Lion by Conn Iggulden – the First in The Golden Age series

Penguin| 26 May 2022| 416 pages| Review Copy| 4*

Ancient Greece, 5th century BC

The age of myths and legends has given way to the world of men. In the front rank stands Pericles, Lion of Athens.
Behind Pericles lies the greatest city of the ancient world. Before him, on land and at sea, stands the merciless Persian army. Both sides are spoiling for war.

Though still a young man, Pericles knows one thing: to fight a war you must first win the peace

It’s time for a hero to rise.

For his enemies to tremble.

And for Athens, a city of wisdom and warriors, to shine with glory . . .

I was so pleased when I started reading Lion as I realised straight away I was going to enjoy it. It’s been a long time since I read anything set in Ancient Greece, so a lot was new to me, including the characters as well as the historical setting. This is the first book in Conn Iggulden’s Golden Age series set in the 5th century BCE. I thoroughly enjoyed it which surprised me as generally speaking I’m not keen on reading battle scenes and the book starts and ends with battles. But I had no problem with following the action of the battles between the Greeks and the Persians, and was able to visualise what was going on without any difficulty. The characters’ names took me a little while to get clear in my mind but I soon got used to them.

The two main characters are both young men, Cimon the older of the two has more authority than Pericles, the younger man. Lion is the story of their early careers. Iggulden covers the capture of Eion under Cimon’s leadership of the Delian League, an alliance of Greek states, and of Scyros where Cimon found the bones of Theseus and returned them to Athens. He then captured Cyprus and destroyed a Persian fleet on the Eurymedon River. Below the age of thirty little is known of Pericles’ life, but the likelihood is that he was with Cimon for these events.

The middle section of Lion forms an interlude between the battles and is about Pericles’ marriage to Thetis, and his involvement in the theatre in Athens and the Festival of Dionysus. Pericles was the ‘choregos’ (producer) of Aeschylus’ plays made up of three tragedies and a ‘satyr’ play. I found this part of the book just as fascinating as the battle scenes.

Iggulden adds a useful historical note and recommends reading Pericles: a Biography in Context by Thomas R Martin for more information.

The next book in the Golden Age series is Empire, which will be released on May 25, 2023.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy via NetGalley.

Aftermath by Peter Robinson – a brief review

A house of horror. A despicable serial killer. Banks’s darkest case.

When a concerned neighbour calls the police to number 35 The Hill after a domestic disturbance, the two constables are led to a truly horrific scene. They unwittingly uncover an elusive serial killer known as the Chameleon. With the killer finally in custody it appears the nightmare is over.

Not for Banks though. Too many questions remain unanswered at the house of horrors. And then they discover there are more bodies than victims. Is the Chameleon killer just one monster of many? Banks must solve his darkest case yet

Aftermath is the 12th book in Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks series. The synopsis does not indicate the real nature of this book. There is much more to it than ‘truly horrific’. I agree that it is Banks’ darkest case in the series so far, but it is more than that. I didn’t like it right from the start; there is too much violence and graphic detail for me. It is harrowing and deeply disturbing with some scenes of physical abuse, child abuse, and rape. However the characters are well written and the story is gripping and despite hating it I read all 512 pages.

I’ve read some of the later books in the series and don’t remember that any of them were as dark and disturbing as this one, so I’m hoping the next book in the series, The Summer That Never Was, is not like Aftermath.

  • ASIN ‏ : ‎ B003DWC6NQ
  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Pan; New Edit/Cover edition (4 Sept. 2008
  • Print length ‏ : ‎ 512 pages
  • My Rating: 3* not for the storyline but for the writing
  • Source: I bought the e-book

The Stroke of Winter by Wendy Webb

Lake Union| 1 November 2022 | 300 pages| e-book edition| My own copy| 2.5*

She’s restoring the old family home on the hill. And unearthing something evil.

In the tourist town of Wharton, on the coast of Lake Superior, Tess Bell is renovating her old family home into a bed-and-breakfast during the icy dead of winter…

As the house’s restoration commences, a shuttered art studio is revealed. Inside are paintings Tess’s late grandfather, beloved and celebrated artist Sebastian Bell, hid away for generations. But these appear to be the works of a twisted mind, almost unrecognizable as paintings she and others familiar with his art would expect. The sinister canvases raise disturbing questions for Tess, sparking nightmares and igniting in her an obsession to unearth the truth around their origins.

What evil has been locked away for so many years? The ominous brushstrokes, scratching at the door, and moving shadows begin to pull Tess further and further into the darkness in this blood-chilling novel of suspense by the #1 Amazon Charts bestselling author of The Keepers of Metsan Valo.

