Thursday, 28 November 2013

Scent of a Wind: PURE by Andrew Miller

Pure by Andrew Miller
Pure. What a not so sweet smelling little charmer you are. A real treasure that I am pleased to have finally read after a couple years of some less than graceful, evasive manoeuvres. It has played a good game this Pure. Putting itself under my nose at every turn. Gawping at me from the shelf at my library as I reach for a different book. On a friends currently reading pile. In recommended reading lists. Flashing your fine cover in blue or in green. You know I love that cover. Have told you over and over. It has always been one of my favourites. A favourite of all time.
You are everywhere, Pure by Andrew Miller, everywhere I look. So, when I saw you discarded upon the recently returned shelf at my local library, I knew I could not resist you any longer. I succumbed, overcoming my apprehension towards your macabre context, and you yielded, giving up a fortune in charms.

Pure. Was probably not the book I expected it to be. For the last few years I have been raving about that exquisitely beautiful cover. Telling people it was a favourite of all time. And yet I had not read it. Had avoided it. Been evasive when people had tried to push it on me.
Why then did I resist for so long? Well, it had more than a little to do with the nature of the context. The cemetery of les Innocents. Its sides heaving with rotting bodies. The engineer, Jean-Baptiste. Commissioned to clear the over burden of death from les Innocents and transform it into a market place. Does not sound very pleasant does it?
I always knew I would get to Pure eventually. As soon as I could convince my senses that the story within, the story of removing rotting bodies buried one atop the other for hundreds of years, would not offend them. When that time came and I felt my resolve was strong, I went for it. And enjoyed every second.

Yes, the context is gruesome on occasion and yes, the descriptions of the death scent clinging to everything that surrounded les Innocents – clothes, people, food – will perhaps put you off your supper, but it really isn't so bad. Not as bad as I thought it would be. And if you can overcome it there is a story of beauty laying beneath that death mask. A treasure trove of barely restrained sexuality, of books and literature, of relationships and the human mind.

I don't know how this author writes his other books, but I believe that Andrew Miller wrote Pure in a perpetually aroused state. I do not know if others will pick up on this too. Maybe it was just me. But sexual innuendo was everywhere in this story. Not busting at your seams sexuality, but a subtle innuendo. Like a soft breath across your face. Like a length of silk falling from a bed post. The warm liquid feel of sex had its fingers in every corner. From the obvious Heloise the prostitute, to the cadavers of two women, to the moments Jean-Baptiste found himself alone with his hardness, to the girl with her peep hole. It filled the pages. Tainted the words.

And books. If you are a bibliophile then you will love the feel of being in a book surrounded by characters who love books too. Through reading, through education. Titles of books I would never have heard of. Obscure French titles to the more well known such as Robinson Crusoe. I am infatuated with the way Andrew Miller blended the two wonders of sex and books into a story about the decommissioning of a putrid cemetery.

I was seduced, repulsed and hypnotised. 

- MM

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Seal Stew Anyone?: SONS OF THUNDER by Giles Kristian

Sons of Thunder by Giles Kristian
I probably say this too often and now here I go again. Journey adventures. This is my favourite type of historical fiction. I loathe being stuck in the one place in a book, ie a castle, an army camp, a ship.
My imagination feeds on colourful journey adventures where the main characters travel from one exotic place to another, meeting one exotic person or groups of people after the other.
Somehow I think it hearkens back to the first time I saw Star Wars - the ultimate in journey adventures.
The Creature Cantina, and the adventures immediately before and after, are my favourite scenes in all of the Star Wars movies (Princess Leia/Jabba the Hut slave scenes from Return of the Jedi come a close second) and they imprinted upon me so much that even today, as an adult and no longer a kid, my reading and movie tastes are still influenced by that imprint.
This could be one of the reasons that the Vikings are my favourite journeyers of history and Viking adventures are my favourite types of historical fiction novel, after all, if you take out Luke Skywalker and the sci fi setting and replace with a Viking protagonist and an early European setting, these kinds of stories have a lot in common with the Star Wars adventures. But enough of that tangent, now on to Sons of Thunder.

