Vindolanda by Adrian Goldsworthy

Head of Zeus | 2017 (1 June) | 403p | Review copy | Buy the book

Vindolanda by Adrian GoldsworthyIt is AD 98 and all is quiet on the northernmost fringes of the Roman empire. It’s a generation or so since the Iceni revolt led by Boudicca and Hadrian’s Wall is still twenty years or so in the future. The majority of tribes have gone quiet. They’re paying their taxes (as late as possible) and they’re even integrated into the Roman army of occupation. Flavius Ferox is a fine example – he is both tribal prince (of the Silures) and centurion. Ferox has been seconded to the northern border where his role is to help mediate with the local people to keep the peace.

But Ferox has been harmed by his service to Rome. He’s been too good at his job, used to bad ends by the now dead and damned emperor Domitian, finding refuge in wine, beer and oblivion. But now Rome has a new emperor, Trajan, and, while many greet his accession with hope, there are others who see this empire in transition as weak, open to attack. You might have thought that Britain would be far enough away from Rome to be safe from such plots. But there are ambitious and treacherous Romans serving in Britain, ready to use the northern tribes to bring disgrace and defeat to Rome’s British legions and governor. These tribes, though, have plans of their own, and leading them is a terrifying figure – Stallion, a Druid of formidable influence and cruelty.

Adrian Goldsworthy is one of Britain’s most well-known Roman historians and with Vindolanda he makes his fictional debut. A wealth of well-preserved evidence has been recovered from excavations in the Roman fort of Vindolanda and the author puts this to very good use – whether it’s the Vindolanda tablets (especially the famous birthday party invitation) or the astonishing number of shoes that have been found in the site’s waterlogged deposits. There are people in this novel who really existed, making a home so far away from Rome, and Adrian Goldsworthy brings these men and women whose names we know to life, just as he brings Vindolanda itself to life. He gives this archaeological site walls, gates, offices, roads, barracks, bathhouses and a neighbouring town of shops, taverns and brothels. You can almost hear the sound of hobnailed feet.

As you’d expect from a good historian, this is a novel supported by meticulous detail but it doesn’t take anything away from the drama of what always remains a thoroughly entertaining work of fiction. The result is a wonderfully rich portrait of clothes, armour, carriages, house furnishings and so much more, including, in particular, warfare. Ferox finds himself caught up in an increasingly tense and violent situation as the Druids call to arms the men of the tribes. Ferox can stand and watch the exodus of warriors from village to army or he can lead the Romans and make the locals fight. It’s very tense and exciting, as well as bloody. There’s nothing gratuitous about the violence in Vindolanda. Much is left to the imagination. When we are told the true outrage of what has happened – such as the cruel murder of a young Roman matron – it’s all the more horrific for standing out.

Vindolanda tells a fantastic story. It is packed full of action and thrills but this is balanced with real insight into Roman Britain and its people at the end of the 1st century AD. This is Roman military fiction written with restraint and I really admired and liked that. This did, though, lead to my only issue with the novel – the repeated use of the words ‘humping’ or ‘humped’ in place of the more expected curses! It really stood out and I wish it didn’t.

Historians don’t necessarily make good novelists but Adrian Goldsworthy has pulled it off. Vindolanda is such a well-written and authoritative novel that is always enjoyable and entertaining. Ferox is a great character (I love the repartee with Vindex) and so too are the women that we meet, especially the marvellous Sulpicia Lepidina. I really enjoyed the mix of military and civilian Vindolanda, its blend of religions and traditions, as well as its exploration of the mingling of Roman and Briton on this edge of empire. This is an excellent novel and I’m delighted to report that it is just the first in a new series.

I must mention that Vindolanda is yet another of Head of Zeus’s fine looking hardbacks – with a ribbon!

Adrian Goldsworthy’s website on Vindolanda

The Wages of Sin by Kaite Welsh

Tinder Press | 2017 (1 June) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Wages of Sin by Kaite WelshIt is 1892 and, for the first time, the University of Edinburgh’s medical centre permits women entry to train to become doctors. Sarah Gilchrist is one of the first cohort of female students and, every single day she and her classmates are reminded how unpopular they are – by the male students, their lecturers and by society in general, which regards them as unnatural to their sex. And Sarah Gilchrist has it tougher than most. Sarah is an exile from London. From among the upper classes, which in itself marks her out, Sarah has been expelled from her family on account of a scandal for which Sarah was blamed entirely. She now lives a virtual prisoner under the roof of her aunt and uncle whose instruction is to improve Sarah and make her suitable for marriage. Studying to become a doctor is the last thing they want for Sarah but even they understand that this disinherited and discarded young woman must earn a living somehow. And there are worse ways…

The Wages of Sin immerses us in an Edinburgh that is stricken by that Victorian disease of hypocritical and dishonest morality. The city is itself divided in two, between its respectable side which lives in the streets under the sky, and then its poverty-stricken and dangerous side, which hides in buried sewer streets of brothels, taverns and opium dens. Sarah moves between the two, training to become a doctor in the University, scrutinised by chaperones, and helping out in a hospital for the deserving poor, attending, among others, prostitutes and drunks. And when one of Sarah’s patients from the hospital, a young prostitute, ends up on the dissecting table of her medical class, the two worlds collide and Sarah is determined to find justice for the poor girl, no matter the danger to herself. Sarah believes that the greatest weapon anyone can hold over her is her past. She is wrong.

