Death of Kings – Bernard Cornwell

Title – Death of Kings

Author – Bernard Cornwell

Published – 2012

Genre – Historical Fiction

There isn’t much need for preamble to this review – I pressed straight on with this book after finishing The Burning Land. Feeling on a bit of a roll after getting caught up on the action in book 5 of The Saxon Stories I thought I would strike while the iron was hot.

As you might guess from the title this is the book which sees the death of King Alfred, a moment which he and Uhtred have believed would be a catalyst for action by the factions looking to secure the throne for themselves.  However, the book is mostly about more political shenanigans, partly as the new King needs to find his feet and figure out which of his many advisors he should trust. The rise of Christianity has been a theme in the series but it feels as if this book may have seen the tipping point in its importance.

Uhtred is frustrated by King Edward’s reluctance to attack the Danes and puzzled by the Danes lack of attack. The lack of action was a bit frustrating for me as a reader too. There are some small skirmishes but it felt like a lot less happened in this book than in its predecessor. The main action is saved until the very end of the book in what is a great set piece with a real feeling of tension.

Not as fast-paced as its predecessor and pleasingly (for me) there was less attention to the memoir aspect of the story – less foreshadowing of future events by Uhtred.

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The Burning Land – Bernard Cornwell

Title – The Burning Land

Author – Bernard Cornwell

Published – 2009

Genre – Historical Fiction

I’ve been a fan of Bernard Cornwell’s for a long time (although oddly not the Sharpe series) but have fallen well and truly behind. He was writing (with the exception of Sharpe) standalones or trilogies but now some of the other series I was reading seem to be without end.

I bought this book in hardback when it was published so it’s been sitting around for a while but the longer I’ve left it the more difficult it’s been to pick it up. It’s bad enough coming back to an action series when it’s been a year between books but the longer I left it the more daunting it seemed. I should have remembered that I would be swept up in the action!

The Burning Land is the fifth historical novel in The Saxon Stories which follows Uhtred of Bebbanburg and his quest to return to his ancestral home. Told in the first person and narrated as a memoir this book is set around 892 and the opening starts quite slowly as, acting on Alfred’s behalf, Uhtred is in Kent to pay off a Dane to get him to leave. The action ramps up quite quickly as he then turns his hand to finding a way to remove Jarl Harald Bloodhair from Wessex. I was surprised to realise, and wonder if it’s always been the case, that the battles are as much about Uhtred’s ingenuity as they are about brute force. The story is what you expect from Cornwell – action-packed, fast-paced, spanning the length and breadth of the country and so full of detail that you can almost see, hear and smell the place for yourself.

There is one thing which I really dislike about Cornwell’s writing and this is something I should complain about less as I get further behind but it’s the fact that as a ‘memoir’ you know that the narrator survives to tell the tale. So while there may be some tension about how events will unfold you can be pretty certain that the main character isn’t going to perish in the middle of a shield wall. But not content with this Cornwell drops in remarks like “never to see xyz again” or “that was a decision I would regret” which tells me more than I want to know. I appreciate this supports the memoir style but it’s not an aspect I like.

Anyway my worries about picking the series up after so long were unfounded, either there’s an explanation of who people are and what their connection is or it doesn’t really matter, the action swept me along and I’ve even picked up book 6 to read already.

Score – 4/5

Underground Airlines – Ben H Winters

Title – Underground Airlines

Author – Ben H Winters

Published – 2016

Genre – Alternative History

I know that there are a lot of bloggers who believe that if you don’t enjoy a book you should just keep it to yourself and only share positive reviews. I’m not one of them. If you’ve been following my blog for a while you will know that I am a huge fan of ‘The Last Policeman‘ trilogy by Ben H Winters so I was thrilled when I heard he had a new book being published and even treated myself to a signed, limited edition copy, but perhaps, for once, I should have waited to find out more about the book because I’ve come across alternative histories before that I’ve thought sounded interesting but were disappointing in their execution.

What if slavery had never been abolished? The story is set in the present time but in an America where slavery still exists, shaped differently as a result of the Civil War. The protagonist is ‘Victor’, a man who works undercover to track down escaped slaves, thwarting the efforts of the “underground airlines” who try to help these unfortunates escape to freedom. The rub here is that Victor is himself black (‘moderate charcoal, brass highlights, #41’) and this isn’t a career he is pursuing of his own fee will.

Sent to Indianapolis to pursue ‘Jackdaw’, Victor is unsettled by a number of anomalies in the case he is being asked to investigate and equally disturbed by his unanticipated involvement with a young mother and her son. His undercover work and investigations contribute the thriller element to the book as the truth about Jackdaw and his escape point to larger forces at work.

