Review: “Operation Goodwood” By Sara Sheridan (Novel)

Well, it has been far too long since I read one of Sara Sheridan’s “Mirabelle Bevan” historical detective novels. Although I read the first two books in 2017 (but only got round to reviewing the first one), I didn’t get round to reading any more of them, since I was going through a phase of not reading much back then.

When I remembered the series, I looked for my copies of the third and fourth books, but couldn’t remember where I’d put them (Edit: I finally found them shortly after finishing the first draft of this review). So, instead, I ended up buying a cheap second-hand hardback copy of the fifth novel “Operation Goodwood” (2016) online. And, since this is a series where each novel tells a self-contained story, I thought that I’d read it next.

So, let’s take a look at “Operation Goodwood”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2016 Constable (UK) hardback edition of “Operation Goodwood” that I read.

The novel begins in summer 1955 at Goodwood. Debt collector and ex-SOE agent Mirabelle Bevan is watching a motor race with her partner Superintendent McGregor. After catching a pickpocket sneaking through the crowd, Mirabelle returns the stolen money just in time to see a racer called Dougie Beaumont beat Stirling Moss to the finish line.

Several weeks later, Mirabelle wakes up in the middle of the night in her flat in Brighton. The flat is on fire! After a narrow escape from the burning building, she watches the fire service stretcher a dead body out of the flat above. To her shock, the body is none other than Dougie Beaumont. Although the injuries on his neck suggest that he took his own life, something doesn’t quite add up about this. So, Mirabelle decides to investigate…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a fairly solid historical detective novel. Although it didn’t have quite the same gloomy “film noir”-like atmosphere as the earlier books in the series that I’ve read, it is still a rather compelling mystery that is kind of a bit like a cross between a formal Agatha Christie-style detective story and a more modern/gritty historical detective novel.

The novel’s detective elements are reasonably good, with the story taking more of an Agatha Christie-style emphasis on interviewing people and finding out the motive for the crime (as opposed to Sherlock Holmes-style deductions from physical evidence). Even so, there’s a fair amount of hidden clues, red herrings, sneaking around and clever ruses here too.

As you would expect from a detective story, there is also a second murder that is linked to the first one. But, whilst this second murder is solved, the culprit for the first one isn’t explicitly stated. However, the novel gives enough background information, hints etc… for astute readers to guess who was probably responsible for it. Given the motive, this implied conclusion seems somewhat realistic and also helps to add a slightly chilling tone to this part of the story.

In terms of the historical setting, it is reasonably well written. In addition to a good variety of locations (eg: Brighton, Goodwood, London, Chichester, Tangmere etc..), the novel also does the usual thing of contrasting the genteel popular image of 1950s Britain with all of the stifling repression, prejudices, conservatism etc.. that lurked beneath the surface of it.

There are also quite a few references to major events and historical figures of the time, with some major elements of the plot also revolving around a less well-known (and very disturbing) part of 1950s history. But, if you’ve read about these colonial atrocities before, then the fact that references to them are somewhat understated during the early-middle parts of the novel might tip you off about the ending though. Even so, the novel does use the reader’s knowledge of 1950s history to plant a few clever red herrings too.

In terms of the characters, they are fairly well-written. In addition to a few familiar faces from earlier books in the series (eg: Vesta, Charlie etc..), Mirabelle is the same confident, realistic and resourceful detective as usual too. McGregor is, in the classic fashion, an official detective who is always a few steps behind Mirabelle (in addition to being the source of a few scenes of relationship-based drama too). Most of the other characters are either ordinary people who help Mirabelle or aristocrats who have secrets and/or possible motives for murder.

In terms of the writing, the novel’s third person narration is formal and descriptive enough to emphasise the 1950s setting, but “matter of fact” enough to seem both modern and easily-readable. As you would expect from a classic-style detective story, the third-person narrator always follows Mirabelle and she is present during pretty much every scene of the novel.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is reasonably good. At a fairly efficient 272 pages in length (plus several pages of historical notes, reading group questions etc..), this novel never really feels bloated or over-extended. Likewise, whilst the story moves along at a fairly moderate pace, it is compelling enough for it not to seem too slow-paced.

All in all, this is a reasonably good detective novel. Whilst it doesn’t really have the same gloomy atmosphere as the earlier books in the series, and the focus on aristocratic characters/suspects gives the novel a slightly old-school Agatha Christie-like tone which means that it doesn’t stand out from the crowd as much as I’d have liked, it is still a fairly solid detective story.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get about a four.

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Review: “Heresy” By S. J. Parris (Novel)

Well, it has been quite a while since I last read a historical novel. And, after seeing the name Giordano Bruno mentioned in the previous novel I read, I remembered a really brilliant historical thriller I read a couple of months earlier called “Sacrilege” by S. J. Parris.

