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The City Of Invention

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

A Dying Star

Julian - Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal's novel about the philosophy-student-turned-emperor whose determination to reverse the Christianization of the Roman empire nearly changed the course of history, is wonderfully entertaining.

 

Framed as Julian's  autobiography and accompanied by querulous commentaries from two of his old teachers, the novel is set initially in the imperial court under the paranoid and homicidal Constantius II, then in the lecture halls of Athens, and finally amid the boredom and ambition of the upper echelons of the Roman army. In a world governed by superstition and intolerance, the enthusiasm Julian  brings to his role is enormously attractive.

 

We know how it's all going to end, of course. There are enemies all around him, including, unwittingly, those who are most determined that he should succeed. Julian makes the mistake of believing in his own destiny and over-reaches himself. But what matters for Vidal is the light he throws on everything that surrounds him.  Like a dying star, Julian flares up brilliantly. Afterwards, there is only darkness.

Clever And Creepy

The Girl Before: A Novel - JP Delaney

The Girl Before is a woman-in-jeopardy novel with a clever, if unlikely, premise. The woman in question is a tenant in an award-winning house designed by an obsessively minimalist landlord. With its unyielding geometry, the house is both the perfect location for a claustrophobic thriller and a handy metaphor for patriarchy.

 

The reader soon suspects that the landlord's intentions are focused on more than just architectural eminence when it transpires that his wife is buried in the grounds, that the previous tenant (the eponymous girl before) was murdered, and that the three women bear a noticeable resemblance to each other. After a certain point, however, it becomes less and less clear who exactly is doing the manipulating

 

This is not just an exercise in high-level plot mechanics. The author has a fine eye for detail and his prose is as carefully controlled as the world he evokes But, all that precision observation and all that twisting and turning still did not compensate me for the unpleasant sex scenes and the underlying bleakness of the vision. If clever and creepy is your thing, you'll probably enjoy this; but it's not my cup of tea.

Portrait Of A Warlord

Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor - Adrian Goldsworthy

Adrian Goldsworthy’s biography of the first Roman emperor has been hailed as a triumph by many but to me it feels like a rather cautious affair. He is, understandably, reluctant to engage in speculation about reasons for Augustus’s decisions unless they are clearly supported by the evidence. As a result, there is nothing remarkable here. What we get instead is a comprehensive assemblage of everything that is known about the princeps, his family, and the powerful individuals and institutions with whom he interacted, all set within the context of recorded events.

 

At times the author’s desire to focus on the known rather than the unknown leads him to concentrate a little too much on the background. The beginning of the book, in particular, feels more like a biography of Julius Caesar than of his nephew. However, once he gets past the triumvirate the narrative gathers momentum.

 

Goldsworthy’s style is sometimes a little clunky. He is too fond of a dangling modifier and I had to read certain passage several times to make sure I understood him. But, in his favour, it should be said that he is never tempted to colour up the narrative. What you get is only what can reasonably be concluded about his subject.

 

Most importantly for me, Goldsworthy underlines Augustus’s  dependence on the army throughout his time in power. He did a great job in fashioning his image and later ages have colluded with him. But Goldsworthy reminds us that, first and foremost, he was a ruthless military dictator, albeit one whose conduct improved as he grew older. He gave the Romans forty years of relative peace and the senate declared him Father of the Nation but everything he achieved was based on his status as a warlord and that should not be forgotten.

Turning The Tables On The Patriarchy

The Power - Naomi Alderman

Witty, provocative and disturbing, Naomi Alderman’s dystopian vision of a future in which a mutation in the human DNA means that women now possess the ability to generate electric shocks feels a bit like Margaret Atwood meets John Wyndham. It’s a page-turner but it’s also an acutely intelligent examination of attitudes towards the patriarchy and assumptions about gender.

 

Eschewing naïve idealism, Alderman shines the spotlight on power itself, the way it inevitably lends itself to abuse, the unthinking way that people fall into line behind that abuse, and the pointlessness of the transaction. Everyone against whom power is used is defined and trapped by it but so is everyone who enjoys power.

 

In a narrative that somehow manages to be highly entertaining she highlights, through the simple but effective trick of role reversal, the terrible ways in which male power has been and, still is, used against women. But she’s  too keenly aware of human nature and too good a writer to be optimistic about a world in which the tables are turned. This is an important novel and one that deserves to be read widely.

 

Discussing Fishing With Herr Hitler

Munich: A novel - Robert Harris

Robert Harris has been described as a thriller writer but I don't think that really does him justice. What he does is find the humanity in big historical events with which we have all become so familiar that we are no longer able to see them from the perspective of the individuals caught up in their midst.