I found the book incredibly slow, there was a lot of internal dialogue from Victor and a lack of pace. I also didn’t find Victor a particularly gripping character, within the story he is something of a chameleon and perhaps that didn’t help me to engage with him. If you compare him to Hank from The Last Policeman he was (literally) worlds apart. I appreciate that the subject is an incredibly serious one, so a lack of any sort of levity might be expected, but while the end of the world wasn’t exactly a laughing matter there was still humour to be found.

I appreciate that the issue is thorught-provoking but instead of raising deep questions about race and the risks of ignoring where we’ve come from and what we’ve learned, my thoughts were on a much more prosaic level about the practicalities of the world Winters had created. The book made reference to real historical characters (from world leaders to musicians) but that distracted me by wanting to know more of the ‘how did that happen?’ or ‘what about so-and-so?’.

Perhaps my disappointment in the book has as much to do with this being outside my usual genre as anything else. I’m not sure if that means I should read more widely so my expectations are better managed or stick more narrowly to what I know I like (and I have romance book to review that makes me think the latter may be the best option). Perhaps the subject matter, especially at the present time, feels too uncomfortable and the lessons too worthy to make it enjoyable fiction?

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The Murder of Harriet Monckton – Elizabeth Haynes

Title – The Murder of Harriet Monckton

Author – Elizabeth Haynes

Published – 28 September 2018

Genre – Historical crime fiction

This book is a departure for Elizabeth Haynes who is well known for her standalone psychological thrillers and her DCI Louisa Smith series. This book is in the same vein as books like Burial Rites and The Unseeing, a fictionalised account of events based on a factual event.

On 7th November 1843, Harriet Monckton, 23 years old and a woman of respectable parentage and religious habits, is found murdered in the privy behind the chapel she regularly attended in Bromley, Kent. The story was a scandal in its time with the suggestions of impropriety in a small town. Drawing on the coroner’s reports and witness testimonies the book follows the events after Harriet’s death and as the witnesses recount the events from their perspective the narrative leading up to Harriet’s death is pieced together.

There are four main characters:- the young teacher and close friend, the young man who walked out with Harriet, the man who offered her spiritual guidance and finally a mysterious man from her past who lives in London. Using the accounts of these four characters and the proceedings at the Coroner’s Court the story develops into a gripping ‘whodunnit. The reader has reason to be suspicious of all four characters but the truth of Harriet’s demise may lay with her missing diary. The discovery of the diary gives Harriet her own voice and perspective.

Colonial Times, Tasmania, September 1846

In fact the story takes place over a much longer period than might be expected as
several inquests over a period of years fail to reach a definitive conclusion.

You can see a reference to the events in the National Archives and if you live within striking distance you can go an view them for yourself. News even made it as far as Tasmania with an article appearing in the Colonial Times in 1846.

 

 

Medical Times

There is an account in the Medical Times of 1846 from the surgeon asked to attend the body where it was discovered.

 

 

 

As I’ve come to expect from Haynes the book is beautifully written and she captures the feel of the period through her writing, giving it the feel contemporary to the period but not over doing it. The story is a compelling mystery, especially given that there are some factual constraints within which the story had to be framed. The different perspectives that are used to describe the events leading up to Harriet’s death are interesting in themselves – told from each person’s own point of view they aren’t necessarily ‘unreliable narrators’ but they do have their own take on the way events played out. The fact that there were multiple inquests also allows for points of view to change as memories change over time.

The story Haynes tells of Harriet is a sad one but for a young woman who died in unpleasant circumstances, with few people to mourn her, this has given her an interesting legacy.

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy of the book.

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The Ngaio Marsh Awards 2018

Update: And the winner is… announced on 1st September at WORD Christchurch, the 2018 Ngaio Marsh Awards winners are Jennifer Lane (Best First Novel) and Alan Carter (Best Novel).

This is a post I need to get in quickly before I’m too late and the winners of these awards are announced! The Ngaio Marsh Awards, as you might imagine, celebrate crime, mystery, thriller and suspense writing by New Zealand authors (citizens – wherever they live in world – and residents) and have been doing so since 2010.

There are two awards – Best Crime Novel and Best First Novel with submissions for the 2018 awards being from books published in New Zealand in 2017. In May the longlist for the Best Crime Novel was announced and in July the two shortlists were published.

