My Week in Books: 18 October 2017

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next.

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A similar meme,  WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

Now: I’m currently reading Days Without End by Sebastian Barry, a book I’ve borrowed from the library. It was awarded the Costa Book Award 2016 and won the 2017 Walter Scott Prize. It was also longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017.

Days Without End

Blurb:

After signing up for the US army in the 1850s, aged barely seventeen, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole, fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War. Having both fled terrible hardships, their days are now vivid and filled with wonder, despite the horrors they both see and are complicit in. Then when a young Indian girl crosses their path, the possibility of lasting happiness seems within reach, if only they can survive.

I’m enjoying this book, narrated by Thomas McNulty in his own style of speech, grammatically incorrect and in Irish and American slang – surprisingly easy to read.

Then: I’ve recently finished reading The Last Hours by Minette Walters, which will be published on 2 November in hardback and as en e-book. My review will follow soon.

The Last Hours

Blurb:

June, 1348: the Black Death enters England through the port of Melcombe in the county of Dorsetshire. Unprepared for the virulence of the disease, and the speed with which it spreads, the people of the county start to die in their thousands.

In the estate of Develish, Lady Anne takes control of her people’s future – including the lives of two hundred bonded serfs. Strong, compassionate and resourceful, Lady Anne chooses a bastard slave, Thaddeus Thurkell, to act as her steward. Together, they decide to quarantine Develish by bringing the serfs inside the walls. With this sudden overturning of the accepted social order, where serfs exist only to serve their lords, conflicts soon arise. Ignorant of what is happening in the world outside, they wrestle with themselves, with God and with the terrible uncertainty of their futures.

Lady Anne’s people fear starvation but they fear the pestilence more. Who amongst them has the courage to leave the security of the walls?

And how safe is anyone in Develish when a dreadful event threatens the uneasy status quo..?

Next: I think I’ll read The Fear Index by Robert Harris. This is another book I’ve borrowed from the library and having dipped into it I’m itching to read it.

The Fear Index

Blurb:

His name is carefully guarded from the general public but within the secretive inner circles of the ultra-rich Dr Alex Hoffmann is a legend – a visionary scientist whose computer software turns everything it touches into gold.

Together with his partner, an investment banker, Hoffmann has developed a revolutionary form of artificial intelligence that tracks human emotions, enabling it to predict movements in the financial markets with uncanny accuracy. His hedge fund, based in Geneva, makes billions.

But then in the early hours of the morning, while he lies asleep with his wife, a sinister intruder breaches the elaborate security of their lakeside house. So begins a waking nightmare of paranoia and violence as Hoffmann attempts, with increasing desperation, to discover who is trying to destroy him.

His quest forces him to confront the deepest questions of what it is to be human. By the time night falls over Geneva, the financial markets will be in turmoil and Hoffmann’s world – and ours – transformed forever.

Have you read any of these books?  Do any of them tempt you? And what have you been reading this week?

Conclave by Robert Harris

 

Conclave

I really didn’t expect to enjoy Conclave as much as I did, but then I’ve enjoyed all of his books that I’ve read, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. Conclave is about an election of a Pope and I found it absolutely fascinating as the process of the election unfolded. Harris describes the procedure as Cardinal Lomeli, the Dean of the College of Cardinals leads the 118 Cardinals through the voting stages. I felt as though I was a fly on the wall watching it throughout as the Cardinals are locked inside the Sistine Chapel, isolated from contact with the outside world.

There are quite a lot of characters involved, which at first was a bit confusing but soon their personalities became clearer and I began to have my favourites and hope that one of them would be elected. It’s all seen from Lomeli’s point of view, so my thoughts were coloured by what he reveals about each of the main candidates. As they progress through the stages of the election, whittling down the candidates to just a few, lots of secrets, scandals and disagreements are revealed. It becomes increasingly tense with each stage and Lomeli, who had been wanting to retire before the last Pope had died, finds that he too is one of the contenders – most reluctantly:

All he had ever desired in this contest was to be neutral. Neutrality had been the leitmotif of his career. (page 98)

And he realised that, whoever was elected Pope would never be able to wander around the city at will, could never browse in a bookstore or sit outside a café, but would remain a prisoner here! (page 142)

It’s also dramatic as events in the outside world impact on the Conclave.  I was completely engrossed and hoping that my favourite would be elected. Harris has thoroughly researched the subject and seamlessly woven the facts into the novel. He visited the locations used during a Conclave that are permanently closed to the public and interviewed a number of prominent Catholics including a cardinal who had taken part in a Conclave, as well as consulting many reports and books.

