This month’s Six Degrees begins with a book I’ve not read and have no plans to read since I don’t much care for novels about people who are still alive. Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld is a fictional re-working of the life of Hilary Rodham and explores what might have happened if she hadn’t married Bill Clinton.
I’m sticking in the realm of alternative history for my first link.
In Dominion C.J Sansom imagined a scenario where, having failed to defeat the Nazi regime, Great Britain becomes one of Germany’s subject territories. The book caused controversy when it was published in 2012 because of its unflattering portrayal of certain historical figures. Marie Stopes for example was depicted as a contributor to a programme for eugenic sterilisation and the newspaper tycoon Beaverbrook was shown as as a megalomaniac Prime Minister. No-one challenged the portrayal of the British Fascist leader Oswald Mosely.
Mosely makes an appearance in another alternate history novel, A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar, a rather odd book which blends pulp-noir with Holocaust fiction. Tidhar imagines that Hitler’s rise to power is thwarted and Germany has become a communist state. One of his main characters is a private detective who is trying to track down members of the Nazi party hiding in London. While in the city he rubs shoulders with Oswald Mosley and the Mitford sisters.
The curious blend of fact and fiction reminded me of The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden, a novel that actually is neither about kings or Scotland. It’s written as the fictional memoir of a Scottish doctor called Nicholas Garriganin who becomes physician and political aide to the Ugandan President Idi Amin. The doctor character is based very loosely on Bob Astles, a white former British soldier who became one of Amin’s closest advisers.
King of Scotland is one of the many titles Amin gave himself. Two adventurers with similar ambitions for royal honours form the basis of Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King. After years during which they embarked on multiple schemes the pair decide that “India is not big enough for them”. They hatch a plan to go to Kafiristan, a remote part of Afghanistan, and set themselves up as kings.
Afghanistan is the location for Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson. It’s his account of a campaign to build schools for girls in gratitude to the remote community that rescued him when he became lost on a climbing expedition. According to the book, Mortenson faced many challenges in his quest to raise funds to build more than 55 schools in Taliban territory. Many parts of his account were later challenged in CBS programme and allegations made of financial irregularities in handling donations.
Questions of authenticity also surround a memoir I read this year as part of the 20books of summer project.
In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park is an extraordinary account of a young girl who risked everything to escape the poverty and tyranny of North Korea. She made it to China only to find she’d been duped into a human trafficking operation but two years later took another daring leap to reach South Korea.
Questions have since been raised about gaps and inconsistencies in her story. There are indeed some parts of the narrative which I think she skirts over but there is no doubt about the trauma she suffered in those years: just take a look at the speech she gave at the One Young World 2014 Summit.
And with that we reach the end of this month’s Six Degrees chain. We’ve done a lot of travelling this month; from USA to England, Uganda, Afghanistan and North Korea. I hadn’t planned it this way but each book in the chain seems to have an element of “what if” element, whether it’s asking whether Greg Mortenson would have remained a drifter if he hadn’t taken the wrong route on his descent from K2 or whether Yeonmi Park would still be alive if she hadn’t walked across the river to China.
If you’re interested in taking part in Six Degrees yourself, take a look at the information provided by our host Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best.
I need your help to decide whether to keep three historical fiction novels I have had on my “owned but unread” shelves for more than five years.
As a reminder, Sample Saturday is where I look at all the books I own but have yet to read, and decide which I should part company with and which I should keep.
The Resurrectionist by James Bradley
Published in 2006, this novel is set in London in 1826 in a world of the resurrectionists who steal bodies for anatomists. The blurb says the main character finds himself in “London’s underworld, a place where everything and everyone is for sale, and where the taking of a life is easier than it might seem.”
It has an average rating of 2.8 stars on Goodreads with reviews that describe it as muddled with no real character development and only a sketchy plot. Although Goodreads ratings can’t always be relied upon, I’m not enthused by a novel that apparently jumps about without explanation,
The Verdict: Abandon
Winter In Madrid by C J Sansom
My first experience of C J Sansom was via his historical crime series featuring the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake. Though some of the plot devices were highly implausible I did love the way Sansom depicted the power struggles and religious divisions of Tudor England.