I haven’t read any of Wendy Webb’s books, but I liked the blurb so I got an ebook through Amazon First Reads. I didn’t know what to expect but I was rather disappointed. It is easy to read, almost too easy in a simplistic style in which actions such as getting items out of the fridge are described in detail. In fact it is so detailed that all the rooms in the house are described, along with all the furniture and furnishings. It is a mix of genres – a cozy mystery, a haunted house/ghost story with some creepy scenes, a horror story, a romance and a recipe book. There is lots of unnecessary repetition as various events are described over and over again and the ending is rushed.

Its good parts are that I liked the setting in the fictional town of Wharton on the shores of Lake Superior and despite my disappointment in the writing style I liked the plotline centered on Amethyst (known as Tess) Bell’s family and their family home. So I wanted to read on to find out what was going on, just what was making the scratching noises Tess hears in the middle of the night and what is the secret of the large room that had been closed off, the door permanently bolted and the windows shuttered in black? It had been like that as long as Tess could remember.

The Girl Who Died by Ragnar Jonasson, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb

Penguin| 3 June 2021| 328 pages| Review Copy| 3*

‘TEACHER WANTED AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD . . .’

After the loss of her father, Una sees a chance to escape Reykjavík to tutor two girls in the tiny village of Skálar – population just ten – on Iceland’s storm-battered north coast.

But city life hasn’t prepared her for the unforgiving weather nor inhospitable village life. Worse, the creaky old house where she lives is playing on her already fragile mind when she’s convinced she hears the ghostly sound of singing.

Then, at midwinter, a young girl is found dead.

And one of the villagers must have blood on their hands . . .

The Girl Who Died is Icelandic noir, a mix of horror and psychological thriller, with a strong sense of place. Skálar is a close-knit community that doesn’t welcome newcomers, keeping its secrets well hidden. The only person who welcomes Una, to the village is Salka, the mother of Edda, one of the two girls Una is to teach. But even her welcome is short lived.

When Una arrived she had the feeling that it was like being a folk tale, an ominous supernatural tale set in a vague shifting world where nothing was solid or real, almost like a ghost town. The feeling grows stronger when she sees a little girl with long, pale hair in the window of Salka’s house – but Salka tells her that Edda was in bed. Later she discovers that the ghost of a young girl who had died fifty years earlier was said to haunt the house.

The supernatural elements of the story and the dark brooding atmosphere add to the mystery, but it is not quite as creepy or chilling as I’d thought it would be, mainly because of the slow plodding pace. Also I’m in two minds about Una as I really didn’t find her a very interesting character. And I began to care less and less about what was happening to her. Overall I found it a bit disappointing, and I found the ending puzzling.

However, the Author’s Note is interesting. Jonasson explains that Skálar is a real place. But it was abandoned in the mid 1950s, so the setting is real, but the buildings and the characters are fictitious. However, he has tried to give an accurate representation of the history of Skálar that describes in the book. He has also used the folk tales in Sigfús Sigfússon’s collections of Icelandic tales and legends.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy via NetGalley.

The Darkness Manifesto by Johan Eklöf, translated by Elizabeth DeNoma

Virgin| 3 Novmber 2022| 205 pages| Review Copy| 3.5*

How much light is too much light? The Darkness Manifesto urges us to cherish natural darkness for the sake of the environment, our own wellbeing, and all life on earth.

The world’s flora and fauna have evolved to operate in the natural cycle of day and night. But constant illumination has made light pollution a major issue. From space, our planet glows brightly, 24/7. By extending our day, we have forced out the inhabitants of the night and disrupted the circadian rhythms necessary to sustain all living things. Our cities’ streetlamps and neon signs are altering entire ecosystems.

Johan Eklöf encourages us to appreciate natural darkness and its unique benefits. He also writes passionately about the domino effect of damage we inflict by keeping the lights on: insects failing to reproduce; birds blinded and bewildered; bats starving as they wait in vain for insects that only come out in the dark. And humans can find that our hormones, weight and mental well-being are all impacted.