 

Munich is another fine example of Harris's tailor-made genre. He gives us Chamberlain, Halifax, Hitler and Mussolini along with a bevy of minor diplomats all seen from the point of view of Hugh Legat a third secretary in Chamberlain's private office.

 

Hugh is inadvertently involved in an attempt by disaffected members of the German establishment to depose Hitler. Of course the attempt is never going to get off the ground, as we know from our vantage point nearly eighty years later. But Hugh doesn't know that and he spends a lot of the novel terrified while determinedly trying to do his duty without letting anyone know what he is up to. At times his predicament feels a little bit like an extended metaphor for the British national character.

 

However, it is the portrait of Chamberlain that makes this novel compulsive reading. We are so used to seeing him derided as the high priest of appeasement that it comes as a bit of a shock when Harris reminds us just how grateful everyone was at the time - ordinary people in Britain, in Germany, indeed all over the world. For a brief period Chamberlain was a superstar.

 

The picture that emerges from Harris's narrative is of a man both diffident and vain, who greatly overestimates his capabilities while simultaneously underestimating what Hitler is capable of. Polite and pedantic, bewildering Hitler with talk of fishing, he is out of his depth and entirely unaware of it. His hours of diplomacy achieve nothing except the shameful betrayal of the Czechoslovakian people and yet we cannot help but like him as he gets off the plane waving his little bit of paper, exhausted but hopeful.

Like Literary Biscuits

The Art of Failing: Notes from the Underdog - Anthony McGowan

My partner stole my copy of this to read on the plane to Italy. Then she kept laughing so much I was obliged to read it over her shoulder. A string of very funny incidents  in the life of a writer recounted with wit and a certain degree of poetic licence but also at times with disarming honesty. Like literary biscuits of a rather superior quality

 

 

Arrogance And Splendour In First Century Rome

Render Unto Caesar - Gillian Bradshaw

Set in Augustan Rome, Render Unto Caesar is the story of Hermogenes, a merchant from Alexandra, who travels to the capital to recover a debt owed to his late father, only to find himself ensnared in the financial machinations of Vedius Pollio, the fabulously rich plutocrat, notorious for feeding unsatisfactory slaves to the lampreys in his pond. Refusing to be intimidated by Pollio who seeks to brush him aside as an impudent barbarian, Hermogenes, politely persists with his requests until he  finds himself arrested and accused of plotting to kill a consul.

 

Still refusing to be cowed, Hermogenes sets out to discover what is really at the bottom of the plot to kill the consul. When his own life is threatened he gets himself a bodyguard in the form of a celebrated female gladiator fallen on hard times. Together they manage to outwit the cabal monstrous Roman aristocrats.

 

Well researched and full of colour, Render Unto Caesar brings first century Rome to life with all its arrogance, cruelty and splendour.

 

A Novel To Be Savoured

Longbourn - Jo Baker

Longbourn is the house in which Jane Austen set Pride and Prejudice. Jo Baker's novel is the story of the servants who washed the Bennet girls' linen, soothed Mrs Bennet when she was distressed, indulged Mr Bennet when they were obliged to indulge him and all the time carried on with their own unregarded lives.

 

It is a brilliant premise for a novel and from it Jo Baker has developed a set of characters every bit as absorbing as the family whom they serve. Their lives are painted with compassion but without sentimentality. The fortunes and misfortunes of the Bennets affect them greatly, of course, but it is their own struggle for happiness with which Longbourn is concerned.

 

Clever though the premise is, it is not the best thing about this book. The best thing is the writing, and, in particular, the description -  the eye for small details, the awareness of the sensuality of objects. In beautifully turned prose, the rhythms of domesticity are intertwined with the rhythms of the natural world so effectively as to make you feel like you are actually there, in Longbourn, experiencing the world of the servants with its unceasing demands and stolen compensations. A novel to be savoured .

Inside The Mind Of A Flawed Narrator

Under the Harrow - Flynn Berry

A taut psychological thriller, Under The Harrow has been compared to The Girl On The Train and there are certainly similarities – a flawed and traumatized narrator who cannot clearly remember events from her own life and a sequence of false but tenuously connected trails that finally lead to a revelation..  

 

Nora arrives at her sister Rachel's house in the country to find that Rachel has been brutally murdered. From this point on the emphasis is as much on understanding what has happened in Nora's life as it is on understanding what has happened to Rachel. She's an unreliable narrator with blanks in her past caused by reckless living and now those missing episodes seem suddenly important.

 

Flynn Berry's writing is not as rich as Paula Hawkins'. There are too many characters who are little more than names like Alice, the best friend who is often referred to but seldom seen or like Louise, the girlfriend of a young man who was killed in the town shortly before Rachel's murder. Louise's involvement becomes critical at the climax yet for most of the book she has been no more than part of the scenery. That felt a little too much like plot engineering to me.

