Review: “The Half-Drowned King” by Linnea Hartsuyker

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Hardcover: 448 pages

Publisher: Harper Collins

Release Date: 1st August 2017

5 STARS

SET IN NORWAY (9th Century)

 

Linnea Hartsuyker’s epic debut perfectly captures Viking Norway in a way that is exciting, uncompromising and elegantly written.  This is a book of heroes and whilst it draws on the Icelandic Sagas retelling of the making of kings, it’s refreshing to find a historical narrative that focuses as much on the female experience as the male without reducing the woman to the role of voiceless lover or pawn. In Svanhild Eysteinsson, Hartsuyker has created a complex and intelligent heroine that seeks to make her own way in a world dominated by men. This novel doesn’t shy away from the gory violent culture of the Vikings but also paints a picture of a society that values cunning and honour in addition to bravery and strength.

The Blurb: Centuries ago, in a blood-soaked land ruled by legendary gods and warring men, a prophecy foretold of a high king who would come to reign over all of the north. . . .

Ragnvald Eysteinsson, the son and grandson of kings, grew up believing that he would one day take his dead father’s place as chief of his family’s lands. But, sailing home from a raiding trip to Ireland, the young warrior is betrayed and left for dead by men in the pay of his greedy stepfather, Olaf. Rescued by a fisherman, Ragnvald is determined to have revenge for his stepfather’s betrayal, claim his birthright and the woman he loves, and rescue his beloved sister Svanhild. Opportunity may lie with Harald of Vestfold, the strong young Norse warrior rumored to be the prophesied king. Ragnvald pledges his sword to King Harald, a choice that will hold enormous consequence in the years to come.

While Ragnvald’s duty is to fight—and even die—for his honor, Svanhild must make an advantageous marriage, though her adventurous spirit yearns to see the world. Her stepfather, Olaf, has arranged a husband for her—a hard old man she neither loves nor desires. When the chance to escape Olaf’s cruelty comes at the hands of her brother’s arch rival, the shrewd young woman is forced to make a heartbreaking choice: family or freedom.

Set in a mystical and violent world defined by honor, loyalty, deceit, passion, and courage, The Half-Drowned King is an electrifying adventure that breathtakingly illuminates the Viking world and the birth of Scandinavia.

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I was really excited to read this novel after seeing its gorgeous golden cover winking at me from the new release shelves at my local Barnes and Noble. I’d just come off the back of binging the last of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles and fancied giving this a go whilst my head was still in a marauding and pillaging kind of space. But would it live up to King Cornwell? Well yes. Yes it would.

What I particularly loved about this book are the wonderfully complex characters. Hartsuyker takes the time to develop them and casts a critical eye over each and every one. All have their flaws, are weak at times and selfish but she takes care to ensure that your loyalties as a reader are always torn. There are no stereotypical warrior thugs here, you understand what drives these characters and how they strive to achieve their ambitions in often difficult circumstances.

Hartsuyker is in total control of her research and the setting throughout the novel. You feel like you are getting a guided tour of Viking life, but without the annoying educational voiceover explaining what everything means. She is a master of ‘show don’t tell’ and the descriptions throughout are often surprising and very evocative which ensures that whilst this is not the first Viking historical novel, you never feel like you’ve read it somewhere else before.

Many comparisons have been made between The Half-Drowned King and Game of Thrones and Outlander, but I feel that this does it a disservice. Yes it has the feel of an epic saga, but this one is rooted in a tangible setting and quite frankly kicks Outlander out of the park in terms of quality of writing (and I love Outlander…). That said, if you enjoy those series you will love this – and the best part is it’s but the first in a planned trilogy… The Sea Queen is released 14th August 2018 and I for one can’t wait.

www.linneahartsuyker.com

@linneaharts

 

 

Review: “Fools And Mortals” by Bernard Cornwell

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Hardcover: 384 pages

Publisher: Harper

Release Date: 9th January 2018

3 STARS

SET IN LONDON (1597)

 

 

The King of the historical fiction genre has returned with a stand-alone novel re-telling the first staging of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and I practically ran to the bookstore to buy it. How could I resist? I’m a massive Cornwell fan, he’s one of the few authors where I will actively go out and buy the hardback rather than wait for the paperback and this looked like it ticked all my boxes – Cornwell’s usual eye for detail with setting and description, theatre and adventure all rolled up together.

The Blurb: In the heart of Elizabethan England, Richard Shakespeare dreams of a glittering career in one of the London playhouses, a world dominated by his older brother, William. But he is a penniless actor, making ends meet through a combination of a beautiful face, petty theft and a silver tongue. As William’s star rises, Richard’s onetime gratitude is souring and he is sorely tempted to abandon family loyalty.

So when a priceless manuscript goes missing, suspicion falls upon Richard, forcing him onto a perilous path through a bawdy and frequently brutal London. Entangled in a high-stakes game of duplicity and betrayal which threatens not only his career and potential fortune, but also the lives of his fellow players, Richard has to call on all he has now learned from the brightest stages and the darkest alleyways of the city. To avoid the gallows, he must play the part of a lifetime . . . .