His alternative history novel Dominion was less enjoyable. It was grounded in solid research (Sansom has a PhD in history) but unfortunately the novel was spoiled by clunky characters and uninspiring dialogue.
So now I am wondering whether Winter in Madrid is going to a repeat of the Dominion experience or will it be more akin to the Shardlake series. It’s a more contemporary historical period (the Spanish civil war ) and is a spy novel rather than mystery/crime.
I’m tempted to keep this because of the period and geographic setting. It takes place in 1940 when Madrid lies in ruins after the end of the Spanish civil war. The population is starving and there is a threat of a German invasion.
This is a long book at more than 600 pages so it’s going to have to be good to warrant the investment of time.
The Verdict: Keep
The Absolutist by John Boyne
“If you loved Birdsong, you’ll love this” is the message on the cover of my copy of The Absolutist. Well, I did love the Sebastian Faulks novel but I’m also wary of promotional messages that piggy back on the success of another novel.
What do the two books have in common? They’re both set during World War 1, are partly set in the trenches of France and involve “forbidden” love. The Absolutist depicts a relationship between two soldiers, who train in the army together in England and are dispatched to the fields of Flanders in the same squad. But then they find themselves on opposite sides of an issue of conscience.
The reviewer at The Guardian was less than enthusiastic about the novel, thinking it lacking in detail but Goodread reviewers have generally been more enthusiastic. I’m thinking it’s worth giving it a go.
The Verdict: Keep
So that’s one fewer book on the TBR shelves this week. What do you think of the decisions I’ve reached – if you’ve read any of these books I’d love to hear from you.
This week’s Top Ten topic (as hosted by Broke and Bookish) is “Ten Series I’ve Been Meaning To Start But Haven’t.” This could turn out to be a very short post in that case since I don’t tend to be a reader of series. Or at least I didn’t think I was until I took a look at my reading over the last few years and the list of books I own but have not yet read. It seems I am already part way through a few series. So let’s talk about those first.
Current Series Reading
The Rougon-Macquet cycle by Emile Zola: a sequence of 20 novels written by the French author between 1871 and 1893. Subtitled Histoire naturelle et sociale d’une famille sous le Second Empire (Natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire), the novels follow the lives of the members of two branches of a fictional family. Zola planned in this sequence to “study in a family the questions of blood and environments.” In other words, he wanted to advocate his theory of naturalism by demonstrating how people are heavily influenced by heredity and their environment. So far I’ve read four of the 20 and each one has been excellent. I have another title on my 20booksofsummerreadinglist which will get me quarter of the way through the collection. That’s fine, I’m in no hurry. If you don’t know Zola’s work and want to get more familiar with it, take a look at the superb readingzola blog created by Lisa and Dagny.
Chronicles of Barsetshire by Anthony Trollope: a sequence of six novels set in the fictitious English county of Barsetshire and its cathedral town of Barchester. The novels concern the political and social dealings of the clergy and the gentry but don’t imagine that means they are rather dull – the novels are full of power struggles, social class clashes, financial disasters and frustrated affairs of the heart. They also contain some of the most magnificently rendered characters I’ve come across in literature. I’m half way through the series – next up in my Anthony Trollope project is Framley Parsonage which was published in 1861 and features a young vicar whose aspirations to move up in the social circle make him vulnerable to the machinations of a Member of Parliament with a reputation for debt. More info about Trollope can be found at the Trollope Society website
Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny
We’re now at book twelve in a series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, Head of Homicide at the Sûreté du Québec. Louise Penny’s protagonist is a man of great integrity, a man who refuses to shirk from uncomfortable truths or to turn a blind eye when he senses corruption and wrong-doing even at the heart of the police force. But he’s also thoughtful, gentle and warm – not only to his wife and son in law but to the inhabitants of a small community in the province of Quebec called Three Pines that he discovers during the course of one of his investigations. Three Pines is a superb created fictional place; it’s so small it doesn’t even show up on maps, yet it is home to Gabri who runs the bistro, the acerbic poet Ruth, Myrna who owns the bookstore and the artist Clara Morrow. Each book that takes us back to Three Pines means we get a chance to meet up with these old friends. I’ve read six of the books published so far (a new title is due out this August) but I didn’t read them in sequence. Penny has said each novel is meant to be self-standing but to get the full effect of the character development they are indeed best read in order. So that’s what I’ve now started to do. You can find more about Louise Penny at her website