Sons of Thunder was a fantastic journey adventure for me and is much improved on the first book in this series, Blood Eye. That is not surprising though. For numerous reasons. But mostly they are because Blood Eye was a coming of age for the character, Raven (I do not enjoy coming of age stories usually), and a debut for the author, Giles Kristian.
When I first read Blood Eye I wasn't won over, but I always thought that one day I would get to book two. It was a debut after all and I do like to give the debut book of a series some leeway. It is hard enough to find quality Viking era historical fiction and Kristian clearly knew how to write quality, he just had some kinks to iron out in regards to plots and character depth. Which I think he did successfully in Sons of Thunder.

Despite wanting to eventually get to book two I kept putting it off....until recently. I made myself reread book one. Rereading Raven: Blood Eye was the right move. I enjoyed it so much more and bumped it from 3 stars to 4.. It gave me the incentive to get to Raven: Sons of Thunder and I am so pleased I listened to my gut and gave the series another chance.

With a lyrical and uniquely Saga driven writing style, Kristian can mesmerise the reader. I was mesmerised and that is no easy task. I read at night after a busy day and I get tired and bored easily, so I need to be mesmerised to hang in there. 
I do not need high adventure on every page to mesmerise me and keep me awake. What I need is skillful writing backed up by vivid and transportive prose.
For example:
We tracked the coast slowly but steadily and at one point sailed right into a dirty cloud of biting gnats. They got into our mouths and down our tunic necks and even bit some of us on our eyeballs, which we all agreed was a very low thing to do. We roared at Olaf and Knut to tack us out of that Hel, but even when they tried, the movement of the wind across the sail was pitiful, and so we had to endure it, cowering under furs and skins like frightened women.
Afterward, we laughed about it, for when Svein huddled beneath a white reindeer skin, it looked as if a mountain of snow had dropped onto the deck. We laughed and we teased one another and we scratched, and when we saw three broad knorrs ploughing their own sea roads west and south, we knew we had come to the mouth of the Sicauna. Sure enough, we rounded a stubby peninsula on which dozens of houses sat coughing black smoke into the grey sky. 
Once around that, Olaf said, we would see the river. -  from chapter ten

I am sure that if he keeps this up he will lure readers and fans for a lifetime. For it is books like these and writing like this that are a gleaming beacon for the genre of historical fiction.  This Raven Saga is here to stay.  I have no doubt.

The story itself is a journey adventure of a kind that, for the reasons already expressed, held immense appeal to me. It was not restricted to only Britain and its immediate surrounds, but branched out to other exotic and fascinating places such as Paris, France. An unexpected place to see our Viking crew turn up, but delightful all the same and I loved it. It was a lot of fun. In truth, the whole book was a lot of fun. For the same reasons that I find Robert Low's Oathsworn books a lot of fun. Humour, jollity, honesty, vitality and pagan naiveté all rolled into one.
Shockingly brutal and violent at times, it was all, to me, done in a natural way. It was not at all gratuitous and I never felt that the author was just trying to please the kind of audience who prefers gratuitousness over substance and quality. If I had detected it were that kind of book I wouldn't have been able to run away from it fast enough. It was tough and gutsy without falling into the cliche of being over pumped, cheesy, gore porn.

As for the title of this review? All I can say is that there is a seal and horseradish stew in this story that I will never forget. I am nearly gagging just thinking about it. Which gives credence to Giles Kristian's ability to create believable atmosphere.

As far as a rating goes, I have to give this book the full five stars out of five. For my tastes I could not fault it. A terrific Viking read that has left me hungering for the next book in the trilogy, Odin's Wolves.

- MM

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Reading The Reader's Mind

I am no expert on all things literary. I have thoughts, opinions, observations, just as you all do. Not all my thoughts, opinions and observations are agreeable to everyone of course, but then varied opinion adds spice to what could otherwise be an all too polite conversation about books. And where is the fun in an all too polite conversation? Those are best left to the Victorians who are, thankfully, extinct.

