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.

The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien

Last year I began re-reading The Fellowship of the Ring by J R R Tolkien and when I finished it I had to carry on with the other two books of the The Lord of the Rings trilogy. They were first published between 1954 and 1955. I first came across it at the library when I was a teenager. I loved it so much that I decided I needed to buy my own copy for myself and have since read the trilogy several times. The three books are The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King. Imagine my delight when I went to college and found that so many of the students on my course also loved the trilogy and I read it all again and could talk about it with the others.

What follows is not a review. It is some of my thoughts on reading this epic fantasy story about the quest undertaken by Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring to destroy the One Ring of Power in the Mountain of Fire, Mount Doom in Mordor and thus prevent the Dark Lord, Sauron from conquering Middle-earth.

Re-reading The Lord of the Rings, I was delighted to find that it had lost none of the magic I found the first time. It is one of my all time favourite books and this time round I was struck by Tolkien’s world building and his powers of description of the characters and the locations, but most of all by Tolkien’s storytelling – superb. I read it slowly, taking my time over it, just a small section each day – letting the story soak into my mind.

The members of the Fellowship are Gandalf the Grey, a wizard; the hobbits Frodo, Merry, Pippin, and Sam; Gimli the Dwarf; Legolas the Elf; Boromir of Gondor; and a tall, mysterious stranger called Strider (later revealed as Aragorn, the heir of Isildur, an ancient King of Arnor and Gondor). And there’s a whole host of other characters.

Alongside my reading I also watched Peter Jackson’s three films, adaptations of the trilogy. When I watched these when they first came out I wasn’t surprised that they didn’t live up to my visualisation of the characters, except that Ian McKellen was just perfect as Gandalf, or of the locations, beautiful as the locations in the films are, Lothlorien is nowhere nearly as magical as I had imagined from reading the book. But the main difference I noticed this time is that the book is very descriptive, going into great detail about the routes of the journeys, of the places and of the characters, it is very long – The Fellowship of the Ring alone took me a month to read. Whereas the films are very much action movies with long and violent battle scenes, against the backdrop of the locations and the running time of each one is approximately three hours – with the extended versions being even longer.

So, inevitably there are changes from the books rearranging the sequence of events in places and cutting scenes – most notably for me the hobbits’ meeting with Tom Bombadil, one of my favourite episodes. Tom is a nature spirit and like the wizards he appears like a man. I loved that episode – when Tom rescued Merry and Pippin from Old Man Willow, the malevolent tree in the Old Forest that had grabbed them and enclosed them within the folds of his trunk. He lives in the Old Forest, near the Barrow-downs, with his wife Goldberry, ‘Daughter of the River’. Goldberry says he ‘He is the master of wood, water, and hill.‘ He has lived in Middle Earth from its earliest days and when Frodo asks him who he is he says

Eldest, that’s what I am. … Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made paths before the Big People, and saw the little People arriving. He was here before the Kings and the graves and the Barrow-wights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent. He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless – before the Dark Lord came from Outside. (page 171)

Other characters and episodes that stand out for me are:

Frodo and Sam, two hobbits. I prefer to think of them both as they are in the books, rather than in the films, because the actors are totally different from how I first visualised the characters. Frodo was adopted by Bilbo Baggins, a distant relative and lived with him at Bag End as his heir and so he inherited Bag End and the One Ring. He and Bilbo shared the same birthday and the same party to celebrate Bilbo’s 111th birthday and Frodo’s coming of age birthday at the age of 33. On his 50th birthday Frodo left Bag End with Sam, his gardener, beginning his quest to destroy the One Ring. So, the depiction of the hobbits by the actors wasn’t right at all, they are far too young, and I had to remember that the films and the books are two separate creations (but it still rankles).

My favourite characters, in no particular order, are Gandalf the Grey, later known as Gandalf the White, especially his battle with the Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, Strider/Aragorn, Gollum, all the Elves and the Ents.

This post is left over from last year when I stopped writing it just before I went into hospital and I have now finished it. I had intended it to be more detailed but it was not to be …

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.

Book Beginnings & The Friday 56: Winter Garden by Beryl Bainbridge

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading. You can also share from a book you want to highlight just because it caught your fancy.

One of the books I’m currently reading is Winter Garden by Beryl Bainbridge. I’ve enjoyed some of her other books so I’m hopingto enjoy this one too.

My Book Beginning:

One morning early in October, a man called Ashburner, tightly buttoned into a black overcoat and holding a suitcase, tried to leave his bedroom on the second floor of a house in Beaufort Street.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice, where you grab a book and turn to page 56 (or 56% of an eBook), find one or more interesting sentences (no spoilers), and post them.