Series I may not finish
The Shardlake novels by C. J Sansom. I’ve enjoyed a few of this historical crime series which feature a laywer called Shardlake who takes on the role of the ‘detective’. Sansom is a historian by training which enables him to bring the Tudor period to life with all its political machinations, religious upheaval, sounds and smells (he does smells rather well). There are six in the series starting with Dissolution which was the first I read. I’ve read four now – the last one being number 5 in the series; Lamentation (reviewed here) – and though I’ve enjoyed them, the level of enthusiasm has begin to wane. If I wasn’t so close to finishing I probably would give up now, but it seems as Macbeth said
I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er. (Act 3, Scene 4)
Future Series to Read
Palliser Novels by Anthony Trollope: Once I finish the Chronicels of Barsestshire I’m planning to move onto the Palliser novels. This is a series of six novels written between 1864 and 1879 which feature a wealthy aristocrat and politician Plantagenet Palliser, and his wife, Lady Glencora (although they don’t play major roles in every title). The plots involve British and Irish politics in varying degrees, specifically in and around Parliament. There is a bit of a cross-over of characters with those in the Barchester Chronicles – Plantagent Palliser has a small role in The Small House at Allington for example and he has an unwise flirtation with the daughter of Dr Grantly and granddaughter of the Reverend Mr Harding, characters who appear in The Warden and Barchester Towers. The Victorian Web considers the Palliser novels to be superior to the Barchester Chronicles
Strangers and Brothers by C. P Snow: This series of 11 novels, published between 1940 and 1970, is one that has been on my radar screen for about 30 years. So keen was I to read them that I made my husband trek from bookshop to bookshop in Hay on Wye just so I could get all of them in the same Penguin livery. All the novels are narrated by a character called Lewis Eliot whose life we follow from humble beginnings in an English provincial town, through to a reasonably successful career as a London lawyer. In future years he becomes a Cambridge don, and sees wartime service in Whitehall as a senior civil servant. They deal with – among other things – questions of political and personal integrity, and the mechanics of exercising power. This series may not be familiar to you but you’ll possibly have heard the expression Corridors of Power – this is the title of book number nine but was referred to in an earlier title in the series. The term went on to become a household phrase referring to the centres of government and power. Its still in use today though the name of its originator has faded from the public’s mind. What constituted ‘required reading’ in earlier decades is barely heard about now. I’m just hoping that when I do start reading the series, that trek around Hay will prove to have been worth the effort.
Another episode in my series where I take a snapshot of my reading life on the first day of each month. It’s a way of keeping track of the year though there is little chance I will forget February 1, 2017. It’s the day I came home from hospital to begin a 12 week program of recovery from liver surgery. The next few months are going to be rather challenging. Either I will throttle my husband because he’s such a bad nurse or he will throttle me because I am a totally impossible patient. Joking aside though, despite the excellent care from the medical and nursing teams at the hospital, it is wonderful to be home and in my own bed.
One of the essential tasks for my hospital stay was to select the books I would take with me. Note the plural there. I fully expected to be spending hours unable to do anything other than have my nose in a book so of course needed several options. Since hospital wards are not known for their storage space I constrained myself to two initially – the 600-plus page alternative history thriller Dominion by C. J Sansom and A Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer. But I put aside a pile of another 8 books for my husband to bring with him on his daily visits. What was I thinking of??? Hospitals are no more suited to reading than jet aircraft. Just when you’ve recovered enough to even feel like picking up a book there’s always someone with needle/thermometer/ blood pressure monitor in hand clamouring for attention. After seven nights I hadn’t even got half way through Dominion. Ian Mortimer’s re-creation of the smells and sounds of fourteenth century England was despatched home without being opened.
State of my personal library
One of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books ( I thought it was 299 but then discovered my list of ebooks was incorrect) and a plan to hold off from adding to that number for the first six months of the year. I was doing extremely well up until the end of January, finishing six books from my shelves and managing to resist the temptation of a local library sale and daily promotions from booksellers. But then my sister turned up in hospital having bought me three books so now as of Feb I, the personal library stands at 315 – a net improvement of just 3. Of the books I read in January, the stand out was Narcopolis by Jeet Thayli, a Booker prize shortlisted title that was an intense experience.