A few weeks after I’d read that novel, I ended up returning to the charity shop in Petersfield where I bought it and found two other Parris novels there. So, I thought that it was finally time to take a look at one of them – Parris’ 2010 novel “Heresy”.

So, let’s take a look at “Heresy”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2011 Harper (UK) paperback edition of “Heresy” that I read.

The novel begins with a short scene set in Naples in 1576. A monk called Giordano Bruno is reading a banned manuscript in the monastery’s privy when he is interrupted by the suspicious abbot. Barely having time to flush the manuscript, Bruno is placed under suspicion and ordered to wait for the inquisition. Luckily for Bruno, his room-mate gives him a dagger and tells him to flee out of the window before it is too late.

The story then flashes forwards to London in 1583. By now, Bruno is a friend of Sir Philip Sidney – nephew of Sir Francis Walshingham, the Queen’s spymaster. Sidney is about to take a trip to Oxford University to entertain an obnoxious nobleman from Poland and Bruno is invited too. Although Bruno originally plans to attend a debate and look for a lost Greek manuscript in Oxford, Walshingham orders Bruno to be on the look out for religious plots too.

Of course, a couple of days after Bruno arrives at the university, there is a brutal murder in the grounds and he is tasked with investigating it….

One of the first things I will say about this novel is that, whilst it is a bit more slow-paced than Parris’ “Sacrilege”, it’s a very atmospheric and compelling detective story that could easily rival some of C. J. Sansom’s earlier “Shardlake” novels. In addition to the traditional detective story thing of setting most of the story in one claustrophobic location (eg: Oxford), this novel also includes some suspsenful and gripping spy thriller elements too. Even so, this is slightly more of a detective story than a thriller.

The novel’s detective elements are pretty interesting too, with Bruno finding himself on the trail of a serial killer who kills their victims in ways reminiscent of the famous religious martyrs of the time. The investigation itself remains a fairly constant thing throughout the novel and, although some of the clues that Bruno finds seem a little bit contrived, there is usually a logical explanation for them and they help to keep the story moving at a fairly decent pace. Plus, of course, the gloomy, rainy spires of Oxford are the perfect setting for a detective story too 🙂

Likewise, whilst the novel’s spy thriller elements aren’t emphasised to the same extent that they are in Parris’ “Sacrilege”, they still help to add a bit of thrillingly suspenseful drama to the story. In addition to a few secret codes, clandestine meetings and suspenseful scenes of snooping, there are also some quite literal “cloak and dagger” moments later in the story that really help to keep the denouement fairly gripping. Even so, this novel is more of a detective story than a thriller.

Like in a lot of novels set in Elizabethan times, the fractious religious politics of the time play a rather large part in this story and also help to add a rather ominous atmosphere to the story too. In a genius move, Parris ensures that Bruno doesn’t really take too much of a side in these religious disputes, which allows for both of the major Christian denominations of the time to be depicted in an equally critical way.

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly good. Not only is Bruno a fairly interesting protagonist, but he often finds himself in situations where he is unsure of who he can trust, which helps to add suspense to the story. The novel’s cast of background characters all come across as reasonably realistic people, who almost all have some kind of tragedy or secret in their lives. This really helps to emphasise the harsh nature of the time the story is set in, in addition to adding a bit of extra mystery to the story too.

In terms of the writing, the novel’s first-person narration is very well-written. Like in C.J.Sansom’s “Shardlake” novels, most of the story’s narration is kept fairly “timeless”, with only a few olde-worlde phrases added occasionally to give the story flavour. This allows the story to remain readable and move at a decent pace. Plus, like with a lot of historical novels, there’s also a fair amount of emphasis on atmospheric descriptions and dialogue too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is ok. Although, at 474 pages long, it could have possibly been trimmed a bit, it never really felt too long. Likewise, although the story remains fairly moderately-paced until some of the more fast-paced scenes later in the story, the story’s underlying mystery and the general atmosphere of the story really help to keep these slower parts of the story compelling.

All in all, this is a really intriguing and atmospheric detective novel. Yes, it isn’t as fast-paced as Parris’ “Sacrilege”, but it is still a reasonably compelling historical mystery story that fans of C.J.Sansom will probably enjoy 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least four.

Review: “Bring Up The Bodies” By Hilary Mantel (Novel)

Well, although I had slightly mixed feelings about Hilary Mantel’s 2009 novel “Wolf Hall“, I was still in the mood for historical fiction. So, I thought that I’d check out the novel’s 2012 sequel – “Bring Up The Bodies”.

Like with “Wolf Hall”, I found a second-hand copy of this novel in a charity shop in Petersfield (the same shop, no less) last year.

Although this novel is a sequel to “Wolf Hall”, it can theoretically be read as a stand-alone novel. However, it is worth reading “Wolf Hall” first – both in order to learn more about the characters and, more importantly, to get used to Mantel’s unusual writing style too.