I love Victorian mysteries and the darker they are the better, and The Wages of Sin is steeped in atmosphere. Everything is described so richly, from the medical hospital to the slums to the parlours of the rich and respectable. The colours are so well painted. I felt like I was moving through a world of brown velvet, of wood-panelled walls and cold, ill-lit streets. But the atmosphere is squeezed and oppressed by the prejudice that these young female students face day in day out and, in particular, the absolute injustice that Sarah has been dealt. Sarah’s story is agonising and made even more powerful that we only hear it bits at a time and what we learn is shocking. It’s not often when I read a book that I feel rage but I felt it for Sarah Gilchrist.

The origins of feminism can be found in this marvellous novel and it doesn’t always make easy reading. The chauvinism of the students and the lecturers towards the female students pales by comparison against the cruelty of Sarah’s own family. On top of this we have the hypocrisy of Victorian philanthropists and the brutality suffered by the poor. There is a great deal here to make my hackles rise and that’s even before we get to the murder mystery!

The Wages of Sin is as much a scrutiny of its times as it is a crime novel and it is very well done indeed. It takes its time to build up this world. The story is told by Sarah herself and it is weighted by the burden she carries. She is so easy to like but the risks she runs! The mistakes she makes! It’s such a good story and a wonderful debut by Kaite Welsh. The good news is that this is the first in a series. I am so pleased that we’ll be seeing Sarah again and I’ll be cheering on this pioneering young woman.

Ten of my favourite books – Guest post by Liz Lawler, author of Don’t Wake Up

This week, Twenty7 published the ebook of psychological thriller Don’t Wake Up by Liz Lawler. To mark the occasion, I’m really pleased to host a guest post from Liz in which she talks about an irresistible subject – her favourite books. Surely, a near-impossible task and so fascinating to read.

First, a little of what Don’t Wake Up is about (the publication of the paperback follows later in the year).

Alex Taylor wakes up tied to an operating table. The man who stands over her isn’t a doctor.

The choice he forces her to make is utterly unspeakable.

But when Alex re-awakens, she’s unharmed – and no one believes her horrifying story. Ostracised by her colleagues, her family and her partner, she begins to wonder if she really is losing her mind.

And then she meets the next victim.

So compulsive you can’t stop reading.

So chilling you won’t stop talking about it.

Ten of my favourite books

This is a difficult one as I have read every day of my adult life apart from the day my mother died and have read many books, particularly from the crime genre. So I mention but a few that will remain with me.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – I was already in love with Wuthering Heights long before I read it from watching the 1939 Hollywood adaption, with my father. As the tears rolled down my face, I both hated and loved Cathy Earnshaw and Heathcliff for ever having loved each other. When I studied the book for O’ level, I thought it would be a cinch, until I realised how many more characters and much more story was to be told. Both the cruelty and beauty of the story takes my breath away. Wuthering Heights was part of my childhood and always evokes memories of my father, who was not unlike Lawrence Olivier to look at.

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith – I loved the darkness and psychological twists of this story of two men coming together and trading murders. Such a simple, yet devious idea of how to commit murder – and so easy to achieve – if you can simply carry out the act. The undoing of course is when one of you is not a psychopath.

To kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – I try not to read this book too often as I always want to feel its impact again. Atticus Finch will forever be one of my hero’s. Despite dealing with such serious topics of racism and rape, Harper Lee manages separate the darkness with warmth and humour throughout. Atticus has to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman while also bearing the responsibility of raising alone his two children, Scout and Jem. Harper Lee’s ability to tell a story is truly enviable.

A Star called Henry by Roddy Doyle – the story of a young lad called Henry Smart in 1901 growing up in the slums of Dublin, facing poverty and violence during the Easter Uprising. There isn’t a book of Roddy Doyle’s that I haven’t liked, but I loved A Star called Henry. I felt familiar with the dialogue of this book because my father was born in Dublin in 1914, and had already painted a picture of the Dublin portrayed by Roddy Doyle. The storyline of Henry and his younger brother, Victor, is truly poignant – it made me cry.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck – set in California during the Great Depression about two men, George Milton and Lennie Small, seeking work on a ranch. I read this book in one sitting on a long lazy day after my daughter studied it for GCSE and was envious that she got to read and appreciate it at such young age. I would recommend this to anyone who doesn’t like a long read. It is a great emotional read, particularly the relationship between Candy and his dog.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks – I romped through this book once I passed the first hundred pages and stayed hooked till the very end. I was sitting in a pub, on the last few pages, when an old man opposite me asked what I thought of it. Brilliant, of course, was my answer. ‘Aye, he did a good job,’ the old man replied. ‘But it’s the stink that I always remember.’