There is one point that I found hard to accept (I think that to say any more would spoil the book), although it is something I’d thought might happen but I’d dismissed as rather fanciful. Nevertheless I still think this is a 5* book as I enjoyed it so much – one of the best books I’ve read this year.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 3282 KB
  • Print Length: 287 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0091959179
  • Publisher: Cornerstone Digital; 01 edition (22 Sept. 2016)
  • Source: I bought it
  • My rating: 5*

My Friday Post: Conclave by Robert Harris

Book Beginnings Button

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, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

This week’s first paragraph is from Conclave by Robert Harris, a thriller set in the Vatican as the 118 cardinals meet in the Sistine Chapel to cast their votes for a new Pope.

Conclave

It begins:

Cardinal Lomeli left his apartment in the Palace of the Holy Office shortly before two in the morning and hurried through the darkened cloisters of the Vatican towards the bedroom of the Pope.

He was praying: O Lord, he still has so much to do, whereas all my useful work in Your service is completed. He is beloved, while I am forgotten. Spare him, Lord. Spare him. Take me instead.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice. These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56

Lomeli reckoned the Holy Father had had it in mind to remove almost half of the senior men he had appointed.

From the back cover:

The Pope is dead. 

Behind the locked doors of the Sistine Chapel, one hundred and eighteen cardinals from all over the globe will cast their votes in the world’s most secretive election. 

They are holy men. But they have ambition. And they have rivals. 

Over the next seventy-two hours one of them will become the most powerful spiritual figure on earth.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed other books by Robert Harris, so I’m expecting to like this one too.

 

Library Books

I reserved these books over the last few months and, wouldn’t you know it, they all arrived practically together!

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A Darker Domain by Val McDermid. This is the second Karen Pirie book. I’ve borrowed it because I loved the first one, The Distant Echo. In 1984, in Fife, heiress Catriona Maclennan Grant & her baby son are kidnapped. The ransom payoff goes horribly wrong. She is killed while her son disappears without trace. 2008, Tuscany. A jogger stumbles upon dramatic new evidence that re-opens the cold case. For Detective Sergeant Karen Pirie, it’s an opportunity to make her mark.

Conclave by Robert Harris – I’ve thoroughly enjoyed other books by Robert Harris, so I’m keen to read this one about how a new Pope is chosen as the cardinals meet in the Sistine chapel to cast their votes. This is a novel and Harris depicts the cardinals as holy men – but ambitious and rivals to become the most powerful spiritual figure on earth.

The Hidden Life of Trees:What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben. I read Katrina’s review of this book and immediately thought it sounded an amazing book as I love trees. Wohlleben is a German forester and his book is about his love of trees and why they matter on a global scale. He makes the case that the forest is a social network – I like the idea that they communicate with each other – even if they don’t actually walk and talk like Tolkien’s ents.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry – I loved his book, The Secret Scripture and am hoping I’ll like this one too. Thomas McNulty and John Coles signed up for the US army in the 1850s and fought in the Indian Wars and then in the American Civil War. The book was awarded the Costa Book Award 2016 and won the 2017 Walter Scott Prize. It was also longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017 – not that winning these awards automatically means that I’ll like it and I’m often not keen on books about war.

Favourite Books: August 2007 – 2010

I’ve been really enjoying looking back at some of my favourite books and this month I’m  looking back at some I read in August in each of the years 2007 ‘“ 2010. Click on the titles to see my original reviews.

Looking back at these books makes me want to re-read each one. I was enthralled by them all:

2007

There is so much I loved in Season of the Witch by Natasha Mostert, a thrilling, spine tingling story of mystery, mysticism and magic, abounding with symbolism. It’s a modern day gothic epic, mixing computer technology with witchcraft, alchemy and the power of the human mind, in the search for enlightenment.