In the spirit of varied opinion. I have one. An observation if you will. On why people are drawn to types of characters, plots, settings and story feel.
To my eyes it comes down to this. What part of your mind do you use when you read?
I believe that, though very much a woman, I read with my masculine side.
That doesn't mean I like battles and macho-centric books, what it means is that I have a low tolerance for feminine drama and emotions and for female characters (unless they too seem driven by their masculine side). I have this low tolerance in life anyway, but I have even less tolerance for it in books. I prefer adult male characters and male dominated settings.
I am not necessarily a product of my environment although I do live in a male dominated world and I speak to men many times a week and can go many months without speaking to another woman. There is no doubt that how you interact with your fellow man/woman in real life can be reflected in your reading tastes, but I still believe wholeheartedly that, as individuals, our path through life has trained our brains to enjoy and seek out particular types of characters and personalities in books.

So what parts of the mind do I think people read with?

To me there are three very definitive ones. The feminine, the masculine and the inner child.

The feminine reader can be male or female and he/she seems to need some form of female presence in books. Female characters are preferable to the reader who reads with their feminine side, but they aren't completely necessary. If a book has no prominent female characters, the feminine reader needs the male characters to be less macho and more emotive. A nurturer, gentle lover, a deeply reflective soul, tortured, wielding a charisma guaranteed to attract the opposite sex (or same sex..whatever your fancy).
The feminine reader likes matters of the heart.

The masculine reader who also can be male or female, gets exasperated or worn down with female characters and feminine feel. The masculine reader wants his or her male characters to be preoccupied with living life and not bothered with the whimsical and the melodramatic. He/she can read a whole book without noticing there were no female characters.
Focus on marriages, children, love and languishing in ones emotions are not valued character features to the masculine reader.
The masculine reader likes matters of the mind.

The inner child reader is easy to spot. They are still young themselves, or are simply in touch
with their inner child, or they will have children of their own and delight in relating to child characters or in reading young adult books because of that.
The inner child reader is anchored to their childhood. There are memories there that draw them to YA books or young characters in adult fiction. I do not know what those memories are of course – I am not an inner child reader – but I do often see men and women who read the children's classics of their youth, or read YA or juvenile fiction because they still have their childhood side deeply embedded in their psyche.
This does not mean the inner child reader is emotionally stunted or childish. It only means that something about YA books or child characters in adult books, resonates with them and gives them succour.
The inner child reader likes matters of the soul.

Naturally, some readers are going to have pieces of all three toiling away inside them. One is going to dominate their reading preferences however. One will always be the strongest.

I, without shadow of doubt, am dominated by my masculine side when I read. On occasion I can feel a little of my feminine side like a candle flame flickering dimly in a darkened window, but I never, ever read with my inner child. I have one, as we all do, but it expresses itself in other ways in my life. Joy of cooking mother's recipes, a lingering infatuation with light pink colours, baby animals. But when it comes to reading, I am all man, all of the way and I think romance is for girls (or for guys with a little bit of girl inside them)!

- MM

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Style and Substance: THE LION RAMPANT by Robert Low

The Lion Rampant by Robert Low
On most books you will find captured quotes on the front and back covers. These are quotes from book reviewers at newspapers (ie The Sunday Times), other authors (generally well known ones writing within the same genre as the book in question) and other people of varied fame and note.
They include words such as masterful, intensely exciting, gripping, a master storyteller, a legend of the genre, as good as 'so and so'.
These snatched quotes never make me buy a book. In fact, I ignore them and observe them with great scepticism, because if you scratched deeper you would find they are quotes from the author's fellow author mates or they are a paid for quote, or the person supplied a quote without ever reading the book. All these make the quotes as fake as their implied spontaneity.
Or they are the other type of quote. One that is quite clearly taken out of context and you wonder what the rest of the review said about the book. What were the negatives.

Robert Low's books are the only books where I actually trust these quotes to be genuine. The books (to me) are masterful, intensely exciting, gripping. The author is a legend of the genre and a master story teller. And no, he is not like so and so since, right now, there is nobody else around like Robert Low. Nobody who writes like him. His style is distinct and unique. A rare gem in the genre of historical fiction, where so many authors are falling into the bad habit of copying the styles of their peers. Riding the bow waves of another's success with mimicry.
For this reason, I will always reach for Low's books with trust. He does not mimic anybody. He does not write looking for market acceptance. He writes for himself - and his reader - in a style that is his own.
It is that style that can lure me to these books, even when the setting holds no interest for me.

