Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Tag: Historical (page 1 of 5)

Book Group Report – The Miniaturist

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Miniaturist You know how it is with book group choices – sometimes you can’t find a lot to talk about? Well, The Miniaturist ISN’T one of those books! While it’s fair to say that no-one in our group absolutely loved it, we all thoroughly enjoyed this debut novel set in 17th century Amsterdam and it gave us a lot to talk about. For those few of you who haven’t read it yet, here’s an introduction:

Teenaged bride to be Nella arrives in Amsterdam from the countryside to wed wealthy middle-aged merchant Johannes Brandt, only to discover that he’s out. She is met by his sister, Marin, who is sharp of tongue and outwardly rather Puritan in nature. Later, Johannes arrives with a wedding gift for Nella – a cabinet house.

The accuracy of the cabinet is eerie, as if the real house has been shrunk, its body sliced in two and its organs revealed. The nine rooms, from the working kitchen, the salon, up to the loft where the peat and firewood are stored away from the damp, are perfect replicas. ‘It’s got a hidden cellar too,’ Johannes says, lifting the floor up between the working and best kitchens, to reveal a concealed empty space. The ceiling in the best kitchen has even been painted with an identical trick of the eye. Nella remembers her conversation with Otto. Things will spill over, he’d said, pointing his finger to that unreal dome. …

‘I thought it would be a good surprise,’ Johannes says.
‘But, Seigneur,’ says Nella. ‘What must I do with it?’
Johannes looks at her, slightly blank. He rubs the velvet curtains between forefinger and thumb before drawing them shut. ‘You’ll think of something.’

Nella, although not sure if, at the age of eighteen, a doll’s house is appropriate for her, engages the services of a miniaturist whom she finds in the list of local traders to furnish and populate it. She never actually meets the miniaturist, yet the pieces provided are strangely accurate, as if the artisan knows the house and its inhabitants … Meanwhile, as she gets to know the household she begins to uncover secrets, dangerous ones that could be the downfall of them all.

Where to start – well, we jumped in with Marin, who was the most intriguing character – she was rather like Mrs Danvers at first, fiercely protective of her brother, and in the early stages we wondered whether there was incest between them. As we got to know the five members of the household, Johannes, Marin, Nella, maid Cornelia and manservant Otto, it became clear that all had secrets and because of them were outsiders. Otto who was rescued from slavery in Dahomey (now Benin) and Cornelia were intriguing because although servants, they had considerably more freedom than one would normally expect; yet Otto, as a black man was all too visible outside. Johannes is rarely there, and when he is, he closets himself in his study with his beloved dogs. Nella doesn’t know what to do – this marriage is not turning out to be what she expects.

When things really start to happen, it is a warehouse full of sugar cones from Surinam that sets it all off. They belong to the Meermans – inherited by Agnes, and Johannes has been asked to be their merchant. Agnes and Frans Meermans represent all that is bad about the business world in Amsterdam (think of Poldark’s Warleggans!). They are hypocrits, and like all the others are happy to turn a blind eye to all kinds of goings on as long as their own interests are protected. Once they break silence causing dire trouble for Johannes, poor Nella is left to take charge for poor Marin has her own cross to bear. I can’t say any more about plot elements.

A couple of weeks ago Victoria wrote an excellent post about historical accuracy in novels, in terms of imposing 21st century values on their fictional characters, in particular feisty feminist heroines who go adventuring unchaperoned. We had a good discussion about this for Marin does a lot of Johannes’ paperwork – but all in the house. Nella, who comes from a formerly well-to-do family in the countryside outside the city, is used to more freedom, and finds it hard to stay in.

As to the role of the miniaturist, who appears to have a kind of seventh sense, on the one hand we’d have loved to know more – but on the other, it didn’t matter, although the slight magical realism implied was rather a distraction for me. Was the miniaturist controlling all the action by the prescience in the figures produced? At first you may think that Nella is just a doll herself, but once she takes charge she proves herself worthy of the trust put in her.

We also wondered if there was scope for a sequel in what Nella did next, a prequel about the mysterious miniaturist, or even Johannes and Otto – (we agreed that there wasn’t enough Otto); but we decided it was best left open. The Miniaturist is an impressive debut novel, with plenty of intrigue and a level of suspense that kept us all gripped.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (Picador, 2014). Paperback, 400 pages.

 

Some Shiny linkiness

Time for a few links to my reviews at Shiny New Books.  Feel free to comment here or there.

I shall start off today with a crowd pleaser!

Ross Poldark by Winston Graham

ross-poldark-978144728152801What a good excuse to be able to post pics of Aidan Turner and Robin Ellis as new and old TV Poldarks (along with their respective Demelzas of course)!

I welcomed being able to re-read the first novel in Graham’s popular series, (and am now getting stuck in to Demelza, the second). OK, my review is less about the book, and more about comparing and contrasting it with the TV series – but, I enjoyed reading again the beginning of the story I loved so much as a teenager when I devoured the books first time around.

The good news is that the BBC will definitely make a second series!

Meanwhile here’s the link to my full piece: click here.

To accompany the book/TV review, I also compiled an entry in Shiny’s Five Fascinating Facts series about Winston Graham: click here.

Interview with Jane Thynne

War-of-Flowers-final-front_480x_acf_croppedI am, as you may already know, a big fan of Jane Thynne’s Clara Vine novels – the latest of which, A War of Flowers, I reviewed here.

So it was a pleasure to be able to interview her again, this time for Shiny New Books. We talked about the series, some of its themes, her research and all those characters from real life inside the Third Reich in the late 1930s as well as the conversations around the dinner table – her husband, Philip Kerr, also writes spy novels set in 1930s Germany!

This series gets better and better with each addition – I can’t wait for the fourth novel.

For the full interview: click here.

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Source: Own copy and publisher respectively.
To explore further on Amazon UK, (affiliate link), please click below:

A tale of two Richards …

Lion Heart by Justin Cartwright

lion heart

Richard I was a king I know very little about. The sum total of my knowledge comprises little more than knowing that he went on the crusades to the Holy Land, his mother was Eleanor of Acquitaine, and the minstrel Blondel was supposedly involved in his release from imprisonment in an Austrian castle after the third Crusade, and that Tim Rice co-wrote a musical about him – the troubadour that is.

So I was looking forward to reading Justin Cartwright’s new novel.  Although I’d not read any of his other books, Cartwright has a good pedigree having previously been Booker shortlisted, and friends have recommended his previous book Other People’s Money to me.

Lion Heart is the tale of two Richards. First, the historical one – recounting Richard the Lionheart’s later days and his attempts to get the relic of ‘The True Cross’ to safety from the Holy Land. The second is set in the present, the story of Richard Cathar who is researching the former.

Cathar’s late father Alaric had been obsessed with Richard I and in particular his supposed meeting with Robin Hood, but he was never able to prove it.  His son saw him as a hippy who didn’t take it seriously enough.  There was little love lost between father and son, particularly when young Richard is packed off to boarding school – a nautical college …

At the end of my first term, my father asked me, with that old roué’s pointless smile on his threaded face, his fair flapping winningly over his brow and coursing in two wavelets back over his ears, how school had been. I said, ‘Oh, fucking marvellous, I have learned how to wash the inside of a lavatory with my head. Thank you, Pater. I’m sure it will come in handy when I join the Navy.’
He laughed: life is after all really just one cosmic joke.
‘That’s cool, man.’
I hit him, knocking him off his chair. From the floor he appraised me for a moment. I was only fourteen but had been doing a lot of rowing on the Thames, the college’s one and only area of excellence. He was against violence. He stood up, blood streaming from an eyebrow, and walked towards the door. He stopped.
‘I will write to the Commodore and tell him that all shore leave should be cancelled indefinitely. I won’t see you again until you write me an apology.’
‘I had shit in my mouth and hair.  Can you imagine what that was like? And then they rubbed my balls with Cherry Blossom shoe polish.’ (It was oxblood brown.) ‘You should be writing me an apology.’
I was sobbing, but my father was already on his way upstairs to rummage in his bathroom, whistling – I seem to remember – ‘Light my Fire’. He was probably stoned. …

Yet Richard ends up equally obsessed with Dick I – is it a compulsion to prove his father wrong?  Or, might he end up understanding him?

A discovery of some papers gets Richard to follow the paper trail to Jerusalem, a city he starts to fall in love with …

What the adhan speaks of in this mad, beautiful, violent, restless city is the human longing for certainty. And why wouldn’t you want certainty if you lived here? This is a place where horrors, all of them in the name of a higher authority, have been committed for thousands of years a place where countless people have died for their religion, where the walls have been built and destroyed and rebuilt constantly, where Armenian, Syrian and Orthodox priests sail blandly about – Quinqueremes of Nineveh – where observant Jews with side-locks wear their painful blank devotion on their pale faces, where creased Bedouin women in embroidered dresses and triangular jewellery sit patiently outside the Jaffa Gate to sell vegetables, where young Arab men, in strangely faded jeans and knock-off trainers, push trolleys of food stuffs, where in countless cafés men contemplate what might have been, their hair failing, there faces turning to yellowed ochre, as though the tea they drink endlessly is staining them from the inside. Or perhaps it’s the water-cooled smoke from their hookahs that is doing it, smoking them from the outside.

Richard meets Noor – an Arab-Canadian journalist, and they fall madly in love. But just a few weeks later, Noor is kidnapped in Cairo when on assignment and Richard’s life is thrown into turmoil. All is not what it seems with Noor, and Richard ends up having to throw himself into his work whilst waiting for her situation to resolve – just being her boyfriend means he is very low down in the chain of communications.

The author alternates sections of pure history telling Richard I’s story as told by Richard, or is it Alaric?, with the present day one. I found these historical sections rather dry, long and over-factual – but then, they are presented as extracts from a history book. Thus, I did learn a bit about Richard’s great foe Saladin, and all the French castles they besieged on the way home, but this wasn’t the fashion I’d have naturally chosen to read about Richard Coeur de Lion.

By contrast, the present day narrative veered back and forth from Richard’s quest, via his romance, to a spy thriller. I love spy thrillers, but this wasn’t enough of one.  I also enjoy dual narrative novels with historical strands, but the historical part here was too boring, and the present day part was too bitty because of the spy business, although the relationship drama between Richard and Noor was quite gripping.

The result was that it didn’t feel as if it were clear which audience it was aiming at, and it didn’t grab me enough. This is a real shame as Cartwright’s writing is rather good – as in the Jerusalem quotation above. I ended up feeling that the author had tried too hard to distance his quest novel from Dan Brown territory (something he has Richard acknowledge in the text), and ended up by marginalising it.

Lion Heart for me was a missed opportunity for a big, intelligent quest novel with a medieval theme, or it could have been a missed opportunity for a big, intelligent spy novel, both with added romance. I would try reading Cartwright again though, as I’m sure this is quite different to his previous novels.  (6/10)

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Source: Review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

blondelLion Heart by Justin Cartwright, pub by Bloomsbury. Sept 12 2013. Hardback, 352 pages.

Other People’s Money by Justin Cartwright (2011)

Blondel Original Cast Album

Losing myself in the Lymond Chronicles

The Game Of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

Dunnett Readalong

I reported on my experiences about reading the first half of The Game of Kings, the first volume in Dorothy Dunnett’s saga of 16th century life in the Scottish border country, here.  A month later I’ve finished the book and thus the first leg of my plans to read the series.  You’ll be glad to know at the outset that I plan to carry on, but first some closing  thoughts about Book 1 of the Lymond Chronicles…

dunnett 1During the first half, although I immediately enjoyed the derring-do of the errant Master of Culter, I did let myself get slightly bogged down in looking things up – all the foreign phrases, good Scottish dialect and cultural references from history, myths and legends through the ages.

I read the second half in a totally way – I just went for it, didn’t look anything up. Teresa had suggested to me that this was the best way for a first reading. You were right Teresa – total immersion made it great fun.

The second half starts with much politicking, bargaining, and plans for hostage taking and exchanging. Young Will Scott is toying with the idea of handing over Lymond to his estranged father after a falling out.

Scott’s reply was inaudible, and Lymond walked straight up to the boy. His riding clothes, swiftly tended since he had come from Tantallon, were sartorial perfection, his hair shone like glass and his voice glittered to match. He was impeccably, unpleasantly sober.
‘You have my warmest good wishes for any urgent need you may discover to injure me, personally. Just try it…’

I love the phrase ‘impeccably, unpleasantly sober’, so evocative.

Soon Lymond is again toying with the affections of his brother’s wife, Mariotta – who is promptly left by Richard and goes to the convent, from whence she is rescued by Lymond’s mother Sybilla…

There she found herself in the embarrassing position of the social suicide who wakes up after the laudanum: the skies had fallen and had done nothing but add to the general obscurity.

It’s sentences and phrases like the quotes above that I find really attractive in Dunnett’s writing.  However, sometimes I can do without the ‘listiness’ – one of my literary bugbears that makes me shout ‘Get on with it!’ in my head; take this quote for example, in which Will Scott and Lymond are arguing again …

 ‘I’m tired of a landscape with dragons,’ said Scott violently.
‘What, then? Retreat underground into hebetude; retreat under water like a swallow; retreat into a shell like a mollusc; retreat into the firmament like some erroneous dew….’