I raced through the book with that nervous tension anticipating danger that you feel watching a horror film build up, leaving me breathless as I read.

Gabriel Blackstone is a computer hacker by trade, and by inclination he is a remote viewer; someone whose unique gifts enable him to ‘˜slam rides’ through the thought processes of others. He is contacted by an ex-lover who begs him to use his gift to find Ronnie, her stepson, last seen months earlier in the company of two sisters, Minnaloushe and Morrighan Monk (wonderful names). The beautiful and mysterious sisters are descendants of Dr John Dee, a mathematical genius, alchemist and secret adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. Both of them bewitch Gabriel as he seeks to unravel the mystery behind Robbie’s disappearance.

2008

August 2008 found me reading a completely different genre – Pompeii by Robert Harris is historical fiction. The story begins in August AD 79 just two days before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and builds up to a climax. Whilst most people are blissfully unaware of what is about to be unleashed upon them one man ‘“ the engineer Marius Attilius Primus realises the danger when the aqueduct Aqua Augusta fails to supply water to the people in the nine towns around the Bay of Naples. Then Vesuvius erupts destroying the town of Pompeii and killing its inhabitants as they tried to flee the pumice, ash and searing heat and flames.

The book brought history to life and I could feel the danger and fear as Vesuvius inevitably destroyed Pompeii. I particularly liked mixture of fictional and historical characters and the inclusion of Pliny, then the Admiral of the Fleet, as he watched and recorded the progress of the eruption and the account of his death.

2009

In August 2009 I read The Rebecca Notebook and Other Memories which gives a glimpse into the mind of Daphne Du Maurier. Rebecca has long been one of my favourite books, so I was fascinated to read the notes she made as she was writing the book. She began to write Rebecca in 1937 when she was thirty years old, living in Alexandria and feeling homesick for Cornwall. She jotted down chapter summaries in a notebook, setting the book in the mid 1920s ‘˜about a young wife and her slightly older husband, living in a beautiful house that had been in his family for generations.’

As she thought about it ideas sprang to her mind ‘“ a first wife ‘“ jealousy, something terrible would happen ‘“ a wreck at sea. She became immersed in the story, losing herself in the plot, as so many of us have done ever since.

I enjoyed the other short pieces in this book ‘“ her ‘˜memories’ of her family and her own life and beliefs. Some are about her family, some about her childhood and some about the house she loved, Menabilly.

2010

Finally in August 2010 I read Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyer, one of the best books I read that year. I was engrossed in it right from the start. It’s tense, taut and utterly enthralling. Moving at a fast pace the book follows the events during the thirteen hours from 05:36 when Rachel, a young American girl is running for her life up the steep slope of Lion’s Head in Capetown.

The body of another American girl is found outside the Lutheran church in Long Street and an hour or so later Alexandra Barnard, a former singing star and an alcoholic, wakes from a drunken stupor to find the dead body of her husband, a record producer, lying on the floor opposite her and his pistol lying next to her.

Meyer is a fantastic story teller and creates such wonderful characters. DI Benny Griessel is mentoring two inexperienced detectives who are investigating these crimes. I grew very fond of Benny, who is also an alcoholic and struggling to keep his marriage together.  The book also reflects the racial tension in the ‘˜new South Africa’ with its mix of white, coloured and black South Africans. There is a strong sense of location, not just from the cultural aspect but also geographical.

Lustrum and Dictator by Robert Harris

I’d enjoyed the first book in Robert Harris’ Cicero Trilogy, Imperium. So I’d been looking forward to reading Lustrum, the second in the trilogy (published as Conspirata in the US and Italy) . It didn’t fail to live up to my expectations – it surpassed them. I think it’s historical fiction at its best. I immediately went on to read Dictator, the third book in the trilogy, which I also enjoyed very much, but I think Lustrum is the outstanding book of the three.

I had intended to write a more detailed post about Lustrum and Dictator but life and medical issues decided otherwise, so this is just a short post on both books.

