Prague Nights by Benjamin Black

I had never heard of Benjamin Black until I spotted his new novel available on NetGalley, but I quickly discovered that it is a pseudonym of the Irish author better known as John Banville. Not having read anything by Banville either, I had no idea what to expect from Prague Nights, but the title was enough to make me interested in reading it (note: the US title is Wolf on a String) – Prague is a beautiful city and one I would recommend visiting, if you haven’t already. To experience Prague as it is in this novel, however, you would need a time machine as the action takes place more than four hundred years ago, at the end of the sixteenth century.

It’s 1599 and Christian Stern, a young doctor from Regensburg, has just arrived in Prague. On his first night in the city he stumbles across the dead body of a young woman half buried in snow. He reports his discovery and expects that to be the end of the matter, so he is shocked when he is accused of killing the girl himself. Her identity is given as Magdalena Kroll, mistress of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II and daughter of his ‘chief wizard’ Ulrich Kroll. Stern knows he is in serious trouble, but fortunately for him, the emperor – a superstitious man with a strong belief in the occult – believes him to be a messenger whose arrival in Prague had been predicted in a prophecy.

Freed of suspicion now, Stern is given the task of discovering who really did kill Magdalena Kroll. It is a mission which will bring him into conflict with some of the most powerful men in Prague, embroil him in a love affair with another of the emperor’s mistresses, Caterina Sardo, and send him to the town of Most in search of the English occultist Edward Kelley, who it is believed may hold the key to the mystery.

Prague Nights is one of those books that sounds as though it should be much better than it actually is. That’s not to say that I didn’t like it at all, because there were some aspects that I enjoyed, which I’ll return to shortly, but it definitely wasn’t the atmospheric, exciting historical mystery novel I had hoped it would be. I was disappointed that it wasn’t really much of a mystery; yes, there is a murder at the beginning and we find out who was responsible for it at the end, but in between, our narrator, Christian Stern, makes very little effort to actually investigate. Things happen around him but he takes no active part and by the time I reached the end of the book, I found that I no longer really cared how Magdalena Kroll had died and why.

The writing style is descriptive and detailed with a formal feel which suits the time period and the descriptions of Prague’s buildings, bridges and cobbled streets and squares are nicely done:

I had often tried to imagine Prague and its glories, but the reality of it was grander and more gracious than anything I could have dreamed of. Past the castle, we stopped on the height there to look out over the city. The sky was white and the air was draped with a freezing mist, pierced by many spires, all of them appearing black in that pervasive icy miasma. Despite the wintry murk, I could see the river and its bridges and, beyond, the clock tower in the Old Town Square.

This wasn’t enough to make me love the book, however. To be able to love a book I need to at least feel something for the characters and unfortunately I felt very little for Christian Stern or any of the other people who play a part in the novel. That’s particularly frustrating because, in real life, Rudolf II and the members of his court sound fascinating, especially his son, Don Julius Caesar. In his author’s note, Benjamin Black talks about the historical figures on which his characters are based, explaining where he sticks to factual information and where he uses his imagination. As I previously knew nothing about 16th century Prague or Rudolf’s court, it was good to have the opportunity to learn something new, even if the story itself didn’t really succeed in holding my attention.

Have you read anything by Benjamin Black/John Banville? And do you have any other books set in Prague to recommend?

Margaret Kennedy Day: Lucy Carmichael

For this year’s Margaret Kennedy Day, hosted by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock, I decided to read Lucy Carmichael, Kennedy’s tenth novel, published in 1951. With so many of her books still unread to choose from – I’ve previously read only The Constant Nymph and Troy Chimneys – I had no real reason for picking this one over the others, but it’s one of Jane’s favourites so I hoped I had made a good choice!

