Book reviews: My top reads of 2020

Book reviews: My top reads of 2020

You don’t need me to tell you it’s been a long year of lockdown and cloistered existence. We’ve all had to find ways to cope, and for me that has meant escaping into a comfort place of words (not just my own writing, I hasten to add.) I’ve built myself an escapist book-lined nest, mostly fiction with a weird slant or surprising twist that drags me off into a different world.

Turns out I spent quite lot of 2020 escaping to my nest to read: plenty of books I’ve loved, some I’ve had to push through, and a few abandoned before the end. In total too many to mention. Nevertheless, for my final book review of 2020, I decided to share five books that would definitely feature at the top of my list. Here they are, in no particular order, just because I loved them enough to read or listen to them twice. At least twice.

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Book Review: V2

Book Review: V2

V2, by Robert Harris, published by Hutchinson autumn 2020

In the autumn and winter of 1944, the dying embers of the Nazi war effort were fanned back to a brief fierce flame by the Vergeltungswaffe Zwei campaign – known to us as the V2 rockets.

Dr Rudi Graf, a dedicated engineer who still dreams of reaching the stars with his beautiful rockets, is the fictional colleague of Wernher von Braun. (After the war von Braun famously re-surfaced in America as the genius behind NASA’s space programme.) Graf’s opening line, ‘I doubt it’ when asked whether the rockets will win the war, tells us immediately of his utter weariness and and his growing doubts about Nazism, the war effort, and his own life’s work on the rocket programme.

Harris’s other main character is WAAF Kay Caton-Walsh, who survives a V2 attack in London. Escaping a moribund love affair, she finds her life transformed when she volunteers to go to Belgium as part of a group of talented female mathematicians who use slide rules, nerve and sheer ability in a race to find the launch site of the deadly rockets.

Before the two eventually meet, the gripping course of the final winter of WW11 has somehow to be survived. And a muddy, grim, despairing time it is before the climactic end is reached.

And now I must declare making a big mistake, and being most unfair to Mr Harris:

I read Fatherland, Harris’s first novel (which was also set in Nazi Germany but of a very different era) so many years ago I blush at how old I have become. I was immediately hooked on the premise of that book – that the Nazis had won the war, prevailed through to the sixties, and a doddery Hitler was ruler of the whole of Europe including a Vichy-type regime in Britain. I was even more captivated by the quality of the writing.

What Harris did with Fatherland. and has done since in most of his writing, is to focus on carefully crafted distinctive characters and a wealth of painstaking research distilled down to the most delicately constructed detail. And then he twists events to utterly fool us. While we were watching the brilliantly crafted “this” over here, Harris has all along been fooling us with a hidden “that” over there, which explodes into view in the final twist. Oh, for such talent!

One or two other thriller writers can do this, but few choose to do so to investigate epochal moments of history to such gripping effect. The magic is in the detail, and this was where I made my mistake. I had been so looking forward to V2 that I pre-ordered it on Kindle, and when it downloaded on publication day I gobbled it down much too fast, consuming the book in a single marathon session ending in the wee small hours.

This is not the way to treat a much-anticipated new book, as those of us no longer small children usually recognise. Unsurprisingly, having rushed through what may seem at first glance a simple story, I was a little disappointed. It felt a touch superficial, rather short, not really up to par. I knew Harris had written the book in lockdown, having fortunately conducted his field research in autumn 2019. Perhaps, I reasoned, he felt under pressure to deliver, or the restrictions of lockdown were taking their toll.

Fortunately for me, I then chose to listen to the book on Audible, and had a vastly different experience. All the touches of detail – Harris’s unique magic with deftly deployed historical research – somehow emerged far more effectively in the audio format. By the time I reached the denouement, much more satisfactory second time round, I had changed my opinion considerably.

Kay’s chagrin at her shifting personal life, including her mistakes of the heart and initial difficulties with colleagues, came out in beautiful nuance. Graf’s lonely stance, a thwarted dreamer reaching for the stars who is forced to kowtow to evil, was much clearer, and his behaviour at the climatic twist became believable and poignant. The backdrop of the dreary frozen Low Countries, and the war-shattered scenes of exhausted London were almost characters in their own right.

