Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

‘The Essex Serpent’: a Case of ‘Colonitis’

This book is beautifully packaged. Its cover is adorned with sumptuous bucolic imagery through which wends the form of a green serpent, which together with its intriguing title proves sufficient to lure many a reader into making a purchase. Time and time again it has been said that both a book’s title and its cover are pivotal to its success, and given the enviable sales that the author has enjoyed with ‘The Essex Serpent’, these observations would appear, in this case, to have been borne out. But what of the book itself? What of its content? Does this prove to be equally beguiling? 

It cannot be denied that Sarah Perry has a talent for description: much of it, especially where she is describing the landscape, possessing a beautiful and evocative quality that makes Nature itself a character. It also cannot be denied that she has a passion for colons bordering upon an obsession, which lends much of her prose a distinctly idiosyncratic quality. Now, before proceeding I must make it clear that I do not number amongst those who would relegate the colon, or its much maligned sibling the semi-colon, to the dustbin; but I am of the opinion that the author should know when, and where, they should be used. Ms Perry, irrespective of her doctorate ‘in creative writing from Royal Holloway’, appears not to know how to judiciously employ these helpful pieces of punctuation, and ought to, to borrow one of her own favoured words, use them more ‘parsimoniously’ in her prose. Moreover, both her proofreader and publisher should receive a severe dressing down for the nonsensical sentence that appears at the end of the penultimate paragraph on page 49.  

Mud, cakes, macaroons and dresses are all described in minute and loving detail –repeatedly – so much so that ‘Mud, Cakes and Macaroons’ might make an equally apposite title for this volume, for they feature far more frequently in this meandering tale than the eponymous serpent that is notable throughout for its absence. Its presence slithers unseen through the undergrowth of dense prose, as elusive as any semblance of plot.  

Her protagonist – Cora Seaborne – proved unsympathetic, as well as possessed of a certain self-important petulance that rankled. From the book’s description, I had been anticipating an intriguing novel of ideas, in which Seaborne’s scientific worldview parried with that of the Aldwinter vicar William Ransome, as well as a tale in which folklore featured rather more prominently than it did. Instead, it struck me as being a sluggish piece of chick lit crafted for a more educated readership than is usually the case with this genre, that whilst often beautifully written, possessed an underdeveloped plot that seemed to peter out. If its length had been trimmed by a third, its sense of drift might have been supplanted by some semblance of momentum.   

The opening passages of this novel promised much, but upon finishing the book I felt as if I had been struggling through the oft-described mud only to find that the ill-defined form that I had pursued throughout had faded into the mist; vanished into nothingness. In place of a sense of satisfaction, its ending brought a feeling of a certain emptiness, and no desire to read anything further that this author may publish. A pity.     

Book Review: ‘Heresy’ by S.J. Parris.

Parris’s novels – Tudor murder mysteries – have often been bracketed with those of C.J. Sansom, but although the work of both authors may be united by genre and setting, there the similarities – at least for me – end. I find Parris to be the more engaging writer by far, for her prose is brisker than Sansom’s, and her protagonist more sympathetic.    

Set during the reign of Elizabeth I, this novel introduces us to Parris’s fictionalised Giordano Bruno, a figure who deserves greater remembrance as an early freethinker who fell foul of the Inquisition, being burned at the stake in 1600. A champion of the Copernican system, he was also one of the first individuals to speculate as to the existence of other inhabited worlds orbiting distant stars, and was a proponent of the idea that the Universe was infinite and possessed no centre. Although born in Nola in the Kingdom of Naples in 1548, he resided in England from 1583 to 1585, and it is during this period that he lectured at Oxford, although he was unsuccessful at securing a teaching position there. It is this period of his stay at Oxford in 1583 that Parris chooses to set her mystery. 

The novel is a tale of academic rivalry, murder, paranoia, and religious fanaticism. A series of gruesome murders unfolds at the college playing host to Bruno, who happens to have been entrusted with a mission by Sir Francis Walsingham to seek out papist sympathisers and plotters amidst the world of Oxford fellows and dons. They are executed in a strangely theatrical fashion, taking inspiration, it would seem, from John Foxe’s ‘Actes and Monuments’, more popularly known as ‘Foxe’s Book of Martyrs’. Bruno, meanwhile, possesses a motivation of his own for his visit: to seek out a missing volume of the occult work of Hermes Trismegistus. 

Parris’s Oxford appears to be in perpetual half-light, its streets soaked with rain, its academics content with regurgitating intellectually obsolete orthodoxies approved by Elizabeth’s regime, whilst proving unreceptive to Bruno’s challenging new ideas. Fear of papist sympathies and Jesuitical plots stalk the imagination, and Bruno, being an Italian and former Dominican friar, does not escape suspicion.  

The book succeeds in producing a vivid feel for the period, whilst not seeking to mimic the speech of the time, although the occasional anachronistic turn of phrase creeps in. Such jarring moments, however, prove to be few. Although this book, for me, doesn’t reach the heady heights of Iain Pears’s ‘An Instance of the Finger Post’, I found it to be an enjoyable read, and will, most likely, read further instalments in this series.

Book Review: ‘Music and Silence,’ by Rose Tremain.

Some books are beautifully written, some are skilfully and intriguingly plotted, whilst others still possess a pace that compels the reader to turn the page and devour the book leaving them wanting more; few manage to combine all three elements. Music and Silence is one of those novels that excels in one of these categories – for its prose is undeniably alluring – and yet fails in the other two. It is written prettily enough, but it lacks pace, and the plot meanders hither and thither, the perspectives constantly toing and froing from one character to another, none of whom I found to be particularly sympathetic. 

The lutenist, Peter Claire, his fingers frozen by a Danish winter, pining for a love denied; the Danish Queen Kirsten, despising of her doting husband, scheming and prone to sadomasochistic horseplay with the German Count Otto, or having herself pleasured by black slave boys; the benevolent King Christian IV, touching his elflock for comfort, forever disappointed by all that is ‘shoddy’, including his marriage to his contemptuous and contemptible second wife, his schemes for bringing wealth and happiness to his people seemingly doomed to failure: these are three of the primary protagonists around whom the ‘plot’ revolves. There are many others, but they fail to move me to mention them.  

Before coming to this book, I had read another of Tremain’s novels – Restoration – which I found to be highly engaging and well paced, so when a friend recommended Music and Silence to me as her ‘favourite book’, I had high hopes for it. At the same time, however, I also possessed certain nagging misgivings, for when someone commends a book so highly, the fear creeps in that I will find in it some significant flaw, and so, in this case, it proved to be. Perhaps my failure to find any great satisfaction in the book derives from the fact that it is aimed, predominantly, at a female readership, or then again, perhaps not. It was its lack of pace that made the reading of it so laborious and turgid, for it lay partially read on my bedside table for some five months or so before I compelled myself to complete it, wolfing down the prose with as much pleasure as if it had been unsalted raw cabbage. Thankfully, unlike the cabbage, it did not leave me with wind afterwards, but neither did it leave me with a desire to read anything else by Tremain, which was a pity.  

The 17th century is a fascinating period in which to set a novel, as it was a time of such intellectual, political and social ferment, but, alas, Music and Silence somehow manages to render it less interesting than it was. In contrast, An Instance of the Fingerpost written by Iain Pears, set in Restoration Oxford and employing four separate perspectives in the narration of the same set of events, is utterly compelling and convincing; it is beautifully written, skilfully and intriguingly plotted, and leaves the reader wanting more at its end.

Review: ‘Poldark: Ross Poldark’, by Winston Graham.

Like many readers of this book and subsequent volumes, I first encountered Poldark on the small screen, initially as a child in the 1970s, and more recently during the BBC’s latest adaptation of the Poldark novels. I therefore came to the book with certain expectations, and found, to my delight, that they were not disappointed. In fact, as is often the case with works which are adapted for either television or the cinema, the book proved to be better still. This is not to say that the recent television series lack anything, for they do not, but out of necessity the full richness of a 450-page novel cannot be condensed into a handful of television episodes without omitting something. 

This first book, originally published in 1945, proves to be a gripping read. Although the covers of the Poldark novels have been aimed squarely at a female readership over the years, this one being no exception, what with Aidan Turner broodily peering from the front cover, this is by no means women’s fiction insofar as there is plenty within to engage readers of both sexes. There is certainly a romantic core to this book, but as to whether it should most appropriately be placed in the category of historical novel, or historical romance, I shall leave that to the reader to decide.  

The novel is well paced and comprised of many intertwining strands, with an engaging cast of characters, a sense of drama, and a liberal dose of humour, with the latter often being focused upon Ross’s idle servants Jud and Prudie Painter. Although Ross is confronted with a succession of challenges and setbacks, he somehow manages to weather the storm, and, at the end of this volume, obtain a certain solace in his marriage to Demelza. The theme of hardship, both material and emotional, runs through the book, and it is plain that the author – Winston Graham – by making Ross a champion of the poor and the powerless of Cornwall, possessed a significant social conscience. It did, perhaps, chime with the times in which it was published, emerging as the war came to an end, with rationing and austerity looming large, enabling his readers to identify readily with the plight of the common folk in this tale. Within this volume, you will find the social tensions and snobbery of late-eighteenth-century Cornwall brought vividly, and arrestingly, to life. I look forward to reading the next in the series.

Watch this blog for news of the author’s forthcoming historical novel set in 17th-century Cornwall – Pendrummel: Gwen Gwinnel’s Return – a tale of superstition, greed, slavery, and religious fanaticism.

Review: ‘Pompeii’ by Robert Harris

Harris’s fast-paced novel of life, and mass death, in Pompeii during the final days of its existence in AD 79, manages to create an evocative picture of first-century Roman society, in all of its opulence, corruption and squalor. His protagonist – Marcus Attilius Primus – has been sent to the nearby city of Misenum to act as the replacement for his missing predecessor, Exomnius, who was responsible for maintaining the Aqua Augusta, the mighty aqueduct which supplies the region with its water. The solving of the mystery of Exomnius’s disappearance is played out against the lead-up to, and climax of, the Vesuvian eruption, with the latter being described in vivid, and convincing, detail.

It is within the interplay between Attilius and his nemesis, Ampliatus, a sadistic, nouveau-riche, former slave turned regional plutocrat, that the primary drama of the book inheres, and it is in the portrayal of the pursuit, and abuse, of power and wealth that Harris exceeds. Ampliatus proves to be a compellingly repulsive character, an embodiment of the worst in Roman society, whereas Attilius serves as his principled foil. The reality of city politics is portrayed in a manner that is at once, depressingly, recognisable. Harris also provides us with a glimpse of the character of Pliny the Elder, who perished in the tragedy, courtesy of the notes regarding the eruption compiled by his nephew, Pliny the Younger. It is to the latter, of course, to whom we owe our knowledge of what unfolded in Pompeii during that fateful August, with his gift to posterity being honoured by the use of the adjective ‘Plinian’ in categorising the type of eruption observed at Vesuvius.

Harris’s research shows in the convincing detail that he deploys, which is woven into the warp and weft of the tale without being ostentatiously, and incongruously, displayed for the sake of ‘showing off’. The alien world of ancient Rome is thereby rendered almost familiar, despite the attitudinal, and philosophical, differences that framed the worldview of Roman citizens in this distant age. An enjoyable read which I finished surprisingly quickly.

Anthology: Wry Out West

Previously published as standalone pieces in my West Country Tales series, this anthology gathers together five twisted tales of the uncanny that venture beyond the mere ‘funny peculiar’, into the realms of black comedy and satire. From the acid-fried occult oddity of Gwydion’s Dawn, to the bizarre rites of a seventeenth-century cunning man in The Cleft Owl; the psychological horror of 3:05 am, to the vengeful fury of a woman of more than 300 years of age in Old Crotchet, nothing will unsettle the reader more than the playful malignancy of the guide in Agnes of Grimstone Peverell. It would seem that in this much-loved and familiar region of rural England, it is not difficult to unwittingly unleash unseen forces which render it both hostile, and dangerous (and in writing this I am not referring to the effects of imbibing excessive quantities of scrumpy, although that can, of course, have the self-same effect).  

The ‘horror’ that you will encounter within is of the understated English variety; it is often implied and psychological, rather than being of the type favoured by the exponents of the ‘slasher’ genre. There is also – with the exception of The Cleft Owl – as much humour as there is terror.  

Whereas these tales are unconstrained by the bounds of any single genre, amongst their number you will find plenty to engage your attention should you possess a taste for mysteries, the paranormal, ghost stories, the occult, psychological horror and historical fiction, as well as, of course, satire.