So, let’s take a look at “Bring Up The Bodies”. Needless to say, this review contains SPOILERS. But, if you have a fairly basic knowledge of Tudor history, then you’ll already know how this novel will end.

This is the 2013 Fourth Estate (UK) paperback edition of “Bring Up The Bodies” that I read.

The novel begins in Wiltshire in 1535. King Henry VIII is on holiday, taking a tour of the many stately houses of England, accompanied by his faithful advisor Thomas Cromwell. During this holiday, Henry begins to take a liking to Jane Seymour, whilst his relationship with his wife Anne Boleyn grows ever more distant and acrimonious.

And, after a complex series of events, the King wishes to end his marriage to Anne so that he can wed Jane instead. And, of course, there is only one person that the king can entrust with this devious task… Thomas Cromwell.

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that whilst it is still a character study of Thomas Cromwell, there is more focus on intrigue and plotting than in “Wolf Hall”. As such, it’s kind of like a more realistic version of “Game Of Thrones”.

Plus, although this novel certainly isn’t a fast-paced thriller, it feels a lot more focused and dramatic than “Wolf Hall” does. In part, this is because I’ve got used to Mantel’s unusual writing style and, in part, it is because this novel tells a somewhat more linear story (with fewer flashbacks, time jumps etc..) than “Wolf Hall” does.

Like with “Wolf Hall”, one of this novel’s strengths lies in it’s atmosphere. The story is filled with all sorts of poetic descriptions of Tudor life, which really help to bring the story to life.

Whilst this story doesn’t go in the dystopian direction of something like S.J.Parris’ “Sacrilege“, it doesn’t present an entirely rose-tinted version of the Tudor age either. This is a novel set in a world where opulence and squalour sit side by side, where the king wields near-absolute power and everything revolves around the people who try to influence him.

This exploration of power is best seen in one scene where, after a jousting accident, Henry’s court fears that he is dead. Even if you know the basic history, this scene is still surprisingly suspenseful. In the brief moment where everyone fears Henry’s loss, you can really feel the instability and uncertainty that comes from having all authority reside within one man.

Then, in a moment of genius, this scene is brilliantly counterpointed by a moment where Henry publicly berates Cromwell for his ambitions – only to meekly speak to Cromwell later when he realises that, without Cromwell, his job as king would be much more difficult. It’s a scene which brilliantly shows that power, by it’s very nature, is not something that can be truly held by just one person.

This is also, as you may have guessed, a novel about death too. In addition to all of the events leading up to Anne’s execution, this novel focuses heavily on how the dead influence the living. Not only are many of the novel’s events set into motion after Catherine Of Aragon dies from natural causes, but Cromwell is also shown to be motivated by the memory of his time with Cardinal Wolsey etc…

Another one of this novel’s strengths lies in the characters – Cromwell in particular. Because both this novel and “Wolf Hall” focus so heavily on Cromwell, the scenes in the later parts of “Bring Up The Bodies” where he becomes much more of a morally-ambiguous character are so subtle and gradual that you might initially find yourself smirking along with him until you suddenly remember the gravity of what he is doing.

These scenes are combined with some brilliant moments of dark comedy (eg: Cromwell accidentally using Christmas decorations to scare a confession out of someone etc..) in such a way that Cromwell’s slow descent into evil is softened to the point of seeming even more chillingly realistic. He’s a loveable rogue… until the gavel falls on his enemies and they are taken to the scaffold.

Likewise, the novel’s portrayal of Henry VIII is fairly nuanced and complicated too – with the jovial and boisterous side of his character contrasted with his more emotional, sensitive and melancholic elements. Despite his bitter plot against his wife, he is also shown to be a surprisingly … noble… man, rather than the lecherous glutton of popular culture (although there are certainly hints of this side of him emerging…)

Anne Boleyn, on the other hand, is shown to be a much harsher and sharper character than she was in “Wolf Hall”. Although she still retains some dwindling power, her marriage to Henry has deteriorated since the events of “Wolf Hall” and, although she is shown to be uncertain about her grim fate until the very last drawn-out moment, this gaunt, harsh and embattled characterisation of her helps to ominously foreshadow the ending of the story.

The novel, of course, has lots of other interesting historical and fictional characters – but I would probably be here all day if I wrote about each one of them. But, in general, the characters in this novel are as good as ever.

As for the writing in this novel, it’s really good… once you get used to Mantel’s writing style. If you’ve already read “Wolf Hall”, then you’ll have no problem here. If you haven’t, then prepare to be confused. In addition to using the present tense, Mantel will also do things like referring to Cromwell as “he” without introducing him first. But, when you get used to all of Mantel’s stylistic quirks, this novel’s third-person narration has a poetry and beauty to it that really has to be seen to be believed.

