The Fort

The Fort is a rare standalone novel from Bernard Cornwell.

It tells the story of an early engagement in the American War of Independence. On paper the battle should easily have been won by the Americans but it turned out to be a victory for the British.

It is very closely based on fact and Cornwell manages to bring alive the cast of characters and show how personality can make a huge difference to the outcome of a fight like this.

It’s not his best work. Of course, it’s not bad by any standard, but I’ve come to expect more from Cornwell. I think it would have benefitted from another editorial pass. There were a lot of dialogue tags which I haven’t noticed in his writing before and I feel that had it had one more rewrite these would have come out. Because of that it feels rushed.

Otherwise, this is an episode of history I knew nothing about and I enjoyed the telling of it. Cornwell is very balanced in his presentation of what happened and it is hard to pick a side. There are sympathetic characters amongst the British and the Americans. I liked it, but it’s probably one for the fans.

The Shelters of Stone

The Shelters of Stone is the fifth in the Earth’s Children series by Jean M. Auel. I read the first book, The Clan of the Cave Bear, when I was eleven and I loved it. I read it many times and it remains one of my favourite books. I’d also read the other three, with declining attachment, and the last of those hadn’t been very engaging at all.

In this instalment, Ayla comes to Jondalar’s home and learns whether she will be accepted or not.

I got about halfway through and it was a hard decision to stop reading. When I was actually reading it I found it enjoyable and it was quite an easy read. I found Ayla a little too perfect, the characters were simplistic, and the dialogue a little stilted and formal. These weren’t insurmountable issues though. This is essentially a lecture on prehistory in the form of a novel and parts of it are fascinating.

I think what really killed it for me was the lack of conflict. There’s never any real doubt that everyone will love Ayla and welcome her in, no doubt that she will teach her new family how to tame animals, no doubt that she and Jondalar will come up with lots of new inventions. But given the choice of spending an hour on the train reading this or doing something else I found I was quite keen to do anything else.

The Memoirs of Cleopatra

I love a big book – it’s very satisfying. There is a depth of immersion that just can’t be achieved in anything less than 500 pages. The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George is a big book at 960 pages and it is well worth the effort.

The memoirs tell the story of the whole life of Cleopatra; from growing up in Alexandria to her death by suicide at the age of forty. It covers her relationship with Caesar, her part in the chaos after his death and the side she eventually chose. That was the side of Marc Anthony and the book details their unsuccessful war with Octavian.

Margaret George derives a lot of the events from the historical record – relying on a broad range of sources and stripping away the exaggerations and defamations of Cleopatra’s enemies. Some things are fictionalised but as much as possible is derived from the historical clues available.

It is an interesting story in that it is essentially the story of defeat all the way through. Cleopatra snatches her country from the machinations of her siblings and aligns herself with Caesar to preserve her throne. Which fateful decision sets her up for a lifetime of trying to prevent Egypt from becoming a Roman province. She fails at that, and ironically, it is a far richer prize at the end than it would have been if she had not saved it in the first place.

This was utterly engaging. The worldbuilding is very good and Rome and Egypt are fully realised. The staggering wealth of Cleopatra is effectively conveyed. I really enjoyed this.

100 Books in 2011: Sword Song

Book 4 in Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories is Sword Song. Cornwell is one of my favourite authors and I am really enjoying the Saxon Stories.

Uhtred is nowhere nearer Bebbanburg. He’s busy building forts to protect Wessex from the Danes and raising a family. Then some Danes invade London, try to convince Uhtred to join them by promising to make him King of Mercia so that he will bring Ragnar to join the cause.

At the same time, Uhtred’s cousin Aethelred, is married to Alfred’s daughter, Aethelflaed and becomes the Lord of Mercia. Not king though; Alfred doesn’t want a King in Mercia. Alfred commands Uhtred to drive the Danes from London. He gives Aethelred the nominal command of the mission.

They win the battle for London and the Danes take refuge in the Kingdom of East Anglia from where they raid Wessex. On one of these raids, Aethelflaed is taken hostage and an enormous ransom is demanded. If it is paid, the Danes will have enough money to raise an army capable of overrunning Wessex. Uhtred is sent to negotiate and discovers that Aethelflaed has fallen in love with one of the Danes and they want to run away together. Uhtred is fond of Alfred’s daughter and knows that her husband is violent and jealous, and if she goes with her lover then the ransom won’t have to be paid and Wessex will be safe. So he agrees to help them escape.