Which happens to be the case with this Kingdom Series. It holds no true interest for me.
It is a credit to the author that he can tie me down long enough to read three books, each over 400 pages, that are set during the Wars of Scottish Independence. How he did, is easy to explain.

It is the rawness of Low's writing that does it, combined with the depth and slickness of his characters.
 I am a great admirer of intelligent writing and I feel there is none better nor any as consistent, in the genre of historical fiction, than this author. Even when I was not quite loving this Kingdom Series for its setting, I was still enamoured with the writing style and the unrelenting scope of the character development.
The only thing that took the edge off that was that little issue where the Wars of Scottish Independence have no magnetic pull on me and I don't find novels about famous figures of history to be very interesting. I am more interested in the unknown than the known. Luckily, this trilogy had fictional characters playing prominent roles too and those are the characters that kept me going with the trilogy.

It seems a waste of time to speak about the actual storyline. I have never been one to paraphrase stories in a review because there are plenty of reviews around that do that, plus you can get pretty much all you need on top of that from the book blurb, and the rest you can get by reading the book yourself.
I usually like to speak about how the book made me feel, how well the author has done the story and how skilfully he has managed his characters. And with the climax to the trilogy, The Lion Rampant, I think Low hit his straps and worked it all out expertly. Ticking all my boxes in regards to feelings, storyline and characters.
I gave it five stars out of five and it was my favourite of the trilogy for sure, but I still feel that anybody new to the series needs to start at the beginning with The Lion Wakes. I am not convinced that a reader would be able to appreciate The Lion Rampant fully without following the path that leads to it.
To my fellow readers, I will not recommend this book, I will recommend the trilogy as a whole.

- MM

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Busy Bee

Apologies to followers for not posting to the blog in the last two weeks. Life has been frenetic this month. Nothing bad, just busy.
Am behind on my reviews. Will be back on deck as soon as possible.
Book reviews still to come this month:
Sons of Thunder (Raven #2) by Giles Kristian
The Lion Rampant (Kingdom Trilogy #3) by Robert Low
The Splintered Kingdom (1066: the Bloody Aftermath #2) by James Aitcheson

and I am currently reading a really great book:

Pure by Andrew Miller

- MM

Friday, 1 November 2013

Blog Interview with Author DOUGLAS JACKSON

I am sure I do not have to tell any long term readers of historical fiction who Douglas Jackson is. Even if you have not read any of his books, or are fairly new to the genre, this author's books are hard to miss.
He has his literary aquila firmly planted in the soil of the historical fiction genre and with two Roman series' in circulation, one called the Gaius Valerius Verrens series which features the antics and adventures of the Roman Tribune that the series is named for, another series named Rufus that features so far - alongside a main fictional character named Rufus - two of the most infamous Roman leaders of history, Caligula (Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus) and Claudius (Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), and also a contemporary thriller series with a history connection under the name James Douglas called the Jamie Sinclair series, there is no doubt that Douglas Jackson is playing a lot of aces into the game of historical fiction.

The amount of followers and fans his books have, are testament to how well he has circumnavigated the crowded Roman themed historical fiction sub genre. To stand out from that crowd an author really does need to show some flare with the pen and some aptness in carving out a story. Especially one that is strong enough to persist in a series.
With a stable of books to select from, whatever your poison, historical fiction or contemporary thriller fiction, Douglas Jackson (aka James Douglas or James Douglas Jackson) has something for readers to investigate.
As for Douglas Jackson himself, the author of historical fiction, I hope you will get to know him better as we discuss the books, the author, the history and the future, here in this recent interview.


Do you think it is important to be as historically accurate as possible in an historical fiction?

Absolutely. That was the first decision I made when I started writing. I wanted people to learn from my books as well as enjoy them and you can't do that if your readers don't trust the person who's doing the writing. It's great when someone gets back to me and says 'I was so interested in that I got a book out of the library/went on the internet to learn more'. But you're right to qualify it with 'as possible', because the truth is that with many aspects of ancient history we can't be certain what is accurate. We have evidence and clues, written and physical, but in many cases writers and historians have to do what they can to reconstruct the past by using them the way a detective reconstructs a crime scene.