To view a sample, or to purchase, please click on the image above. Free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Anthology: Wry Out West

All being well, an anthology of my tales entitled ‘Wry Out West’ should be published and available for purchase by the end of next week – Friday 28th April. All that remains to be done is for me to tweak the cover artwork a little, and to finish formatting the text. Unlike the novelettes and novellas that I have thus far published in Kindle ebook format, this collection will also be available as a paperback. 

It will contain the following five tales: 

·         Old Crotchet

·         Gwydion’s Dawn

·         3:05 am

·         Agnes of Grimstone Peverell

·         The Cleft Owl 

‘The Rude Woman of Cerne’ is omitted from this collection merely on grounds of length, and will eventually become available in hard copy as part of a future anthology, but that may be a year to eighteen months away, owing to my next priority being the completion of a novel that I have been working on this past two years. It will likely be bundled with the forthcoming tales: ‘Upon Barden Moor’ (currently scheduled for publication in October) and ‘With These Hands’, with the latter being intended for a pre-Christmas release this year. Whereas the last of these tales will unfold on Dartmoor, ‘Upon Barden Moor’ is set in the Yorkshire Dales, marking a geographical departure from the West Country.  

I will post a cover preview for the anthology here early next week. The Kindle version will be priced at £2.99, but the price of the paperback has yet to be set. Once I am fully apprised of the printing costs, I will update readers here.

New Publication: The Cleft Owl

A cunning man, a sick man and a dead man, united by charm and rite. Seventeenth-century Devon was never stranger.  

‘The Cleft Owl’ – a tender discomfort and a gory crown. 

We find ourselves in Widecombe, Dartmoor, in the late autumn of 1683. Dr Robert Tooley – wise man, conjuror and confidence trickster – takes in hand the fortunes of a vulnerable family, as the harshest winter of the century is about to take the parish in its grip. Through his bizarre rites, paid for with their money, he has promised to deliver them from the reach of their tormenter, but the man in question happens to be dead. The gullible villagers, however, entrust their faith to his occult practices, at least for a time. 

Based upon a little-known and strange case, a number of the characters here portrayed – Tooley, the Reverend Tickle and the Worshipful Sir William Bastard – all lived and played a role in the life of this late seventeenth-century community, although it should be noted that the words written here are a loose work of fiction. Inspired by an incident related in Keith Thomas’s ‘Religion and the Decline of Magic.’ To read a sample, or to purchase for 99p, click the image above. 

 

 

 

 

Capturing Voices from the Past

One thorny challenge for the writer of historical fiction is how to capture and convey the language of a particular time and place in history, or indeed, whether to bother at all. To what extent should an author seek to reproduce past patterns and modes of speech, bearing in mind that they should be comprehensible and engaging for the modern reader? 

This has prompted much discussion over the years, particularly with respect to the language of Shakespearian English, for it is striking to any speaker of English today that many of his sonnets do not rhyme, and his comedy is often desperately short on laughs. Why should this be so? It would seem that this is largely down to shifts in the spoken form of the language, and the following discussion of how it has changed – featuring examples of lines from Shakespeare rendered in both Received Pronunciation and ‘Original Pronunciation’ – is both illuminating and entertaining. There is an earthy rusticity to Shakespeare’s language in its originally accented form that is missing from its contemporary delivery which greatly enhances its comprehensibility, restoring missing rhymes and puns. It’s well worth listening to: http://www.realmofhistory.com/2016/10/31/listen-shakespeare-sounded-original-pronunciation/

‘The Cleft Owl’ – Cover Preview

Whilst I have been busy working upon ‘The Rude Woman of Cerne’ over the past month, I have also been writing ‘The Cleft Owl’, which is a markedly different piece in terms of mood, style and setting; altogether much darker. It is a tale of the occult based upon fragmentary evidence relating to real events that took place in seventeenth-century Widecombe-in-the-Moor, weaving together both historical personages and fictional characters. Few know of the events upon which this story is based, events which readers will doubtless find both bizarre and disturbing.

So, without further ado, I present you with a preview of the cover for ‘The Cleft Owl’, a tale of mystery and occult deception, which opens in November 1683, and will be published in February 2017.