Johan Eklöf, PhD, is a Swedish bat scientist and writer, most known for his work on microbat vision and more recently, light pollution. He lives in the west of Sweden, where he works as a conservationist and copywriter. The Darkness Manifesto is his first book to be translated into English.

~~~

Until I read The Darkness Manifesto: How Light Pollution Threatens the Ancient Rhythms of Life all I knew about light pollution was its effect on the night sky, how artificial light impairs our view of the sky, the stars and the planets. But I hadn’t realised just how much it adversely affects our environment, wildlife and our own health. This book is full of fascinating facts about the impact that darkness and the night have on all living creatures, including ourselves.

Artificial lighting today makes up a tenth of our total energy usage but most of it is of little benefit to us, spilling out into the sky. Animals cannot distinguish between artificial light and natural daylight which means their circadian rhythms are disrupted, sending body clocks awry, disrupting our sleep.

There is, of course, the need for safety and security, and Eklöf cites several examples of places around the world that have projects that promote darkness, and have established light pollution laws, such as France where there are regulations to limit how much light, and what kind of light, can be emitted into the atmosphere. The light needs to be adapted to suit the needs of both animals and humans.

Eklöf ends his book with his Darkness Manifesto, urging us to become aware of the darkness, to protect and preserve it individually by turning off lights when not in a room, and letting your garden rest in darkness at night; to discover nocturnal life; to observe the different phases of twilight and how the sun gives way to the moon and stars; and to learn more about the darkness and its importance for the survival of animals and plants. He also asks us to inform local authorities about the dangers of light pollution. To my mind the current energy crisis is another reason to reduce our use of lighting and electricity.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy via NetGalley.

Mrs March by Virginia Feito

4th Estate| May 2022| 305 pages| Review Copy| 3*

I was invited to read Mrs March by the publishers 4th Estate publishers via NetGalley on the publication of the paperback edition in May 2022. It was first published in August 2021.

Publishers’ summary:

George March’s latest novel is a smash hit. None could be prouder than Mrs. March, his dutiful wife, who revels in his accolades and relishes the lifestyle and status his success brings.

A creature of routine and decorum, Mrs. March lives an exquisitely controlled existence on the Upper East Side. Every morning begins the same way, with a visit to her favourite patisserie to buy a loaf of
olive bread, but her latest trip proves to be her last when she suffers an indignity from which she may never recover: an assumption by the shopkeeper that the protagonist in George March’s new book –
a pathetic sex worker, more a figure of derision than desire – is based on Mrs. March.

One casual remark robs Mrs. March not only of her beloved olive bread but of the belief that she knew everything about her husband – and herself – sending her on an increasingly paranoid journey, one
that starts within the pages of a book but may very well uncover both a killer and the long-buried secrets of Mrs. March’s past.

A razor-sharp exploration of the fragility of identity and the smothering weight of expectations, Mrs. March heralds the arrival of a wicked and wonderful new voice.

My thoughts:

I liked the synopsis which is why I read Mrs March. I thought it sounded like a book I would enjoy. But I am in two minds about this book, because although I can see why it has received such a lot of praise and 5 star reviews I really did not enjoy reading it. It is a remarkable character study, taking the reader right inside Mrs March’s head as she descends into paranoia and madness. The whole book is seen solely from her perspective, which makes it the most uncomfortable experience – but that is down to the brilliance of Feito’s writing.

It begins well and I was immediately reminded of Mrs Dalloway and also of the unnamed wife in Rebecca and I wondered if her real name would be revealed. Throughout the book she is called ‘Mrs March’ even when referring to her as a child. It’s as if she is only a person identified by her marital status. Her life seems to have no meaning other than being married to Mr March. There really is very little evidence for Mrs March’s belief that her husband has based the character of a prostitute in his book on her. But her conviction that this is how he sees her is devastating to her. It’s as though her whole existence is threatened.

It’s been a while since I finished reading it as I’ve been wondering what to write about it. There is so much in it to take in and whilst my reading is mostly for enjoyment I don’t think I can dismiss a book simply because I didn’t ‘enjoy’ it. But neither can I ignore that fact. How can you ‘like’ the portrayal of the breakdown of a personality, or a person? It’s beautifully written, but so tragic. I couldn’t like any of the characters, but they got under my skin as I read and I wanted it to end differently – of course, it couldn’t.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy via NetGalley.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Heart of Darkness, a novella by Joseph Conrad, was originally a three-part series in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899. Although a gripping story, this was not an enjoyable book for me. But then, I suppose, it is not meant to be. Conrad was writing about the inhumanity of the way the native population in Africa was treated; the greed and cruelty of the Europeans to gain property, business, trade and profit, draining Africa of its natural resources. It paints an appalling picture.