In terms of the length and pacing, this novel is a relatively concise 482 pages in length – making it shorter and slightly more focused than “Wolf Hall” 🙂 Whilst “Bring Up The Bodies” tells a reasonably slow-paced story, it is probably at it’s most focused and gripping during the earlier and later parts of the story. Even so, the middle of the novel still contains the occasional moment of drama to keep the story flowing. Likewise, since this novel contains fewer flashbacks and time jumps than in “Wolf Hall”, the story’s pacing feels a lot more confident too. Still, expect a slow-paced story with some very long chapters.

All in all, this is a better novel than “Wolf Hall”. Yes, it’s still fairly slow-paced, but the plot feels a lot more focused, the characters gain some extra complexity and it is as wonderfully atmospheric as ever. Plus, once you’ve got used to Mantel’s writing style, then this is also one of those novels that is worth reading just for the writing alone. Yes, you’ll probably have to put a bit of effort into reading this novel, but it’s worth it.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.

Review: “Sacrilege” By S. J. Parris (Novel)

Well, it’s been a while since I last read a historical detective novel. So, since I had a bit more time than I’ve had for the past three book reviews, I thought that I’d check out S. J. Parris’ 2012 novel “Sacrilege”.

This was one of a number of historical novels I found in a charity shop in Petersfield last year (the same one where I found my copy of Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall) and, given how much I enjoyed other novels in this genre like C.J.Sansom’s “Shardlake” novels (eg: “Heartstone“, “Lamentation” etc…), Parris’ novel seemed like just the thing to get me back into reading books that aren’t based on films, TV shows, videogames etc…

So, let’s take a look at “Sacrilege”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.

This is the 2012 Harper (UK) paperback edition of “Sacrilege” that I read.

The novel begins in London in 1584. Giordano Bruno, an Italian exile who is working for both the French ambassador and Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, fears that he is being followed.

A short while later, Giordano catches his pursuer – only to find that she is his ex-lover Sophia in disguise. Sophia tells him that she has been falsely accused of murdering her cruel husband in Cantebury and has been a fugitive ever since. So, Giordano decides to travel to Cantebury in order to clear her name and catch the real killer….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is very gripping 🙂 On the day I started reading it, I’d planned to read about 180 pages -I got to 300 before reluctantly deciding to save the rest of the book for the following day. Imagine a C.J.Sansom novel, but with better pacing, more suspense, slightly more formal/modern-style narration and a slightly grittier tone. Seriously, this is one of the best Tudor detective novels I’ve read in a while.

Not only does this novel contain a series of intriguing mysteries, but this is kept extra thrilling thanks to the novel’s brilliant use of suspense. A lot of this comes from the precarious, dangerous world that Giordano finds himself in. Not only does Giordano have to worry about protecting Sophia from arrest, he also has to contend with some powerful enemies in Cantebury, a corrupt justice system and Tudor-era xenophobia too. Throughout the novel, he’s constantly in danger from someone or another, which really helps to keep things grippingly suspenseful.

Interestingly, Parris’ depiction of Tudor England is considerably grimmer, crueller and more hostile than in the fiction of C.J.Sansom or Hilary Mantel. In a lot of ways, it reminded me a bit of G.R.R Martin’s “Song Of Ice And Fire” novels in terms of the atmosphere/emotional tone. This helps to add drama and suspense to the novel and, although a few moments of the story can be fairly depressing, this dystopian depiction of Tudor England fits the story really well.

Another interesting thing is how Parris’ “Sacrilege” presents Tudor England’s relationship with Europe in a different way to Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” too. In “Wolf Hall”, Tudor England is shown to be a resolutely European country – with many people speaking multiple languages, and people from across Europe living relatively harmoniously in London. On the other hand, “Sacrilege” mostly depicts Tudor England as a cruelly conservative dystopia that is teeming with narrow-minded xenophobia and general backwardness. I would say that this was a satire about Brexit… but this novel was published four years before the referendum.

In addition to all of this, “Sacrilege” is also a pretty good spy thriller too. Although the spy elements are something of a sub-plot, they help to add a little bit of extra intrigue and suspense to the story – especially since they often tend to involve classic-style spy stuff like coded messages, invisible ink, hidden doors, sneaking around etc… too.

Likewise, this sub-plot also allows for some exploration of the religious politics of Tudor England too – but, although this is an important element of the story, it isn’t quite as prominent as it is in novels like Sansom’s “Lamentation” and Mantel’s “Wolf Hall”.

The novel also includes a few interesting horror elements too – mostly consisting of some rather gothic moments that take place inside gloomy crypts and tunnels, in addition to some more traditional horror elements involving monstrous crimes of various types.

In terms of the characters, this novel is fairly good – with most of the characters coming across as realistic flawed people with realistic motivations. Like in C.J.Sansom’s “Shardlake” novels, the sympathetic characters don’t really “fit in” with the world around them for one reason or another (with “Sacrilege” being a novel about exiles and fugitives). And, of course, the story’s villains are also suitably monstrous too. Likewise, just like C.J.Sansom, this novel also takes a fairly modern approach towards things like psychology, social ills etc.. too.