If I do deviate from known history, which isn't often, I always detail it in the historical note. The only time I've purposely done that with a major event was in Avenger of Rome. Unknown to me when I was planning the book, by the time Valerius gets out to Antioch, Corbulo has already fought all the battles that made him Rome's most successful general. When I did my detailed research I discovered that all the elements were in place for the Parthian king, Vologases, to have one last try at conquering Armenia, so I created an entirely fictional campaign which Nero wiped from history after ordering Corbulo to commit suicide.

Where does your fire to write Roman themed historical fiction come from?  What is it about those Romans?

When I decided to write a book I had no idea what I was going to write about. It could literally have been anything. I was driving home from work one night thinking about it. They say write what you know, but my life was one big whirl of family, work, eat, sleep, anything I knew was mundane. So I thought about it a little bit more and came up with write what you love, and what I loved was history. Simon Schama's History of Britain just happened to be on the radio and I heard Timothy West saying 'And the Emperor Claudius rode in triumph on an elephant to take the surrender of the tribes of Britain.' That was the moment The Emperor's Elephant, which became Caligula and Claudius, was born, and my life changed completely.

What it is about the Romans is the mark they've made on our everyday lives and the physical evidence they've left all over Europe, Africa and Asia of hundreds of years of dominance. I did have one direct connection with the Romans. My first job when I left school at 16 was on a sort of workfare scheme, and it was restoring the Roman marching camp at Pennymuir in the Cheviot Hills, after it had been ploughed up to plant trees. We turned the peat turf back into the furrows, and it struck me that we were doing much the same as the legionaries who'd built the turf walls that still surrounded the fort had done two thousand years earlier.

You have written historical fiction novels that collide your interpretation of famous leaders of history with main fictional characters. 
Does this reflect an enjoyment of writing about both – real characters and fictional main characters - or do you actually prefer creating and getting inside the head of one in particular?

I do get a lot of pleasure from writing about both, but again it came about by accident. The Emperor's Elephant was a story about the slave who looked after Bersheba, the elephant Claudius took to Britain, and he needed a life. Though I didn't know it at the time, it would bring him into the orbit of Caligula, the most depraved and dangerous of the Julio-Claudians. That was when the real fun started! Caligula was the one whose head I enjoyed getting into most. There's a scene in the book where he's in a meeting room bored with wealth, bored with excess: bored with life. He asks a guard 'If I ordered it would you kill every man in this room, would you do it?' Of course, there was only one answer. Then he says, 'What if I ordered you to kill me?' I genuinely think that's the kind of young man he was. Ambitious and intelligent, he'd lived in a gilded cage all his life, and nothing ordinary interested him, so he had to make up these deadly games, push back the limits of normality, and test people to the limits of their sanity.

If you could go back in time, which real life character from your books, or one that exists on the peripheral of your stories, would you most like to meet?
And if you could ask them about anything what would it be and why?

That would have to be Claudius, because he's such an enigma. When I was writing about him I had to continually shove this image of Derek Jacobi in the TV adaption of Robert Graves' book I Claudius, out of my head. I think that image would be true of many people of my era: the drooling cripple who was a figure of fun and only became Emperor by mistake. But there's another Claudius. We have fragments of a triumphal arch that stood on the Via Flaminia and announced that the Emperor was hailed Imperator - victorious general - twenty two times, fought six bloodless (for the Romans) battles, and took the surrender of eleven British kings. Who was the real Claudius? I'd like to ask him why he had Messalina killed. If she'd lived there would have been no Nero and no bowl of dodgy mushrooms a few years down the line.

The latest in your Gaius Valerius Verrens series (of which Hero of Rome is #1) is Sword of Rome and it was released only a few months ago. This reveals a commitment to continue with this series with some frequency. Readers of series' like to see that kind of commitment. It makes it worth their while to keep reading the books.
How many more books in this series do you anticipate?

