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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

Divided Loyalties On Hadrian's Wall

Island of Ghosts - Gillian Bradshaw

Well-written, with a character-driven plot and a strong emotional narrative, Island Of Ghosts is the story of Ariantes, the leader of a group of Sarmatian warriors, barbarian auxiliaries brought to Britain to be stationed beside Hadrian's Wall.

 

Ariantes' arrives with divided loyalties. He and his followers were incorporated into the Roman army after a defeat and feelings are still raw on both sides. Regarded with contempt by the Roman military establishment, he struggles to keep his followers from a suicidal mutiny, a task made all the harder when indigenous Celtic tribes begin to exploit their divided loyalties.

 

I have often wondered how successfully barbarian warriors managed to integrate after entering the Roman army en bloc. The loss of one identity and the struggle to take on  a new one must have been formidable. Gillian Bradshaw brings this rather academic question  to life by focusing on the personal. There is plenty of careful research in this book but at its heart is a love story that is both convincing and moving. That is not something one finds too often in fiction set in the ancient world.

 

A Great Year For Historical Fiction

To co-incide with the 2017 Longlist for the  the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction the Walter Scott Academy is recommending a further list of twenty books. My favourites are The North Water, The Ballroom and A Rising Man but I've read some of the others, too, and they were all very enjoyable.

 

The Walter Scott Prize Academy Recommends:

Carol Birch Orphans of the Carnival (Canongate)

Emily Bitto The Strays (Legend Press)

Jessie Burton The Muse (Picador)

Tracy Chevalier At the Edge of the Orchard (Borough Press)

Emma Donoghue The Wonder (Picador)

Susan Fletcher Let Me Tell you About a Man I Knew (Virago)

Anna Hope The Ballroom (Doubleday)

Lynne Katsukake The Translation of Love (Knopf Canada)

Lauri Kubuitsile The Scattering (Penguin South Africa)

Eowyn Ivey To the Bright Edge of the World (Tinder Press)

Ian McGuire The North Water (Scribner)

Abir Mukherjee A Rising Man (Harvill Secker)

S.J. Parris Conspiracy (HarperCollins)

Stephen Price By Gaslight (Oneworld)

Ralph Spurrier A Coin for the Hangman (Hookline Books)

Andrew Taylor The Ashes of London (HarperCollins)

Natasha Walter A Quiet Life (Borough Press)

A.N. Wilson Resolution (Atlantic)

Alissa York The Naturalist (Random House Canada)

Louisa Young Devotion (Borough Press)

Edwardian Essex In Very Slow Motion

The Essex Serpent - Sarah Perry
Cora Seagrove, a young, Edwardian widow is fascinated by the emerging science of palaeontology. With her intelligent, feminist, working-class companion Martha, she travels to Essex where rumours abound of a winged serpent that lives in the Blackwater River. There, despite her rationalist dismissal of religion, she becomes involved, in a slow-motion relationship with a married clergyman. It's a relationship that neither of them wishes to acknowledge. He is, after all, happily married and a devout Christian. She is, after all, newly released from an unhappy union and a determined atheist. And yet, the pleasure they find in each other's company exercises a gravitational pull that cannot be denied.

It's book full of beautifully observed moments. Nevertheless, I struggled with it. There is almost no plot and I found it difficult to believe in the characters. In general they seemed altogether too modern. "I need a drink!" Cora announces after a difficult day, sounding like a twenty-first century woman who has been obliged to work too late at the office. I also found it difficult to like them. The narrator tells us that no-one could resist Cora. Well, I could. She got on my nerves. She was too much a creature of whimsy.

I can see that there are many fine things about this book but it put me off reading for several week.
 
 
 

 

READING PROGRESS

 
February 19, 2017 – Finished Reading

A Study In Maroon

A Rising Man - Abir Mukherjee

Abir Mukherjee's debut crime novel, set in Calcutta in 1919, is instantly readable, wonderfully witty and very sharply observed. He's particularly good at setting, summoning up a vivid, if not-entirely respectful portrait of colonial India e.g.