See what I mean?  By the way, I looked up ‘hebetude‘ – it means dullness or lethargy, and apparently is a word much beloved by Joseph Conrad, so there.

However, Dunnett does have a sense of humour, and a tendency to listiness and hyperbole is one of Lymond’s show-off qualities. He does it again with Gideon Somerville, an Englishman who proves invaluable to his cause…

 ‘The Scot, the Frencheman, the Pope and heresie, overcommed by Trothe have had a fall. Again yes.’
‘I wish to God,’ said Gideon with mild exasperation, ‘that you’d talk – just once – in prose like other people.’

That made me laugh!

I so enjoyed the second half of this novel, that I was really shocked when my favourite character from the first part, (apart from Lymond of course), came to an unfortunate end. (Don’t read my prior post if you don’t want to find out who it was).

The Game of Kings ends with Lymond being caught and hauled back to Edinburgh to stand trial for treason, and we finally find out why he was considered a treacherous renegade.  A fabulous court scene provides a fitting end to the book. Naturally – as there are six books in the series, you can safely assume that he gets off to live another day.  (9/10)

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dunnett 2

What’s Next?…
As you can guess from my enthusiastic reading of the first volume, I have become hooked into reading the rest of this series.  The books are densely written, and are all between four and five hundred pages, so I intend to carry on at the same rate of half a book per month which will take me up to the end of November.

So onwards with Queens Play, which sees Francis Lymond off to France to look after the young Queen at the court of Henri II.

Dunnett Readalong 2I’ll report back on the first half in mid-Feb, and the second mid-March.  I’m looking forward to it, and if any of you want to join in, you’re very welcome. I’ll make a Who’s Who bookmark again in the next few days. I found the one I made for The Game of Kings very useful.

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I inherited my copy. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Game Of Kingsand Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett – Print on demand. Used and e-book formats also available.

The Game of Kings – Half-time thoughts

Dunnett Readalong

Phew! I’ve made it to the halfway point of reading my first Dorothy Dunnett book, The Game of Kings – volume one of the Lymond Chronicles.  At one stage, I wasn’t sure I’d make it in time for the dates I’d planned…  If you’re joining in, how did you do?

Although I enjoyed the book right from the start, at first I could only read a few pages at a time before having to stop and look things up, be it ancient Scottish words, a French proverb, a reference to myths and legends of antiquity.  Gradually though, I was able to immerse myself in the text, concentrating on the plot and character rather than looking up all the learned references and consequently I could up my pace of reading.

Actually, I found the Dorothy Dunnett Companion – an A-Z encyclopedia of all this information very irritating – it covers most of her books in one tome, so includes the Niccolo books, another series too, and thus has to be selective in what it includes…

For instance, characters often talk about ‘Pinkie’ – but it wasn’t in the DDC. My knowledge of mid-16th century politics didn’t really extend beyond who became king after Henry VIII died, and having read, as a teenager, Jean Plaidy’s novel The Royal Road to Fotheringay about the young Mary Queen of Scots. I resorted to Wikipedia and now know that The Battle of Pinkie Cleugh was a decisive win for the English led by the Lord Protector, Somerset in 1547.

The DDC is also purely an A-Z – I’d have liked family trees of characters, plus a chronology, and for the Niccolo books to be in a separate volume.

But I am getting ahead of myself – what of the book itself?  First though, to any Dunnettophiles reading, please do forgive me for my irreverent comparisons and referencing of my own cultural mores…

dunnett 1

Within the first few pages, I was already a fan of Lymond, the Master of Culter, who has snuck back into Scotland, even though he has a price on his head.  He was like Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (without the giving to the poor bit, although he does look after his men).  A mere couple of pages later though, he had turned into Lord Flashheart, (from Black Adder II – “Woof! Where haven’t I been!”), as we are introduced to Mariotta, the wife of his older brother, and get to see Lymond properly for the first time …

Held close to him as she was, she found his eyes unavoidable. They were blue, of the deep and identical cornflower of the Dowager’s. And at that, the impact of knowledge stiffened her face and seized her pulses.  “I know who you are! You are Lymond!”
Applauding, he released her. “I take back the more personal insults if you will take back your arm without putting it to impious uses. There. Now, sister-in-law mine, let us mount like Jacob to the matriarchal cherubim above. Personally,” he said critically, “I should dress you in red.”
So this was Richard’s brother. Every line of him spoke, palimpsest-wise with two voices. The clothes, black and rich, were vaguely slovenly; the skin sun-glazed and cracked; the fine eyes slackly lidded; the mouth insolent and self-indulgent. He returned the scrutiny without rancour.
“What had you expected? A viper, or a devil, or a ravening idiot; Milo with the ox on his shoulders, Angra-Mainyo prepared to do battle with Zoroaster, or the Golden Ass? Or didn’t you know the family colouring? Richard hasn’t got it. …

So we get a hint of Lymond the roué, Lymond as Gok (fashion guru), but also that he is educated – all those ancient references.  Also, we see several examples of Dunnett’s ‘listy’ style of writing – something I took issue with in JK Rowling’s recent novel The Casual Vacancy, (reviewed here). At least I was being educated by Dunnett in her lists.

