Death of Kings - Bernard Cornwell
Bernard Cornwell's series covering the end of the 9th Century and the beginning of the 10th is now 6 books in the making I believe, and shows no sign of stopping. This is the latest, released in paperback this year, and I am now satisfied that I have finally caught up, having started the first of the series a couple of years ago, a few ... years later than publication dates.
To take the book as an individual publication, it would be simultaneously hard to understand everything (characters, previous events, etc) but you'd be in for an exhilarating ride of a read. Cornwell's ability to map out military strategy and to analyse 9th Century Britain with a fine toothcomb is impressive to say the least. There is also no denying that he is a fine storyteller, high in content and detail but with an ease and familiarity of phrase flow that makes it hard to put down and easy to breeze through the pages, taking each word in. No, I have no issue whatsoever with this as a stand alone book.
My issue DOES come, however, with comparisons to the previous books. I have grown tired of the familiar plot layout, the regular side swapping between Saxon and Dane that at least one major character will inevitably do during the course of the book. Some might say that this is hard to avoid, it being essentially a retelling of history with a fictional twist to make it more entertaining; and Cornwell even goes so far as to include a historical note explaining the reasons behind various elements in the book being included. But this still does not negate the fact that it's so similar that it becomes predictable to say the least.
The series of books centres around Uhtred, a Saxon man raised by Danes when his father was killed and he was captured as a boy. Learning the Danish way of life but staying true to his Saxon roots has caused a conflict of interest on a number of occasions, as he fights like a Dane and follows the Norse Gods, shunning what he believes to be the farce of Christianity; yet his heart lies with the Saxons. In this book, Uhtred is now a feared and revered warlord, the one man you would want leading your army. Approaching the age of 40 now, the tale around Alfred the Great's reign is surely coming to a close as the lands of Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria are all featured heavily in the battle to control what we know as England - Alfred's dream.
It's certainly a good way of understanding history and living conditions, and we also get a good feel for military tactics around this time. Religion was at the heart of everything to do with the land, Alfred led by his priests and his family following suit on the whole, while Uhtred jokes at one point about how he as Alfred's warlord should dictate to the priests how they run the church, seeing as how the bishops seem to control what Alfred wants to do with his army. There is a lot piety, and reverence of saints, trust and faith in how He will be on the Saxons' side when it comes to battle and they could not possibly lose with the Christian Right behind them. Uhtred doesn't buy into any of this, preferring instead the battle Gods the Danes worship, and there is no small part of him that still wishes to jump across and fight for the Danes. Of course, the astute Alfred this and puts Uhtred in a position where he must swear an oath and therefore remain true.
The characters are expertly written. Aside from the authority figures, the main ones I like are thos within Uhtred's men: those who have been with him for a number of books and who we as readers have seen grow and develop. There's nothing more exhilarating in a book than a character you can visualise wading into a situation and saving things at the last minute, and Cornwell does this very well. From the King's daughter and son, to the huge and dangerous Steapa, Alfred's household guard leader; then across to the vicious Finian, Uhtred's right hand man, an Irishman with a worrying passion for violence! The flip side doesn't develop the Danes a great deal, although from the way people talk about them you get a good feel for who and what the Danish leaders and warlords are and how their military setup is set.
But the whole thing is like a carbon copy of the previous books. There will be a battle in the middle, something bad will happen, Uhtred will fall out of trust with the church, he'll be shunned, and then he'll still pull through and everything will be alright in the end. Won't it? That's the impression I got as I was reading along, and although there are a few surprises and shocks to be had, the base structure of the plot doesn't alter. Luckily for Cornwell, the book itself is still excellent as a piece of written work, and looking beyond this predictability enables you to enjoy and progress along with Uhtred and co through into the new millenium. Cornwell has promised another book at some point - there is certainly still some work to do before we establish England as a unified land, that's for sure, and so I shall wait until this is published. No doubt when it is I shall be reading it pretty soon after, but my thirst and hunger for the next Saxon Story is diminishing with each book - there's only so much repetitive war and religion you can take. Recommended, but heed the caveat.
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Death Comes to Pemberley - Baroness P. D. James
As soon as I spotted this in the book shop, I was hooked. One of my favourite books - 'Pride and Prejudice' - now had a sequel in the crime genre? Fabulous. I had never previously read anything by P. D. James but I recognised the name and was aware that she was a popular and well-established crime writer (she is 90 years old). Could this ... be as good as it promised? Sadly, the answer was no, not quite.