My view now? This is a terrific historical thriller, once taken at the correct pace. I thoroughly recommend it and heartily apologise to Robert Harris for my initial misgivings.

But, dear Reader, I must caution you – read V2 twice to get the most out of this story. It creeps up on you.

An update now on progress with my own first historical mystery novel, Governor’s Man: The Bronze Owl

My first draft has just come back from my editor Gemma Taylor, and I‘ve also had feedback on the script from several beta readers. My grateful thanks to my readers – signed copies coming your way sometime next year!

Mostly positive reviews so far, I’m relieved to say. There’s still a lot of work to be done, of course, but I’m on timetable to finish the second draft and polish it up to send out on pitch to agents and publishers in the New Year.

In the meantime, I’ve made a start on the second book of the series, Governor’s Man: The Carnelian Phoenix. Get ready for all kinds of mayhem, murder, subterfuge, and misunderstandings as my trio racket around third century Europe in a quest to uncover the truth behind the suicide of Senator Valerius.

Book Review: Where Every Man

Book Review: Where Every Man

Where Every Man by Charlie Garrett (fourth in the Inspector James Given series)
Published by Sapere Books, 2020

I’ve given myself a short break between sending the first draft of Governor’s Man: The Bronze Owl off to my editor, and beginning the sequel, GM: The Carnelian Phoenix, in which Quintus Valerius and Tiro find themselves plunging round Gaul and on to the Eternal City in pursuit of danger, death and general mayhem. More of that later.

Meanwhile, Sapere Books asked me to read their latest detective thriller, and here is my review, as published today on Amazon. I gave the book three stars.

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Book Review: Now We Shall Be Entirely Free

Book Review: Now We Shall Be Entirely Free

By Andrew Miller, published by Sceptre, 2018

This book is about who we are, who we become under duress, and who we wish we could be.

Captain John Lacroix of the Hussars has barely survived the opening phase of the Peninsular War (1807-14), and has been repatriated for recovery home to Somerset. He does not recognise himself as a survivor, more as a mourning penitent who has fled what he has witnessed, done, and left undone in a small Spanish village, the scene of a war atrocity by the British army retreating to Corunna.

Lacroix is being pursued: by the army, who want him back in arms now that a new campaign in the Peninsula is to be led by the future Duke of Wellington; by a pursuer, Corporal Calley, appointed by one who cannot be gainsaid and Calley’s Spanish companion, Lieutenant Medina; and by his own ghostlike shame. He is also pursued by death, although it takes some time for Lacroix to realise this.

Both Lacroix and Calley give themselves alternate identities, and their two stories intertwine like snakes seeking to bite each other as the deadly chase crosses the length of Regency Britain.

A convalescent trip to the Hebrides turns into a rout for Lacroix, a flight for his life and sanity. But at first he travels slowly, in all ignorance, not knowing he is laying a clear trail for Calley. Lacroix meets with plenty of more obvious misfortunes until he reaches an unlikely haven with an eccentric cultured London family, living in isolation on a unnamed island. Here Emily, with her brother Cornelius and sister Jane, are the advance party of an idealistic freethinking community, destined one suspects for failure, and rapidly running out of money. Lacroix’s plans to move on gradually change as he falls in love with Emily.

And now his luck too seems to change. There is a very near miss in Glasgow, a breath-taking encounter which Lacroix unwittingly escapes. But his idyll ends with a wrenching reunion with one of Calley’s victims, and a time for confessions on both sides of the twisted plot. As Lacroix grapples with what sort of person he really is, as well as the true identity of the man hunting him, the pace quickens into a desperate race back to the island for the final encounter. And then… shall John and Emily be entirely free?

Lovers of Pure, and other Andrew Miller historical fiction will know his uncanny ability to suck the reader wholesale into his chosen period. His touches of detail are magical in their ability to summon the era: Lacroix making bullets; the mudlark that Medina sees in Portsmouth; pioneering gaslights in Glasgow, and the new police who patrol under those blue lights; the revolutionary eye surgery Emily undergoes.

