I love this book. I love the cover, the title, the period it is set in and I love the easy yet accomplished way in which the author tells a well-paced mystery.
I should point out that this is the third in a series and that I read it without having read the first two. Fountains Abbey isn't too far from where I live, just north of Leeds in Ripon, and I've been there. It is wonderfully atmospheric and when I saw a book naming it in the title I just picked it up and bought it without knowing very much. I was in a hurry and, once I had established that it was a historical murder mystery, I was happy to give it a go.
Thomas Hawkins is the man to whom it falls to investigate threats which have been made against a disgraced politician who has been forced to abandon public life following the South Sea fiasco which left hundreds ruined. He has an ulterior motive but I'll leave it to you to discover what that is. He is ably assisted by the feisty Kitty and a young boy. It is set at Studley Hall and Fountains Abbey in 1728, when the water gardens at the Abbey were being created by the family at the heart of the plot. (These gardens are now a World Heritage site administered by the National Trust.) The plot moves on at a good pace and drew me in from the start. In my opinion the book also benefits from not being too long. I've read a few books lately which run ON such that the pace suffers and my attention falters. However, at a tidy 344 pages, it is just about right. There is plenty of action, good characterisation, an interesting mystery and plenty of luscious period details. And it is all written in elegant prose which doesn't distract from the story. What more can you ask for? I will definitely be reading the preceding books. Now, where's that Christmas list gone?
Some pieces from my Etsy store:
Today I am reviewing a book my mum passed to me about a year ago. I knew nothing about it at the time and so 'The Birth of Venus' sat on the shelf for a few months in the queue. Then I began to notice people on Twitter and so forth saying how good it was (even though it was published in 2003). Plus my mother has pretty good taste, so in November last year I decided to give it a go. I read the jacket and the testimonials and felt a quiver of excitement. I could see why Mum had been drawn to it and why she thought I might like it - it is set in Medici Florence and is steeped in beautiful art. Definitely my sort of read. Also, all the notable newspapers heap praise upon it, all the way down the back cover: a 'moving, gripping and impressive work' - Sunday Times, 'magnificent' - Daily Telegraph, 'Erotic and gripping' - Independent on Sunday and, in my opinion the worthiest of all praise from the Observer: 'As soon as I finished this book I wanted to go straight back and read it all over again.'
I don't know if it was all the hype or the fact that the baby wasn't (still isn't) sleeping so my concentration was lacking but I had a couple of false starts where I struggled to get past the first two chapters. But all those recommendations nagged at me and so I persevered. In the end I got into it and finished about a month ago. I then postponed writing this review while I pondered. In the end I decided that the simplest thing is to be honest and say that I have mixed feelings about this book. It is supremely written. And I mean absolutely gorgeously written. Every sentence flows and weaves expertly, bringing Medici Florence to life in an incredibly accomplished and evocative manner. I could never hope to write something so beautifully. In this sense I totally agree with all the praise. Where I did struggle a little, however, was with the plot.
The heroine of the piece is a young Florentine girl, Alessandra Cecchi. She has a place in her family and within the structure of society but she is not fulfilled by it. She is intellectually hungry yet is constantly required to control her desire for knowledge, exploration, life and art. She is herself a talented raw artist with a level of ability which would have blossomed had she been given the encouragement and tuition of her male counterparts. This is her struggle. As the Medicis fall and Florence is plunged into dangerous chaos she must make difficult decisions and painful sacrifices yet she is young and naïve and these decisions have consequences that she does not foresee. These are intense and important themes and drew me in but I did find the pace slow at times. There isn't an obvious plot to pull the reader along, although the prologue does raise significant questions which helped to keep me reading.
When I had finished the book I was glad that I had read it and it will stay with me for a while. If you like historical settings and are not looking for a page-turner of a plot, this is an exquisitely written intelligent work which should please.
I came upon this author only a few weeks ago whilst killing ten minutes browsing in WH Smiths. I don't mean that she was actually lurking in the store but rather that my eyes were drawn to a book called 'The Cheapside Corpse' which had an interesting cover and, upon closer inspection, promised to be a historical mystery. When I realised that it was the latest in a series I decided to acquire the first one and start from the beginning (for once).
If you have been reading my reviews on a regular basis you'll know that I struggled with my last read and, if I am being honest, with a few books which I have not reviewed on here. I therefore needed something to restore my enthusiasm; something which was both well written and absorbing. I'm so pleased to say that this book was definitely that something.
It was first published in the UK in 2006 and begins a series following the adventures of Thomas Chaloner, an English spy recently returned to Restoration London from Holland. He finds himself penniless and in need of work. He turns to his previous employer and is soon treading a very fine and consistently dangerous line between a number of interlinked investigations and intertwined relationships. There is plenty of murder and intrigue to satisfy lovers of crime novels and the setting is so vivid that it drew me in at once and will doubtless appeal to fans of historical fiction. London in 1662 is brought to life superbly and in a subtle way which does not involve reams of description but rather provides an immersive backdrop to what turns out to be a complex story. It is extremely accomplished and I was not at all surprised to find that this author has an extensive back catalogue featuring another series character, Matthew Bartholomew, (set in the fourteenth century) and that there are many Thomas Chaloner novels for me to devour. It was a total pleasure, feeling like I was in the hands of an experienced and talented writer who would not let me down.