It hurts me to say this but… I didn’t love this book. I liked it. It was an enjoyable read but no fires were lit and I’m not sure I will remember anything about the characters in three months time.

Lord, what fools these mortals be…

This is Cornwell’s first foray into Elizabethan England and rather than his usual confident ease with the periods he explores, he’s succumbed to the author’s trap of trying to explain and describe every detail for a modern audience. It surprised me that he did this as it’s not a feature of this other novels – he never explains what Saxon terms are in The Saxon Chronicles and it feels a little heavy handed here, like he doesn’t trust us to be able to work out from context what things are.

His use of language and dialogue remains excellent though. Cornwell really goes to town with the rich bawdy insults that Shakespeare was famous for. In fact, these hilarious turns of phrase are probably the most entertaining part of the book. The characters never feel stilted in their dialogue and it flows well with plenty of witty to and fro. The problem is that you never really get past this to characters that you really care about.

Richard Shakespeare is William’s younger more annoying brother. This wouldn’t be an issue except that he narrates the entire story. It’s an interesting angle to present Shakespeare (the older) as a violent, difficult man but much of it is tainted by the petulant, bitter observations of the younger Shakespeare, although this does definitely improve as the narrative unfolds – the main action of the book takes off half way through and everything is on the up from there on out.

Overall, this is a good romp through a new era for Cornwell but doesn’t really hold a torch to his longer series. You won’t come away loving the characters or feeling particularly invested, which is a shame.

If you want classic Cornwell you’re better off sticking with The Saxon Chronicles or the Sharpe series.

Review: “The House Between Tides” by Sarah Maine

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Paperback: 400 pages

Publisher: Atria Books

Release Date: 24th March 2014

4 STARS

SET IN OUTER HEBRIDES, SCOTLAND AND LONDON

 

The relentless summer sun of the US East Coast has had me, perversely, hankering for grey skies and sparse landscapes, and as such I’ve been picking up a fair few novels set in Scotland recently. The gorgeous moody cover of Sarah Maine’s debut novel drew me in immediately, as did the back cover descriptions of a gothic and atmospheric novel with a good old dose of murder and mystery. It was just what I needed.

The Blurb: An atmospheric debut novel about a woman who discovers the century-old remains of a murder victim on her family’s Scottish estate, plunging her into an investigation of its mysterious former occupants.

Following the death of her last living relative, Hetty Deveraux leaves London and her strained relationship behind for Muirlan, her ancestral home in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. She intends to renovate the ruinous house into a hotel, but the shocking discovery of human remains brings her ambitious restoration plans to an abrupt halt before they even begin. Few physical clues are left to identify the body, but one thing is certain: this person did not die a natural death.

Hungry for answers, Hetty discovers that Muirlan was once the refuge of her distant relative Theo Blake, the acclaimed painter and naturalist who brought his new bride, Beatrice, there in 1910. Yet ancient gossip and a handful of leads reveal that their marriage was far from perfect; Beatrice eventually vanished from the island, never to return, and Theo withdrew from society, his paintings becoming increasingly dark and disturbing.

What happened between them has remained a mystery, but as Hetty listens to the locals and studies the masterful paintings produced by Theo during his short-lived marriage, she uncovers secrets that still reverberate through the small island community—and will lead her to the identity of the long-hidden body.

 

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Beinn Mhor – a featured location in the novel

© Copyright Peter Fairhurst and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The novel is a dual narrative and swaps between the points of view of several of the main characters, although the bulk of the story is told through the eyes of Beatrice, the lonely wife of the difficult and talented painter Theo Blake in 1910 and Hetty Deveraux, his distant relative who inherits Muirlan House in 2010.

I must admit that I found the beginning of the novel slow. Maine’s descriptions are beautiful – she really captures the wind bashed coast and wild romanticism of the environment surrounding Muirlan House and the island but I stopped and started with it several times, finding it difficult to connect with the characters at first. I’m glad I persevered though as this story draws you in slowly, just as the island does Beatrice, and before long I was hooked.

What becomes apparent very quickly is that the discovery of the bones under the house and the resulting ‘murder mystery’ quickly play second fiddle to a story that is essentially about belonging and what it means to belong to a place, to a community, to a history that is carried with us. It is strongly character driven rather than focused on an unravelling plot as such – although Maine does an excellent job of reminding us every so often that there is a mystery to solve.

Understand what you’re getting into, James had said. It goes deep.

The tensions between the landowners and tenants, outsiders and locals, are well drawn and you do sympathise with Hetty as she is pulled this way and that by the differing opinions and approaches of the people around her. The agents engaged by her partner Giles are absolutely insufferable and it is only her constant reluctance to stand up to them in any way that stops this getting a higher rating. I’m afraid I wish that Hetty had more of a backbone! You are constantly put in mind though of the destruction wreaked by ruling landowners and the impact the ‘sporting, shooting, fishing’ culture on the local economy and environment – a battle that rages today in terms of land distribution, ownership and use in the Highlands and Islands.

Overall I thought the novel was gorgeously described and totally plausible in its depiction of the relationships between characters – nothing saccharine or overwrought is ever indulged and whilst the denouement is not revelatory, it is pleasingly fitted together and provides a strong resolution.

Not as gothic as I thought it would be, but certainly a strongly atmospheric novel that really captures the Outer Hebrides in all their bleak beauty.

 

http://sarahmainebooks.com/

@SarahMaineBooks

Review: “The Witchfinder’s Sister” by Beth Underdown

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Hardback: 304 pages

Publisher: Ballantine Books

Release Date: 25th May 2017

4 STARS

SET IN ESSEX, SUFFOLK, NORFOLK

 

A new perspective on one of Britain’s darkest periods of history. Before the Salem witch trials there was Matthew Hopkins – Britain’s self-appointed Witchfinder General. This chilling tale looks at what happened in the years between 1645 and 1647 when he held sway over East Anglia, through the eyes of his widowed sister Alice.

The Blurb: The number of women my brother Matthew killed, so far as I can reckon it, is one hundred and six…

1645. When Alice Hopkins’ husband dies in a tragic accident, she returns to the small Essex town of Manningtree, where her brother Matthew still lives.

But home is no longer a place of safety. Matthew has changed, and there are rumours spreading through the town: whispers of witchcraft, and of a great book, in which he is gathering women’s names.

To what lengths will Matthew’s obsession drive him?
And what choice will Alice make, when she finds herself at the very heart of his plan?

Not much is known about Hopkins historically speaking, and even less about any family he had. This gives Underdown plenty of scope to create her characters and to bring a chilling humanity to Hopkins, a man responsible for the deaths of over 300 women – more than all previous witch hunters in the 160 years preceding.

I particularly enjoy historical fiction from a female perspective as so often their stories are overlooked. Sometimes it can create narrative problems for authors though – how do you keep a female character in the centre of action that would probably only have included men at the time? Underdown navigates this successfully in the main. She uses Hopkins’ early absences and the slow trickle of information about what he’s up to to great effect in building suspense. The reader realises the scale and horror as the protagonist does which serves to draw you in. We sympathise with Alice as she struggles to work against her brother, constantly being thwarted by societal convention and her brother’s cold and controlling actions. Underdown also does a good job of balancing a historical tone in her language without losing pace or sounding contrived. Alice comes across as relatable but of her time, which is great.

Without going into details (no spoilers here!) the ending was frustrating and the thing that stops this getting a higher rating from me. I understand why it unfolded as it did… I just found it unsatisfying and one of the moments where the above problem wasn’t dealt with as well as earlier in the book. There is also a supernatural element that’s intriguing but never really goes anywhere – I really wish the writer had pursued this more.

Overall an enjoyable read but not a favourite.

 

www.bethunderdown.co.uk

@bethunderdown

 

Review: “We Were The Lucky Ones” by Georgia Hunter

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Hardback: 416 pages

Publisher: Viking

Release Date: 14th February 2017

5 STARS

SET ACROSS EUROPE

I am afraid that I am guilty of that most heinous of book crimes in the case of this novel – I judged this book by its cover and I couldn’t have been more wrong. “This will be a fairly quick easy read,” I thought, assuming that it was probably going to be one of those generic historical fiction novels that seem to all have the same sepia covers and semi handwritten title font. “It’s got one of those ‘airport’ covers – the sort of thing you can whizz through on a sun lounger on a package holiday,” and whilst I was expecting some weight from the subject matter, after all any novel dealing with the Holocaust is unlikely to be ‘light’, I wasn’t expecting to find the truly remarkable story that I did and the fact that it has its roots in the author’s real family history is even more extraordinary.

The Blurb: It is the spring of 1939 and three generations of the Kurc family are doing their best to live normal lives, even as the shadow of war grows closer. The talk around the family Seder table is of new babies and budding romance, not of the increasing hardships threatening Jews in their hometown of Radom, Poland. But soon the horrors overtaking Europe will become inescapable and the Kurcs will be flung to the far corners of the world, each desperately trying to navigate his or her own path to safety.

As one sibling is forced into exile, another attempts to flee the continent, while others struggle to escape certain death, either by working grueling hours on empty stomachs in the factories of the ghetto or by hiding as gentiles in plain sight. Driven by an unwavering will to survive and by the fear that they may never see one another again, the Kurcs must rely on hope, ingenuity, and inner strength to persevere.

A novel of breathtaking sweep and scope that spans five continents and six years and transports readers from the jazz clubs of Paris to Krakow’s most brutal prison to the ports of Northern Africa and the farthest reaches of the Siberian gulag, We Were the Lucky Ones demonstrates how in the face of the twentieth century’s darkest moment, the human spirit can find a way to survive, and even triumph.

“I would like to add that, even in the darkness, I see your love. Inside, you are full, and through your eyes, it shines.”

I seem to have been reading lots of books recently that are structured around the multi-perspective premise – perhaps this is the cool new literary thing. Unfortunately it can be such a hard thing to pull off as it can prevent pace, flow and narrative development if an author is not careful. Hunter does a brilliant job of manipulating this for her own ends here though. It really gives the feeling that the members of the family are scattered to the winds. They vanish and reappear throughout the novel and this serves to really draw you into the sense that this actually happening, that people were often suddenly missing, that they would disappear and perhaps reappear with little notice and adding to the hauntingly realistic portrayal of how families were displaced throughout Europe as they sought to survive. This is compounded by the unusual use of present tense throughout which gives the writing an immediacy and draws you in even more.

The writing is without exception vivid and emotional. It’s not often that I actually find myself crying whilst reading a book but there were several moments throughout this one that had me reaching for the tissues. I honestly can’t believe that this is a debut novel, the writing is so self-assured. Hunter has these beautiful moments of humanity that shine through all the dire events that unfold and you are always on the edge of your seat, waiting for the characters to be discovered.

Overall this is a strong piece of storytelling – emotional, beautifully written and actually lives up to the hype and quotations on the back.

www.georgiahunterauthor.com

@Georgia_Hunter

10 Best Books in a Blizzard

With the last blast of March winter upon those of us on the US east coast – need something to curl up with whilst you’re snowed in? Why not try some of these classic books with wintery settings…

11250053 “The Snow Child” by Eowyn Ivey

Set in Alaska in 1920, this wonderful novel follows Jack and Mabel as they struggle to survive in the harsh environment they find themselves in. After building a child out of snow who mysteriously vanishes, they are drawn into the life of Faina – a young girl who appears to have stepped from the pages of a fairytale book. But is everything what it seems to be…

This book was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction and has won numerous awards.

 

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“The Cider House Rules” by John Irving

Homer Wells has been brought up in an orphanage in Maine under the tutelage of Dr. Wilbur Larch. Isolated at St Cloud, he assists the doctor with caring for troubled mothers, delivering illegitimate children and taking them into the orphanage. When Homer meets a young couple who arrive seeking an illegal abortion, he finds himself wanting to explore the world beyond his upbringing.

This is a book full of heartbreak that encompasses the morality of abortion, war, love, disability and legacy.

 

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“The Tenderness of Wolves” by Stef Penney

This book is full of suspense and adventure – part historical epic, part murder mystery, it follows a disparate band of wilderness residents as they seek to follow a mysterious set of tracks in the snow that they hope will lead them to the answers to a brutal crime that has been committed. The setting brings an eerie cruelty to the novel as the characters seek missing people, fugitives and the past before the snow covers the tracks left behind for good.

The novel won the Costa Book of the Year prize.

 

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“Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy

There’s no winter harsher than a Russian winter and this classic novel is considered one of the greatest works of fiction ever produced. Following the doomed and tragic love affair between Anna and Count Vronsky, this epic story reveals the hypocrisies of nineteenth century Russian society through a sweeping look at familial and romantic relationships.

Often cited as the ‘greatest book ever written,’ it explores jealousy, faith, fidelity, family, progress and passion.

 

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“Winter’s Tale” by Mark Helprin

When Peter Lake, a middle-aged Irish burglar decides to rob a house on the Upper West Side, little does he know that it will lead to love. The relationship between Lake and Beverly Penn, a free-spirited but ultimately doomed young girl is the perfect foil to that of Lake and local gang leader Pearly Soames, who sets his sights on destroying Lake. Set in a mythical, semi-Edwardian New York at the turn of the twentieth century, this novel has a mystical quality that will totally absorb you.

Heavy on the language – you need to set time aside for this one.

 

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“Cold Mountain” by Charles Frazier

If epic sweeping historical fiction is your thing, you’ll love Cold Mountain. The novel follows the arduous journey of a civil war veteran, Inman, as he struggles to get home to his betrothed, Ada, who has been left behind to try and survive on her father’s farm with the help of a practical young drifter named Ruby. As their stories begin to weave back together, Inman and Ada have to confront how much has changed since Inman left – with the physical and political landscape, but also themselves.

This won the National Book Award for Fiction.

 

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“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley

Granted, the snow is mainly contained to the start and end of this classic Gothic tale, but it is still one of the most evocative pieces of Victorian science fiction in print. Victor Frankenstein, exhausted and found ranting in the Arctic wilderness, retells the tale of the creation of the monster that now stalks him through the wasteland. Originally developed from a ghost story told by Mary Shelley to her friends in Geneva when she was just 18 years old.

Don’t let the fact this is a school book classic put you off.

 

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“A Breath of Snow and Ashes” by Diana Gabaldon

As the sixth book in the wildly popular Outlander series, I wouldn’t suggest diving in here without taking a look at the others. Set in 1772, Highland exile Jamie Fraser and his time travelling 20th Century wife, Clare, are commissioned to quell a growing rebellion in the American Colonies – but knowing the ultimate direction of the War of Independence, Clare and Jamie find themselves caught between knowing the future and living in the past.

This is a great romp through the 18th Century – dashing heroes, gutsy heroines and action and adventure galore.