Miller’s writing is so lyrical and rhythmic that the spare brutality of Calley’s threats and behaviour is thrown into shocking relief, even while Lacroix vainly seeks to escape the horrors of Spain. The tension in this book ratchets up softly at first, gaining momentum and ending in a mighty breathless twist. That is the hallmark of a great writer in full possession of all the requisite skills, and ensures that this book will appeal to lovers of mystery and thrillers, as well as historical fiction.
In the end, Lacroix becomes who he wishes to be remembered as, and Calley? Well – spoiler alert – he too ends as he might expect, knowing himself to be capable even of murdering one he belatedly realises was his friend.

So, is there anything not to admire in this wonderfully immersive story? For me, yes. When your writing has been recognised by the award of Costa Book of the Year, you’re entitled to experiment with the shibboleths of accepted writing norms. Like shifting point of view from inside the head of one character to another, within the same scene. All the same, being entitled doesn’t necessarily make that a good idea. [See Chapter 1, for example].

And then there’s the ending. I was disappointed on first reading. And again on second reading. What need to miss out that one final sentence? I have to admit, for me the magic spell Miller casts over the entire book dissipated a little right there. A shame, but maybe that says more about me as a reader than Miller as writer. I suppose it was inevitable, as this is a book clearly aimed at the litfic market. While the story has all the pace and plot-driven suspense of the very best commercial fiction, the ambiguous ending reveals Miller’s instincts. For me personally, that was rather a shame. See what you think.

Prize winner at Lincoln Book Festival 2020

Prize winner at Lincoln Book Festival 2020

Since lockdown began I’ve been focussing on my novel Governor’s Man, and neglecting my usual short story writing. Then along came the Lincoln Book Festival 2020 flash fiction competition. The challenge was to write a complete 50-word story about the Lincoln Imp. Those of you who’ve visited Lincoln will know of the little gargoyle who sits perched on top of Lincoln Cathedral, staring down at passers by. Locals regard him as malign; he’s been blamed for all sorts of mishaps over the centuries, from housefires and miscarriages to sour milk.

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Life in the Time of Coronavirus #13: Weirdly over the top

Life in the Time of Coronavirus #13: Weirdly over the top

27 June 2020

Last time I promised you my review of the remainder of the Rotherweird trilogy, by QC and fantasy writer Andrew Caldecott. So I’ll begin with that, and then see how you like the segue into my catch-up on Covid-19 and our illustrious Government’s part in its downfall.

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Life in the Time of Coronavirus #12: Moving On

Life in the Time of Coronavirus #12: Moving On

It’s been a while since I wrote in this blog. Sorry about that.
It isn’t that I haven’t been writing. I have – up to 1500 words most weekdays, escaping into the world of my novel Governor’s Man: the Bronze Owl. Third century Roman Britain, the south-west to be precise, with excursions into Londinium and Rome itself. It’s a surprisingly alluring haven, despite the lack of central heating and Netflix. Actually some of the scenes do feature central heating, for which my policeman/detective Quintus Valerius is endlessly grateful given the vagaries of the British climate.

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Life in the Time of Coronavirus #11: Could you hang on a sec?

Life in the Time of Coronavirus #11: Could you hang on a sec?

24 May 2020

  • When I began this blog theme, back in mid-March, I may have made some sort of commitment to keeping the column a politics-free zone. I had, after all, spent much of my time from June 2016 to December 2019 blogging endlessly about Brexit and my part in its downfall. (See my Brexit blog theme, if you can bear to.)
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    Book Review: The Mirror and the Light

    Book Review: The Mirror and the Light

    The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel, published by Audible as unabridged audiobook, March 2020. Narrated by Ben Miles.

    Unless you’ve been under a rock since long before the Coronavirus lockdown, you’ll already know about this third and final instalment of Hilary Mantel’s astonishing fictional tour-de-force of the life and death of Thomas Cromwell. It has been an unexpected bonus of the lockdown that I’ve had time to listen to all 38 hours and 11 minutes of this audiobook, and be done long before Christmas.

    It won’t be any kind of spoiler to say that this concluding part of the story is heavily concerned with issues of life and death, reputation and legacy. During the course of the book Cromwell is increasingly weighed down by the ghosts of his past – his father, Walter; Anne Boleyn and her brother; Thomas More; Katherine of Aragon and her lost children; Jane Seymour; and above all the fatherlike figure of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who looms ever larger in Cromwell’s mind and perceptions.