My self imposed restriction on book buying hasn’t stopped me from adding new titles to my Goodreads wishlist. Additions in January included a biography: Charlotte Bronte: a Fiery Heart by Claire Harman; Human Acts by Han Kang (though I have yet to read her earlier novel The Vegetarian) and a Japanese crime thriller The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino and a book I keep seeing reviewed in a very positive way: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.
Sovereign is the third title in a series relating the escapades of Matthew Shardlake, a 16th-century lawyer afflicted by a hunched back but blessed with an astute mind. He needs all his wits about him if he is to keep his head on his shoulders amid the dangerous forces of the court of Henry VIII. Plenty of other people have already lost theirs as a result of plotting against the King. Not a pleasant prospect but preferable to the fate meted out to some conspirators who were tortured then hung, drawn and quartered or dangled in chains from the castle ramparts until they died, ever so slowly.
It’s the rotting body parts of these failed conspirators that greet Shardlake when he arrives in the city of York. He’s there with his sidekick Barak to make sure one conspirator is kept in good shape until he can be taken to London for an appointment with the king’s skilful torturers. The city is in turmoil as it awaits the arrival of Henry, and his young wife Catherine (wife number five). The King is undertaking a royal progress to bring the rebellious north to heel and impress upon them just who is in charge of the realm. His visit is supposed to quell all possibilities of another insurrection but Shardlake discovered there is another plot afoot among a faction who disputes the King’s claim to the throne.
The story involves considerable manoeuvring as Shardlake tries to keep the prisoner safe, discover the identity of a murderer and find out who is behind the conspiracy all the while trying to avoid getting himself killed. It’s all good fun and very readable even if sometimes improbable that a man with Shardlake’s affliction has the physical stamina he is called upon to exert.
The real beauty of Sovereign, as with all the others I’ve read in the series, is the level of authenticity C. J Sansom brings to his narrative. This is a warts and all version of Tudor England; a country where northerners view those from the south with deep suspicion and hostility and the great edifices of the Catholic Church are torn down to be recycled as manor houses for those looking to increase their wealth and power base.
Sansom gives us fascinating insight into the exhaustive preparations needed to support the King on his travel through the land. It took an army of courtiers, soldiers, cooks, labourers and clerics to get the entourage from A to B and fed, watered and bedded each night. But those problems are as nothing compared to the challenge of dealing with basic bodily needs as one official confides to Shardlake.
‘Everywhere we stop vast pits have to be dug. With three thousand people, five thousand great horses you may imagine?’
‘Cannot the local people use the dung for manure?’
‘There was far more than they need. And the stink, you can imagine… Even with the pits, all the roads from London to Hull is littered with rubbish. It has been a nightmare.’
Far from a regal procession this is the progress of a force that spreads disease in its wake, personified in the figure of the King himself. The year is 1541 and Henry is no longer the upright athletic figure of his youth. Sansom makes us see the huge bulk of a man with “red jowly face, fringe of reddish grey bead, a pursed little mouth under a commanding beak of a nose and small, deep,set eyes.” We hear his voice which humiliates and humbles his subjects. We smell the stench of decaying flesh that oozes from his suppurating ulcerated legs and cringe at the image of him bedding his very young, fragile new bride.
The episode in which the crookbacked lawyer comes face to face with the King, is a tremendous set piece in which Sansom’s talent for period detail becomes clear. His Shardlake novels are rigorously researched but it seems none more so than with Sovereign. Sansom was so frustrated by the differences in historians’ accounts of the Royal Progress of 1541 that he wrote his own academic paper on the subject. The product of this is an episode which reflects the theatricalities of which Henry was enamoured as well as the mercurial side of his character.
This is a novel in which its easy to lose yourself in the world of sixteenth century politics and life. Just be glad that you can easily escape the reality of the smells, the basic bathroom facilities and the dangers to your head simply by closing the book.
Sovereign is published in the UK by Pan.
My reviews of other novels in the series are via these links:
Dissolution (book number 1)
Dark Fire (book number 2)
Lamentation (book number 4)