As for the writing, Parris’ first-person narration works really well. Like C.J.Sansom, Parris’ narration is modern enough to be easily readable, whilst also carrying a slight Tudor flavour too (albeit less than in a Sansom novel). However, since the narrator of “Sacrilege” (Giordano) is a well-travelled scientist/scholar and diplomat, the narration is slightly more on the formal and descriptive side of things – although it is still “matter of fact” enough to keep the story fast-paced and gripping.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. Although, at 481 pages, this novel is a bit on the longer side of things – it never really feels bloated. Likewise, the pacing in this novel is excellent too 🙂 In other words, the story starts dramatically and remains consistently gripping throughout. Seriously, I cannot praise the pacing of this novel highly enough 🙂

All in all, this novel is a brilliantly gripping historical detective thriller novel. If you enjoy C. J. Sansom’s “Shardlake” books, then you might enjoy this book even more. It’s a bit like a Sansom novel, but with better pacing and more suspense. Likewise, if you want a novel that combines spy fiction, detective fiction and dystopian fiction, then this one might be worth looking at.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.

Review: “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel (Novel)

Well, since I was still in the mood for historical fiction set in Tudor times (after reading C. J. Sansom’s excellent “Heartstone), I thought that I’d check out a rather famous novel from 2009 called “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel.

This was a book that I found in a charity shop in Petersfield during a book-shopping trip last April (and, yes, I write these articles/reviews quite far in advance) and, since I’d heard of this novel before and was in a Tudor mood, I decided to check it out.

So, let’s take a look at “Wolf Hall”. I suppose I should point out that this review will contain some SPOILERS. But, if you know a little bit about the history, then you’ll know what happens in this book anyway.

This is the 2010 Fourth Estate (UK) paperback edition of “Wolf Hall” that I read.

The novel begins in Putney in 1500, when a teenage boy called Tom is being brutally beaten by his drunken father. After barely surviving the ordeal, he decides to flee to mainland Europe and make his living as a soldier.

Years later, in the 1520s, Thomas Cromwell is back in England and is now both a lawyer and the right-hand man of the influential Cardinal Wolsey. The main business at the Royal Court is King Henry VIII’s desire to divorce his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn. In order to achieve this, Henry has to get an annulment from Pope Clement. Needless to say, this is a rather complicated business.

And, whilst all of this is going on, Cardinal Wolsey begins to fall from favour with the king. Yet, thanks to Cromwell’s skills, resilience and intellect, Cromwell finds that he still retains some importance at the Royal Court. Not only that, he slowly begins to gain more influence and power than Wolsey ever had…

One of the first things that I will say about this book is that, when I bought it, the shopkeeper praised it before pointing out that it was “complicated”. At the time, I foolishly thought “I’ve read Neal Stephenson’s ‘The Diamond Age‘, I’ll be fine” or something like that. Of course, I underestimated this book.

Don’t get me wrong, it is a good novel – but don’t let the modern-style, linear and relatively fast-paced opening chapter lull you into a false sense of security. This is not an easily readable, fast or relaxing book. In other words, you’ll need to pay attention whilst reading it.

One of the things that this novel does is to present time in a non-linear way. In other words, there are lots of flashbacks and flashbacks-within-flashbacks. Likewise, the chapters aren’t always in chronological order either.

This novel can jump back and forth from year to year within the space of a couple of pages and, unless you’re paying attention, it can get very confusing very quickly. However, I can see why Mantel chose to do this. Not only does it mimic the way that memory itself works (after all, we rarely remember things in a linear, logical order), but it also allows for a lot of extra background detail too.

And, yes, this is very much a literary novel in this respect. Whilst “Wolf Hall” thankfully does have a plot, it is more of a novel about people, themes, ideas and the general atmosphere of part of history than it is a traditional story. And, in this respect, it works reasonably well.

It slowly builds up a large, rich, intricate tapestry of life that is really interesting to experience. Likewise, given that the number of political schemes in this novel could give “Game Of Thrones” a run for it’s money, this level of descriptive and human complexity really helps to add drama to the story too.

Likewise, the novel’s characters are absolutely brilliant too. Although Thomas Cromwell is the central focus of the story, all of the many other characters are presented as realistic, complicated people with different motivations. Seriously, if there is one thing that this novel does really well, it is characterisation. This is the kind of novel where you can literally feel how Cromwell misses Wolsey, how his rough early life has influenced his older self etc…

The novel’s more famous historical characters are also portrayed in some rather interesting ways too. Cromwell is presented as competent, resilient, intelligent and (relatively) benevolent. Catherine Of Aragon is presented as pious, stubborn and tragic. Cardinal Wolsey is presented as kindly, rich and paternalistic. Mary Tudor is presented as frail and meek. Elizabeth Tudor is an infant. Anne Boleyn is presented as mysterious, calculating and spiteful. Thomas More is portrayed as cruel and stubborn. Wriothsley is presented as an amiable, annoying, ambitious and mildly untrustworthy. And Henry VIII is, of course, Henry VIII.