Having said all of that, I can see how some readers might find the sheer numbers of characters in this book overwhelming. Indeed, I found it hard to keep up at times, especially since many of them were referred to sometimes by first names, by second names and also by their titles (eg the Earl). At times I was lost but I went along with it and I kept up most of the time. A strong lead character with a few key people around him helped. but make no mistake, there is a lot going on in this book. The writing is so smooth that it is not difficult to read in that sense but the layers of complexity do necessitate a fair amount of recapping - done largely through the thoughts of Thomas Chaloner. So if you are looking for something simple, perhaps this isn't for you but I personally adored the fact that there was so much going on, lots of twists and red herrings and colourful characters. For the first time in a while I reached the end of a novel wishing I had the sequel already on my bookshelf. A hearty thumbs up and five stars from me.
In the new year I will doubtless be reviewing some of my Christmas reads, but I also hope to post a few writing-related articles. I am thinking: an update/reflection on how the experience of self-publishing 'Into Dust' has gone and also a piece on how I began writing, the path I have taken so far and some of the key decisions I have made along the way. In the meantime, thanks for reading and have a wonderful Christmas holiday x
This is the first of a trilogy relating to the Wars of the Roses. Book 2 (Trinity) was published September 2014 and the final instalment (Bloodline) is scheduled for release in September this year. My version is a beautiful, sturdy hardback. The cover gleams gold and there is a coloured map at the front and a lovely illustrated royal family tree at the back. I acquired it shortly after its release when I attended a talk by the author at Sheffield central library. If you ever get the chance to attend one of Conn Iggulden's talks I would urge you to go. An ex-teacher, he is used to holding the attention of an audience and is funny, engaging and endlessly charming.
I'm not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading it. Whilst it is a lovely book it is rather heavy and, as it is signed, I was probably a little nervous about messing it up by slinging it about in my bag. It is no reflection, though, on how I felt about it and I was excited to finally begin reading.
Most people are familiar with the exploits of Henry V; the great warrior King who conquered much of France. Also many are aware of the bloody English civil war which ripped the country apart as the red rose of Lancaster battled the white rose of York. This book, however, bridges the gap between the two. Henry VI is a frail and weak king and France is growing bold. The inside flap of the jacket reads:
''King Henry V - the great Lion of England - is long dead.
In 1437, after years of regency, the pious and gentle Henry VI, the Lamb, comes of age and accedes to the English throne. His poor health and frailty of mind render him a weakling king - Henry depends on his closest men, Spymaster Derry Brewer and William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, to run his kingdom.
Yet there are those, such as the Plantagenet Richard, Duke of York, who believe England must be led by a strong king if she is to survive. With England's territories in France under threat, and rumours of revolt at home, fears grow that Henry and his advisers will see the country slide into ruin. With a secret deal struck for Henry to marry a young French noblewoman, Margaret of Anjou, those fears become all too real.
As storm clouds gather over England, King Henry and his supporters find themselves besieged abroad and at home. Who, or what can save the kingdom before it is too late?''
My view: Conn Iggulden is an expert in writing historical fiction. His writing style is accomplished yet accessible and he manages to bring the past tantalisingly to life. The book balances political intrigue with battlefield action and the pace is good. This is around the sixth book I have read by this author and it seems to me as if he is becoming even more readable. I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of Henry VI's young bride, Margaret of Anjou, as in the other books I have read set in this period she is an older and battle-hardened woman. It was interesting to consider her early vulnerability and dedication to her cause and her king. I did stutter a little when the story lingered on the skirmishes in France. They went on a little too long for my taste as, personally, I prefer the political machinations and I probably would have enjoyed it more had it been 50 pages or so shorter. But I know that these books appeal to a range of people who have different preferences when it comes to reading historical fiction and I think that Conn Iggulden does an excellent job in catering for most tastes. His ratings on Amazon are consistently high and I am looking forward to reading the rest of the series.
The Miniaturist is a wildly successful novel, winning multiple awards and topping bestseller charts for weeks. An auspicious start for a debut author and I couldn't wait to get my hands on a copy. The version I read comprised a beautiful hardback edition (pictured below).
Set in Seventeenth-Century Amsterdam, the plot centres around eighteen-year-old Nella who has been plucked from a rural village to be the wife of a wealthy trader whom she barely knows. Naive and innocent, Nella is plunged into a family drama for which she is ill prepared. As events unfold, Nella takes strange comfort from tiny gifts which arrive from a mysterious woman who displays an unnerving talent for foresight.
I found The Miniaturist to be an exquisitely written tale. The fluidity of the prose is as breathtaking as it is accessible. This is literature of the highest quality. The language dances across the page, gently unfolding a story which is a joy to read. Jessie Burton brings Amsterdam in 1686 vividly to life, with characters so real you feel you know them. The political situation and religious influences are woven together cleverly into a tale of love and loss which is gripping throughout. The book also contains a Seventeenth-Century Dutch Glossary which explains the local and time-specific references used.
By the end, I did have a couple of issues with the plot but these did not seriously detract from my enjoyment or appreciation of the book. Nevertheless, I would have liked more closure and I think my reading of it suffered a little from a misconception I had when I began reading. For some reason (presumably reviews I had read and also the book blurb) I had thought that I was reading a mystery - one with a puzzle, clues and resolution. This isn't really the case. For me, The Miniaturist really shines through as a wonderful, evocative exploration of family, of love (and hate), of politics and religion at a time and in a place about which I knew almost nothing. It is heartening that such quality has translated into sales and I look forward to the next offering by this talented author.
I love most types of fiction - crime, mystery, fantasy. Oh, and historical fiction of course and middle-grade books and, well, you get the picture.
Subscribe for Blog updates via email:
Unique, handcrafted items for readers and writers: