middle of some longer, heavier books at the moment, I thought this collection would be ideal for dipping into when I needed something lighter.

There are eleven stories in this book – all set during the French Revolution – and each one involves a family or group of aristocrats whose lives are in danger. It falls to Sir Percy Blakeney and his friends (known as the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel) to rescue them from the guillotine, often with the help of some clever disguises, cunning deceptions and daring rescue plans. Although all eleven stories are entertaining, they do become very repetitive, and once you’re familiar with the way Sir Percy works they are also very predictable.

Most of the stories are too short to have much of a plot and their main purpose just seems to be to highlight Sir Percy’s various masquerades and tricks, but there are a few stories that are longer and more complex. My favourite was probably the first one, Sir Percy Explains, in which our hero agrees to help rescue a little boy who has been captured by the revolutionary Jean Paul Marat. Almost all of the stories are written in the third person, but there are one or two with a first person narrator, which I liked because it added some variety to the book. How Jean Pierre met the Scarlet Pimpernel, narrated by the loyal servant of an impoverished noblewoman, was one of these and another of my favourites from this collection.

I was a bit disappointed that, given the title of this book, none of the other League members apart from Percy have a big part to play in any of the adventures. Tony and Ffoulkes make a few brief appearances, and one story deals with the subject of a traitor in the League, but that’s all. There’s no Marguerite either – Percy’s wife only has a one-sentence mention in one of the stories – but we do see a lot of the Pimpernel’s enemy, Citizen Chauvelin.

From what I’ve heard about the Scarlet Pimpernel series, the quality varies quite a lot from book to book. This one is worth reading, especially if you like short story collections, but it certainly doesn’t compare to the original novel. If I do continue to read the series, the next book I come to chronologically will be I Will Repay, which I’m hoping I’ll enjoy more than this one.

Once Upon a Time IX

Once Upon a Time
(Art by Kimberly Kincaid)

Spring is here at last – and so is the start of this year’s Once Upon a Time reading challenge, hosted by Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings. The challenge is in its ninth year but this is the first time I’ve decided to take part.

The event runs from 21st March (today) to 21st June and involves reading books (or watching films or playing games) that encompass four categories: Fairy Tale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythology. There are different levels of participation and as this is my first year – and these are not genres I read very often – I’m signing up for The Journey level. This is perfect for me because it means I don’t need to commit to any specific number of books, as long as I read at least one.

I already own several books that would count towards this challenge, including these:

Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik
Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay
Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton
Stardust by Neil Gaiman
The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

Have you read any of these books?

Will you be taking part in Once Upon a Time?

City of God by Cecelia Holland

City of God Since 1966 Cecelia Holland has written over thirty novels, most of them historical fiction, and some are now being re-released in ebook format by Open Road Integrated Media. As I’ve never read any of her work before, I was pleased to receive a copy of her 1979 novel, City of God, via NetGalley.

City of God is set in Rome at the beginning of the sixteenth century and, as the subtitle suggests, it is A Novel of the Borgias. With the former Rodrigo Borgia now Pope Alexander VI, the Borgia family already wield a large amount of influence in Rome, but the Pope’s illegitimate son, the condottiero Cesare Borgia, is now turning his attention to conquering the rest of the Italian city states. Cesare, known as Duke Valentino, has a reputation for being cruel and ruthless and even as he plots and schemes his way to power, his enemies are conspiring against him.

We see all of this through the eyes of Nicholas Dawson, secretary to the Florentine ambassador to Rome. Raised at a Spanish monastery after his English parents died in Pamplona, Nicholas is a man who seems to have no real connection or loyalty to any particular country or city. This makes him an ideal target for Valentino, who has his eye on Florence and needs a spy within the Florentine embassy. Nicholas has already been secretly rewriting the ambassador’s dispatches to suit his own political views – will betraying Florence to the Borgias be the next step?

As this is the first Cecelia Holland novel I’ve read I didn’t know what to expect – and I was quite surprised. This is a book with a very dark and claustrophobic atmosphere and the writing is completely unromantic, focusing firmly on the political machinations of Nicholas and the Borgias and the intrigue of the Papal Court.

I didn’t find this an easy book to read, but that’s because I’m not very familiar with the Borgias or the history of Rome in this period and Holland does seem to assume that the reader has some previous knowledge. She doesn’t spend much time explaining the negotiations, alliances and conflicts between Spain, France and the various Italian city states, but expects us to already understand the politics involved. I do like historical fiction that makes me think and that encourages me to look things up for myself so I can learn about the period, but I did wish I had known more about the subject before I started!