 

"It was built in the style we like to call colonial neo-classic – all columns and cornices and shuttered windows. And it was painted maroon. If the Raj has a colour, it's maroon. Most government buildings, from police stations to post offices, are painted maroon. I expect there's a fat industrialist somewhere, Manchester or Birmingham probably, who got rich off the contract to produce a sea of maroon paint for all the buildings of the Raj."

 

Not long after his arrival in Calcutta, the protagonist, Captain Sam Wyndham of the Imperial Police Force, is confronted with a serious problem: the body of a sahib, dressed in black tie and tuxedo has turned up in the wrong part of town. Is this the beginning of an armed insurrection or was the victim part of something much more complicated? The investigation will see Sam nearly killed on more than one occasion as he struggles to uncover corruption at the very heart of British India.

 

With a jaundiced world-view as a result of four years in the trenches of World War One, a ruined marriage and a refusal to look the other way when his instinct tells him something is not right, Sam Wyndham  has all the characteristics of a hard-boiled detective and A Rising Man looks set to be the start of a highly successful series.

 

One tiny thing that marred it for me. An Englishman in 1919 would not have said, "I was sat" or "We were stood" unless he came from Yorkshire. Nor would he talk about protesting something. He would have said "protesting against".  Get on the case, editor!

Intrigue Amid The Icons

The Bearkeeper's Daughter - Gillian Bradshaw

 Set in Constantinople in the sixth century, this is the story of John, the illegitimate son of the empress Theodora. She was the eponymous bearkeeper's daughter, as well as being a former prostitute and actress who climbed her way out of poverty to become the most powerful woman in the world.

 

The story begins with John as a young man, arriving at the Byzantine court unexpectedly, not knowing whether his mother will acknowledge him , not even knowing whether she truly is his mother. It's a gamble that might have ended in his execution. Instead, Theodora welcomes him to the court and finds him a position. But on one condition: his identity must remain a secret.

 

This is a wonderfully engrossing novel. The characters are strongly depicted, the setting vividly evoked, the intrigues and dramas of the Byzantine court convincingly depicted. I devoured this book in a couple of days and all the time that I was reading it, I half-believed myself to be living amid the glittering mosaics and bejewelled icons of Justinian and Theodora's court.

Love and Death In Stalinist Russia

One Night in Winter - Simon Sebag Montefiore

Set in Russia at the end of the Second World War, One Night In Winter begins with the violent death of two schoolchildren on a bridge in Moscow during the victory celebrations. But these are not two ordinary young people, they are children of the top Bolshevik rulers and their unexplained deaths set off an inquiry that will see their friends and teachers incarcerated in the Lubianka and their families destroyed.

 

Atmospheric, cleverly-plotted, and grippingly narrated, this is a horribly convincing depiction of the senseless and brutal tyranny that Stalin generated. But it's also a tribute to the human spirit for even in the such a dark story there is room for generosity and love

 

There were times when I had to put this book aside because the tension became unbearable. But I never put it out of my thoughts. Wonderful storytelling.

Narrative History At Its Best

Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom - Tom Holland

Tom Holland's account of Early Medieval Europe has two main themes: the impact of the millennium on  a society conditioned to expect the end of the world as described in the Book of Revelation; and the power struggle between the papacy and the Holy Roman emperor that culminated in the Investiture Climax and saw an emperor excommunicated and a pope imprisoned in the Vatican.

 

Holland's argument that the battle between emperor and pope, a conflict given greater urgency by the imminent arrival of Antichrist, laid the foundations for the birth of modern Europe is perhaps a little strained  but it's worth it for the sheer panache  with which he romps through Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.

 

The sweep of the narrative is impressive, taking in events from Trondheim, to Jerusalem via Saxony, Cordoba and all stations to Constantinople, and the style is distinctly upbeat. At times almost taking on the voice of the characters, he is determined to convey what it felt like to be caught up in the events he describes.

