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The City Of Invention

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

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.

The Glamour Of Power

Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland (2015-09-03) - Tom Holland;

 Everyone knows the names of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero and most people have heard at least some of the stories that surround them. But their iconic status has also served to make them unknowable. In this book Tom Holland sets out to redress the balance. The Julio-Claudians are still figures of epic proportion, imbued with terrible charisma and plunging headlong into corruption. But he brings them to life as individuals.

 

In doing so he also manages to conjure up the everyday reality of Ancient Rome, the religious fads, the fashions of the wealthy,  the brutality of the military machine, the sexual obsessions and class  prejudices, and, above all, the glamour of power that holds the whole city in its sway.

 

Tom Holland's voice is direct but always informed and authoritative. He combines a historian's feeling for pattern with a novelist's eye for detail. A riveting read.

Ultra-Violence And Male-Bonding

Blood Forest - Geraint Jones

The loss of three legions in the Teutoburg Forest to a German ambush led by the treacherous Arminius was an event that had a huge impact on the Roman world. It is surprising, therefore, that there have been so few attempts to fictionalise it. In tackling such an important event for his debut Geraint Jones shows considerable boldness.

 

Unfortunately, he does not display an equal amount of historical awareness. The author is apparently  a veteran of the Iraq war and it shows. This novel could easily be set in a modern day battlefield. The focus is all on graphic violence – of which there is a never-ending parade – and camaraderie. The sense of the period is entirely missing.

 

Indeed, authenticity is undermined by anachronism. There is nothing romantic about the sight of a legion, Jones observes. Well there wouldn't be, would there, this being the classical period? Yes, we know what he means but choice of words is important. Stories are built out of words.

 

Equally when  describing a female innkeeper, he quips that hers was the face that launched a thousand ship, except that they were sailing in the opposite direction. Of course, you could justify the anachronism by arguing that the phrase pre-dated Marlowe. Nevertheless, it jars.

 

This is not a novel set in the Ancient World. It is a contemporary war-story about ultra violence and male bonding in which the protagonists just happen to be armed with swords.

The Indignities Of History

In Hannah's Dress Pascale Hugues, a French journalist living in Berlin, investigates the history of her street which at the beginning of the twentieth century was occupied by wealthy bourgeois families, many of them Jewish. Everything changed with the arrival of the Nazi party, of course. A few of the Jewish occupants managed to get out in time, to America or Israel, abandoning or selling properties and belongings for a pittance, but most ended up victims of the Nazi killing machine.

 

At the heart of the book is the poignant story of two friends, one of whom, Hannah, escapes to America. The other, who joins a queue for a permit to leave the country fifteen minutes too late, ends up being carted off on one of the special trains that took Jewish people away to their deaths.

 

The book is not only about the Jewish residents. Pascale Hugues finds out everything she can about the street and its residents, the ones who did well out of the Nazi era, the ones who moved into the vacated apartments the damage wreaked by Allied bombing, the architectural transformation as post-war Berliners tried to re-build the city and escape from their history, the businesses that came and went, the social and cultural changes and, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the flat where prog-rock band Tangerine Dream lived and where David Bowie briefly stayed, and the gentrification that has finally begun to endow the street with a modern version of its original status.

 

For me, the most interesting thing about the book, is the small details like the shopkeeper who assured her that the bomb damage was so great because it was orchestrated by Jews bent on revenge, or the bureaucratic labyrinth faced by those Jews who survived and struggled to reclaim some of their property or to seek compensation.

 

It is let down by a rather stilted translation. Tenses are badly handled and word-order still feels distinctly Germanic in places. Nevertheless, it's an impressive piece of social history. We are so used to contemplating the horrific scale of the Holocaust. By focusing on the little indignities, Pascal Hugues makes it feel so much more personal.  

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