Lucy Carmichael, as you would expect, follows the story of Lucy Carmichael who, as the novel opens, is preparing for her wedding to Patrick Reilly. It should be one of the happiest days of Lucy’s life, but instead it is one of the worst: Patrick doesn’t turn up, the wedding doesn’t take place and Lucy is left devastated. As she tries to come to terms with what has happened, she decides that if she is to move on with her life she needs to get away and start again in a place where nobody knows about her past. And so she jumps at the chance to take a new job at an arts institute in another town, which sounds like just the sort of change she needs.

Settling into her new home and new job in Ravonsbridge, Lucy makes new friends, forms new relationships and becomes a valued member of the community. Eventually she will even have the chance to love again, although it will take her a while to get to that point as she now has different priorities and more experience, and wants to get things right this time. Apart from the drama of the opening scenes this is not a very dramatic story, but there is still a lot going on in Lucy’s life and I won’t delve into the plot in any more detail as I wouldn’t want to spoil any little surprises for future readers.

Margaret Kennedy shows a lot of understanding and sympathy for Lucy’s situation; being jilted at the altar is, thankfully, not something I have experienced myself but if it did happen I hope that I would have the strength to react the way Lucy does, with dignity and resilience, rather than allowing her heartbreak and humiliation to destroy the rest of her life. Lucy is also lucky that she has a close and loyal friend – Melissa – who keeps in touch with her after she leaves home, and although the story of their friendship is told mainly in the form of letters, it was one of my favourite aspects of the book.

But although I did enjoy this book – very much so – I couldn’t quite love it. I thought the story lost its way a little bit during the second half of the book and while Lucy’s work in the community was still interesting to read about, I wasn’t as absorbed as I was at the beginning. Last year for Margaret Kennedy Day I read Troy Chimneys, which turned out to be one of my books of the year; of all Kennedy’s novels, I suspect that was the perfect one for me and that I can’t expect the others to satisfy all of my personal reading tastes in quite the same way. Still, it was lovely to meet and get to know Lucy!

Have you read Lucy Carmichael or anything else by Margaret Kennedy? Are you taking part in this year’s Margaret Kennedy Day?

Winner of the 2017 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

Following the revelation of the shortlist for this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction in March, the winner was announced at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose on Saturday. As some of you will know, I am currently attempting to work my way through all of the shortlisted titles since 2010, so I have a particular interest in following this particular prize.

The seven titles on the 2017 shortlist were:

A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
The Vanishing Futurist by Charlotte Hobson
The Good People by Hannah Kent
Golden Hill by Francis Spufford
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

And the winner is…

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry!

This is the second time Sebastian Barry has won this prize (On Canaan’s Side in 2012 was the first). I haven’t yet managed to read all of the titles on this year’s shortlist, but Days Without End is one of the four that I have read and although it wasn’t my personal favourite, I did predict that it would probably win. I think it has a lot of the elements judges look for in a prize winner and, like all of Barry’s novels, it is beautifully written. In the words of the judging panel, “Eventually, Days Without End took the lead, for the glorious and unusual story; the seamlessly interwoven period research; and above all for the unfaltering power and authenticity of the narrative voice, a voice no reader is likely to forget.”

Have you read Days Without End? What did you think of it?

Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb

After finishing Robin Hobb’s wonderful Farseer trilogy in November 2014 I knew I wanted to read more of her books. I was desperate to find out what would happen next to the Farseer characters so it was tempting to go straight to her Tawny Man trilogy, but after looking at some recommended reading orders, I decided it would be better to read her other series, The Liveship Traders, first. If none of this means anything to you because you’re unfamiliar with Robin Hobb, rest assured that reading Ship of Magic does not require any knowledge of previous Hobb novels and I’ve avoided spoiling them in the rest of this post!

Ship of Magic is set in the same world as the Farseer books, but the action this time centres around Bingtown, a coastal community of traders and merchants governed by the highly respected Bingtown Trader families, descendants of the original settlers of those shores who came from the mysterious Rain Wilds. The Bingtown Traders have maintained their connections with those who remained in the Rain Wilds and as part of this alliance the Rain Wild Traders provide the Bingtown Traders with the means to build a liveship – a debt so large that it can take generations to be paid off. Why is a liveship so important? Well, it is built from wizardwood – a magical wood with a mind of its own – and is the only type of vessel which can travel safely up the hazardous Rain Wild River to trade in the magnificent, enchanted goods that are available there.