 

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“The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis

Is there truly a more perfect snow bound book than this children’s classic? I re-read the whole Narnia series every year and I am always in awe of how such simple, beautiful prose can evoke such a complex, magical world. Four children are swept into a magical adventure when they find a mysterious portal into a world trapped in permanent winter. Will they be able to break the spell and release Narnia from the grip of the White Witch?

Please, please, please read the book and don’t watch the movie.

 

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“Fargo” by Joel and Ethan Coen

Alright – it’s not technically a novel, it’s a screenplay – but it still ticks my boxes for a read that perfectly balances tension and humour. Pregnant policewoman Marge Gunderson finds herself investigating a murder in snowy Minnesota. Trying to maintain her professional dignity in the face of numerous quirky personalities, Marge needs to solve this quickly if she’s to get out alive…

For this one you can watch the movie!

 

So whilst the wind is blowing and the snow is snowing – try some of these, wrap up warm and put the kettle on. It’ll be over before you know it.

 

 

Great Reads in Great Places: Washington D.C.

If you want something gritty, smart and noir – head to New York. Trashy, seedy crime? L.A. But backstabbing political intrigue… There is nowhere that tops the beating heart of the US establishment – Washington D.C.

There are so many iconic locations to visit and so many books to choose from…

With only two days to cram in as much as possible there was only one book that could provide not only thrilling excitement and mystical mystery but also work as a veritable treasure map of Washington’s finest sights – Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol”.

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We arrived in the capitol in the afternoon and went straight to our hotel: Phoenix Park, located in the East End district. Super easy to get to and with the option of either valet parking or a nearby garage – it was right in the heart of the action. It’s also right by Union Station if you’re coming into town by train. The hotel itself is listed as a historical building and has recently been refurbished. The rooms are small but beautifully done up – I would ask for one at the back of the building though as the rooms at the front (as ours was) are on a busy road that seems to be used as a main emergency services route…

Our first stop on the Robert Langdon tour is also the first in the book – the Capitol Building. Whilst the building itself shuts at 4:30, the final tour leaves at 3:20 and we had a mad dash to try and catch it before it left. It’s well worth taking one of these free tours, the tour guide was very entertaining and knowledgable about the building – plus this is the way you get to see the building’s full glory – the rotunda, the speaker’s office (no going in!) and the statue room. There is also a brilliant Langdonesque trick with acoustics that you need to make sure your tour guide shows you. The buildings are beautiful, you really get a sense of the lofty ideals that underpin the design. It’s also fun spotting Brown’s references as you move around the building – yes to Washington being painted as a God on the rotunda ceiling, no to the remains of the iron railings around the old eternal flame! The tour lasted an hour and this did mean that we weren’t able to get into the Library of Congress afterwards. They stop admitting people before the 5pm stated closing time – you have been warned!

Before dinner, to build up a healthy appetite of course, we walked down the National Mall and took in the Washington Monument. This was really spectacular as the sun was going down and the view back up towards the Capitol Building gorgeous. No spoilers (you need to read the book) but it was very interesting to know a bit of the Masonic history of this iconic structure. You can’t currently go up in the elevator – it’s closed indefinitely for emergency repairs… Langdon would have a conspiracy field day with that one!

Given that I chose the hotel, the restaurant was on my husband. He went with Commissary in Logan Circle – an inspired choice given how ravenous we both were by the time we got there. We headed up via the White House, a primary site in one of my other Washington reads, Brad Meltzer’s “The President’s Shadow”. Luckily for us there didn’t seem to be any mysterious buried limbs in the rose garden that particular evening… The food at Commissary is American with a twist and in very plentiful supply with friendly knowledgeable staff. They have a great gluten free menu and a brilliant deal for two starters, two mains and a dessert for $54. The Kung Pao brussel sprouts (sounds weird, I know) are incredible and might actually have been our favourite part of the meal, even my carnivorous husband thought they were delicious.

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After a strong slap up Irish breakfast and some cheeky televised football (Premier League not NFL) in the hotel restaurant the next morning, we headed out with grand plans to tick off a number of our must see Washington sights. In retrospect it was a tad ambitious – at nine months pregnant I’m not as mobile as usual, but Washington is beautiful and easy to navigate so I would urge you to walk between sights if you can. Otherwise the metro is a convenient if not particularly frequent alternative option. I wanted to see the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, the Smithsonian museums, specifically the Natural History Museum and the Space and Flight Museum, as well as Ford’s Theatre – I’d just finished reading Susan Higginbotham’s historical fiction novel “Hanging Mary” which follows Mary Surratt as she becomes embroiled in Lincoln’s assassination.

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The walk to Lincoln’s Memorial is quiet and reflective. You go past a number of other memorials including the WW2 stone circle and there is definitely a reverence in the air as you walk past. At this time of year the fountains across the city are drained and the iconic cherry blossom isn’t out yet, but this didn’t do anything to dim the beauty of the architecture and if anything focused you more on it. Even though it was February the sites are all still quite busy, both with tourists and runners. Set off early if you want a chance to take an uncrowded photo back up the Mall.

In the end we walked down the south side of the park and took in Jefferson’s Memorial from across the water. This one is harder to get to without a car as there isn’t really a metro stop nearby and it’s quite a walk out and round from the west end of the Mall.

