Top of the list has to be:
by John Biggins; McBooks Press Inc; 2007; US$16.95 and Can$21.95; pb; 374 pages; ISBN978-1-59013-110-7
There are four books in the series, this is the first and my pick of the year.
I’d heard raves about John Biggin’s novels set in the last fifty years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Now I understand why. If you enjoy an author who writes with authority, (like Michael Pearce, and with the same depth of knowledge and dry wit,) who has the outsider’s eye for noticing and observing, then Biggins is for you.
Tomorrow the World’ shows young Otto Prohaska becoming Cadet Prohaska, in what is left of the Hapsburg Empire’s navy. The joy of the book is that it is not a young man’s voice retelling his adventures, but Otto, the old man, waiting to die in the strange Welsh retirement home for Polish refugees, run by Polish Nuns. He’s recording his stories, with comments and critical asides added by the older Otto’s hindsight and later analysis. The result is often hilarious, always devastatingly acute. One despairs and wonders, as he does, if humans will ever learn from past mistakes. As a record of what happened to turn Germany into the bigot of white supremacy that resulted in Auschwitz, it is horrifying.
The sailing details of S.M.S Windischgratz, the descriptions of people and places, are so vivid you come to believe you are indeed reading memoirs. I stand in awe, not only of Biggins’ research, but also his ability to turn it into something so tangible. His skills as a writer are one of the pleasures of this novel.
If Otto has a creed it is ‘Lord, what fools these mortals be.’ and the novel gives us both comic and pathetic examples as a hapless Cadet Otto sails on the weird and wonderful voyage from Pola (now Pula, Croatia) ostensibly to the South Atlantic, but eventually to Africa, New Silesia and across the Indian Ocean to Pola again. Enjoy it. It’s a book to cherish and reread.
by Edward Marston, Allison and Busby Ltd, March 2008, £7.99, pb, 288 pages, ISBN:978-0-7490-8077-8
This is Restoration comedy, the eighth whodunit in the popular Redmayne series. Christopher Redmayne, the young architect, is making his reputation by building new houses for the wealthy in post Great Fire London. This time it’s the fashionable French artist who is building a home and Christopher is delighted to design his house as it will be a very lovely building. The artist is pleased too, the money for the house comes from painting the portrait of the most beautiful woman in town and so the problems begin. The lovely Araminta is newly and happily married to Sir Martin Culthorpe, but that does not prevent the more unpleasant of her many admirers from plotting to seize her for themselves. When her husband is murdered and the Artist accused, Christopher and his constable friend, Jonathan Bale team up again to find the real villain.
This is a thoroughly entertaining romp, an easy read with nice pieces of period dialogue, amusing characters and a puzzle to solve. Just the book for an evening’s read by a snug fire when it’s pouring down outside.
by Tony Horwitz, Henry Holt, May 2008, $27.50, pb, and audio, 448 pages, ISBN: 13-978-0-8050-7603-5
Tony Horowitz is a Pulitzer prize winning American journalist with a penchant for history. He also likes to re-examine all things American. Here he looks at the general population’s accepted facts about the founding of America and turns them upside-down. The publishers have great hopes of this book and have launched an expensive PR campaign. I can see why. It’s well written, a clear readable style, nice prose from an intelligent man who thinks round things and ponders the quirks of humanity. His book will infuriate and inflame many as their ‘known history’, taught them in school, is shown to be merely myth.
Horowitz isn’t just a stirrer though, he journeys along the trails the earliest American explorers made and researches, in depth, the many books and original documents about each man. He travels to Newfoundland to the Norse settlements, probably the earliest settlements in America, he traces Columbus to the Dominican Republic and then tramps across America from Mexico northwards following the early Spanish and French settlers. It seems it was not a case of ‘Go West’ that opened up America, but of ‘Go East’! He is a history graduate himself, but knew little of this ‘lost century’ until he researched it. Yet he is not unkind to all those cherished beliefs about the Pilgrim Fathers. ‘History is arbitrary, a collection of facts. Myth we choose, we create, we perpetrate.’ And what a people choose and create is of as much interest as the real facts.