Page 56:

Only last week there had been a report in the Guardian about an innocent bystander from Manchester who had gone to some meeting or other behind the Iron Curtain and disappeared for three days.

Synopsis

Quiet and reliable, Douglas Ashburner has never been much of a womaniser. So when he begins an extra-marital affair with Nina, a bossy, temperamental artist with a penchant for risky sex, he finds adultery a terrible strain.

He tells his wife that he needs a rest, so she happily packs him off for a fishing holiday in the Highlands. Only, unknown to her, Douglas is actually flying off to Moscow with Nina, as a guest of the Soviet Artists’ Union. It is then that things begin to get very complicated indeed…

What do you think? What are you currently reading?

The Night of the Mi’raj by Zoë Ferraris

Abacus| 16 August 2012 | 360 pages| e-book edition| My own copy| 4*

The Night of the Mi’raj (published as Finding Nouf in the USA) is the first book in Zoë Ferraris’  Katya Hijazi series, set in modern day Saudi Arabia, featuring Nayir al-Sharqi, a desert guide and a laboratory technician Katya Hijazi. When sixteen year old Nouf ash-Shrawi disappears from her home in Jeddah, just before her arranged marriage, her brother, Othman, asks his friend, Nayir to find her. After searching the desert for ten days, Nayir fails to find her, but then Nouf’s body is found in a desert wadi. It appears that her death was an accident and that she died by drowning in the wadi after a sudden storm.

Nayir is puzzled. Why did Nouf run away to the desert, leaving behind her fiance and a luxurious life with her wealthy family? He’d never failed before to find a lost traveller and he assumed if she had run away it was because she didn’t want to be found. Her family accept the verdict of accidental death, but when Katya tells Nayir she has found evidence that Nouf was murdered he feels compelled to uncover the truth about her death. The more the two of them discover the more problems and challenges arise.

What is most fascinating in this book for me is not the mystery, but the developing relationship between Nayir and Katya and the description of life in Saudi Arabia. Nayir is not a Bedouin or a Saudi, he’s a Palestinian. But the Bedouin had taught him about the desert:

From here he had a sprawling view of the desert valley, crisp and flat, surrounded by low dunes that undulated in the golden colour of sunset. … The wind picked up and stroked the desert floor, begging a few grains of sand the better to flaunt its elegance, while the earth shed its skin with a ripple and seemed to take flight. The bodies of the dunes changed endlessly with the winds. They rose to peaks or slithered like snake trails. The Bedouin had taught him how to interpret the shapes to determine the chance of a sandstorm or the direction of tomorrow’s wind. Some Bedouin believed that the forms held prophetic meanings too. Right now, the land directly ahead of him formed a series of crescents, graceful half-moons that rolled towards the horizon. Crescents meant change was in the air.

I was puzzled by the title of the UK publication – The Night of the Mi’raj, so I was pleased that Zoë Ferraris explained why she chose it in her Author’s Note. The mi’raj is both a physical journey and a spiritual climax, a moment of revelation for Mohammed. She states that; ‘In this book Nayir’s journey to learning the truth behind Nouf’s death is, for him, both a physical and a spiritual discovery too.’

There are two more books in the Katya Hijazi series: City of Veils and Kingdom of Strangers.

Book Beginnings & The Friday 56: A Heart Full of Headstones by Ian Rankin

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading. You can also share from a book you want to highlight just because it caught your fancy.

One of the books I’m currently reading is Ian Rankin’s latest and 24th Rebus novel, A Heart Full of Headstones. I’ve read all the earlier books.

The first Rebus book I read was Set in Darkness, the 11th book in the series. It was obvious that this featured characters that had been in the earlier books but I didn’t find it difficult to follow who was who and their relationships. Even so I decided I needed to start at the beginning and read them in sequence. And I think, for me at least, that works best, in order to fully understand the background and how the characters interact and evolve.

My Book Beginning:

John Rebus had been in court plenty of times, but this was his first time in the dock.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice, where you grab a book and turn to page 56 (or 56% of an eBook), find one or more interesting sentences (no spoilers), and post them.

Page 56:

Rebus had just finished eating an early dinner of microwaved haggis when he heard the doorbell. Brillo trotted with him to the door. Siobhan was standing on the step.

‘Well, well,’ Rebus said, while Brillo’s welcome was more effusive, ‘In you come then.’