At the beginning of the novel, the Vestrit family’s liveship, the Vivacia, is about to ‘quicken’ – the term given to the process by which a wizardwood ship comes to life after three generations of the family have died on board. Althea Vestrit is devastated by her father’s death, but excited at the thought of taking over the captaincy of the ship. After all, she has spent her childhood accompanying her father on his voyages and, as a blood-member of the family, she is the one who could be expected to share a close bond with the newly quickened Vivacia. She is bitterly disappointed, then, when it emerges that her father has actually left the ship to Kyle Haven, her elder sister’s husband, a man who has no understanding of what is involved in commanding a liveship. Furious and heartbroken, Althea decides to leave home and go out into the world where she can prove herself as a sailor and one day regain control of the Vivacia.

The edition of Ship of Magic I read is over 800 pages long, so you won’t be surprised to hear that there is a lot more to the plot than I have talked about so far. I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but I would like to briefly mention some of the other storylines and characters. First there’s Wintrow, Kyle’s son, who is taken from the monastery where he was studying to be a priest and not at all happy about being forced to serve with his father on board the Vivacia. Then there’s Wintrow’s sister Malta, left at home with her mother and grandmother. Malta longs for excitement in her life – to be allowed to go to balls, to wear grown-up dresses and be courted by young men – and she can’t understand why her family are so determined to stop her. Finally, there’s Kennit, a pirate captain who dreams of becoming a pirate king and is sailing up and down the coast waiting for the chance to capture a liveship of his own.

I really enjoyed this book; although I certainly hadn’t intended to wait three years before reading it, I’m glad I didn’t pick it up immediately after finishing the last Farseer book when I would undoubtedly have just wanted more of the same story. There were times when I felt there was a little bit too much going on in this novel and too many characters to get to know – but for the most part, I thought they were worth knowing! The only characters I actively disliked were Kyle, Malta and one of Kyle’s crew members, Torg. The rest were interesting, nuanced and well written. I was particularly intrigued by Kennit, who in many ways is one of the villains of the book, but who does seem to have a conscience in the form of a wizardwood charm worn on his wrist. I’m also hoping to learn more about the wood-carver Amber and the abandoned liveship Paragon in the next book.

The title of that next novel is The Mad Ship and I have included it on my 20 Books of Summer list, so expect to hear all about it soon!

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

Despite enjoying two of Emma Donoghue’s previous books – Room and Frog Music – this latest novel about a girl in 19th century Ireland who stops eating didn’t appeal to me when it was published last year. It was only when I picked it up in the library a few weeks ago that I thought ‘actually, this does sound good’ – and with such a beautiful cover, how could I resist? And as it turned out, this is my favourite of the three Donoghue books I’ve read so far.

The Wonder is set in a small community in rural Ireland during just two weeks in 1859. Lib Wright, an English nurse who worked with Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War, arrives in the village to start a new job, knowing nothing about the position she has accepted except that her services will only be required for fourteen days. She is surprised to discover that her patient is an eleven-year-old girl, Anna O’Donnell, and that her task is not to nurse but to watch and observe.

Anna’s parents insist that their daughter has eaten nothing at all since her birthday four months ago and exists purely on prayer and faith. Lib is sceptical, but it seems that most people in the O’Donnells’ village – including the local priest and Anna’s elderly doctor – are happy to believe the claims. News of the girl’s amazing achievement has spread far and wide and visitors are arriving from all over Ireland to see ‘the Wonder’ for themselves. To prove whether or not Anna is a fraud, Lib and another woman – Sister Michael, a nun – have been appointed by a committee to take turns watching over Anna all day and night for the next two weeks.