What of the other characters?  I’ve already grown very fond of Lady Christian Stewart, goddaughter of Lady Fleming, the Queen’s aunt.  She’s blind, but is resilient and has a sense of adventure, and although she doesn’t know it, has a thing for Lymond.  But the person who gets all the best lines is Sybilla, Lymond’s mother – think Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey. Here are a couple of her best …

“Perhaps it’s lucky then,” said Sybilla, “that this criminal has cheated his way out of favour with every party in Europe. Did you try some brazil on your curtains?”  And this time, Lady Buccleuch took the hint.

“My dear man,” said Sybilla next day, placidly stitching before Earl John’s big fire. “Admit you’ve never had to live with eight children on an island, and every one with the instincts of a full-grown lemming.”

There is a character with a comedy accent – who of course is English. Lord Grey has a lisp – “Perhapth,” said Grey icily, “Don Luith might be given thome help to clean hith feet and a chancth to dreth, and then we will have Mr Thcott brought up.”

We also have soldier types like Lymond’s mercenary chief of staff – Turkey Mat, who    puts his finger on it when Will tells Lymond his men are restless, “Too much intrigue, sir, and too little rape: the boys are as unnatural nervy as water fleas…. And besides,” he added practically, “we’re nigh out of beer.” “

As you can see, we have a rich cast of characters; so many with similar names that my bookmark came in useful.  I’m also pretty useless at chess – all the chapter titles are chess-related. I do know the basic moves, but wouldn’t know if these references form a proper game or not. The plot is equally convoluted; so I shall save my thoughts on that until January when I’ve finished the book.

If you’ve read this book before, or are reading along with me – do let me know your thoughts. Here are a few things for you to consider…

  • How are you getting on with the language, learned references and dense writing style?
  • How is your understanding of the history of the period?
  • Who is your favourite character so far, and why?
  • Are you going to read the rest of the book?

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I inherited my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Game Of Kings: The Lymond Chronicles
The Dorothy Dunnett Companion by Elspeth Morrison
The Royal Road to Fotheringay (Mary Stuart Series: Volume 1) by Jean Plaidy

“Lymond is back.”

These are the first words of the first book, The Game of Kings, by Dorothy Dunnett’s in her series, The Lymond Chronicles.  I’ve not read any of Dunnett’s novels, and back at the end of August I mused on whether I should get stuck into her books.  The response was tremendous and very encouraging – thank you.

So today, which happens to be International Dorothy Dunnett Day (IDDD), organised by the Dorothy Dunnett Society – I shall embark upon reading the saga.

I previously asked for your advice on whether I should dive in and immerse myself in the books, or take it at a more leisurely readalong pace. There was plenty of interest in reading along, but many of you recommended plunging into the books.  I would usually take the plunge route, not being good at restraining myself, so I’ve come up with a middle path which allows for some concentrated reading, but also comes up for breath …

The first book has four parts of roughly 190, 90, 90 and 200 pages (in my edition), so I propose to simply split it in half and read the first 2 parts this month, and report back on around December 10th, then to read the latter parts over Christmas and report back on around January 10th, so we have two hearty chunks of just under 300 pages each.

My friend Claire (@clairemccauley) has lent me a copy of the first Dorothy Dunnett Companion, so I shall be dipping into that too as needed for reference, and may report back on it in a separate post. I also intend to tweet my thoughts as I read along – see @gaskella.

My fingers are crossed that I’ll love it and will want to carry on with Queen’s Play and the rest of the series at a similar rate of pages to read each month. Please feel free to readalong with me (and Claire).  I’m really looking forward to it, and what better way to celebrate my 750th post than starting a readalong.

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I inherited/borrowed my copies of the books. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Game Of Kings: The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett – Print on demand, s/hand copies available.
The Dorothy Dunnett Companion
by Elspeth Morrison – O/P but s/hand copies available.

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