-- Did you ever read 'Pride and Prejudice'? --
If not, fear not, as James spends the first chapter essentially recounting the plot of the original novel, with a few embellishments to bring the story up to date. (For instance, perhaps surprisingly, dull Mary has married reasonably well, while the more engaging Kitty is the sole remaining daughter at Longbourn.) This section could perhaps have been handled better. While James succeeds at conveying the necessary background information, attempting to do so as part of the story results in some rather contrived attempts at humour. This is primarily achieved, as Austen often did, by focusing on how the local gossips interpreted the events that befell the Bennett family. Of course, Elizabeth only married Darcy for his estate. Of course, no one believed that Wickham had actually intended to marry Lydia. This is perhaps funnier if you have read the original, but it does all feel a little awkwardly done. I had almost rather simply read a summary of the plot as a separate thing from the story itself so the story could have a more dramatic starting point. That said, handling information from a prequel is always a challenge and James does at least try to do this in an engaging manner. Those who have read the original, and those who haven't, should be mildly entertained by the opening chapter. Other relevant information is woven into the text relatively well at appropriate junctures and feels less heavy handed than the opening chapter.
-- So what did happen in 'Pride and Prejudice'? --
(If you have already read the book, please do skip this section.)
Essentially, Austen explored contemporary attitudes to marriage, criticising lust, condoning financial sense and encouraging the romantic attachment allied with a good dose of common sense. Most importantly for this novel, she established the characters of Jane, Elizabeth, Darcy, Bingley, Lydia and Wickham. Jane, Elizabeth and Lydia are three of five sisters who must marry well as their home will pass on to a distant cousin in the even of their father's death, leaving them dependent upon the cousin for a home and financial support. Bingley is a rich young man who moves into their neighbourhood, causing much excited gossip about his marriage prospects, and Darcy is his rather rude friend who quickly causes offence at a local ball by being proud.
Jane is beautiful and modest and ultimately marries Bingley, who is a polite but rather pathetic figure who relies entirely on his close friend Darcy to tell him who he can marry and when. (In the rather wonderful revisioning of P&P that was the short TV series 'Lost in Austen' Jane actually marries someone else due to Darcy's interference and a heartbroken Bingley turns to alcohol for comfort.) Elizabeth is a rather feisty young woman who is not afraid to tell Darcy's exactly what she thinks of him when he manages to propose to her while insulting her, her family and himself. Eventually, after seeing his beautiful estate, Pemberley, she decides he is really a good man after all and they end the novel in a rather embarrassing engagement. It is embarrassing because she has spent the last year telling anyone who will listen just how odious she finds Darcy, and it appears to most of the other characters that she is simply pursuing a life of wealth through marriage. Finally, reckless Lydia runs away with a handsome young soldier, Wickham, who then has to be persuaded by a hefty financial inducement to marry her. Coincidentally, this is the same Wickham who heartlessly chased Darcy's innocent young sister, Georgiana, in an attempt to gain access to the Darcy family's money. Unsurprisingly, Darcy doesn't like him, although he is too well-mannered to spread gossip about him.
Crucially, Austen's style is satirical and the story is most frequently developed through conversations which allow characters to reveal their true natures to the reader. Elizabeth and Darcy both learn valuable lessons throughout the novel and it is often hailed as a great romance, but it is also a rich comedy with many minor characters who provide great entertainment.
-- So what happened next? --
According to James, there has been six years of happily ever after since the events of P&P. Elizabeth has two healthy sons (the heir and the spare) and Jane and Bingley also have children and now live further away from the rest of Jane and Elizabeth's rather embarrassing family. Even Lydia and Wickham seem to have done reasonably well: he has been celebrated for his heroics in battle and they both somehow survive on handouts from unnamed sources. But of course, this is a murder mystery, so everything is about to change - or is it?
On the night before Lady Anne's ball, an annual celebration held at Pemberley, an unexpected carriage comes clattering desperately up the driveway. Out of this harbinger of doom tumbles a hysterical Lydia, screaming that her husband has been killed. After recovering from the displeasure of receiving this definitely uninvited guest, Darcy and two other males go out to investigate. Yes, there is a body in the woodland. As Lady Catherine might say, why have the shades of Pemberley been so polluted? Darcy seems to have found the murderer standing over the deceased body and admitting responsibility, but Darcy doesn't believe that he is guilty...so who is? And can Darcy prevent a wrongful conviction for murder?
