Recently I’ve Read … Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn

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First published in 2010, Mistress of Rome is the debut novel of US author Kate Quinn. It is the first volume in her four-book Empress of Rome series, and spans the years AD 81 to 96, the reign of Emperor Domitian.

It is important to start off by saying that this isn’t what I would term ‘straight’ historical fiction. The novel provides a heavily fictionalised account of historical events, and historical figures mix with fictional characters in the cast list. However, Quinn’s Historical Note and annotated list of characters make it very clear where fact and fiction separate, and why these deviations were made. This is the sort of historical fiction that prompts you to go off and find out a bit more about the period, rather than giving you a whole lot of information itself. Additionally, apart from the period details about food, clothes, and gladiator fights, this doesn’t always read like historical fiction: we may be in the 1st century, but these are 21st century characters speaking 21st century dialogue.

I must stress that none of the above is a criticism: I adored this book. But historical fiction often seems to be judged more harshly than other genres, particularly if it is seen to be inaccurate or inauthentic in some way. And that isn’t fair. There are two types of historical fiction to my mind: there are your Wolf Halls and there is this – something which, if it were dramatised, would probably be a Showtime production. Think The Borgias or The Tudors and you won’t go far wrong.

Mistress of Rome is  brilliant fun and glorious entertainment. It focuses on the enmity between two women: spoilt patrician Lepida Pollia and Jewish slave girl Thea. We first meet these two when they are 14 and Thea is Lepida’s slave. One of the few things they have in common is their desire for Arius the Barbarian, an up-and-coming gladiator from Britannia. When Lepida discovers that Arius and Thea have fallen in love, she takes the whole Woman Scorned thing to a brand new level and separates the couple in devastating fashion.

A few years down the line, the two women cross paths again. This time, though, they meet on a far more level playing field as they both compete for the affections of the Emperor Domitian.

This is a fast-paced, grippingly readable novel that has a very filmic quality: the characters, dialogue, and scenes are so vivid that the action seemed to unfold like a film in my head. The love story between Thea and Arius is moving and involving. Very often, it is also beautifully written. Thea and Arius’s first meeting is described rather symbollically as occurring in a place

So dark. It could have been the beginning of the world. (p. 34)

At the other end of the scale, there is some less lyrical, but gloriously over the top writing. This is often dialogue uttered by the blackhearted Lepida Pollia, a character who could swap her stolla for shoulder pads any day of the week and become a Dynasty superbitch. Largely on the strength of gems like this:

Thank you ever so much, darling. Goodness, I’m sorry about the bruises, but you really did make me very angry. I’ll buy you something pretty tomorrow to make up for it. (p. 427)

Lepida also inspires other characters – in this case Aunt Diana – to utter deliciously waspish gems, such as

Say the word, and I’ll run the bitch over with my chariot. (p. 270)

Straight into my Top Ten one-liners with that one!

Mistress of Rome is a heady mix of poignant romance, high octane political intrigue, and gloriously overblown soap opera. Such a mix may not be for everyone but it was certainly for me: I am almost ready to start the third book in the series as I write this … And I think I have a new favourite author.

Recently I’ve Read … Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

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Hausfrau is the debut novel by poet Jill Alexander Essbaum. Anyone familiar with either Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina will recognise this book as a modern take on these tales of bored, trapped wives.

In this instance, the unhappy wife in question is Anna Benz, an American living a priveleged life in Zurich with her husband, Bruno, and their three children – sons Charles and Victor, and baby daughter Polly.

On the surface, Anna lives a blessed life. But underneath is a well of discontent. Her marriage is not a happy one and her relationship with her children is complex; she finds it difficult to love Victor in particular. After several years in Switzerland, Anna still hasn’t made any friends or learned Swiss German. She has never worked, doesn’t hold a driver’s licence, and doesn’t have her own bank account. Anna is sleepwalking through her life, desperately trying to find meaning and purpose through her sessions with her therapist, Doctor Messerli. She also attempts to escape her increasing despair through a string of extra-marital affairs.