 

You either like this approach or you don't - I read a distinctly sniffy review in The Telegraph by the historian, Noel Malcolm. But I couldn't put this book down. I found Holland's delight in the period completely infectious and I read the whole thing in about three days, neglecting all sorts of important jobs in the process. This is popular narrative history at its very best

 

The Context Of Renaissance Art

Renaissance Art: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) - Geraldine A. Johnson

Geraldine Johnson's no-nonsense approach to Renaissance art contrasts the very different contexts in which Renaissance paintings, sculpture and crafted objects can be viewed. On the one hand she examines attitudes at the time: the very specific demands of the patrons who commissioned these works, and the uses to which the works were put, whether devotional, political, familial or domestic. On the other hand she considers the reverence with which the same objects are regarded nowadays by gallery-goers gazing through a post-Romantic lens in which the artist is seen as a creative genius in conflict with the world, giving expression to his troubled personality through his art

 

The scope of the book is limited by the parameters of the series in which it belongs. Nevertheless, Johnson does an excellent job, focusing on a series of individual artworks and outlining how they embody the economic, religious and political forces  of the time. Clear, precise and informed.

Arrogance And Innocence

Greatest Hits - Laura Barnett

Two decades after Cass Wheeler, a hugely successful British singer-songwriter, retired abruptly from the music business, she is preparing to break her silence and release simultaneously an album of new material alongside an album of her greatest hits. The narrative of Laura Barnett's novel is structured around a day that Cass spends listening to each of the chosen tracks for her Greatest Hits album and remembering the events that inspired them.

 

Cass's reminiscences stretch right back to the early days of her career and Barnett does a very good job of evoking the heady sense of freedom of the nineteen seventies as the structures of post-war Britain, breached by the cultural explosion of the sixties, begin to crumble away, revealing a world where anything seems possible.

 

Unfortunately for Cass, the promises that a life of music seemed to offer turn out to be hollow: marital breakdown, the incompatibility of motherhood and the music business, and the mental illness of her daughter all conspire to turn her dream of unfettered creativity into a nightmare of recrimination.

 

It's an immensely readable novel. For me, however, the weak link is the lyrics with which each new section begins. Significant claims are made for them as the kind of songs that might speak to a generation but I wasn't entirely convinced. But this is no more than a quibble, amply compensated by the strongly drawn personality of Cass  -  flawed, damaged but always struggling towards redemption - and by the portrait of an era, already almost forgotten, full of arrogance, enthusiasm and a naïve kind of innocence.

A Compelling Study Of Child Abuse

The Wonder - Emma Donoghue

Set at the beginning of the twentieth century in Ireland, The Wonder is the story of Lib Wright, an English nurse who, having learned her trade in the Crimea under Florence Nightingale, takes up a position in rural Ireland watching over eleven year old Anna O'Donnell, a girl who has supposedly been existing without food for several months and is now being talked of as a saint by the local community.

 

Lib is entirely sceptical of such claims and scathing in her judgement of the Irish and their religion. Determined to unveil a hoax she watches the girl like a hawk but gradually comes to understand that, whether or not Anna was secretly eating before her arrival, she is certainly not doing so now. As a consequence, Lib finds herself presiding over the slow starvation of a child, an atrocity in which the girl's family and her entire community are complicit.

 

Exchanging her scorn for pity, Lib tries desperately to change the girl's mind-set and persuade her to choose life instead of death. But Anna remains resolute and Lib struggles to understand what lies at the root of such implacable religiosity?

 

I wasn't always convinced by Emma Donoghue's portrait of the local Irish Catholic community which sometimes felt one-sided, even allowing for its portrayal through the lens of Lib's self-important Anglophile gaze. Moreover, the end, when it came, felt a little hurried.