In a minor additional plot twist, the lovely Georgiana has two suitors: an Earl and a Baronet. Lucky girl. Elizabeth thinks she knows who Georgiana favours, but will Darcy allow his sister to marry where she wishes? As the blurb promises that Darcy and Elizabeth's perfect marriage is "threatened" by events, it seems likely that this may be the cause. Will Darcy's pride cause trouble between them once again?
-- My thoughts --
The ineptness of the investigation was the first thing to strike me as I read: Darcy moves the body from the wood to an outbuilding on his property, potentially destroying valuable evidence, while the local magistrate accepts a rather pathetic alibi from Darcy's cousin simply because he is so respected. Writing a story set in the past allows James to make a few jokes ("I don't suppose you have yet found a way to tell one man's blood from another") which may raise a wry smile as the reader thinks about the progress we have made. I found that reading this made me feel grateful that times have changed and people are (typically) no longer automatically considered innocent due to their status. In fact, I wanted someone of high status to turn out to be guilty in this novel just so that Darcy could REALLY learn a lesson about status and morality, but James is not that daring.
Instead, the murder mystery itself is quite a disappointment. While Darcy is adamant that the chief suspect cannot be responsible, there are no other convincing contenders for the role of villain and there is no real investigation. Witnesses give their evidence, most of which the reader has already witnessed, and "justice" appears to be unobtainable. Eventually, James relies on Dickensian coincidence to allow for a shocking last minute court room announcement that actually makes little sense. I found neither the who dunnit nor the why they dunnit to be convincing. Clearly, James herself felt that this might be an issue as she has Darcy question one of the other characters about this series of events. They reassure him that it is all perfectly plausible, but I did not find it so. I like to be able to guess at the backstory and villain when reading crime fiction, and although I could guess at some of the denouement here, I felt that too much was held back and only revealed at the end. In fact, the killer is revealed 60 pages before the end of the 310 page book. When you need 50 pages of conversations between characters to unwrap the plot, it does suggest that there might be a tad too much plotting.
As this is meant to be a crime novel, I feel I ought to say more about thecrime element, but there is really very little to say. The denouement revolves around typically nineteenth century concerns: the seduction of young maidens, the difficulties produced by their illegitimate children and the machinations needed to hide them both from shame. This is all very appropriate for the period, but it does not perhaps grip readers in the same way that a more modern resolution could. It is difficult for readers today to understand the sheer horror attached to the mere thought of an unvirtuous woman. (Darcy practically chokes on his loathing for Mrs Younge, a key figure in the denouement, who blackmails young men after sleeping with them.) I think the story could have been gripping if told from a slightly different perspective. As it's written, James relies upon multiple narrators who reveal bits of the story to Darcy, but most of the main characters are denied a voice. As such, the emotions seem very muted and the tone is rather factual. I thought the crime element of this was therefore quite disappointing.
So what about the Austen angle? I enjoyed the brief references to other Austen novels (fans of Anne Elliott will be glad to hear that she is doing well, as is Harriet Martin) and the occasional comic touches that James adopted ("Although the library shelves, designed to Darcy's specification and approved by Mr Bennett, were as yet by no means full, Bingley was able to take pride in the elegant arrangement of the volumes and the gleaming leather of the bindings, and occasionally even opened a book and was seen reading it when the season or the weather was unpropitious for hunting, fishing or shooting.") However, I felt these were moments that gleamed in the dark, for the rest of the characters were rather dim.
Rather than hearing Elizabeth's voice throughout, James must use Darcy as she recounts the masculine world of the inquest and the court room. This wouldn't be a problem, except that Darcy's character is not as lively as Elizabeth's. His emotions are all guilt and concern for propriety. He simply does not create as engaging a window on the world.
Even Elizabeth has been tamed. Despite the promise of the blurb, their marriage is in no way threatened by the events of the novel. Rather than the anticipated scenes where Elizabeth instructed her husband not to be blinded by pride and to let Georgiana marry where she will, this promised plot development fizzles into nothingness. The previously spirited Elizabeth, now in charge of Pemberley's future, simply defers to her husband and hopes that he will have the sense to see what is right. The reader is cheated of even this satisfaction as one of Georgiana's suitors loses interest by the end of the novel, rendering the 'problem' obsolete. I think this is quite a serious problem with the novel as the whole appeal of Elizabeth Bennett in the original P&P was her willingness to say what she thought and her refusal to simply accept established hierarchies. Here, she actively works to promote them - when she is seen. Despite repeatedly assuring the reader that Darcy and Elizabeth are very much in love, they spend barely any time together over the course of the novel. Elizabeth is restricted to the feminine sphere (her house and her flower arrangements) while Darcy engages with the murder enquiry. I thought this was a disappointing conclusion to what had promised to be a more fiery marriage.