The characters in City of God are very unlikeable. The book doesn’t challenge the popular view of the Borgias as scheming and corrupt – Alexander is a Pope who gambles and who has mistresses and children, while Cesare is brutal and unscrupulous and Lucrezia, his sister, is the subject of gossip and suspicion – and the people around them are not much better. I found nobody to sympathise with or to admire, not even Nicholas. This wasn’t a big problem, though, as I can often still enjoy a book without liking the characters – and at least they were interesting.

Nicholas himself is a fascinating, complex character but it’s never obvious where his loyalties lie or if he even has any at all. He appears to be motivated by self-interest, ambition and the desire for power, and he enjoys using his brains to give advice to the Borgias and to act independently of the Ambassador. I’m not sure I ever fully understood what Nicholas was trying to do, but something that happens right at the end of the book made me think again about what he was hoping to achieve. Nicholas is also a gay man living in a time when it is dangerous to be openly homosexual and this adds another layer to the novel. His relationship with a young man called Stefano is an important aspect of the plot (though don’t expect a great love story, as even this part of the novel is free of romance and sentiment).

City of God was an interesting and unusual read; I didn’t love it but I do want to try another of Cecelia Holland’s books as I think I might prefer one with a different setting. Now that more of her books are being made available again I’ll have plenty to choose from!

I’m counting this book towards Week 3 of the Forgotten Histories Reading Challenge – Read a book with an LGBT protagonist.

Small Island by Andrea Levy

Small Island Last year I read The Long Song, Andrea Levy’s novel about life on a sugar plantation in 19th century Jamaica. Small Island is a very different book and didn’t initially sound as appealing to me, but now that I’ve read both, this is definitely my favourite of the two.

Set in London in 1948 but with flashbacks to other times and places, Small Island follows the story of two couples, one British (Queenie and Bernard) and one Jamaican (Hortense and Gilbert). After a brief prologue, the first character we get to know is Hortense. Having been raised by her father’s rich relatives, Hortense is a well-mannered and well-educated young Jamaican woman. With Jamaica still a British colony (it wouldn’t gain independence until 1962), Hortense is desperate to see the ‘mother country’ she has heard so much about and when she marries Gilbert Joseph she has a chance to do just that.

Gilbert, who had volunteered with the RAF during World War II, has found it difficult to settle back into life in Jamaica and is planning to return to Britain where he believes there will be more opportunities. Arriving in London, he rents a room in a house belonging to Queenie Bligh, a white Englishwoman he previously met during the war, and Hortense joins him there a few months later. Queenie’s husband, Bernard, also in the RAF, has still not returned from the war, and Queenie has been taking in lodgers to help pay the bills. But when Bernard finally does come home, he is not at all pleased to find black people living in his house.

Through the eyes of these four very different men and women we watch the stories of life on two ‘small islands’ unfold – Britain and Jamaica. From the perspectives of Hortense and Gilbert we share the disappointment and bewilderment of two immigrants discovering that their new country is not quite what they had expected and facing a level of prejudice and discrimination they were unprepared for. In Bernard and Queenie we see how the attitudes of the white British people towards black immigrants range from overt racism and intolerance in Bernard’s case to a more open-minded attitude in Queenie’s (sadly most of the people Hortense and Gilbert meet tend to share Bernard’s views rather than Queenie’s). While things have changed a lot since the 1940s, these are obviously issues that are still important and relevant today, and it was interesting to read four such different points of view.

I was impressed by the way Levy manages to give each character a distinctive voice of his or her own (though I shouldn’t have been surprised after reading The Long Song, which also has a protagonist with a very strong narrative voice). The book is structured so that each of the four has a chance to narrate their part of the story, going back into the past to talk about their childhood and their experiences before and during the war. My favourite character was Gilbert, though I did enjoy the sections narrated by Queenie and Hortense too. I found Bernard’s section the least interesting, not just because I didn’t like him, but also because the story of his wartime experiences in India didn’t feel very relevant to the rest of the novel.

Apart from being bored with Bernard’s story, my only other problem was the ending, which I thought relied too heavily on coincidences to bring the novel to its conclusion. Other than that, I loved this book! I know Andrea Levy has written three other novels as well as Small Island and The Long Song, and although I haven’t heard much about any of them I do want to investigate at some point.

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