 

What Berry is really good at, however, is depicting the effects of trauma. Nora is a very convincing narrator and the reader gets right inside her head, feeling her distress as she tries to fit the pieces of her disordered experience together, and understanding the way her anger flares at the casual betrayals and pointless violence that surrounds her. Spare and effective, Under The Harrow is a class above the average murder story.

An Old Man's Vanity

Winter Quarters - Alfred Duggan

Alfred Duggan wrote in the nineteen fifties and compared to a lot  of contemporary fiction set in the ancient world his books are slow. The emphasis is not on power struggles and battles but on the mind-set of the period. Rather than creating characters who are  like his contemporaries but dressed in togas, Duggan tries to depict individuals who are conditioned by the cultural norms of their time.

 

When Gallic nobles, Camul and Acco, become polluted by killing a bear sacred to a local goddess, they are forced to leave their community and enlist in the Roman army where they become involved in the ill-fated expedition of the plutocrat, Crassus, against the Parthians.

 

Duggan's uses the contrast between the outlook of the Gauls, in which everything is seen through the prism of honour, and the ruthless, pragmatic politics of Rome to great effect. The campaign of Crassus, which at first seemed a glorious enterprise, gradually emerges in its true light as the vanity project of an elderly businessman with no understanding of war.

The highlight of the book for me is the portrait of Crassus dressed in the trappings of an imperator, waiting to receive the Parthian envoy: 'his face bore the strained expression of the deaf, and his wrinkled neck sagged with age.' By contrast the Parthian looks and acts like a real general. As Camul watches this meeting unfold  he understands that the campaign is doomed, but like all the others, legionary or auxiliary, he is caught in the juggernaut of Crassus's ambition and there is nothing he can do but play his part in what will inevitably be a terrible slaughter.

 

The Hand Of God In Medieval England

Alfred the Great: The Man Who Made England - Justin Pollard

Pollard's biography of Alfred is classic narrative history. There is just enough context to give meaning to the central character's actions but not so much as to upstage him. The focus is always on Alfred's personality, his mistakes, his insights, and the impact he had on the England that he helped bring into being.

 

Alfred's story is, of course, also the story of the Vikings and Pollard is particularly good at depicting his attitude to the cunning and ruthless Norsemen whom Alfred must have believed had been sent by God as a scourge upon an age that had failed to live up to its responsibilities.

 

The medieval mind-set is often difficult for the modern reader to fully take on board.  The hand of God in perceived in every twist of and turn of the plot; the imminence of divine judgement is always just around the corner; and in a world where life-expectancy was as much as thirty-five years less than for contemporary people, perhaps that is not so surprising. All of this, Pollard incorporates into his story. It forms the background against which the portrait emerges of the only English king to be given the soubriquet "Great". From Pollard's account it would appear to be a title justly deserved.

Domestic Drama In The Byzantine Empire

Imperial Purple - Gillian Bradshaw

Set in the fifth century Eastern Roman Empire, Imperial Purple is the story of Demetrias, a weaver in a state factory, and her husband Symeon who are inadvertently caught up in a plot to overthrow the emperor Theodosius II .

As ever with Gillian Bradshaw, the research is meticulous and the period is convincingly evoked. But what makes this book special is the fact that though the backdrop is high politics, the story is primarily about domestic life. The central characters are ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events and the focus is on their struggle to remain a family unit despite the enormous pressures that seem determined to destroy them.

A richly detailed setting that makes the ancient world feel as real and immediate as the street outside your front door, strong, believable characters, and a compelling emotional narrative make this a really enjoyable read.

A Shock To The System

The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians - Peter Heather

There were undoubtedly huge internal problems in the Roman empire by the time of the fifth century, not the least of which was the logistical problem of actually knowing what was going on several hundred miles away in a world without any of the apparatus of modern communication. Equally, there were  ongoing military pressures such as those created by the Sassanian Persians which tied up huge resources of manpower on a permanent basis. Finally, there was the insoluble problem of succession and the periods of instability that resulted from the death of an emperor.

 

However, these and numerous other imperial stress-factors might have been managed. What ultimately caused the empire to collapse, in Peter Heather's opinion, was the exogenous shock dealt by Attila the Hun driving huge numbers of Gothic immigrants across the borders of the empire.

 

These groups, which had existed in a long-standing symbiotic relationship with the Roman empire, were transformed by the process of interaction into coherent and formidable power blocs. That transformational process was accelerated by the process of migration. As a result, Rome allowed into its borders powerful, military and cultural elements whose competing demands it was unable to meet.

 

As the invaders began to take control of the situation and seize territories for themselves, Rome became increasingly starved of revenues until its generals no longer possessed the necessary resources to meet the military challenges.