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Once we made it back to the main Mall we hit the many, many museums that together make up the Smithsonian Institute. It’s very bizarre seeing how Americans have taken such a wide range of historical designs and influences from other countries throughout history when designing the city, there is not only plenty of buildings that emulate Rome and Ancient Greece, but look carefully and you’ll also find a cheeky castle nestled in amongst the art galleries. The museums are really wonderful and well worth a visit. The collections are extensive (and free!) and only a very small amount of the actual holdings are ever on display. If you’re looking for weird and old then you’ll be pleased to know you can currently see giant squid, mega dinosaur sharks and the Hope Diamond all within the walls of the Natural History Museum, as well as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s Apollo 11 spacesuits, a lunar landing module and the Wright Brothers’ actual plane in the Space and Flight Museum. This place is a mecca for tech kids of all ages and is very impressive.

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Unfortunately we ran out of time to see Ford’s Theatre – it’s on my list for our return trip after the baby’s arrival in April. If you’ve been, let me know if it’s worth the wait!

The Great Read: “The Lost Symbol” by Dan Brown 

Dan Brown is the king of the chapter cliffhanger and this book has all his usual hallmarks – great pace and an easy read. This is another in the Robert Langdon series and follows the intrepid academic as he attempts to unravel a secret from deep within the Masonic Order to save the life of a longtime friend. The book is basically a ‘where’s where’ of Washington D.C. It hits all the big sights and makes you look at them in a new way. I always love the way that even if it’s all coincidental rubbish, he is able to fit together so many things, so perfectly, in his denouements that you feel like you’ve genuinely had something revealed to you – all the puzzle pieces, etymology, facts about art or philosophy fall into place in some magical manner. On the downside the novel is formulaic in some respects – there is always a twist, someone who is not what they seem and this is no different. Some elements of the narrative are frustrating – looking at you Director Sato – but are evidently necessary for plot development. Unfortunately this also leads to an ending that is not a particularly shocking twist but nevertheless entertaining.

Already read ‘The Lost Symbol”?

Why not try these other titles set in Washington D.C:

  • “The President’s Shadow” – Brad Meltzer
  • “Hanging Mary” – Susan Higginbotham
  • “The Silence of the Lambs” – Thomas Harris
  • “Along Came a Spider” – Robert Patterson
  • “Duplicity” – Newt Gingrich
  • “The Hunt for the Red October” – Tom Clancy
  • “Winter of the World” – Ken Follett
  • “The Winds of War” – Herman Wouk
  • “Lincoln” – Gore Vidal
  • “The President’s Daughter” – Ellen Emerson White

If you have Washington D.C. based recommendations then add them to the comments below 🙂

YA Review: “Fever 1793” by Laurie Halse Anderson

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Paperback: 272 pages

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Release Date: March 1, 2002

3 STARS

SET IN PHILADELPHIA

This is a classic coming-of-age story in a historical setting and whilst the narrative itself is rather formulaic, it is very well researched and would give younger readers plenty of historical perspective.

It follows Mattie Cook, a 14 year old girl who gets caught up in the Philadelphia yellow fever outbreak of 1793 and learns to survive despite the odds. There’s action, a bit of highly sanitized teenage romance and a healthy dollop of familial relationships.

The aspects that are most appealing in this YA novel mean that it will probably hit home more with girls than boys. It explores what it means to be a ‘good girl,’ expectations of behaviour and mother daughter relationships in a manner that clearly links the past and present. The change in Mattie as she learns to take care of herself and grows up is dealt with well and doesn’t bash you over the head with obvious metaphor. It is also somewhat convenient that by telling the story of the plague through the eyes of a child, Anderson is able to side skip much of the political implications of the time – everyone is stripped back to common humanity despite class and race.

Overall this is a sound read but I can see how some readers might become frustrated with the fact that the main events – people falling sick and everyone else turning into either nurses or looters, could become repetitive.

Top 5: Women Writers

Where to start…..

When I sat down to think about how I would choose my five favourite female authors, in honour of International Women’s Day, I felt completely overwhelmed. Most of my books seem to be written by women… It’s like my hands instinctively reach for female writers in the bookstore; perhaps it’s because the genres of novels I particularly like, historical fiction for example, seem to also attract a higher proportion of writers of the female persuasion? Maybe I feel a deeper connection to characters written from the female gaze? Perhaps I just like the covers more…

What I realised though was moving over the Atlantic forced me to dramatically scale down the size and scope of my bookshelves. I had already subconsciously done my editing – what had I chosen to take with me in the one box of books I had agreed with my husband I would ship?