Thematically, this novel is really interesting too. Although it is mostly a novel about the nature of power, it is also a novel about the religious turmoil of the 16th century, a novel about death and a lot of other things. Seriously, in thematic terms, this is a literary novel in the best sense of the word.

One fascinating theme (if you read “Wolf Hall” these days), is that the novel makes it very clear that 16th century England was a European country.

Not only does Thomas Cromwell speak at least six different languages (English, Welsh, French, German, Italian and Latin), but London is realistically shown to be a rather cosmopolitan place where people from across Europe live and do business. Likewise, Cromwell’s memory of his time in Italy, France etc.. during his youth helps him out a lot.

Although the novel doesn’t shy away from Henry VIII’s complicated relationship with Europe, it is surprisingly refreshing to see an “everyday” version of England that is so at ease with Europe. Where people speak multiple languages without a second thought (and, yes, this may make a few small parts of the novel confusing. I could understand most of the French dialogue but, due to my even more basic/limited knowledge of German, at least one line of dialogue was a complete mystery to me), where there is no silly scaremongering about immigration and where people care about what happens on the continent etc…

In terms of the writing, Mantel’s writing style will probably take you a while to get used to. Yes, this novel’s third-person narration is filled with numerous brilliant descriptions, quite a few clever chapter titles and lots of wonderfully deep sentences. However, there are a number of annoying stylistic quirks that can get in the way of the story slightly.

For example, Mantel will sometimes just refer to Cromwell as “he” without introducing him first. So, some scenes can get confusing if you don’t realise that Cromwell is supposed to be present. Plus, sometimes, Mantel doesn’t use speech marks for dialogue (although this usually isn’t too confusing). Likewise, Mantel will sometimes do things like introduce a piece of dialogue by just stating the character’s name (without speech tags, like in a play/film script). Still, once you get used to Mantel’s style, this novel becomes more readable and will seem more well-written.

In terms of length and pacing, this is a very long (650 pages!) and very slow-paced novel. How I read this in less than five days, I’ll never know! Although the story never quite gets boring, don’t expect it to be a gripping thriller either. Reading this book is like running a marathon. Still, that said, it is quite a satisfying read, even though the story sometimes moves at an almost glacial pace (especially with the frequent flashback scenes etc.. I mentioned earlier in this review).

All in all, whilst this is a good novel, don’t go into it expecting an easy, quick and relaxing read. This novel is quite satisfying to read and it is also one of those novels that is worth reading for the prestige of having read it. Even so, the structure and style of this story can border on confusing at times. So, be sure to pay attention whilst reading. Anyway, I think that the next book I’ll review will be a nice relaxing thriller novel about vampires or something like that.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a four.

Review: “Heartstone” By C.J.Sansom (Novel)

Although I reviewed C. J. Sansom’s “Lamentation” about two months ago, I hadn’t expected to review another one of his novels so soon. But, a family member found a copy of Sansom’s 2010 novel “Heartstone” in a charity shop and thought that I might like it. And, since this was one of the few Shardlake novels that I haven’t read, I was eager to read it.

So, let’s take a look at “Heartstone”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild SPOILERS.

This is the 2010 Mantle (UK) hardback edition of “Heartstone” that I read.

The year is 1545 and England is under threat from the French fleet. In London, the lawyer Matthew Shardlake finds himself involved in several cases. A random descripton from a friend of his from a previous case, Ellen Fettiplace, makes him curious about the dark secrets that have caused her to become agoraphobic.

Not only that, the Queen has summoned Shardlake. The son of one of her servants has hanged himself. Shortly before his death, he was investigating an adopted boy – Hugh Curteys- in Hampshire who he had tutored several years ago before being mysteriously dismissed from service. After returning from Hampshire, he believed that something terrible was going on inside the household and wished to lodge a legal complaint. The Queen wants Shardlake to take over this case and see if it has any merit.

So, with war looming, Shardlake and his faithful assistant Barak set off for Hampshire and Sussex in order to unravel these mysteries….

One of the first things that I will say about “Heartstone” is that, although it is fairly slow to start, it is one of the most gripping Shardlake novels that I’ve read. Not only does this book have a rather ominous atmosphere, but there is a complex network of intriguing mysteries and plot twists that will have you turning the pages in morbid fascination to find out more. Seriously, despite the slow-paced beginning, this is as much of a thriller novel as it is a detective novel.

Another thing that I will say about this novel is that, being from Hampshire myself, it was absolutely amazing to see so many familiar place names in this book (eg: Portsmouth, Portsdown Hill, Petersfield, Gosport, Horndean, Cosham, Portchester, Southsea Castle etc..).