It is a story within a story and has an inner core of mystery. It relates the story told by Charlie Marlow to his friends on a cruising yawl on the Thames as the day ended and dusk fell. He began by saying ‘this also … has been one of the dark places of the earth.‘ He was referring to the Roman invasion of the British Isles centuries earlier, feeling the utter savagery that closed around them as they set out to conquer the land.

Then he went on to tell them about another ‘dark place‘ where he worked as the skipper of a river steamboat, travelling up and down an unnamed mighty African river (assumed to be the Congo) between the stations of an ivory trading business. He hears about the mysterious Mr Kurtz, the ivory trading company’s agent in the interior. He was said to have supernatural powers. What happened to Kurtz, or rather, what Kurtz did, and what he became, were the questions I pondered as I read on. Marlow set out to find Kurtz, which took him deep into the jungle, and also deeper into the heart of the ‘Dark Continent’ and into the darkness of the human soul. Nothing is what it seems, and the mystery surrounding Kurtz has a feverish and nightmare atmosphere. The ambiguity and the vagueness left me feeling puzzled as well as horrified at what was implied. I think it is all the more horrific for not being crystal clear.

It is an horrific tale that I think shows the darkest depths of human behaviour. In doing so Conrad highlights the prejudices and the cruelty and shows how it was at that time – the graphic reality of what happened. It is a powerful criticism of colonialism at its worst, and full of imagery, casting a spotlight on the barbarity of the so-called civilised Westerners. These few words, uttered by Kurtz concisely summarise the whole story: ‘The horror! The horror!’

The Second Cut by Louise Welsh

Canongate Books| 27 January 2022| 372 pages| e-book| review copy via NetGalley| 3.5*

Synopsis:

Auctioneer Rilke has been trying to stay out of trouble, keeping his life more or less respectable. Business has been slow at Bowery Auctions, so when an old friend, Jojo, gives Rilke a tip-off for a house clearance, life seems to be looking up. The next day Jojo washes up dead.

Jojo liked Grindr hook-ups and recreational drugs – is that the reason the police won’t investigate? And if Rilke doesn’t find out what happened to Jojo, who will?

Thrilling and atmospheric, The Second Cut delves into the dark side of twenty-first century Glasgow. Twenty years on from his appearance in The Cutting Room, Rilke is still walking a moral tightrope between good and bad, saint and sinner.(Amazon UK)

I enjoyed reading Louise Welsh’s debut novel, The Cutting Room back in 2005, even though it was not the usual type of book that I read, and was way out of my comfort zone. I remember that its dark, edgy atmosphere made it compelling reading about Rilke an auctioneer who discovered a collection of violent and highly disturbing photographs. So when I saw that she’d written another novel, about, Rilke, The Second Cut I was keen to read it. I had forgotten most of the detail in The Cutting Room, but that didn’t matter as this book reads well as a standalone.

Twenty years have passed since the first book was published and much has changed in the world, but Rilke at forty seven years old, is now only four years older in this second book, still an auctioneer at Glasgow’s Bowery Auctions and ‘too tall, too thin and too cadaverous to look like anything other than a vampire on the make’. I found this somewhat confusing as The Second Cut is clearly set in the present day, with all the changes that have taken place in the last twenty years regarding the rights of LBGTQ+ people, and the references to Covid.

Just like The Cutting Room, I found this compelling reading, but not always comfortable reading, particularly about the darker side of Glasgow’s violent underworld and gay scene. The characters are vividly drawn and from start to end the pace is fast, and the details about the auction house are fascinating. There are two main threads – the first is Rilke’s determination to find out how and why his old acquaintance Jojo turned up dead on a doorstep.

Aand the second follows his suspicions about the truth behind the house clearance of Ballantyne House, a neglected Georgian house in Galloway, less than two hours from Glasgow. It was crammed with many valuable items along with the dross. It was owned by Mrs Forrest, an old lady who had been a concert pianist but was now suffering from dementia, so her son and nephew were dealing with the sale of the property and its contents. I read a lot of crime fiction, so I soon guessed what had happened to Mrs Forrest, and similarly I was immediately suspicious about what was going on in the polytunnels.

But it’s the gay scene that is the main focus of the book and in her Afterword Louise Welsh explains that she had written The Cutting Room twenty years ago in a white-hot rage about the intensity of the hostile environment against LBGTQ+ people. Although much has changed since then with equal marriages, increased visibility, access to hate laws, improved awareness of queer and trans rights, with a general consensus that violence and prejudice against LBGTQ+ people is wrong, outrages still occur. She writes that the Glasgow she inhabits is largely better, in terms of sexuality, than it was twenty years ago. I have to say that some of the scenes in The Second Cut seem to be stuck in the past – or have I got that wrong?