So far, the stage seems to be set for a novel that engages with thought-provoking themes like the pressure of needing to be the perfect wife and mother, alienation and despair, identity.

Unfortunately, Hausfrau is never able to provoke much thought at all due to an underlying flaw: translating a 19th century tragedy to a modern day setting just doesn’t work. Perhaps it is possible for a 21st century, Western woman to be trapped in the same way that Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary are. But it is highly unusual and thus requires some explanation: why hasn’t Anna got a bank account? We learn so little about the protagonist that we never get to know why she has so little independence, why her marriage is failing, and how she became so isolated. This lack of explanation leads to a lack of conviction: it is impossible to believe in Anna or her story. Both are 19th century literary constructs that have not been updated and thus cannot convince in a modern day narrative.

The novel’s moral code hasn’t been updated either: it, too, is dreadfully Victorian. Anna is punished in the most dreadful, Thomas Hardy-esque way for having sex outside of marriage. In a 21st century novel, this is hideously jarring.

Hausfrau is atmospherically claustrophic, moving as it does between a limited set of restricted locations: the classroom where Anna belatedly learns Swiss German, the office where she undergoes therapy, the bedroom where she conducts illicit affairs. The prose style, as many other reviewers have noted, really grates, though: it is horribly contrived and self-conscious. This ponderous tone adds to the sense of detachment and chilliness pervading the novel. Characters don’t have to be likeable  – and this lot never would be in a million years – but they do have to feel real, at least in domestic dramas like this. Here, though, we are reading about constructs not people, we are reading dialogue not conversation.

Ultimately, in a book so much concerned with language and translation, this novel shows that translating 19th century characters and tropes directly to a 21st century setting just doesn’t work.

Recently I’ve Read … The Kindness by Polly Samson

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The Kindness is, essentially, a family drama transmuted into something altogether more spellbinding by its lyrical prose. Poetically written and full of vivid imagery, the novel is obliquely rendered with a hazy, dreamlike quality. This in turn creates narrative tension: we know that something terrible has happened to these characters and turn the pages furiously in a bid to find out what; all the while being drip-fed tiny details of the story.

Julian is the central character. We see him dealing with the fallout of a devastating event; there is no trace of his wife and child. The novel moves back and forward in time, gradually filling in the gaps. We learn that, some years earlier, Julian fell in love with Julia, a captivating woman eight years his senior. Julian gave up a promising career in academia to be with Julia and, later, to care for her and their daughter Mira.

When Julian’s boyhood home, Firdaws, comes up for sale, he goes all out to recreate the idyll of his childhood for his young family. But, when Mira falls dangerously ill, a long-buried secret threatens to destroy everything.

This is a beautifully written and gripping novel about trust, and the often fine line between kindness and betrayal.

Recently I’ve Read … Her by Harriet Lane

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Billed ‘the ultimate frenemy thriller’, Her is one of seemingly dozens of domestic noir novels currently flooding the market and being compared to Gone Girl.

And how does it compare to these other titles? Well, for me at least, unfavourably. Her has so much promise that it completely wastes.

The premise is certainly a good one: the theme of female friendships is fascinating and is the central focus here. Emma feels weighed down by her two small children. She is befriended by Nina, chic and apparently together. Nina seemingly inhabits a different world entirely but understands Emma’s.

Unbeknown to Emma, however, Nina knows her of old and holds something of a grudge.

There is some good stuff here: I always felt that I was reading about real people, not Characters; that I had stepped into their lives, not into Scenes. Lane’s writing is sharp and she provides some unflinching insights into motherhood and domesticity.

But there is little depth here; so much is left unexplored. One of the biggest problems with the novel is that, throughout, many scenes are depicted twice: once from Emma’s perspective and once from Nina’s. A fairly standard but potentially intriguing thriller trope. Except here, the women’s accounts are word-for-word (or as good as) the same every single time. This puzzled me as, surely, slight discrepancies between the two accounts would have added a good dose of tension and moral ambiguity: who is the big old liar here? The similarity between Emma and Nina’s responses is, perhaps, significant: I thought that, maybe, it showed the potential for a genuine friendship between the two, were it not for Nina’s vendetta. But, since Lane never really explores this possibility, this technique becomes purely repetitive and smacks of a missed opportunity.