    This third book is threaded through by Cromwell’s past. We meet his own unknown daughter, as well as Wolsey’s daughter, who does not believe the honour of his intentions for her. This feels like a huge blow to Cromwell, not previously someone who much minded being mistrusted. Indeed, mistrust has been a major tool to him in his rise the top. But now, shorn of his wife and daughters – legitimate and illegitimate – losing friends and allies, seemingly abandoned even by the shade of Wolsey, Cromwell’s urge to leave this life as one who is righteous in his own eyes and those of others becomes his prime motivation. The more his grasp on political power slips, even while he apparently continues an inexorable rise in status and riches, the more he dwells on the transitory nature of identity and reputation. Another reviewer has compared Cromwell to Jason Bourne, and I like this comparison myself. But this is a Bourne shorn of confusion and lack of knowledge of his past. Cromwell knows exactly where he has come from, and why, and how illusory is his hold on power and security. The end, albeit sudden, comes as no surprise to either Cromwell or the listener. It is no less shocking for all that.

    Throughout the trilogy, Hilary Mantel has used the present tense and the very narrowest third person point of view for Cromwell; meaning that he is present in every scene, all the action is mediated through his internal commentary, and we learn nothing that he doesn’t. That could have made the bounds of the story seem narrow and one-sided. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a vast canvas, on which Mantel has drawn the entire Tudor world.
    Many reviewers have praised the luminous poetic quality of Mantel’s writing, and her creation of the complex, ruthless yet utterly convincing and sympathetic main character. Others have praised her meticulous research of the period to present a huge cast of characters, and the consummate way she uses all the senses to plunge us into the toxic headlong rush of the early sixteenth century.
    An unusual and very affecting element of her writing has been to include so many of the haunting departed, dead apparently but lingering in Cromwell’s world. The Tudor period was dominated by the ghosts of those who were threats, or rivals, or loved ones, of the various Tudor monarchs. None more so than Henry Vlll. And of course, we know that after this book has closed, Henry comes to bitterly rue ridding himself of Cromwell. I wonder if he too was haunted by his past?

    There are so many strengths in this book. Yet for me, one special quality sets the whole trilogy, and particularly The Mirror and the Light head and shoulders above anything else I have read or listened to in a long time: the structure. The eponymous mirror is really a kaleidoscope, the multi-angular refraction of the world of Thomas Cromwell at the top of his game, at the moment he is about to begin the downward slide into ignominy and death. The narrative is driven by a series of dialogues during which the listener’s hackles rise, unperceived. Every encounter with the myriad of other people in Cromwell’s life, from the longed-for Kate Parr, to Wolsey’s daughter Dorothea, the frightened Mary Tudor, the vicious Norfolk, and even his own family and loved ones – Gregory and Richard Cromwell, Rafe Sadler, the weak and treacherous Call-Me Wriothesley: each of these scenes ramps up the tension, the subliminal fear, the swoop of inevitable disaster. And over them all, the vast corruscating presence of Henry himself, that regal source of light that will ultimately burn Cromwell and his achievements away to mere ash.

    I have only ever experienced such a sense of unavoidable oncoming disaster for a character who seems unforgivable and at the same time deserving of all my pity and admiration in Shakespeare: Lear, Othello, Hamlet, even Macbeth. And when I remember that we already know the end of The Mirror and the Light before the book begins, I am overcome with admiration for what Mantel has achieved.

    A word about the narrator, actor Ben Miles, who also played Cromwell in the stage versions of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. There has been quite a lot of criticism about his voice in the Audible version, mainly it seems from reviewers who wanted him to play Cromwell as upper class. I was fortunate to study the Tudor period for A level history, and I knew then that Cromwell’s status as a plebeian who drags himself up to the top through sheer talent and hard work was at once his strength and his great weakness. In my view, Ben Miles has conveyed this to great effect. I also found his ability to distinguish between characters from one breath to the next was exceptional. I think Mantel did very well when she personally chose Ben Miles to read the book; he added greatly to my pleasure and appreciation.

    So, a five star listen, a great, great book, and a main character who will never leave me.