 

  1. JK Rowling – who doesn’t love this woman?! She’s smart, empathetic and whip crack funny in that slightly brutal way that makes you wince and laugh at the same time. I adore her writing, not just Harry Potter (obviously), but also the Robert Galbraith crime books. You don’t even notice that you’re reading half the time, you’re just swept along. Plus she’s an Exeter University alumni (same as moi) and lived in Edinburgh near where I grew up – so I’m basically half a step away from being her…. right…?!
  2. Emily Brontë – I have always been obsessed with “Wuthering Heights”. I love how wonderful and awful Heathcliff and Cathy are. The characters and settings are harsh and complex, nothing here is glossed over or sugarcoated and it’s marvellous. The copy I brought wth me is a gorgeous leather bound edition bought for me by my husband for my birthday when we first started dating – the boy knows me well!
  3. Philippa Gregory – This woman is prolific and it’s a good job because I tend to whizz through her books in one sitting. The Queen of Historical Fiction, she brings far off settings and time periods to life with great description and really well drawn characters. There’s always plenty of action, mystery and romance to keep you entertained and she nearly always has a strong female protagonist you can get behind.
  4. Nora Ephron – It’s like talking to your best friend – but wiser and funnier. She’s so impressive partly because she’s also so multi-talented: writer, journalist, screenwriter and film director rolled into one. I adore the way she writes about so many things that are pertinent to women’s lives in a way that is both devastatingly, heartbreakingly astute and also so lightly worn that you can find humour in even the darkest of topics.
  5. Lian Hearn aka Gillian Rubinstein – I blame my sister for getting me into the “Tales of the Otori” YA fiction series; I was obsessed. Set in feudal Japan, these books are choc full of heroes, villains, escapes, magic and slightly dubious morality… which adds up to a pretty potent mixture. In fact, this and the Harry Potter books are the only ones I have actually set out to purposefully buy, first day out, in hardback. Just brilliant.

 

Who are your favourite female writers??

Review: “Revenants: The Odyssey Home”

Author: Scott Kauffman

Kindle Edition: 275 pages

Publisher: Moonshine Cove Publishing, LLC

Release Date: 23 December 2015

Author Requested Review

3 STARS

This book was always going to have an epic hill to climb as a re-telling of Homer’s “The Odyssey”. By its very nature it was going to have to be expansive both in time and location, not to mention language and structure – all very problematic for an author… There are some elements of this that Scott Kauffman has really nailed and, as to be expected, others that slip through his grasp. In light of this, I am completely torn with this book.

A grief-stricken candy-striper serving in a VA hospital following her brother’s death in Vietnam struggles to return home an anonymous veteran of the Great War against the skullduggery of a congressman who not only controls the hospital as part of his small-town fiefdom but knows the name of her veteran. A name if revealed would end his political ambitions and his fifty-year marriage. In its retelling of Odysseus’ journey, Revenants casts a flickering candle upon the charon toll exacted not only from the families of those who fail to return home but of those who do.

The bulk of this historical, coming-of-age novel deals with the story of Betsy, a teenage girl who is recruited to serve as a volunteer nurse during the summer holidays after her brother is killed in Vietnam. Whilst at the VA hospital, she learns of a mysterious patient in the attic and becomes embroiled in attempting to discover his identity.To be honest, it’s here on this smaller stage – one summer, in a small mid-west town, that Kauffman produces some of his best writing. I really enjoyed the mystery element of the book – it had pace and you definitely felt drawn into wanting to solve the puzzle. Kauffman, through the narrative voice, creates genuine sympathy for Betsy here, and you are able to watch her mature and deal with her grief as the story develops, much more so than the first person ‘Betsy’ moments at the start and end.

Kauffman’s use of Homer’s non-linear narrative and shifts in perspective can  make it  hard to follow at times though, and it often doesn’t endear you to the characters, especially Betsy, at the start of the novel. It is worth pushing through though. The main bulk of this story about the effect of war on not only soldiers, but their loved ones, is very touching and has some really beautiful and unexpected poetic description.

Overall I found myself really drawn into the story after getting through the first few chapters. It’s certainly worth  persevering with this novel, it is extremely detailed in its research – so much so that as a Brit I had to look up several references to US pop-culture! And you get a strong sense of the characters and the worlds they inhabit. This is a solid bet if you are looking for something that explores the aftermath of war more than a war itself and whilst there are plenty of nods to “The Odyssey”, particularly in the repeated imagery and themes of homecoming and fate, it has its own charm.

Thanks to Scott Kauffman for making a copy of this novel available to me for review.

The Month in Books: February 2017

I’ve been up against it this month – I started my TBR list quite late, and it’s a short month. I know… excuses excuses! Still, I’ve got six books to feedback to you on and there’s a little bit of something for everyone…

AmericanahChimamanda Ngozi Adichie        *****

imgresI loved this. The book follows Ifemelu and Obinze, childhood sweethearts, who try to pursue new lives away from their home in Lagos, Nigeria. For me, this was a perfect coming together of author and reader in terms of timing, I felt it really spoke to me. It was great to see it up all around the subway too and I voted  for it as part of #OneBookNY. The characterisation was really sensitive and I thought the descriptions and emotions were astutely drawn. The novel itself is quite slow paced but that didn’t matter; I felt like it was just unfolding gradually as the characters adapted to their new lives. A totally relevant read given the current political climate in the US. See full post.

The Thin ManDashiell Hammett       ***

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A classic murder mystery. I liked the pithy style and slick art deco settings – but was distracted by everyone getting drunk all the time! It’s hard to really rate it though when you’ve been raised on Wodehouse. It’s a classy book but felt more like style over substance.