A killer ending would have rendered this niggle null and void. This ending, though, is pretty dreadful. It ruined the whole thing and made me feel I had completely wasted my time. The reason for Nina’s grudge is so incomprehensibly banal, it barely registers as a reveal at all. And cop-out doesn’t even cover the climax.

There is interesting material here for fans of the domestic noir genre, but for the most part Her is a novel full of missed opportunities, with a dreadfully weak ending.

Favourites on a Friday: Mary Stewart

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With summer fading into autumn and the nights gradually drawing in, many readers will be on the lookout for some enchanting escapism to get them through the drizzly days and chilly nights. I would strongly encourage these readers to grab hold of their favourite, cosiest blanket, pour themselves a nice hot cup of tea and pick up a Mary Stewart.

A small sample of my much-loved Mary Stewart collection
A small sample of my much-loved Mary Stewart collection

Mary Stewart is known for her romantic suspense novels, which were best-sellers when first published. Beginning with Madam, Will You Talk in 1955, these books typically feature compelling mysteries with a pinch of romance for good measure.

There is something a bit special about Stewart’s novels; they wield a certain magic. Often set in foreign, occasionally exotic, lands – Damascus, the Greek islands, Spain, France, Austria – these stories transport their readers into another world. This is escapist fiction at its best.

And better yet, Stewart’s heroines are often delightfully intelligent, level-headed and quick with the witty one-liner. Her very first protagonist, Charity from Madam, Will You Talk, is a bona fide Stewart heroine: glamorous, cool under pressure and with serious racing driving skills.

Start with any Mary Stewart novel and you won’t go far wrong but I would, if I may, steer you in the direction of one of the fan favourites first: My Brother Michael, Nine Coaches Waiting, or The Moonspinners (later turned into a Disney film starring Hayley Mills and well worth  a watch) perhaps.

Stewart is also well-known for a series of Arthurian novels. This sequence focuses on the wizard, Merlin, and strips back the usual fantasy elements so that they read more like historical novels. This is the Merlin of the original Welsh legend, rather than the version popularized by the French chivalric tradition. If you’re interested in Stewart’s take on Merlin and Arthur, start with The Crystal Cave (1970).

Mary Stewart, who died in May 2014, was born in Sunderland, just down the road from me. I thus take a particular pride in the talents of this local author. Her beautifully written, captivating novels offer peerless entertainment and escapism.

Already a fan of Mary Stewart? Which of her novels would you recommend to new readers? Let me know in the comments.

 

 

Recently I’ve Read … The Secret Place by Tana French

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The Secret Place is the first Tana French novel I have read, but I had certainly heard a lot about her – and her reputation as a writer of superior thrillers – beforehand.

This novel made its way onto many ‘Best of 2014′ lists and certainly has an intriguing premise. The rather claustrophobic tale centres around two private schools in Dublin. A pupil from the boys’ school, St. Colm’s, has been found murdered in the grounds of St. Kilda’s, the neighbouring girls’ school. A year later, the murder remains unsolved. A postcard then appears in The Secret Place – a noticeboard in St Kilda’s where students can express their innermost thoughts and secrets anonymously.

The postcard features a photograph of the victim and a message: ‘I know who killed him.’

Ambitious detective Stephen Moran, who is keen to prove himself and get out of Cold Cases, gets pulled into the investigation alongside prickly Antoinette Conway. The action unfolds over the course of one day’s investigation within the girls’ school. The action moves back and forth from the detective’s investigation in the present day to the events leading up to and immediately following the murder.

The detectives soon home in on one particular group of friends at St. Kilda’s. Is the bond between them really so strong that one of them would resort to murder?

