Wednesday, 30 April 2014

There is a Season: RAIDERS FROM THE NORTH by Alex Rutherford

Raiders From the North
This will be one of those reviews where I don't really have much to say. Due to a mood clash I am at a complete loss with Raiders of the North by Alex Rutherford, but I will try and loop some words together into what I would say is less of a review and more of a 'view'.

From time to time I want to push myself out of my comfort zone and try something I would not normally read and this book was one of those times. There are certain periods of history and cultures/countries from history that hold very little interest for me.
Rome and Romans for example.
I have more misses than hits when reading historical fiction based on them, because I have little interest in the era (from a fictional standpoint, I am much better with non fiction on them).

Sometimes it works out when I push myself to read in these eras. I have found some good books by doing it. But sometimes it does not work out...Enter stage right, Raiders from the North.

Sadly for Raiders from the North (and I am sad about it as I think for anybody who is not me, this could be a very good read) I pushed myself out of my comfort zone at the wrong time in my life.

It's Autumn, the sun is shining, the garden is having its last growth spurt before winter. Birds are nesting, singing, darting about. Forget winter wonderlands, here is an Autumnal wonderland. And I'd much rather be in it, enjoying the last of the seasons sunshine, getting my hands dirty in the soil and going for long walks in the hills, than shut away indoors reading a fiction story set in a period of history I have no interest in.

I think I have realised that if I am going to force myself to read books in a least favourite era, I should save it for Winter when the outdoors are not calling me away. Or perhaps even during the scorching heat of Summer, when I seek escape behind closed doors, in an airconditioned room.

I know I have not given this book its due. Another time, another place, another day, another Season and this may have been a very different review full of robust commentary.

As for rating it, I can only give it 2 stars and attach this 'view' to it. Hopefully this will fully explain why it is that this book got those miserable 2 stars. I do not really think it is a 2 star book, if that makes sense to you. I think the book is probably a 3 star or even maybe a 4 star. The writing is good, the story seemed intelligently done.
I can only rate based on my experience and while I think the book deserves more stars, my personal experience with it, dictates that I give it only 2.

- MM

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Don't Tell Me A Story: MEADOWLAND by Thomas Holt

Meadowland by Thomas Holt
This book had so much going for it. The author is a really good writer. He exhibits a few flaws when writing an historical fiction of this style, but at the heart he is really good at the art of writing none the less.

Naturally, when you start talking about flaws and faults, you have to attach an aside to that to make it clear that by flaw or fault I mean only in my personal opinion. I would never presume that something I think is a flaw would be a flaw to anybody else. My issues with the book are mine alone and may not be shared by others. 

Now, having kicked off with a negative, something I am generally loathe to do, let me speak now of these flaws and faults..

Meadowland had a fantastic start, as so many books do. Only it was not the actual writing that massacred that terrific start, it was the style of story it became.
It begins with a young Greek scholar. Stethatus who ..well..let him tell you himself, straight from the pages of Meadowland;

My name is John Stethatus. I was born in the year of Our lord 990. I live in the great city of Constantinople and serve his Imperial Majesty Constantine X, Emperor of the Romans, in the capacity of clerk to the exchequer; which means, in practice, that my world consists of a few streets, a small office, a chair and a table.
I was born in the City, have been outside it only four times, and never wish to leave it again.

And there we have him, John Stethatus. Clerk to the Exchequer, who in the year 1036 is given the burdensome task of carrying the payroll to the troops in Sicily under the protection of a handful of men from the Varangian Guard (sword for hire warriors of Scandinavian descent).
Sounds like the kind of story you like? Thinking that doesn't sound so bad? And so it doesn't. I thought so to. That part of the story was a real blast. The author writes it with humour and cleverness and I thought I'd stumbled upon an under rated treasure.
With the combination of two of my favourite things, Scandinavian warriors and adventure journey, and liberally anointed with some smart humour, I found myself wondering...Where had you been all my life, Meadowland?

Then, just when I thought it was safe to go back into the water, it turned me on my head and dumped me into a completely different tale. The journey story of John Stethatus and his Varangian offsiders changed into a storyteller tale, where the Northern men sat about a fire and told John Stethatus the story of how - together with Leif Erikson - they discovered America.

It was not the tale of these men discovering America that I found flawed - after all, the subtitle of the book is A Novel of the Viking discovery of America - it was the fact that stories within stories is one of my least favourite book styles, especially when done in this way. If someone is going to do it, then they should do it in the first person narration style of, for example, Bernard Cornwell's Saxon series, Christian Cameron's Ill-Made Knight. A narration that has the main character retelling the story of their life from the beginning.
Meadowland was not like that. You spend the first chapters getting to know the Greek clerk and his Scandinavian guards. You enjoy their humour, their camaraderie. You find yourself excited for their journey and wonder (at least I did) on how they will get so off track from their mission to Sicily, that they will end up pushing ashore in the wilds of America.
But they don't get off track. What they do is get off their cart and sit by a fire and then tell the story in a broken up, disjointed manner instead.

