Rose by Martin Cruz Smith

RoseMartin Cruz Smith is probably best known for his stunning series of novels featuring Russian investigator, Arkady Renko. The series began with the award-winning Gorky Park set in the Brezhnev era and has continued over the years authentically capturing the atmosphere within Russia during and after the break-up of the Soviet Union. World-weary Renko doggedly pursues the truth despite the barriers put in his way by corrupt officials.
‘Rose’ isn’t a novel in the Renko series. In some ways it could hardly be more different, but there are similarities. The main difference is obvious – rather than being set in modern-day Russia, this is set in Wigan in 1872. Once again MCS has clearly done his research and the reader is carried back convincingly to the heavily industrial Victorian scene where most of the population work in appalling conditions in the coal mines or cotton mills – except, of course, for the rich owners of the mines and mills.
The central character is Jonathan Blair; born in Wigan, father unknown. His mother and her toddler son boarded a ship for America. During the crossing she either jumped, or fell, to her death in the ocean, so young Jonathan arrived in his new country as an orphan. After an unusual upbringing he became a mining engineer and has spent recent years in Africa where his close relationship with the native population made him unpopular with his colonial masters.
He arrives in Wigan suffering with malaria and desperate to return to Africa, for reasons that become clear. He needs the help of Lord Hannay, who is also a bishop and head of one of the most powerful families in England with extensive mining interests in Africa and Wigan. That help comes at a price. Hannay will only help if Blair finds John Maypole, a young cleric engaged to Hannay’s daughter, who has disappeared without trace.
Blair finds himself having to act as a reluctant detective – and this where the similarity with the Renko novels lies. Blair acts just like a Victorian version of Renko, showing the same persistence to discover the truth. He is treated with suspicion and hostility by everyone, even Hannay’s daughter. Everyone that is, except for the mysterious Rose, one of the controversial pit girls who shock society by wearing trousers and doing men’s work sorting coal. They are accepted by the pit owners because they work for less pay than men.
Even without the intriguing story line and the strong characterisation, this book would be worth reading because of the vivid capturing of working life below ground with the constant threat of explosion and roof fall, and of the injustice of the class system.
Another gem from Martin Cruz Smith. It is available from Amazon in hardback (secondhand), paperback, Kindle and audio formats.

The Pale Horseman by Bernard Cornwell

The Pale HorsemanThis is the second book in the series known as The Warrior Chronicles (also called The Saxon Stories) that tell the story of the Saxons’ struggles to resist the Danish invasions and the efforts of Alfred and his descendents to unite the various Saxon kingdoms to form one Christian entity.

The title appears to come from a combination of the Pale Rider (Death) of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and a local legend that the first of the Wiltshire white horses was carved to mark the site of Alfred’s victory in a decisive battle.

The book follows on from The Last Kingdom, telling the ongoing story of Uhtred, the Saxon warrior with divided loyalties, his difficult relationship with Alfred, and the bloody campaign to prevent Wessex falling to the Danes. We hear about Uhtred’s marriage and his relationship with Iseult, a shadow queen (sorceress) of the Britons.

There is very little to like about Uhtred. He’s big, strong, ambitious and a savage fighter. What little humour there is in these first two books derives from Uhtred’s sarcastic response to the Christian beliefs of Alfred and his followers, although Cornwell does include the burning of the cakes incident and deals with it in a humorous way.

The trouble is that any sympathy I may have felt for the Uhtred character was wiped out when he joined his men to a group of Danes to brutally slay a tribe of Britons for a small quantity of silver – Britons who were Christian and pro-Alfred. It seemed a strange incident to create.

I enjoyed the recreation of south-west England as it was in the ninth century, particularly the large area of forested swampland that now forms the Somerset Levels, but overall I found the book rather disappointing. There’s lots of bloodthirsty conflict, so much that it gets rather repetitive. The fictional characters are blended cleverly with those who really existed, but at the end of the book, despite the Saxons having won a major battle, Wessex still remains the last kingdom not to be dominated by the Danes and Uhtred has made no progress towards the recovery of his lands in Northumbria. The series has a long way to go.

The book is available in a wide range of formats from Amazon The Pale Horseman (The Warrior Chronicles, Book 2)


The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

The Last KingdomThis is the first book in a series known as The Warrior Chronicles that tell the story of the formation of England from the coming together of the separate Saxon kingdoms in the 9th and 10th centuries.

The book is written in the first person, the narrator being Uhtred, a Saxon who is aged ten at the start of the book. He is the son of a Northumbrian nobleman, whose possessions include what is now known as Bamburgh Castle, but Uhtred’s father and older brother are killed by invading Danes and he is taken into the household of a Danish warrior. He learns the Danish ways of fighting, of building and sailing ships, and their relationship with their gods (who are also the gods of those Saxons who have not turned to Christianity). He feels more Dane than Saxon, but he never forgets his Saxon heritage.

Through the next ten years Danes pour across the North Sea and occupy Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia. Of the major Saxon kingdoms, Wessex alone still resists (the last kingdom of the title), but the Danes are determined to conquer it, and the Britons of Cornwall and Wales are always looking for the chance to re-take their lands that had been taken by the Saxons 500 years before.