Lustrum begins where Imperium finished in 63 BC with a dramatic scene, as the body of a child is pulled from the River Tiber, a child who had been killed as a human sacrifice, grotesquely mutilated. What follows is an account of the five year period (a lustrum) of Cicero’s consulship and the battle for power between him, Julius Caesar, Pompey the republic’s greatest general, Crassus its richest man, Cato a political fanatic, Catilina a psychopath, and Clodius an ambitious playboy. It ends with his exile from Rome.

Once I began reading I was immediately drawn into the world of Cicero. The story is once again narrated by his secretary, the slave Tiro, giving access to Cicero’s thoughts and feelings. Tiro is an interesting character in his own right – he is reported to be the first man to record a speech in the senate verbatim and some of the symbols in his shorthand system are still in use today, such as &, etc, ie, and eg. As in Imperium and in the third book, Dictator, Harris has used Cicero’s actual words, adding to the books’ authenticity. Harris states that he hopes it is not necessary to read the books in order but I think it adds much to the enjoyment if you do.

Dictator covers the last 15 years of Cicero’s life when he was no longer a dominant political figure in Rome. The book begins with Cicero in exile, separated from his wife and children and in constant danger of losing his life. Apart from the first part of the book when Cicero is working towards returning to Rome, I didn’t find it as exciting or as compelling as the first two books. This is mainly because there is so much happening such as the civil war and the downfall of the republic from which Cicero is excluded first because on his return to Rome he is sidelined, and then retired.

All three books are based on extensive research but Harris is such a good story teller that they don’t read like text books. Roman history has always fascinated me and reading this trilogy has revived my interest, so much so that I am now reading Mary Beard’s book, SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome, that goes right back to the beginning describing how Rome grew and became such a dominant power.

When I saw Catilina’s Riddle by Steven Saylor sitting in the mobile library shelves I just had to borrow it. It’s historical crime fiction in which Gordianius the Finder gets involved in the Catilina conspiracy to overthrow the republic.

And I would also like to re-read Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series to compare with Harris’ trilogy, or at least some of the books involving Cicero and Caesar. Oh for more time to read!

Lustrum is one of my Mount TBR Mountain Challenge 2016 books (ie books I’ve owned before 1 January 2016) .

First Chapter, First Paragraph: Dictator

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon. I’m currently reading Dictator by Robert Harris, the third in his Cicero trilogy.

Dictator

It begins:

I remember the cries of Caesar’s war-horns chasing us over the darkened fields of Latium – their yearning, keening howls, like animals on heat – and how when they stopped there was only the slither of our shoes on the icy road and the urgent panting of our breath.

It was not enough for the immortal gods that Cicero should be spat at and reviled by his fellow citizens; not enough that in the middle of the night he be driven from the hearths and altars of his family and ancestors; not enough even that as we fled from Rome on foot he should look back and see his house in flames. To all these torments they deemed it necessary to add one further refinement: that he should be forced to hear his enemy’s army striking camp on the Field of Mars.

Blurb:

‘˜Laws are silent in times of war.’
Cicero

There was a time when Cicero held Caesar’s life in the palm of his hand. But now Caesar is the dominant figure and Cicero’s life is in ruins. Exiled, separated from his wife and children, his possessions confiscated, his life constantly in danger, Cicero is tormented by the knowledge that he has sacrificed power for the sake of his principles.

His comeback requires wit, skill and courage ‘“ and for a brief and glorious period, the legendary orator is once more the supreme senator in Rome. But politics is never static and no statesman, however cunning, can safeguard against the ambition and corruption of others.

Riveting and tumultuous, DICTATOR encompasses some of the most epic events in human history yet is also an intimate portrait of a brilliant, flawed, frequently fearful yet ultimately brave man ‘“ a hero for his time and for ours. This is an unforgettable tour de force from a master storyteller.

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I read in The Guardian that this last part of the trilogy marks the culmination of 12 years work. The trilogy as a whole has transported me back into the first century BC when Rome was engulfed in intrigue, conspiracies and civil war as the Roman Republic began to collapse and move into dictatorship and empire.  I’m loving the whole experience. Just as when I was reading the first two books, Imperium and Lustrum, I can’t wait to get back to it each time I have to stop reading.