Many thanks to Canongate Books for a review copy via NetGalley

Ashes by Christopher de Vinck

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Harper Inspire| 18 August 2020| 332 pages| e-book| review copy via NetGalley| 3 stars

This is a book that has lingered on my NetGalley shelf for a while. There are some books that I find hard to review and this is one of them, mainly because I couldn’t get really involved in the story.

Synopsis:

Belgium, July 1939: Simone Lyon is the daughter of a Belgium national hero, the famous General Joseph Lyon. Her best friend Hava Daniels, is the eldest daughter of a devout Jewish family. Despite growing up in different worlds, they are inseparable.But when, in the spring of 1940, Nazi planes and tanks begin bombing Brussels, their resilience and strength are tested. Hava and Simone find themselves caught in the advancing onslaught and are forced to flee.

In an emotionally-charged race for survival, even the most harrowing horrors cannot break their bonds of love and friendship. The two teenage girls, will see their innocence fall, against the ugly backdrop of a war dictating that theirs was a friendship that should never have been.

Ashes by Christopher de Vinck is historical fiction set in World War Two in Belgium, following the lives of two eighteen year old girls. It’s a mix of fact and fiction, based on the evacuation of Belgian refugees trying to outrun the Nazi invasion of 10 May 1940. Each chapter begins with either a quotation in italics either from a speech by a country’s leader such as Woodrow Wilson, Churchill or Hitler, or information about the progress of the war or extracts or memories recorded in the war journal of Major General Joseph Henri Kestens, the author’s grandfather. I found these extracts, particularly from Hitler’s speeches that illustrated the hatred and horror that Hitler inflicted on the Jewish and Polish people, the most interesting and chilling parts of the novel.

It’s narrated by Simone in short chapters that kept the action moving quite quickly as the two girls react to the Nazi invasion of their country. The friendship between Simone and Hava is poignant in the context of the war, even though I found it hard to believe that they were eighteen years old. I thought they came across as younger and the novel has the feel of a YA novel. But that was only a minor distraction for me. I also appreciated the detail about the Jewish religion and traditions. I think that gives more depth to the novel, but overall, I think the storytelling aspect was a bit too matter of fact for me, which lessened its impact.

My thanks to Harper Inspire for a review copy via NetGalley.

The Last Trial by Scott Turow

In this explosive legal thriller from New York Times bestselling author Scott Turow, two formidable men collide: a celebrated criminal defense lawyer at the end of his career and his lifelong friend, a renowned doctor accused of murder.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The Last Trial is the first book by Scott Turow that I’ve read. It is a great book and I wish I’d come across his work before now. This one is the 11th book in his Kindle County series (Kindle County is a fictional Illinois county that is based on Cook County). Now I’ll have to read his earlier books, not that I had any problems reading this as a standalone book, but because I enjoyed it so much I want to know more. I love legal thrillers and this is one of the best I’ve read.

There are quite a lot of characters, the main ones being the defence attorney, Sandy Stein, aged 85 and nearing retirement and his daughter, Marta also a lawyer, and Kiril Pafco, his friend and Nobel Prize winner, a doctor, who has developed a drug to treat cancer, which is currently still in its clinical trial period. Sandy is one of his patients whose life has been extended by the drug. Other characters who stood out for me are Pinky, Sandy’s granddaughter, whose offbeat approach to life proves invaluable – I really liked her, and Dr Innis McVie, who had been in a long term relationship with Kiril and until recently had assisted him in his cancer research.

Most of the book is centred on the trial – Kiril is charged with murder after some of the clinical trial patients had suddenly died, and with fraud and insider trading, after he allegedly doctored the research results and sold shares before the details of the deaths became public. Kiril insists he is innocent – but is he?

The details and the of sequence of events is important and gradually becomes clear during the witness testimonies and cross examinations. It all became real to me as I read – I believed in the characters, even the minor ones, and tried to follow all the details of the charges as though I was on the jury. I might not have fully understood all the details of the insider trading, but the medical details were easier for me to follow. This is, however, mainly a character-driven book, revealing their relationships, secrets, motivations and betrayals. It is full of suspense right up until the end.

I loved it and have his first book, Presumed Innocent lined up to read as soon as possible. If you love legal thrillers you’ll love The Last Trial too.

  • ASIN ‏ : ‎ B081YWP83K
  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Mantle (28 May 2020)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • File size ‏ : ‎ 689 KB
  • Print length ‏ : ‎ 465 pages
  • Source: A BorrowBox book
  • My Rating: 5*