 

A detailed chronicle of a young girl's self-inflicted starvation, The Wonder is not an easy book to read. More than once I had to set it aside for a day or two as I struggled with the emotions it evoked. Nevertheless, this is a compelling study of child-abuse so embedded within a community as to be invisible to victim and perpetrator alike.

Made For The Market

Behind Her Eyes: A Novel - Sarah Pinborough

If you were looking for a definition of a high-concept book, then look no further. Behind Her Eyes is as high-concept as it gets. A clever, plot-driven woman-in-jeopardy thriller with a paranormal twist, written in an easy-to-read confessional style and aimed directly at the thirty-something female reader, it hooks you into the story from the very first page.

 

For me, however, the lack of depth to the characters was the book's fatal flaw, particularly the villainous Adele who leads Louise, the victim, by the nose. In place of characterisation we get a great deal of coy pre-figuring of the if-only-she-knew-what-I had-in-store-for-her variety which quickly started to get on my nerves. But then, as a sixty something male, I'm not the target readership.

 

The ending took a little longer to arrive than I wanted. When it did come I thought it was going to be just as I had expected and at first that was exactly how it seemed Then came the final very neat and entirely unpredicted twist. I have to take my hat off to the author: it's a very well crafted ending but not an emotionally satisfying one. This is one of those books that ends with a shudder rather than a sigh of relief. I didn't enjoy that.

 

It's very much made for the market: a dash of Gone Girl, a splash of Before I Go To Sleep, a hint of Girl On A Train and then a little bit of mumbo-jumbo thrown in for good luck. But it's extremely well done. Not profound or meaningful just ingenious and entertaining.

Made For The Market

Behind Her Eyes: A Novel - Sarah Pinborough

If you were looking for a definition of a high-concept book, then look no further. Behind Her Eyes is as high-concept as it gets. A clever, plot-driven woman-in-jeopardy thriller with a paranormal twist, written in an easy-to-read confessional style and aimed directly at the thirty-something female reader, it hooks you into the story from the very first page.

 

For me, however, the lack of depth to the characters was the book's fatal flaw, particularly the villainous Adele who leads Louise, the victim, by the nose. In place of characterisation we get a great deal of coy pre-figuring of the if-only-she-knew-what-I had-in-store-for-her variety which quickly started to get on my nerves. But then, as a sixty something male, I'm not the target readership.

 

The ending took a little longer to arrive than I wanted. When it did come I thought it was going to be just as I had expected and at first that was exactly how it seemed Then came the final very neat and entirely unpredicted twist. I have to take my hat off to the author: It's a very well crafted ending but not an emotionally satisfying one. This is one of those books that ends with a shudder rather than a sigh of relief. I didn't enjoy that.

 

It's very much made for the market: a dash of Gone Girl, a splash of Before I Go To Sleep, a hint of Girl On A Train and then a little bit of mumbo-jumbo thrown in for good luck. But it's extremely well done. Not profound or meaningful just ingenious and entertaining.

Telling Winners From Losers

Conscience of the King - Alfred Duggan

The first of a trio of Anglo-Saxon novels, The Conscience of the King focuses on the beginnings of the kingdom of Wessex, as told by its founder, Cerdic, a renegade Romano-Celt who betrays his own culture and seeks his fortune with the Saxon invaders. A completely selfish and unscrupulous individual, the progress of his carefully laid plans and the constant self-justification with which he explains his treachery is, nonetheless, quite compelling.

 

Equally fascinating is Duggan's portrait of the disintegrating Romano-Celtic society- in particular, the abandoned and haunted cities gradually falling prey to the elements:

 

 

"What made Calleva such a queer place to wander in in was that it had been abandoned while it was still a concern. The streets were overgrown, and most of the roof-beams had been stolen by people who were too lazy to cut timber even in that thick Forest, but many house-walls were intact. In sheltered corners you could trace frescoes on the plaster, and mosaic floors glimmered through a layer of mud."