This has been one of my best non-fiction reads for a while, really thought provoking.
by Ursula Le Guin, Harcourt Inc., April 2008, US$24.00, pb, 288 pages, ISBN:978-0-15-101424-8
I always wish I could write Ms Le Guin’s lucid prose. In so few words she can create a world and take you there. More than that, though, she slides you into the mind and mind-set of her characters and gives you a sense of understanding their world. Lavinia’s world is also Virgil’s, because Lavinia is the king’s daughter in the ‘Aeneid’ who marries Aeneas and together they found Roman lineage. Virgil spares her one line, but Le Guin gives her a life.
In the novel Lavinia tells her own story, but she also tell the poet’s. There is a fine interweaving between the story from the sacred grove, where Lavinia met, and continues to meet, the spirit of the dying Virgil, with his story, and Lavinia’s own. Her future is foreshadowed by the poet’s words. She knows she will marry Aeneas and that he will live a scant three years longer. So we follow Lavinia as the threads are woven together. Lavinia’s growing up, her home and family, Virgil’s bloody battles and deaths, the sweet years of marriage, and then the struggles to see the son Lavinia bore Aeneas become the man his father would have wanted.
If you have enjoyed Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ you will enjoy seeing that one line fleshed out. If you like classical history, this is fascinating glimpse of the little warrior states that eventually became the Romans. For those who like poetic prose, a good story well told, and living through a different mind in another world, then ‘Lavinia’ will be a book to enjoy again and again.
by Peter Smalley, Century, May 2008, £18.99, hb, 354 pages, ISBN:978-1-846-0244-6
Smalley has been hailed as the heir to those great writers of naval historical fiction, Patrick O’Brian and C.S. Forester. I agree. ‘The Hawk’ is the second of his books I’ve read, fourth in the series, and another rip roaring adventure.
It’s 1790. Lieutenant James Hayter, despite the failure of the Rabhet expedition, (book three,) is given his first command, the 10 gun cutter, ‘The Hawk’. His task is to prevent smugglers and spies crossing the Channel. The only thing spoiling his enjoyment is the ‘beaching’ of his friend and old captain, William Rennie, or so Hayter thinks. Once spymaster, Sir Robert Greer, appears readers know the problems are about to start. And they do. The seemingly simple task of capturing a renegade captain and his cutter turns into life and death drama, poor Rennie suffering most dishonourably.
Smalley has a good ear for dialogue, a thorough understanding of the class system and a delightful way of adding historical colour without hitting readers on the head with an information dump. He has created an 18thC world in a way which rings true for this reader. Highly recommended, even for those who are not fans of naval fiction, just for the pleasure of reading a well written historical novel.
by Sarah Grazebrook, Allison and Busby, May 2008, £7.99, pb, 440 pages, ISBN:0-7490-8094-9 and 978-07490-8094-5.
I’ve not found 1st person point of view, present tense, a good way to tell a story set in the past. I’ve always preferred it for literary or mainstream present day stories, yet Sarah Grazebrook chose to use 1st POV present tense for ‘Crooked Pieces’ and makes it work so well.
This is a story about Maggie, starting with the young East End girl in 1905 and finishing, in 1918, with a very different Maggie, a young woman we’ve grown to like and sympathise with. Maggie is reluctant to leave her East End home but her mother is determined that her bright daughter should have a chance to escape the grinding poverty. With help from their local vicar, Maggie is found a place as maid of all work in the home of Mr and Mrs Roe. They are good people and a guest of theirs is Sylvia Pankhurst, who stays with them more as a family member than friend.
Maggie slowly learns to accept that this new world does have a lot to offer her and becomes fascinated by the Pankhursts and Rights for Women. As the suffragettes grow more militant Maggie finds herself torn first between her policeman boyfriend and what Christobel Pankhurst wants her to do because she is the leading example to all other working women, and then between what her good sense tells her, and what she is being pressured into doing.
The story is a lively and convincing read, historical details well researched, and for readers interested in the suffragettes, and for readers who like to see a working class heroine set in a realistic milieu this book is highly recommended. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will look for Sarah Grazebrook’s next novel.
by Nilita Vachani, Other Press, May, 2008, US$24.95, hb, 380 pages, ISBN:978-1-59051-285-2
First published novel this may be, but it is reads like the work of an accomplished novelist. The prose is tight, word choice exact, the whole conveying a sense of India and the people. For insight into India of the 20th Century, Ghandi and Colonialism, this book is a must read. As an insight into the institute of marriage and human relationships it presents aspects which offer the reader much to think about. For those who wonder how arranged marriages can work there are some lovely examples of both successful and unsuccessful ones.