 

The control of detail in this account is formidable but the narrative never gets bogged down  Authoritative, entertaining and comprehensive, of all the recent accounts of the fall of the Roman empire, Peter Heather's is the most meticulously assembled.

A History Of The Imagination

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind - Yuval Noah Harari  Dr

Harari's history of homo sapiens spans the period from seventy thousand years ago to the present day. He divides our history into a number of eras, each one prefaced by a significant evolutionary metamorphosis: the cognitive revolution which saw a huge increase in brain-size and the development of language; the agrarian revolution when homo sapiens took up farming; the scientific revolution of the eighteenth century; the industrial revolution a hundred years later; the information revolution which began just fifty years ago; and finally, the biotechnological revolution which is just beginning and which may yet end our species.

 

In Harari's thesis, the quality that singles homo sapiens out from all other creatures  is our ability to construct imagined worlds furnished with entirely fictional properties. These include mythologies and religions, social and political ideologies, even economic and financial constructs such as money. These are the tools that have allowed us to mobilise huge numbers of people in cooperative efforts. As he tellingly  points out, money permits two people who do not trust each other to cooperate together in a purposeful transaction. By utilising the power of these tools and the narratives that we construct around them we have been able to transform our world out of all recognition.

 

The overarching structure of the book is conceptual rather than chronological, allowing the author room to explore a wide-ranging set of ideas and this is one of the book's great strengths. It's like reading a series of engagingly polemical articles that gradually builds into a recognisable picture of ourselves  - a species both dazzled by its own inventiveness and oblivious to the damage that it causes. Intelligent, witty, and stimulating, Sapiens is an enormously entertaining read.

The First Virtual City

City of Fortune: How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire - Roger Crowley

Roger Crowley's account of the history of Venice is as readable as fiction. He is at his most gripping when detailing the events of the Fourth Crusade. After the sack of Constantinople he gets a little bogged down in the endless series of conflicts with the Genoese but the narrative picks up again with the appearance of the terrifying Sultan Mehmet and the inexorable advance of the Ottoman empire.

 

What is most fascinating about the history of Venice is the way that it invented itself and this is where Crowley is at his best. "One of the only Italian cities not to have existed in Roman times,' he observes, 'its inhabitants had created their antiquity out of theft and borrowings."

 

In Crowley's view Venice was always less of a geographical state and more a state of mind – "the first virtual city". As such it had enormous advantages over its competitors but was always dependent on factors outside its own control. So, when trade routes changed overnight with the discovery of a sea route to India, the network of trading relationships upon which its entire existence depended was suddenly obsolete.

 

Nevertheless, for hundreds of years a tiny city whose very existence seemed entirely improbable made an enormous impact upon the course of world history. Crowley's analysis of how they accomplished this astonishing feat is both illuminating and entertaining.

A Compelling Exploration Of Cultural Resonance

House of Names: A Novel - Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín's new novel is an exploration of the stories of Clytemnestra, Orestes, and Electra all of whom appears in a number of Ancient Greek myths, perhaps most famously in the Oresteia of Aeschylus.

At the heart of the novel are three murders. Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek warriors setting out to attack Troy after the abduction of Helen, tricks his wife, Clytemnestra, into allowing their daughter, Iphigenia, to be sacrificed to the gods into exchange for a following wind for the ships conveying the invading army. Clytemnestra swears revenge on her husband and when he returns some years later, she murders him, with the help of her lover, Aegisthus. Subsequently, Orestes, her son, is removed from the palace, supposedly for his own safety, and held captive. He escapes from captivity, returns to the palace and kills his mother.

It takes a lot of nerve for a contemporary writer to tackle a story that generation after generation have loaded with significance. Tóibín rises to the challenge impressively and there is some wonderfully evocative writing e.g.

We are all hungry now. Food merely whets our appetite, it sharpens our teeth; meat makes us ravenous for more meat, as death is ravenous for more death. Murder makes us ravenous, fills the soul with satisfaction that is fierce and then luscious enough to create a taste for further satisfaction.

Unfortunately it is not all as good as this. There are other places where the writing loses its compelling quality and the energy drains away from the story.

Some of his narrative decisions puzzled me, such as the introduction of Leander, a friend who helps Orestes escape from captivity. In ancient versions of the story the very same role is performed by a character called Pylades. So I didn't understand why Tóibín felt it necessary to change this.

Perhaps he was highlighting the process by which stories intermingle and transform. That certainly seems to be the rationale for including The Children Of Lir, an ancient Irish story, in one of the storytelling sessions that Orestes witnesses while he is making his way homeward.

So the novel left me with unanswered questions. Nevertheless, I found it a compelling piece of storytelling and a wonderful exploration of cultural resonance.