Lib expects to get to the bottom of this mystery very quickly. Anna looks so healthy and full of life, it seems obvious that someone must be providing her with secret supplies of food – all Lib needs to do is keep her wits about her and ensure that she and Sister Michael never let the girl out of their sight. After a few days, however, she’s not so sure. Is Anna really the saint the villagers believe her to be? Is it all an elaborate hoax? Or could something more sinister be going on – and if Lib decides Anna is in danger, at what point should she try to intervene?

Like The Good People by Hannah Kent, another book set in 19th century Ireland, this is a fascinating exploration of the harm that can be done, often unintentionally, by superstition and a lack of understanding and the basic knowledge we take for granted today. In addition to this, there’s the hugely influential role of the Catholic Church, such a large part of everyday life for many Irish people in the 1850s, which Lib Wright – as an Englishwoman who has had her own faith driven out of her by her experiences in the Crimea – finds very frustrating; it seems incomprehensible to her that so many people are ready to accept that Anna O’Donnell is a living miracle when science suggests that there must be a more logical explanation. Anna’s situation is often quite sad and harrowing to read about and I desperately hoped her story would have a happy ending.

I was curious to know whether The Wonder was based on a true story, as the other Emma Donoghue books I’ve read were, but on reading the author’s note at the end it seems that although it is inspired by tales of Victorian ‘fasting girls’, it is not based on one particular case and is a fictional story.

The mystery element of the novel is very strong and at first the reader is as confused as Lib. Anna doesn’t appear to be a starving child, so she must be getting food from somewhere – but who is giving it to her and how? As the novel progresses and we learn more about the O’Donnell family and the community in which they live, other questions are raised. I was able to put enough of the clues and hints together to form a theory as to what was happening, but I was still completely gripped, waiting for Lib to uncover the truth. I thought The Wonder was…well, wonderful. Highly recommended!

This is Book 1/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

Historical Musings #27: A new list…

I have almost reached the end of my Classics Club list – a list of 100 books I put together in 2012 and have been slowly working through for the last five years. I was officially supposed to finish in March this year but didn’t quite manage it – although I’m not too worried about that, as I think taking my time to enjoy the rest of the books on my list is more important than rushing to meet a self-imposed deadline. Over the five years, I have discovered lots of great authors and have tried different types of books that never really appealed to me before, such as classic science fiction and plays. However, you won’t be surprised to hear that I also read a lot of classic historical fiction!

The books I have read for the Classics Club which can also be considered historical fiction include:

Lorna Doone by RD Blackmore
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (and its sequels)
Mary Anne, Frenchman’s Creek and The Glass-Blowers by Daphne du Maurier
Romola by George Eliot
The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
I, Claudius by Robert Graves
The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
The Princess of Cleves by Madame de Lafayette
The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy
Scaramouche, Bellarion, The Sea-Hawk and Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini
Ivanhoe and The Heart of Midlothian by Sir Walter Scott
Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger
The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson
Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

And a few others, including my current read, The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. When I finish The Leopard, the only books remaining on my Classics Club list will be my long-anticipated re-reads of two of my favourite books, Rebecca and The Count of Monte Cristo. I have already started thinking ahead to creating a second list to begin later in the year – and I would like your help!

Can you recommend some classic historical fiction for my next list?

I know I asked a similar question a while ago, but that related to classics by women only. I received some interesting suggestions at the time, particularly these four:

The World is Not Enough by Zoe Oldenbourg
The Fortunes of Garin by Mary Johnston
Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather
The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter

I have also been considering these:

Claudius the God by Robert Graves
The Cloister and the Hearth by Charles Reade
In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S. Haasse
The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni
La Reine Margot by Alexandre Dumas
The Fifth Queen trilogy by Ford Madox Ford
Captain from Castile by Samuel Shellabarger
Something else by Rafael Sabatini
Something else by Sir Walter Scott

~

Do you have any more suggestions for me?