Seriously, I don’t think that I’ve ever read a novel set around here before – and it was such a cool experience. Then again, as soon as the Mary Rose was mentioned, I instantly knew what was going to happen to it (after all, I’ve seen what’s left of it in a museum. Plus it is mentioned in Sansom’s 2014 novel “Lamentation” too).

In terms of the detective elements of this story, they are utterly brilliant. Not only is there an intriguing network of mysteries (seriously, at one point, Shardlake is investigating at least three different deaths that happened in three different places), but they are all connected to each other in all sorts of clever ways too.

As you would expect from a C. J. Sansom novel, the detective elements of the story are also tinged with a grim sense of horror that will keep you reading out of morbid fascination. And, this is where this novel really excels. For example, Shardlake spends quite a bit of time in a manor house that teems with dark secrets and hidden threats. To call these parts of the novel suspenseful and atmospheric would be an understatement. Seriously, if you can get through the slow-paced beginning of the story, then you’ll be utterly gripped for the rest of it.

The novel’s settings and background are really interesting too. Not only is there a tangible sense of threat from the French fleet (even if you already know how the history plays out), but the novel also focuses on things like the horrors of conscription and war, the poverty of the time and the religious politics of the 16th century too. Likewise, as mentioned earlier, large parts of this novel are set in Hampshire too 🙂 Although the main location in Hampshire (Hoyland Priory) is fictional, there are enough mentions and descriptions of real places to make this element of the story absolutely fascinating.

The characters in this novel are absolutely stellar too. In addition to quite a few familiar faces (eg: Shardlake, Barak, Guy, Tamasin etc..), the novel has a fairly large cast of well-written background characters too.

One of the things that both Sansom’s Shardlake series and G.R.R Martin’s “Song Of Ice And Fire” novels do really well is to show how people are realistically affected by events and live complicated lives, even when living in a more ignorant age. Likewise, since Shardlake finds himself embroiled in several mysteries, there are lots of dramatic and suspenseful dialogue exchanges too.

In terms of the writing, it is also brilliant. Like in the other novels in the series that I’ve read, Shardlake’s first-person narration is written in a way that has a bit of a historical flavour but is “matter of fact” enough to be extremely readable. In other words, it is a really good balance between modern-style and old fashioned-style narration. Not only does this lend the novel a lot of atmosphere, but it also means that the narration never gets in the way of the gripping story.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel isn’t quite perfect but is still good. Although, as mentioned earlier, the first part of the novel (at least the first 100 pages, if not more) is far too slow-paced, the rest of the novel is an absolutely gripping, suspenseful and expertly-paced detective thriller story. And, the rest of the novel is quite long. The main story is a gargantuan 626 pages in length, with a few pages of historical notes afterwards. Yes, the story is atmospheric and most of it is fairly gripping, but I wish that it had been trimmed down to at least 500-550 pages.

All in all, this is a brilliant novel. If you like dark, suspenseful and gripping detective stories, then you’ll love this one. If you want to read a novel set in Hampshire, then you’ll love this one. If you like historical fiction, then you’ll enjoy this novel too. Yes, the beginning of this novel is rather slow-paced and the story goes on for a long time but, these flaws aside, this novel is astonishingly good 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least four and a half.

Review: “Nefertiti” By Michelle Moran (Novel)

A few days before writing this review, I happened to see two documentaries about ancient Egypt. And, since I was in a bit of an “ancient Egypt” kind of mood afterwards, I remembered that I had a second-hand copy of Michelle Moran’s 2007 novel “Nefertiti” that a relative had given me several years ago.

So, let’s take a look at “Nefertiti”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2008 Quercus (UK) paperback edition of “Nefertiti” that I read.

“Nefertiti” is a historical novel about the reign of Nefertiti, queen and Pharaoh of Egypt. The story begins with a brief third-person description of how one of the elder pharaoh’s sons, Tuthmosis, dies in suspicious circumstances. Then, the novel is narrated by Nefertiti’s younger sister Mutnodjemet, beginning in Thebes when the sisters are teenagers and their influential father, Vizier Ay, manages to arrange a marriage between Nefertiti and the elder pharaoh’s only surviving son Amunhotep.

When Amunhotep is granted control of lower Egypt, he begins to order sweeping religious changes in addition to ordering the construction of a new city in the desert. Of course, Vizier Ay hopes that Nefertiti can influence the pharaoh to keep Egypt’s ancient religious traditions. However, the lure of power is strong and Nefertiti is eager to grab it…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a brilliantly epic, dramatic and atmospheric historical saga – although it is rather slow to start.