I'm fortunate that my publishers have really taken to Valerius. The Hero of Rome series started off as a trilogy, ending with Avenger of Rome, but the books were popular enough that they asked me if I could come up with ideas for three more. It turned out that our hero was well placed to be at the centre of some of great events during the bloodiest and most turbulent years of the Roman Empire. Sword of Rome, the first, takes Valerius through the opening phases of The Year of the Four Emperors to the first battle of Bedriacum, and it will be followed up by Enemy of Rome, which takes him through to Vespasian's victory. I'd originally planned to complete the second trilogy with Agricola's campaign to conquer Scotland, but we're now talking about a further two books which, chronologically, would fit in between, and a possible finale of a genuine blockbuster in the James Michener/Edward Rutherfurd mould, that would attempt to encapsulate Roman Britain in a single book.

As well as the Gaius Valerius Verrens and Rufus historical fiction Roman era series', you have also done a contemporary series under a different name, James Douglas.
Any other series' or ideas in the pipework? And on that topic, could you see yourself getting away from Romans and doing a non Roman historical fiction series?

Douglas Jackson is my real name, but I was christened James Douglas Jackson, so we decided to use James Douglas as my pen name. I'm talking to the publishers about another two James Douglas books, but I've also given them a detailed synopsis for a Second World War series that I have a real itch to write. I have two crime books on my computer that I wrote when I was looking for a publisher and didn't know if my Roman idea would take off. I don't see Transworld investing in a third genre for a single writer, even under a different name, so I have a plan to self-publish those, initially on Kindle. I've always known that I couldn't write about Romans forever, even if I wanted to, and as a writer I know that to keep yourself fresh you have to try new things. I have lots of ideas, but it's a question of choosing the right one. The one thing in my favour is that I know my strengths, the biggest drawback that there are so many great writers out there looking for the next Wolf Hall or Sharpe series.

Have you done much travelling to settings in your books? If so, which is your favourite and why?

I've been to Italy, Spain, France and Germany to research the books, loved every minute of it and would have liked to do much more. There's a valley in Eastern Turkey close to the border with Syria, where I fought the fictional battle of the Cepha gap. It's a fascinating place full of ancient caves that may have been the starting point for a later civilisation, and the nearby city of Hasankeyf has an astonishingly varied history. Unfortunately, the Turkish government, funded by foreign banks, has decided to dam the River Tigris and Hasankeyf will be under water within the next ten years. The reasons for the decision are clouded in politics, and may have a lot to do with the fact that the people there are Armenian. There's been an international outcry and I hope it doesn't happen, but I'd like to visit the area just once before it does. As for a favourite place, it would have to be Rome, the Eternal City. Every time you turn a corner there's something to make you gasp in wonder.

What authors and/or books have inspired you on your path to today and how/why have those specific authors or books inspired you?

Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome gave me the reading bug with The Famous Five and Swallows and Amazons. I loved Robert Louis Stephenson's books, particularly Kidnapped, which I thought was a sublime piece of story-telling the first time I read it and was fascinated by a story set in a Scotland I could instantly recognise. As a teenager I devoured Alistair McLean's books, and when I read that winning a short story competition in the Glasgow Herald set him on the road to becoming a best-selling author, I think that planted a seed for the future. If he could do it, why not me? Likewise later, I discovered the wonderful George MacDonald Fraser created the inimitable Flashman while he was doing night shifts as a sub-editor on the Herald. It was a revelation that ordinary people could become successful writers and fill the shelves of the local library that had given me so much pleasure. Nowadays, for inspiration I turn to John Le Carre, who makes genius look easy, and Bernard Cornwell who writes the kind of books I like to read, with the qualities I'd like to emulate.

Which do you prefer, ebook or paper?

Definitely paper. I love the feel, and the smell, and a well put together book can be a work of art as well as a work of genius, but ...

I once vowed that I would never pick up an e-book. Why would I want to spend any more time staring at what is essentially a computer screen? Then my friend gave me one as a gift for being his best man. Within a week I found that I had access to every book in the world and it was available with one click of a button. An expensive habit was born. 

Thanks again for your interest and giving me the chance to reveal a bit of my writing life!


For more details on Douglas Jackson, please check out the author's website:
To catch up with him on social media, Douglas can be found as @Dougwriter on Twitter:

- MM