To decide whether a book is ‘historical fiction’, I use as a guideline the Walter Scott Prize definition: the majority of the storyline must have taken place at least 60 years before the book was written. Defining a ‘classic’ is more difficult, so I’ll leave that up to you to decide!

I, Claudius by Robert Graves

When I decided, a few years ago, to include I, Claudius on my list of books to read for the Classics Club I didn’t really expect to enjoy it. It was a book that I felt I should read, due to its status as a work of classic historical fiction, rather than one that I actually wanted to read. The reason I didn’t particularly want to read it was because Ancient Rome was not a setting I found very appealing. That has slowly begun to change since reading Robert Harris’ excellent Cicero trilogy in 2015 and then Margaret George’s The Confessions of Young Nero earlier this year. It’s probably a good thing, then, that I, Claudius has lingered on my Classics Club list until almost the end – it meant that when I did finally pick it up last month, I was much more receptive to it than I would have been a while ago.

I, Claudius, as you would expect, is narrated by Claudius, the fourth Roman emperor. It takes the form of a fictional autobiography:

I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot”, or “That Claudius”, or “Claudius the Stammerer”, or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius”, am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the “golden predicament” from which I have never since become disentangled.

Claudius doesn’t actually tell us about his time as emperor in this novel – that will come later, in the sequel Claudius the God – but instead he gives us a very detailed account of his family background, his childhood and what it was like to live through the reigns of his three predecessors, Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula, who seemed to become progressively more corrupt, unstable and dangerous. However, it is obvious that the real power in Rome is wielded by Livia, the wife of Augustus (and Claudius’ grandmother) who systematically removes various rivals to the throne to ensure the succession of her own line. The ambitious, manipulative Livia is a great character and a constant presence throughout the novel as she works to control and shape the future of the Empire.

Of course, life for someone part of the imperial family as Claudius is comes with its own set of dangers. With his stammering, his twitching and his limp, he is regarded as an embarrassment, kept in the background and not taken seriously as a possible contender for the throne. There are hints and omens from the beginning – including one memorable scene which takes place early in the novel involving a poetic prophecy spoken by a Sibyl – but otherwise the very qualities that appear to make Claudius unsuitable as an emperor seem to keep him safe as those around him are methodically poisoned, exiled or assassinated. This might not be entirely down to luck, though, as Graves has the historian Asinius Pollio advising Claudius to exaggerate these qualities as they could be his only means of survival.

Although I did enjoy I, Claudius, it was a bit of a challenging read for me at times – but that was mainly due to the fact that I haven’t read a lot of fiction (or non-fiction, for that matter) about the Roman Empire so I only have a basic familiarity with the important events and people of the period. I wouldn’t say that it’s necessary to have any prior knowledge before starting this book, but it would certainly help! A piece of advice for future readers: you may find it useful to draw a family tree as you read, if your edition doesn’t already include one. The relationships between the characters quickly become very complicated, especially as so many of them marry and divorce several times, with children from each marriage (as well as adopted children) – but with a little bit of effort and attention, keeping track of the major players in the story isn’t too difficult.

If I have a criticism of this book it would be that as Claudius spends most of his time telling us about events that happened before his birth, elsewhere in the Empire or in which he had no personal involvement, this occasionally takes away the sense of drama and immediacy that there could have been had our narrator always been at the heart of the action. It’s still quite gripping in places – such as the sequence of events leading up to the death of his cousin Postumus, or the ‘haunting’ of his brother Germanicus (two of the few people to actually show Claudius any kindness) – but it’s probably worth being aware that this is not just a book about Claudius himself but also the history of the Roman Empire in general (the real Claudius was a writer and historian so Graves’ decision to have him tell the story in this way feels authentic).

I can’t comment on the accuracy of this novel, the sources Graves has used or the way he has chosen to interpret the characters, because I simply don’t know enough about the subject, but I do know that I found it much more enjoyable than I’d exected – and that I’m glad I decided to read it, despite my ambiguous feelings about Roman history. I’ll look forward to continuing the story soon with Claudius the God.