I think I was grinning from the minute I opened this book. I like the character of Uhtred. It’s told in first person but from the point of view of the elderly Uhtred looking back on his life, so the character can be presented as arrogant and impulsive, but with the self-deprecating awareness of experience. It’s extremely likeable. Uhtred is a torn man. He’s bound by oaths he doesn’t want to keep and which prevent him following his dream. I can certainly identify with that.

A good third of the book is taken up by a detailed description of the battle for London, which is very exciting, but the consequence is that the plot feels quite thin in this book. I don’t remember thinking that for the previous three. However, it is gripping and the Saxon Britain is fully brought to life. As always, Cornwell’s skill is evident and the writing is excellent. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am looking forward to book five.

100 Books in 2011 Challenge: The Auschwitz Violin

This one raises an interesting question: is it ok to not like a book on this subject? The Auschwitz Violin by Maria Àngels Anglada, trans. Martha Tennent, is the story of a violin maker interned in Auschwitz who is ordered to make a violin for the camp Commander. He does this amid the starvation and terror of life in the concentration camps.

This is a novella, or at around 25,000 words, a long short story. Looking at it as a short story makes the structure make a bit more sense. What I missed in this book was depth. Life in the concentration camps was horrific and I’ve read a few thing dealing with that subject. Yet it doesn’t come across here. I get the sense that the horror is being skated over. Maybe that’s a matter of taste – I do, after all, like visceral writing. Or maybe it’s an issue of courage. Perhaps the author didn’t want to commit to describing the conditions in Auschwitz in gory detail. I can see how that can seem gratuitous. Unfortunately, for me, that made it hard to connect to the fortitude of the protagonist. It didn’t seem like that much of an heroic struggle because the impact of the environment wasn’t fully brought out.

The writing itself is good and the story has great potential. I just found myself questioning the choices of the author about the structure of the story and what she chose to show. All the way through, I was thinking that I might have done it differently.

So, this book didn’t really do it for me. I felt distanced from the story by the technique. I’d read this story if it was re-written by someone else. And yet I feel a bit uncomfortable saying that I didn’t like the book because of the subject matter. If you like literary fiction, and don’t like horror, then this may be for you. It was a bit too sanitised for my taste.

100 Books in 2011 Challenge: The Captive Queen

I was so looking forward to The Captive Queen by Alison Weir. Although I haven’t read any of her novels before, I have read several of her historical biographies. I think Alison Weir writes non-fiction really well and I especially enjoyed her biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine. That book was one I found particularly influential and I loved the character of Eleanor that she created from the patchy historical sources. So, a novel about that woman and informed by extensive research? Should be great, right?

Something went wrong. Partly it was in my expectations. Weir says in a note at the end of the book that what she was trying to do was portray the marriage of Eleanor and Henry II, one that was supposed to be an intense, passionate relationship and was very eventful. That’s not really the book I wanted to read. I wanted to read about Eleanor in full. Her marriage is important in her story but she spent a lot of time apart from Henry and there were many other significant relationships in her life. I wanted to see her as a stateswoman and those parts were glossed over. Frustrating, but not what it was intended to be about, so it’s not fair to criticise the lack of it.

The question thus becomes, did Weir do what she says she set out to do? I think that the writing is quite flawed. The balance of interior monologue to dialogue and action is tipped too far in favour of monologue. The interior voice isn’t that compelling and there were a number of times when I wondered if I was reading a Mills & Boon. Characterization is light and the relationships are not convincing. Dialogue is lacking and not that well done.

I have always held that a good non-fiction writer can write good fiction but this book proves it is not always true. It is a shame, because Weir is a great writer. I’d recommend you read all her non-fiction, but steer clear of the novels.

100 Books in 2011 Review: A Noble Captive

I try to read as widely as possible and sometimes that means reading things I don’t think I’m going to like. Things I don’t think I’m going to like include romance novels, especially Mills & Boon. However, there is something to be learnt from reading these books, namely ‘how to create emotional intensity through internal monologue’.