In essence, if you can get through the first hundred pages or so, then you’ll be rewarded with a wonderfully gripping story that reminded me of both HBO’s excellent “Rome” TV series (in terms of atmosphere, grandeur and style) and “Game Of Thrones” (in terms of ruthless political intrigue, drama, tyrannical rulers etc..). This novel is just as good, if not better, than these TV shows – but only once you’ve got past about the first hundred pages or so. So, stick with this book.

In terms of the historical elements of this novel – I am very glad that I watched a couple of documentaries before I read it. Whilst the story can of course be enjoyed as a simple drama/political thriller/romance/ historical saga without any prior knowledge, having a little bit of general background knowledge will help you to spot some of the novel’s moments of dramatic irony and/or historical accuracy (eg: there’s a throwaway line about Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus late in the book that is accurate to the archaeological findings in one of the documentaries I saw).

But, even if you know enough about the history to know how the story’s main events will turn out, most of the novel is still intriguingly gripping because of all of the various sub-plots and moments of drama. Because the novel is written from the perspective of Nefertiti’s sister, she is able to be involved in events, plots and romances that aren’t part of the well-known historical narrative. Likewise, some of the novel’s political schemes, plots and power plays are also rather unpredictable too. As such, the story can still be nail-bitingly suspenseful even if you know some of the history.

Plus, looking on Wikipedia, there does seem to be some deliberate artistic licence (eg: with regard to Horemheb and Mutnodjemet, with regard to how Nefertiti dies etc…). Although this isn’t historically accurate, it helps to add some unpredictability and drama to the story. However, when doing a little bit of background reading whilst writing this review, I suddenly noticed that two of the novel’s background characters (Ay and Horemheb) later became pharaohs, which is kind of cool.

In addition to this, the story is a grimly compelling drama about the nature of evil and the corrupting influence of power. Since, through Mutnodjemet’s eyes, we get to watch how Nefertiti goes from being a loving sister into a cold-hearted, selfish and imperious ruler.

In addition to this, the Pharaoh Amunhotep/Akhenaten is also a brilliantly chilling character too – he’s a religious fanatic, who is drunk with power and scarily incompetent too (eg: he orders the army to build him a new city, whilst some of Egypt’s outer territories are being invaded by Hittites etc..). So, this novel is a fascinatingly chilling glimpse into the nature of evil and tyranny too.

Yet, the novel’s emotional tone is surprisingly balanced. Unlike, say, “Game of Thrones”, this isn’t an unrelentingly bleak story. Yes, there are certainly grim, shocking, poignant, chilling, bleak and suspenseful moments but these are also balanced out with more joyous, heartwarming and peaceful moments. This novel is a wonderfully powerful emotional rollercoaster. So, if you want something that is a little bit like “Game Of Thrones”, but with a little bit less of a bleak tone to it, then you’ll enjoy this novel 🙂

The religious politics of ancient Egypt are also a really interesting element of this novel too. Basically, the novel covers the relatively brief period of history where Amunhotep/Akhenaten changed the state religion from the religion of Amun (eg: the traditional deities like Horus, Osiris, Anubis, Amun-Ra etc...) to the worship of a single sun god called Aten.

In addition to showing some of the reasons why the Pharaoh did this – eg: a mixture of religious fanaticism and a way to take power away from the influential priests of Amun – Moran also adds a bit of extra drama and suspense to the story by showing many of the characters still secretly worshipping the old gods in a similar way to how Americans drank in speakeasies etc… during prohibition.

The characters in this book are absolutely brilliant and the decision to narrate the story from the perspective of Nefertiti’s younger sister – who just wants to tend a garden and start a family, rather than get involved in politics – is a surprisingly good one. Not only is she a really likeable character, but her humanity is also brilliantly contrasted with many of the more sociopathic and power-hungry characters that she encounters. Seriously, I really loved the characters and characterisation in this novel 🙂

In terms of the writing and first-person narration, it’s fairly good too. The novel is written in a fairly readable style which is descriptive enough to evoke the grandeur and traditions of ancient Egypt whilst still being modern and matter-of-fact enough to be able to be read at a reasonable pace. The novel also uses a few Egyptian words to add flavour to the story, but the meaning is always obvious from the context – so, it never gets confusing.

In terms of the length and pacing, it’s reasonably ok. Although, as I mentioned, the novel is a bit slow to start, the final three-quarters of the book move at a reasonably decent pace. Whilst this isn’t exactly an ultra-fast paced thriller, the narration moves at a good pace and there are enough moments of drama to keep you gripped throughout most of the book. And, at about 420 pages or so, this novel is a little bit on the long side – but still just about compact enough not to feel bloated.

All in all, this is an absolutely brilliant historical novel. Yes, the first hundred pages or so are a bit of a slog but, once you get past those, you’ll be rewarded with a wonderfully gripping tale of power, intrigue, family and politics. I absolutely loved the atmosphere and characters in this novel too. As I mentioned earlier, if you like TV shows like “Rome” and “Game Of Thrones”, then you’ll probably enjoy this book 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.