 

Hanging MarySusan Higginbotham     ***

25620676I love historical fiction but found this quite slow. The novel tells the story of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth from the point of view of Mary Surratt, a co-conspirator who became the first woman to be hanged by the United States, and her lodger, Nora. I must admit I didn’t really bond with the characters which made it hard to care about the outcome and whilst it really picked up pace in the second half, it was a little late by then. The settings are carefully researched and it’s great to have important historical events told by a female protagonist – although this does often mean that key action has to be missed and it is hard to maintain the level of tension when the really exciting bits happen ‘off-stage’ as it were. Unfortunately I also found the historical tone of the first person not entirely convincing, but his might just be me – I get a real bee in my bonnet about first person narration that doesn’t ring true!

Girl At WarSara Nović     *****

imgresThis was a brilliant book. Set during and after the Balkans war in the 1990s, it follows a young Croatian girl, Ana Jurić, who’s life has been shaped by the break up of Yugoslavia; an era and location that I haven’t seen many books about. It deals with the impact of war in an uncompromising manner combined with beautiful, poetic writing. The structure of the book is cleverly done, revealing Ana’s attempts at getting to grips with her past gradually and drawing you in. I was genuinely shocked and emotional at times reading this, despite the almost detached tone. This is another book that is great to read if you’re looking for something that is politically relevant in terms of international relations, the role of the UN peacekeepers, genocide and asylum. It’s also really interesting as Nović is a deaf author – the book is beautifully observed.

The Winter SeaSusanna Kearsley       ***

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This was a recommendation from another book blogger – A Wee Reader (check her out here) and I’m so pleased I took it up. I really enjoyed this despite some shortcomings. See full review.

 

 

 

Fever 1793 Laurie Halse Anderson       ***

781110This is a historical YA book that’s really well researched but I didn’t love it. Set during the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793, it’s the classic coming-of-age story of Mattie Cook. It will appeal more to girls than boys I suspect – there’s lots about mother – daughter relationships and society’s expectations of women… the need to be a ‘good’ girl. With my teacher hat on it could open some interesting discussions with younger readers, there’s lots of Mattie’s inner monologue that seeks to put her down and how she moves past that, learning self reliance and dealing with loss. I also hated the front cover design – it looks like someone has coloured it in with a neon yellow highlighter…. Full review to come as part of a Great Read Great Place post in Philadelphia.

My March TBR list is still under construction so let me know if you think there’s something I should add 🙂

Review: “The Winter Sea” by Susanna Kearsley

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Paperback: 544 pages

Publisher: Sourcebooks, Inc.

Release Date: 1 December 2010

4 STARS

This book popped up as a recommendation by The Wee Reader in her 2016 round up and I couldn’t resist. I enjoyed plowing through all the Outlander books last year and was looking for something that might fill the little homesick hole in my life since I moved to New York.

History has all but forgotten…

In the spring of 1708, an invading Jacobite fleet of French and Scottish soldiers nearly succeeded in landing the exiled James Stewart in Scotland to reclaim his crown.

Now, Carrie McClelland hopes to turn that story into her next bestselling novel. Settling herself in the shadow of Slains Castle, she creates a heroine named for one of her own ancestors and starts to write.

But when she discovers her novel is more fact than fiction, Carrie wonders if she might be dealing with ancestral memory, making her the only living person who knows the truth—the ultimate betrayal—that happened all those years ago, and that knowledge comes very close to destroying her…

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Slains Castle Aberdeenshire

There is some really beautiful description in The Winter Sea. The sense of place is evocative and Kearsley has a knack for seamlessly switching between the modern day and historic voices of the characters. In fact, Carrie’s narration is less ‘self-conscious’ than Diana Gabaldon’s Claire Fraser and I found that I was less aware of ‘reading a construction’ with this book – the narrative flowed well and didn’t jar in the way that Claire’s voice occasionally can. I found the characters to be well fleshed out and likeable in the main and I was pleased that whilst there was a bit of romance, this didn’t dominate.

This book is often classed as a ‘time travel’ novel, but this is slightly misleading. It is more that there are two parallel plot lines that are interwoven. This allows Kearsley to use meta-text to explore not only the events of the past, but also the writing process of her central character. Whilst slightly unexpected, I kept expecting the narratives to meet at some point as per a more traditional time travel arc, it was engaging.

On the downside, Kearsley is overly fond of repeated metaphors, especially when describing the cliffs and ‘winter sea’ of the title. My inner teacher was itching to take out a red pen and circle them – find something new! There is also some difficulty in having a central narrator who, by necessity of social and historical norms, is required to be absent from key bits of action. This only became an issue later in the book, but was frustrating and meant that Kearsley had to get around some awkward changes in narrative voice and time, dropping the pace somewhat.

Overall this was a really fun read, not particularly taxing, but one where you definitely want to pick it up as soon as you get home. If you’re looking for something in the Gabaldon oeuvre or set in the Highlands, then this is a good bet.