I was bitterly disappointed. BITTERLY!

As a novel, it was not bad. It lost my interest when it changed styles and I struggled to read it after a while, but over all it was not bad.
The writing does get modern from time to time and I was uncomfortable with that, as I always am when it comes to historical fiction. Felt the author was sometimes deliberately just writing in his own language because he did not always desire to write in a neutral way. But the humour kept me in there. Sometimes so subtle that if you aren't concentrating you will miss it, it was this author's greatest asset.
For example. Page 83:

No, that's fine,” Eyvind said. “I could do with a breath of air.” he sighed, then turned back to me. “One thing,” he said. “You may've noticed, we Northerners like to give each other nicknames. Mostly it's because we're an unimaginative bunch when it comes to our regular names. We haven't got many to choose from, and most of the ones we've got begin with Thor-. When four of your neighbours are called Thorstein and the fifth is Thorgils and the sixth is Thorbjorn, it's a damn sight easier to say Red or Fats of Flatnose. Well, that was the occasion on which I got my nickname, and I've been Bare-arsed Eyvind ever since. I just thought I'd mention it,” he added, “in case one of the others uses it, and you're wondering who they're talking about.”
Then he ducked his head under the low doorway and went out.

It is hard to inject genuine and subtle humour into one's writing and Thomas Holt does it with great success. I see he writes dark comedy novels under the name Tom Holt. I can see him doing that and I expect they would be funny stories if this book is anything to go on.

I would try this author again. No shadow of a doubt. While his storytelling style was no favourite of mine, his writing did quite charm me.

- MM

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

A Medieval Feast: SUNRISE IN THE WEST by Edith Pargeter

Sunrise in the West by Edith Pargeter
When I am reading a Edith Pargeter book you best not interrupt me. Don't ring me, don't text me, don't tap me on the shoulder, don't ask me if I want coffee and a biscuit.
It isn't that I would get violent with you, or swear at you or throw your biscuit across the room, but there is a very good chance that I will not answer your phone call, read your text, respond to your soft tap or give you an answer on that coffee. You must forgive me, in advance, for I will be so thoroughly absorbed in the book that I may not even know you are there. I need time with these Pargeter novels.They take some work and I always need good solid reading sessions when I start them, because brief reading sessions do not allow me the time to absorb what is going on.

So, just quietly put the coffee and biscuit on the table next to me and let us assume that at some stage I may notice them.

One of my favourite historical fiction books is A Bloody Field By Shrewsbury, also by this author, who is better known for writing the Brother Cadfael series under the name Ellis Peters. I don't have much time for the Cadfael series, but when it comes to her non-mystery historical fiction novels I have all the time in the world.

It is the writing really. There is something so priceless about the writing techniques this author uses. They are special and, in my opinion, beyond compare. Of course, I acknowledge there are historical fiction authors currently writing that are very skilful, with a style all their own, it is just that Pargeter is unique in a way that has no modern comparison.
I don't think the technique is without its faults though. For me, sometimes she bogs down in the methodical nature of her writing style and forgets that she still has to write something that will captivate an audience. I also don't like the way 'And' is used to begin sentences in every other sentence. I am a fan of using 'And' to start a sentence myself, but I feel Edith Pargeter goes a little too far with it. Using it too frequently.

The Sunrise in the West story is a luscious and elegant journey through the fairly unexplored medieval politics of thirteenth century Wales. It is the first novel in the well respected collection of four books, the others being The Dragon at Noonday, The Hounds of Sunset and Afterglow and Nightfall, all of which, thankfully, I own and treasure in one volume called Brothers of Gwynedd. I haven't read them all as I write this review, but I soon hope to and the reviews will pop up here as I go.

The book is not for the fainthearted. This is no sanguineous pulp fiction extravaganza or action adventure sprint race. Nor is it an uncomplicated read or light novel for someone who doesn't like to be challenged. Edith Pargeter will indeed challenge you if you try her books. There is no doubt of that. She will challenge you on how you think historical fiction should read and even, more importantly, she will challenge you to slow the heck down when you do read.
Unless you are ready for a slow, literary degustation menu, you will never stick with this book and you probably won't appreciate what you are reading. If you like speed reading and want to read as many books as you can in a month, I do not recommend this one for you. I think you will be incompatible with the writing style. It is not good for reading styles that involve a rush to turn the next page.
You are welcome to prove me wrong though.

While this book, as the first in the series of four, may not always be the greatest read you will ever partake in, it will surely be an eye opener for you. And any non-speedreading self respecting fans of historical fiction or medieval novels should make sure they get to it.
Reading books like these will remind you of how historical fiction should be written....with magnificent languishing prose, a rich comprehension of dialogue that is untainted by modern phrases and words, depth of character and culture, with historical settings thick with local knowledge and meticulous research. And let us not forget, with an eloquence and class that I once thought had been left behind in the Classics.

4 stars out of 5.

- MM