When the couple are reunited at the end of the novel, James seems to have panicked that there was not enough reference to P&P in the story. Suddenly, Darcy is apologising for things he said and did six years previously and Elizabeth is lovingly forgiving him. I found this rather odd, as this was all resolved satisfactorily at the end of the original novel. I also wonder how well this would work with readers who have not read the original. After all, you don't usually expect the last ten pages of a book to return to the previous novel in the series. We are also reminded at the end that the couple have two children. I did find myself forgetting this as I read; due to the fashions of the time, the children live in the nursery and their parents basically have visiting hours. This is not a criticism of James' writing as she is simply being true to the historical setting of her novel, but it is once again a little disappointing to see the revolutionary Elizabeth Bennett treating her own offspring as roughly as worthy of her attention as her plans for Lady Anne's party.
-- Conclusions --
When I started writing this review I had three stars in mind, but I have to confess that I have talked myself out of it. Although I found this perfectly readable, I didn't find it either as interesting as I would want a crime thriller to be or pitched quite as I would like an Austen adaptation to be. Fortunately, I bought my copy at a charity shop for a few pounds, but the hardback version of this would set you back £18.99 which I think is far too much for a book that one is likely to read just once and then only for the novelty value. The paperback is better value at £7.99 RRP and can, of course, be found cheaper online and in many popular shops. Chapters are a reasonable length to allow you to breathe and the font is a decent size so it is easy to read. This deserves two stars for the interesting premise and the flashes of Austenian wit, but it loses three stars for failing to really excite, interest or convince me.
Read this if:
You are a devoted Austen fan and want to see what all the fuss is about.
You are a devoted P. D. James fan and want to see what all the fuss is about.
You like stories set in the 1800s which investigate mysterious events without becoming gory or overly complicated.
You are able to borrow it or get hold of a cheap copy.
Avoid this if:
You have previously found yourself bored by Austen.
You dislike gentle crime fiction.
You prefer modern, high octane fiction.
You dislike lengthy, chatty denouements in which everyone 'fesses up to everything they have previously hidden.
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Phosphorescence - Raffaella Barker
==Synopsis of the book:== Lola Jordan is 14 years old and has lived all that time in the quiet seaside town of Staitheley in Norfolk. It is such a small place everyone knows everyone and secrets are few and far between. She enjoys spending time with her best friend Nell but has started to notice the only boy near her age ... Josh, who at 17 is just finishing his studies at school.
However change is on the horizon and it is very dramatic for Lola. Her Mum and Dad are separating and Lola will go to London with her Mother to live. This will involve leaving her beloved home, family and friends. She is unhappy at this prospect especially as the school she will now attend in huge in comparison to what she is used to. She is now a very small fish in a large pond. However her mother in trying to make Lola feel happier in their new home and is spoiling her with gifts and presents. Lola keeps in touch with Nell most evenings by phone as she tries to settle in, blend in and remain anonymous in her new surroundings.
==My thoughts on this novel:==
I found this both an interesting and enjoyable piece of fiction. Although I am sure this story would appeal more to teenagers as it deal with many of the issues they face as they are growing up. Indeed while I was reading it I did question whether I was the target audience and if I should be reading this kind of book. But I did enjoy it and enjoyed seeing what is what like to be a teenagers through Lola eyes as the world she knew dramatically changed and she had to change with it.
This book was a gift from a friend at work who had already read and enjoyed it. She knew that I had read a couple of books by Raffaella Barker and wanted to know my opinion of this one. This author has written eight novels in total so far and before reading this one I would have described her as a Chic Lit novelist. But having read this one it is clear she cannot be categorised purely as this as I would describe this story as teenage fiction if such a classification exists. What always impresses me about her work is she writes about what she knows i.e. Norfolk as he was brought up there and has now returned there. This clearly comes through in her excellent descriptions of the land that shows how much she loves the area.