A Noble Captive by Michelle Sykes is a historical romance set on the edges of the Roman Empire in 75 BC. The captive in question is a Roman tribune, a contemporary of Julius Caesar, who is captured by pirates in the Mediterranean and taken to the island temple of Kybele. The story is inspired by the capture of the young Caesar by pirates although the ending is significantly less bloody.

The heroine is the assistant priestess, struggling to keep the temple going financially and spiritually while the sibyl is unwell. She is trying to walk a tightrope between political factions she doesn’t really understand.

Actually, there’s a good deal more plot in this than in the other Mills & Boon I’ve read. Although that doesn’t mean there’s a lot of plot. There’s a sprinkling of solid historical detail but this is undermined by a lack of rigour in other areas. For example, tribune was a very high office but in this book it comes across as not much more than a centurion.

So, yeah, there’s not much to say about this. It was fairly fluffy and not as annoying as previous Mills & Boon have been (does that mean I’m getting indoctrinated??), but there’s little to recommend it.  

Thoughts on reading: Boudica, Dreaming the Eagle

There are some books that have been on Book Mountain for a very long time and Boudica, Dreaming the Eagle by Manda Scott is one of them.

I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to get around to reading this, other than the fact that the copy I have is in hardback. Dreaming the Eagle has got Celts, Ancient Britons, Romans and Druids, its got sword fights, pitched battles and shamanic journeys, all stuff I love. On top of that, it’s got strong female characters, sensitive male characters, lots of variation in sexual and intimate relationships and rites of passage.

It’s competently told. The characterisation is good for both main and supporting characters. The relationships between them are strong and I could really connect to them. The world of the Druids and the early Roman empire is convincingly brought to life. Dialogue is good, pacing is good. And the story is good. Scott’s use of foreshadowing is excellent. Through shamanic journeying and visions a couple of pivotal events are foreshadowed early on and it is not at all obvious how they will play out. I found myself thinking I knew how it would go and finding myself wrong. Yet the final reveal felt natural and unforced. Great stuff.

This is the first in a series of five and I will certainly be reading the rest. I liked this a lot.

Thoughts on reading: Royal Flash

Royal Flash by George MacDonald Fraser is the second in a series of books following Flashman, the bully from Tom Brown’s Schooldays (which I never read). Naturally, I haven’t read the first in the series.

Well, this is a pretty entertaining romp that doesn’t take itself seriously at any point. Actual history is tweaked to give Flashman a role in world changing events. The characterisation of Flashman is excellent and it’s told in first person from his viewpoint. Characterisation of supporting characters is quite shallow, but this rather suits Flashman’s character so it works.

It’s competently written, dialogue is good, pacing is great, and the story is just fun. It was written in the 1970s and the language does reflect that, but that was the only thing that niggled.

Thoughts on reading: Twelve

This came to my attention at alt.fiction 2010. During a panel it was held up as an example of a perfectly good novel that couldn’t sell due to the market. With the upswing of the horror market, it found a publisher after having been with an agent for something like four years. I was keen to see what Twelve by Jasper Kent was like.

This is an historical horror; a vampire story set in Russia during the Napoleonic wars. I found the setting quite convincing, in terms of both time and place. Not that I know much about Russian history, so I’m probably quite easy to convince in that regard. The dialogue felt appropriate although I noticed a few conspicuously modern terms slipping into the narration.

The vampires were the opposite of sparkly. They are returned to subhuman killing machines with superior strength and speed, yet seem quite easily dispatched by the hero once he’s convinced of what they are. There are some nice moments of suspicion and betrayal among the hero and his friends.

Unfortunately, I found that the choice of viewpoint flattened the story someone. It is a first person narrator told by the hero, who is a man traumatised by torture in his past and by the choices he has to make in the present. His response is to become shut off from emotion. Which is a realistic response but as he’s the narrator it leads to an emotionally flat story. The reader doesn’t feel the horror because the narrator can’t. It nags at the edge of the consciousness and the narrator acknowledges that he should have more emotional sensation than he does (although this was a bit ‘tell’ for me) but he can’t feel what he should feel because it will overwhelm him. For me, as a reader, this felt distancing. I think it would have benefitted from first person narration by a sidekick or from third person narration.

Having said that, there was an excellent twist at the end, I did enjoy it and I will read the sequel.