Alfred is king of the threatened land and, as the years pass, Uhtred is drawn to his side, although he finds the intellectual Christianity of the king alien.

This is Bernard Cornwell at his brilliant best. As usual, the depth of his historical research shines through and gives the book a totally authentic feel. Uhtred is fictional, but the other leading characters all existed. Cornwell brings history to life and makes it so compelling.

What is really clever is that Uhtred is narrating as an old man, but he is only 20 when this first book ends. So, the author has him narrating from the position of an old man, changed by experience, still capturing the 10-year-old’s freshness and the teenage impetuosity, but also mentioning future events that are only covered several books down the line. Very impressive.

It’s available in various formats from Amazon including as part of a collection. The Last Kingdom (The Warrior Chronicles, Book 1)

Ravenfold by Kath Middleton

RavenfoldI often don’t enjoy books of novella length, but I enjoyed this one – possibly because it has the feel of a big book. We find big characters, convincing locations and a strong storyline taking place in a medieval period that feels historically authentic.

It’s a classic tale of injustice arising from the brutal abuse of power, with a few shocks along the way. The ingredients are sufficient to form the basis of a full-length novel, so at novella length we have a taut piece of writing with scarcely a word wasted and an original approach to the narration style. Recommended.

The book is available from Amazon for Kindle and in paperback. Ravenfold

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Cover imageA short story that thoroughly deserves the classic status it has acquired. Based on the author’s own experiences it is convincingly told and deals with a woman’s descent into madness, with a significant contributing factor being the well-meant treatment by her medical practitioner husband of what we would now call post-natal depression. Numerous editions are available including free one shown. It is also available in a collection of the author’s work.

I obtained an anotated edition for Kindle from Amazon, but a lot of other editions are available. The Yellow Wall-Paper (Little Black Classics)

A Sentence of Marriage by Shayne Parkinson

Cover imageI suspect that I’m revealing too much of my feminine side when I say that I really enjoyed this book. It isn’t my usual read; it’s a gentle-paced, family saga that describes the growing to maturity of a young girl in a remote farming community in 19th century New Zealand. The descriptions of the local fauna and flora are just sufficient to create realism, although I was briefly confused by the mention of a rifleman in the undergrowth – until I realised that a rifleman is a small bird and not a sniper.
Occasionally, in the early chapters, I asked myself why I was reading it, but the book sucked me in and I couldn’t stop. For me it was a page-turner, not because it was action-packed and I was desperate to find what happened next, but because the writing is so smooth that it simply carried me along. The characters are lovingly drawn. The formatting is flawless and I didn’t spot a single typo – which is depressingly unusual in a self-published ebook.
Now it’s on to the next one in the series.

I bought it for Kindle from Amazon. Sentence of Marriage (Promises to Keep Book 1)

Mad Dogs & Englishmen Ranulph Fiennes.

Mad Dogs and EnglishmenFrom the title and cover blurb I thought this was going to be a look at some of the more eccentric members of the author’s family – but it wasn’t. Fiennes can trace his family tree back to two generations before the Emperor Charlemagne. Throughout much of that 1200 years members of that family have been king-makers and king-breakers on both sides of the Channel.
As a result, this book provides a look at the history of our country over that period, written in a very entertaining and engaging style. If you’ve found history a dry and tedious subject, this excellent book may just change your mind.

I bought it for Kindle but it is also available in print format. Mad Dogs and Englishmen: An Expedition Round My Family

Captain Scott by Ranulph Fiennes

Cover imageFiennes is becoming one of my favourite authors. I love the forthright writing style. His experiences mean that he writes about this subject with the conviction that comes from a personal knowledge of the conditions and difficutlies that Scott and his companions endured. If his strength of feeling means that his passionate defence of Scott leads him to overstate his case on occasions, well, I find it easy to forgive him. Another absorbing read from Fiennes.

I bought it for Kindle but it is also available in print format from Amazon. Captain Scott

Winter in Madrid by C J Sansom

Cover image for Winter in MadridAfter a few disappointments with Amazon’s 20p Kindle bargains I was hoping that this book would restore my faith in the bargain basement, and it did – almost. Don’t expect anything even remotely similar to Sansom’s Shardlake series.

I’ve read books about the Spanish Civil War, and novels set in that period, but knew nothing about what happened in Spain after that war ended and WWII began. The author’s meticulous research makes this an informative and disturbing read.

As a source of entertainment it doesn’t work as well. It is slow-paced and, without a whiff of humour in its 500+ pages, it’s rather heavy going. When the pace picks up towards the end the complex scheme devised by the characters is hard to believe; I couldn’t help thinking that the plotters could have achieved their aims without the complications.

I’m glad I read it. There are powerful images of political and religious conflict, corruption and of the suffering of the Madrid population facing starvation while Franco sent food convoys north to feed Hitler’s army in France.

At the end of the book is an Historical Note that doesn’t appear in the table of contents. I recommend reading this first as a useful scene-setter, particularly as it makes clear that a number of the characters really existed.

I doubt that you will still be able to buy it for 20p, but It’s still available for Kindle from Amazon, and in print format. Winter in Madrid