Best Crime Novel (shortlisted novels in bold)

  • Marlborough Man (Alan Carter, Fremantle Press) winner
  • Baby (Annaleese Jochems, VUP)
  • See You In September (Charity Norman, Allen & Unwin)
  • The Lost Taonga (Edmund Bohan, Lucano)
  • The Easter Make Believers (Finn Bell, self-published)
  • The Only Secret Left To Keep (Katherine Hayton, self-published)
  • Tess (Kirsten Mcdougall, VUP)
  • The Sound of Her Voice (Nathan Blackell, Mary Egan Publishing)
  • A Killer Harvest (Paul Cleave, Upstart Press)
  • The Hidden Room (Stella Duffy, Virago)

Best First Novel

  • The Floating Basin (Carolyn Hawes, self-published)
  • Broken Silence (Helen Vivienne Fletcher, HVF Publishing)
  • All Our Secrets (Jennifer Lane, Rose Mira Books) winner
  • The Sound of Her Voice (Nathan Blackwell, Mary Egan Publishing)
  • Nothing Bad Happens Here (Nikki Crutchley, Oak House Press)

The finalists will be celebrated, and the winners announced as part of a special event at the WORD Christchurch Festival, due to be held from 29 August to 2 September.

Before I Let You In – Jenny Blackhurst

Title – Before I Let You In

Author – Jenny Blackhurst

Published – 2016

Genre – Psychological thriller

This was a gripping psychological thriller with a real sting in the tail. The opening of the book sets the scene with the uncomfortable initial session of a psychiatric consultation between Karen, the psychiatrist, and Jessica, the new patient.

Karen is one of a group of three close friends – Bea and Eleanor making up the trio. The women are quite different characters – which is probably true of most groups of close friends. Eleanor is the maternal figure, loving being a Mum, Bea is footloose and fancy free and Karen is the ‘fixer’, the one who sorts out her friends’ problems. But all is not sweetness and light – Bea is still affected by an incident from her past, Eleanor feels as if she is falling apart and Karen’s long-term partner is often absent.

Over a period of five weeks the psychiatric sessions continue and Jessica continues to be a confrontational patient.  There is a gentle increase in tension as Karen becomes increasingly disturbed about how much her new patient knows about her and her closest friends. And Karen understands the importance of the rules of confidentiality.

The chapters are told from different points of view – Karen, Bea, and Eleanor in the past tense, third person, a number of chapters in the past first person from someone who isn’t identified and interspersed with these are a number of short pieces of what seem to be interview transcript in the present, hinting at the events that will unfold.

As well as being a psychological thriller this is also a book about female friendships – but perhaps in a more realistic way than they might be portrayed in ‘chic lit’ where you might normally find them. These are all characters with shades of good and bad and they are all put under an increasing amount of pressure. With the secrets within the group and a series of sinister events the book was bound to reach a compelling climax.

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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The House on Foster Hill – Jaime Jo Wright

Title – The House on Foster Hill

Author – Jaime Jo Wright

Published – 2017

Genre – Historical fiction

This is a novel told over two timelines, connecting two women through Foster Hill House. In the present day Kaine is hoping for a new start by moving to an old house, sight unseen, in her grandfather’s Wisconsin hometown. Two years ago her husband died in a car accident and her pleas for the death to be treated as something more serious fell on deaf ears, since then she’s believed that she has been tormented by his killer. When she arrives at the house she finds that it’s long-neglected and needs a lot of work, which she is ill-equipped to do on her own. Feeling very fragile she is quickly befriended by a local woman and through her meets a ‘knight in shining armour’ (who also just happens to be a grief counsellor).

In 1906 Ivy Thorpe is the daughter of the local doctor (who also carries out postmortems) and helps him with the examination of the body of a young woman who has been found dead, her body hidden in the trunk of a tree. Ivy is a bit of an amateur sleuth and is drawn to help in the investigation into the woman’s death which becomes more urgent when it’s discovered that there may be a missing baby. The two timelines connect when Ivy’s search for the baby leads her to the abandoned and menacing Foster Hill House.

The two timelines are told in alternating sections, both with their own mix of tension and conflict. As Kaine’s story develops it becomes clear that there is a stronger connection to Ivy’s story than just the building she is renovating.

One of the first indications that this wasn’t for me was early on when Ivy insists that the unidentified corpse is given a name and she calls her ‘Gabriella’ on the basis that she was now an angel… And that was probably the first sign that religion was going to be a strong theme in this book (I later saw someone describe it as ‘Christian historical and contemporary suspense’). I’ve no problem reading any genre of book where one or some of the characters have a faith and find it important to them but the religious aspects of this book were much stronger than that. This, combined with some quite predictable turns and character developments made for a disappointing read.

Thank you to the publisher for the NetGalley.

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