It is worth pointing out that, although The Secret Place is the fifth book in French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, it works well as a standalone. Indeed, to begin with, this novel was every bit as gripping as the hype – and tantalising synopsis –  suggested it would be. Then, a little way into the book, something happened that left me feeling at first bewildered and then betrayed. ‘Random’ doesn’t quite cover it. What’s more, this rather bizarre development is left entirely unexplained and largely unexplored. French does appear to want to stretch the boundaries of the crime novel, but this particular plot point just didn’t sit well in relation to the novel as a whole.

I have some other niggles. Before I started, I was concerned that, at 528 pages, this book was too long for what was essentially a ‘whodunnit’. And I was right, particular given that the killer’s identity is telegraphed pretty early on, and that many of the interview scenes with the girls were rather samey.

Which brings me onto my next point. OMG, HELLO?! Do teenage girls really, like, OMG, talk like that? Would they, OMG, really talk like that when being interviewed by the police? Like, all of them? As if they are, like, OMG, robots or whatevs? Yeah, I know, like mabes. But I felt like I was reading somebody’s impression of how teenage girls spoke, rather than reading authentic dialogue. Many of these passages just didn’t ring true.

I was also mildly irritated by the character of Antoinette Conway. I got the distinct impression we were meant to be surprised that it is the female officer who doesn’t want to make friends and play nice. But Conway is a stereotype in her own right: the Complex Female Character. It would be more progressive, surely, to have fully-realised, fleshed out female characters.

Niggles aside, there IS much to enjoy in this novel. I thought that the themes of belonging, friendship, youth and ageing were very interestingly handled, and really well-woven into the crime narrative. I particularly liked the ending where Holly, one of the young female protagonists, was contrasted with her mother. French vividly captures the intense nature of the friendships we forge in youth, then shows us, via Holly’s mother, what can happen to these bonds as we grow older.

The pairing of Conway and Moran is a very engaging one, and there are some very entertaining twists and turns in their relationship.

Ultimately, I feel The Secret Place is worth reading as it does comment on some interesting themes that aren’t often explored in crime fiction. For me, though, the actual mystery – though it promised much – was fairly transparent and drawn out. I do, however, like the fact that Tana French offers crime stories with deeper, more universal underlying themes and have already downloaded another of her novels.

Recently I’ve Read … Summer at Shell Cottage by Lucy Diamond

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Earlier in the year, I downloaded a selection of ‘summery’ books to get me in the mood for/see me through the warmer months. For much of the season, though, I wasn’t in a very ‘sunny’ mood and eschewed these summery selections. Last week, I decided to make the most of the remaining August days and pick up Summer at Shell Cottage. In many respects, this choice was actually a timely one as the closing pages contain some lovely, elegiac passages about the end of summer.

The Tarrant family holiday at Shell Cottage in Devon every year. The novel focuses on three Tarrant women who are grappling with a host of secrets and lies. Matriarch Olivia is shattered when she discovers a shocking secret about her recently deceased husband. Daughter-in-law Harriet is forced to question just how well she knows her husband and daughter. And daughter Freya, a busy GP and working mum, has been struggling to cope and is keen to hide the extent of her troubles from her family.

I came to this novel looking for some light, easy reading and, for the most part, this is what it delivered. The various plots are all fairly engaging, though I did feel that, at over 450 pages, the book was too long. The majority of the storylines start to wear thin long before the end.

 The characters are a mixed bag:  for instance, I liked Harriet, who seemed wholly three-dimensional and I could easily imagine her plonking herself down at my kitchen table for a cuppa. Olivia, on the other hand, felt a little more like a stereotype, though I did enjoy many aspects of her storyline, particularly her relationship with her cleaner, Gloria.

What really irritated me about this novel, however, was that a very serious subject was dealt with in an incredibly flippant manner. Something that happens to one of the female characters is appalling, but is quite quickly brushed off as a life lesson. This results in a confusing unevenness in tone.

That aside, there is plenty to enjoy in this novel for those not quite ready to embrace Autumn. The descriptions of the Devon coast are vivid and should help ease any beleaguered readers through the chilly days ahead.