The narrative sprawls between characters and places, yet all those seemingly disparate parts fit together perfectly. I particularly enjoyed the narrator’s grandparents, the influence of Ghandi on Nanaji and the disdain that his wife, the narrator’s Naneeji, held for Ghandi and his ideas, and watching Sweta, the narrator, on her long journey to acceptance and peace with herself and her family. The book spreads across three generations and yet the author controls and holds all the threads together superbly. The domestic details are another thing to enjoy, India is brought alive for this reader through the many descriptions of cooking and cleaning, visiting and eating.
Helpfully the book has an historical appendix which covers many of the details readers might not understand, for example, Ghandi’s textile war, American interference in the Congo or the influence of Malcom X’s London speech. The details about the Indian-Pakistan war are extremely helpful and most revealing. The afterword also contains details of resources an interested reader might like to follow up. I shall and I really enjoyed reading this book, which lingers in the mind and begs to be reread. It’s well worth reading.
(Not yet available at Amazon US, but you can get it at Amazon UK, I believe. Otherwise, try here: http://www.gettextbooks.com/search/?isbn=978-1-846-05360-3
by Frank Tallis, Century, Jan 2009, £12.99, hb, 391 pages, ISBN:978-1- 846-05360-3.
If we talked about historical novels like a pâtissier then amongst the rich and deeply satisfying tortes would be the novels by C. J. Sansom, Anne Perry, John Biggins and Frank Tallis. Not only do these authors take the reader into a historical world which is convincingly real, they have the skills to make the reader believe their fiction is actually history.
‘Darkness Rising’ is the fourth novel involving the Viennese doctor, psychoanalyst Max Lieberman. It’s 1903. Vienna is beginning to promote and support pro-German, anti-Semite views, so when first a monk, and then a city councillor, both aggressively anti-Semite, are discovered outside churches, with their heads torn off, the radical Hasidic Jews are suspects. But there are certain strange aspects to the killings which make Detective Inspector Rheindhart ask his friend, Max, for help.
Complexities arise as Max is forced to re-examine his Jewishness, outface racist city councillors, keep his job at the hospital, where prejudiced people want him out, and be a good psychoanalyst. This and the relationships between both major and minor characters, the little episodes where their lives are disclosed, makes for compelling reading. Tallis’s Vienna is a character in its own right, tangible, you can see, hear, smell and, of course, taste those delicious Viennese pastries which Tallis’s characters eat with relish..Presented through the music, buildings, and even the lectures of Freud, intelligently discussed by Max, Tallis’s Vienna exists. This writer not only writes well, he researches thoroughly.
Readers who love to be transported in time to another period and place will want to read all four novels. I certainly do.
by Margaret Frazier, Berkley Prime Crime, 2008, $24.95, hb, 307 pages, ISBN:978-0-425-21924-9
Margaret Frazier improves with each book. This is her seventeenth Dame Frevisse novel and with more depth then some of the earlier ones. Here we find Dame Frevisse in her home convent and the details of the struggle to keep the underfunded convent thriving with such a small population of nuns, are just one of the details which make the story seem real.
What happens to nuns at the end of a long and lean Lent when they are at their lowest strength, if an apostate arrives? This apostate was once their Sister Cecely, who ran off with a man, now she’s back, nine years later, with her son. Her man has died and she is seeking sanctuary, from his family. or so she says. But when the family arrive, armed and threatening, it seems there was at least one other side to the story. As the Nuns struggle to find time to rejoice for Easter and find the truth about their apostate, Cecely manages to unsettle each woman, filling some with doubt and others with emotions best not let loose in a convent. Then the poisonings begin. It is up to Dame Frevisse to sort it all out and it isn’t an easy task. A well written Mediaeval mystery and a good read.
This was also the year where I discovered C.J. Sansom’s historical novels, and enjoyed more of Ann Perry’s, Kerry Greenwood’s and Michael Pearce’s historical whodunits. More about them later in interviews.