What immediately struck me about this book was its very unusual title. I must admit I did not know what it meant so I looked it up on the internet as I could not see the point in reading a book what you did not understand what it meant. Having done this I checked out the summary as I was always do. As I think a good summary sells and sets the tone for the story. Now having read the book I feel the author gave far too much of the story away in this summary. I think she would have been far better advised explaining the background to Lila's move from Norfolk to London. Instead she seemed to want to explain why she selected this title for the book as early as possible. As it was it was a summary that sounded interesting if a little on the short side.
Before the story starts you are introduced to Staitheley in the form of a simple map that highlights in a very clear and simple way the main features of the area. For me it was a bit of a waste as after initially looking at it I did not have to refer back to it and I did not feel it helped me understand the place. Maybe that is a compliment to the authors excellent descriptions that meant I did not feel I needed to as I never felt lost or confused in the place. And if I am honest it is not something I would expect in an adult piece of fiction, this additionally made me think this was a feature that was added to appeal to the teenage market.
When the story began I found it very easy to get into. The print seemed slightly larger than I was used to and I immediately found Lola's life in Norfolk interesting. The community she lives in was different to what I am used to and the author had introduced several characters that were good and ones I wanted to know more about. Even at this early stage you could she that Lola's Mum and Dad were not getting on but at the time she was either used to it or oblivious to it. So when the big change happened it was a real shock to her.
As a result of this change in Lola's life I found all her new experiences indeered me to her. I found I felt for her and I understood her sadness for everything she had left behind in Norfolk. This concept of her two lives was a good one especially as Lola wanted to visit her old home whenever she could and to keep the two parts her of life totally separate from each other. I enjoyed learning about her experiences in this new big school and I felt for her trying to make new friends when the other classmates had known each other for years.
And while I enjoyed these experiences I think the author could very easily have added to the story be introducing an additional concept or two to her new experiences at school. As I know how hard it can be in new surroundings and children can be especially hard on anyone new or different from them especially young teenagers who are dealing for the first time with changing hormones and changes to their bodies. However that did not stop me enjoying what was happening and I got the real sense that the author knew and understand what it was like to be new in this setting.
The direction of the story was good and I liked the fact her school project led to a school field trip to her old home. I would not have shared this information normally as it is the key feature to the story but because it is mentioned in the summary I feel it is ok to now!! This was great for me because it meant Lola could not longer keep her two worlds separate and she would have to think and do different things to stop more interaction with them.
Any criticism I have with this story would involve the length of it. For me it was far too short and the author could and should have expanded her ideas. That is because she did have some wonderful ideas and I would have liked a longer field trip with more action within it. However I certainly would not criticise the last few chapters of the story. This was very fast paced and exciting it was an excellent ending and it had me on the edge of my seat. For me one of the better finishes to a story that I have enjoyed in the past few months.
The author even had an epilogue at the end of the story. However while this was useful it was only a page and a half long, which again for me was far too short. I had many questions about what would happen next to Lola and all the characters in the story that were not addressed. For me this could have led onto a new story involving Lola but as this book was written in 2004 I think it is unlikely now. Which I think is sad because the author introduced the reader to a wonderful and very different lead character from the norm.
It was the quality of these characters that really made the story in many respects for me. Lola was a very good lead character and I enjoyed learning all about her old and new lives. The story was written from her viewpoint and I found her an endearing and very likeable young lady. I also enjoyed some of the support characters within the story I thought the little girl Sadie was entertaining as were some of the unusual characteristics and traits of some of Lola's friends and schoolmates.
I found this a quick and easy book to read. Although I did also this is the type of story you can take whatever you like from it. That is because it deals with a number of concepts that you as the reader can choose to think more about or let them ride over you. For me it made me consider what it would be like to be Lola with all the new challenges she faced. In some ways it reminded me of a type of novel that you could study at school because it was not only thought provoking but if you looked under the surface there was more than could be found and discussed.
I found this an enjoyable and interesting piece of fiction that in my opinion would appeal more to younger teenagers than adult readers. The reason for saying this is two fold, firstly the main characters are teenagers and secondly it deals with several concepts that would affect and appeal more to them. That said I would still recommend it to adults as a worthy read, the only draw back was it was on the short side and some one or two more ideas would have in my opinion expanded it nicely.
Year First Published: 2004
Thanks for reading my review.
This review is published on both Ciao and Dooyoo under my user name.
© CPTDANIELS October 2012.
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B Fiction Book
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