 

At the end of the tale, his new kingdom established, Cerdic looks back with regret at the change he has helped usher in and, in an observation that has resonance in post-Brexit Britain, he sums up the absurdity of the Romano-British belief that their society could function as an independent unit, paying fewer taxes to Rome and organizing its own affairs:

 

"We light-heartedly broke with the Emperor, thinking that all the honestiores of Britain would then become little Emperors on their own. Too late. we discovered that Rome really gave us something in return for the gold that left the province."

 

A layered view of a period of enormous historical change, The Conscience of the King reminds us that in the long term it's not always easy to tell the winners from the losers.

The Futility Of Empire

The Little Emperors - Alfred Duggan

 

The Little Emperors is set in Britain at the beginning of the fifth century and  tells the story of Felix, governor of Britannia Prima, an industrious but culturally blinkered civil servant, convinced that by screwing ever greater taxes out of the local people, he is extending the benefits of civilisation.

 

Though temperamentally loyal to Rome, Felix is caught up in a series of political machinations that end in the proclamation of the usurper Constantine III as emperor of Britain. Unfortunately for Felix, he is married to the daughter of one of Constantine's rivals and he ends up fleeing into the countryside. During the hardships of this journey he begins to understand how negative the effect of empire has been upon the people of the island he has governed so inflexibly.  .

 

This is a novel about the futility of empire. Duggan's stepfather was Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, the epitome of imperial complacency; but Duggan saw his family fortune swept away in the Great Depression, served in the Second World War and then watched the British Empire disintegrate in its aftermath. It was an experience that clearly left its mark.

 

Essentially a political novel, The Little Emperors is a study in transformation: the metamorphosis that takes place in Britain as the grip of Rome begins to loosen is mirrored by the humiliation of Felix. Both the country and the man emerge smaller in stature but more human. 

 

It is very good to see The Little Emperors, along with Duggan's other novels, rescued by Bello, an imprint founded in 201 by Pan Macmillan in order to bring lost classics back to life. Duggan is an excellent historical novelist who has a great deal to say to the contemporary reader. It would have been a tragedy if his voice had disappeared entirely in the great flood of out-of-print books.

Cunning And Naivety In The Sistine Chapel

Conclave - Robert Harris

On the face of it a lot of elderly clerics trying to decide who should become their next leader does not seem like promising material for a thriller. But from the first page this novel about the election of a new pope is utterly gripping. What Harris does so cleverly is exploit the conflict between the cardinals' purported humility and their covert, or sometimes overt, ambition, the gap between their spirituality and their worldliness, their naivety and their cunning.

 

In essence this is a political thriller, despite is religious setting. Taking place against a backdrop of terrorism, corruption and the resonance of the sexual abuse scandals of the last decade, and driven by the contrasting characters of the key players, the papal conclave quickly resolves itself into a battle between two different visions of the Catholic church – liberal or conservative as one by one champions emerge from the pack and one by one their past mistakes rise up to haunt them.

 

Hugely enjoyable, full of twists and turns but ultimately all about the personalities, this is one of my favourite books of 2016. I simply could not put it down.

If Only I'd Known

Eileen: A Novel - Ottessa Moshfegh

A deeply unpleasant story about a young woman in America in the nineteen sixties working in a young offenders institute. Her mother is dead. Her father is an alcoholic ex-policeman. Her home life is one of unmitigated squalor. Filled with disgust for her own body, she hates her life and everyone in it. Her only pleasures are consuming laxatives and stalking one of the guards at the prison where she works.

 

When a new, glamorous woman comes to work at the prison, Eileen becomes infatuated and for the first time, she has a friend. The intensity of that friendship culminates in a senseless act of violence.

 

Repetitive, misogynistic (Can a female writer be misogynistic? On the evidence of this novel I'd say, yes) full of clumsy foreshadowing  of the 'if only I'd known' type, the novel's structure consists simply of a long, slow build up to a sudden hurried climax.

 

This novel made the Booker Prize short list which depresses but doesn't surprise me. I want the time back that I wasted on it.