Synopsis:

John Rebus had been in court plenty of times, but this was his first time in the dock…

John Rebus stands accused: on trial for a crime that could put him behind bars for the rest of his life. Although it’s not the first time the legendary detective has taken the law into his own hands, it might be the last.

What drove a good man to cross the line? Or have times changed, and the rules with them?

Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke faces Edinburgh’s most explosive case in years, as a corrupt cop goes missing after claiming to harbour secrets that could sink the city’s police force.

But in this investigation, it seems all roads lead to Rebus – and Clarke’s twin loyalties to the public and the police will be tested to their limit.

A reckoning is coming – and John Rebus may be hearing the call for last orders…

Oh, my goodness – the call for last orders? How will this book end? I just have to read it!

What do you think? Have you read it, or are you going to read it?

Throwback Thursday: The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart

Today I’m linking up with Davida @ The Chocolate Lady’s Book Review Blog for Throwback Thursday. It takes place on the Thursday before the first Saturday of every month (i.e., the Thursday before the monthly #6Degrees post). The idea is to highlight one of your previously published book reviews and then link back to Davida’s blog.

The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart is the third book of the Arthurian Saga, a book of myth and legend and about the conflict between good and evil. I first reviewed it on April 5, 2014.

My review begins:

I love books that take me away to another time and place – The Last Enchantment (1979) by Mary Stewart is just such a book, magically whisking me back to the time of King Arthur and Merlin. This is not a book to read quickly, but a book to savour both for the story and for Mary Stewart’s descriptive writing.

Click here to read my full review

The next ThrowbackThursday post is scheduled for January 4, 2023.

Two Novellas in Now and Forever by Ray Bradbury:#NovNov22

HarperVoyager| 25 June 2012| 240 page| e-book| 4*

Now and Forever is the first book by Ray Bradbury that I’ve read. It contains two novellas – Somewhere a Band is Playing, in which a young writer discovers that all is not as it seems in a nostalgic community, and Leviathan ’99, a retelling of Moby Dick set in space. Two very different stories, each one fascinating, and both with a long history, as Bradbury wrote each one over several decades. They contrast both in style and content. I enjoyed both, but Leviathan ’99 is my favourite.

In the first, Somewhere a Band is Playing, (102 pages) a reporter James Cardiff arrives in Summerton, a small town in the middle of Arizona, a town which seems perfect, a quiet peaceful place. He can hear in the air the quiet sound of a band playing. But the more he explores the more mysterious Summerton becomes. For one thing there are no children and no hospitals or doctors because no one gets ill and even stranger the graves in the cemetery are empty. The story has a nostalgic feel, a sense of melancholy and myth as James, under the guidance of a beautiful young woman, Nefertiti, discovers the truth about Summerton.

Bradbury’s introduction to Somewhere a Band is Playing explains that he begun writing a screenplay and short story about a small town somewhere in the desert and how he had kept encountering Katharine Hepburn either in person or on the screen and was attracted by the fact that she remained youthful throughout the years. Then in 1956 she had made the film Summertime and this had led him to put her at the centre of a story and so Somewhere a Band is Playing slowly evolved. Another element of the story came when he saw the film, The Wind and the Lion and was so taken with the score that he wrote a long poem based on the enchanting music. He then put these elements together to produce this novella, which he dedicated to Anne Hardin, who had encouraged his work and to Katharine Hepburn.

Leviathan ’99’ (101 pages) is dedicated to Herman Melville because after spending a year writing the screenplay for John Huston’s Moby Dick he’d fallen under the spell of Melville and his ‘leviathan whale’. Bradbury then wrote his first script of Leviathan ’99’, which was eventually produced by BBC Radio in London, then as a longer version as a play in 1972. Finally thirty years later he finished writing it as a novella as his ‘final effort to focus and revitalize what began as a radio dream.’

I haven’t read Moby Dick, but I enjoyed this story about spaceships instead of sailing ships, mad astronaut captains instead of seafaring captains and the blind white comet instead of the great white whale. It’s set in 2099 and begins as Ishmael, an astronaut joins the Cetus 7, the largest interstellar ship ever built. The spaceship is on a mission, travelling beyond the stars. His cubicle roommate is Quell, a seven feet tall, green spider who is a telepath. The captain is mad, obsessed with finding the comet, Leviathan, the largest comet in history that had blinded him thirty years earlier. As Quell described it ‘the universe set off a light-year of immensity of photographic flash. God blinked and bleached the captain to this colour of sleeplessness and terror.’

It is an incredible achievement transposing Melville’s 19th century epic into a hundred page novella set in the future.