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold – I loved the idea of this story – a murdered 14-year-old girl watching from heaven the grief and fallout of her family and unable to be with them. The compelling part of this story for me is that we stand with Susie Salmon and also get to watch, and all we can do is wait and hope that they find Susie.

Winter in Madrid by C J Sansom – set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War showing the hardship facing the people under a fascist dictator. Henry Brett, a British reluctant spy, traumatised by Dunkirk, is sent to Madrid to spy on his old school friend, a questionable business man. This is a great spy novel as well as a love story.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini – set in Afghanistan, this is such a powerful story – a friendship between two boys, one, the son of a rich man, the other, the son of a servant that is broken in a single moment of horror when one friend betrays the other. A stunning and harrowing story.

Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty – I read this before it became a drama and found it truly chilling. How in a moment a life can change forever. No matter that you think you have control of your life, when something takes it away, you are on your own. What I loved about this story is the way it shows the constraints and restrictions on a life just get tighter when you don’t know how to be somebody else.

For other stops of the tour do take a look at the poster below.

Iron Gods by Andrew Bannister

Bantam Press | 2017 (18 May) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

Iron Gods by Andrew BannisterThe Spin is a vast artificial galaxy of suns and planets, constructed so long ago by an unknown, long gone alien species. More recently, relatively, the Spin has witnessed many millennia of human history, during which time humans on certain planets have evolved into something a little different, whereas others continue on a path of war, industry, business and exploitation that began longer ago than anyone knows on a forgotten planet called Earth. Much of life occupies the Inside, in what has become known as the Hive. This is a vast expanse of enslaved colonies. Millions live in miserable servitude. Few escape, but Seldyan does, along with her small group of friends. They steal one of the very last legacy spaceships with an AI that has been dormant for 8000 years. Until now.

The Spin now contains massive habitations in space, constructed from thousands and thousands of ships tethered together, most notably Web City – a construction filled with vice, chaos and what could be described as making the best of things. But not far from Web City, something strange has appeared in the sky – a giant green star. It appeared instantly and near it is another curious object – an eyebrow-shaped path of destruction.

Something is up with the Spin. It has grown lazy and slipped into forgetfulness. Trade and travel are fading. But it appears that it might be about to be woken up.

Iron Gods follows Creation Machine but, apart from the fact that they both take place within the Spin, there is little to connect. They take place many years apart. And so you can most definitely read one without the other, although I think that Creation Machine would make a good place to start.

This is a complicated story, moving from Inside to Outside, mostly following Seldyan’s escape to Web City and beyond but also following Vess, the man tasked by the Hive to find out how Seldyan managed to escape. It is his infiltration of the Hive and its treatment of him that I found a little harder to follow. We are taken to some dark places – there are skin-creeping moments – and I was repeatedly pleased to be restored to Seldyan’s adventure on the outside.

Seldyan is a great character. She and all of the members of her team have been terribly damaged by their childhood and early adulthood in the Hive and we revisit some of this through flashbacks, bringing us closer to these troubled souls. And I grew to care for Seldyan quite deeply. She is immensely courageous and loyal. She must suffer greatly as she becomes caught up in the struggle that divides Web City.

The aspect of Iron Gods that I enjoyed the most are its fantastic descriptions of incredible things – giant forests, strange habitats, enormous spaceships, peculiar worlds, curious aliens. I love this sort of thing and can’t get enough of it in science fiction. Andrew Bannister brought these wonders to life. As mentioned, I did struggle with elements of the complex story. It left me behind on a few occasions, but I caught up in time to enjoy the fantastic conclusion – the glorious creation of the Spin made the effort well worthwhile.

Other review
Creation Machine

Person of Interest….. Need You Dead by Peter James

Need You Dead by Peter JamesTo celebrate the publication this week of Need You Dead, the thirteenth novel in Peter James’s hugely popular DS Roy Grace
series, I’m delighted to post something rather special. I’ve been sent a profile of a Person of Interest, which gives you a glimpse of one of the characters in the novel.

But first, a little of what Need You Dead is about:

Roy Grace, creation of the CWA Diamond Dagger award winning author Peter James, faces his most mysterious case yet in Need You Dead.

Lorna Belling, desperate to escape the marriage from hell, falls for the charms of another man who promises her the earth. But, as Lorna finds, life seldom follows the plans you’ve made. A chance photograph on a client’s mobile phone changes everything for her.

When the body of a woman is found in a bath in Brighton, Detective Superintendent Roy Grace is called to the scene. At first it looks an open and shut case with a clear prime suspect. Then other scenarios begin to present themselves, each of them tantalizingly plausible, until, in a sudden turn of events, and to his utter disbelief, the case turns more sinister than Grace could ever have imagined.

Person of InterestNorman Potting

Need You Dead, the thirteenth in the award-winning DS Roy Grace series by Peter James, is out on 18 May (Macmillan, £20.00)

For other stops on the tour, do take a look at the poster below.
Need You Dead Blog Tour Poster

Six Tudor Queens II: Anne Boleyn – A King’s Obsession by Alison Weir

Headline | 2017 (18 May) | 544p | Review copy | Buy the book

Anne Boleyn A King's Obsession by Alison Weir UKFrom her early years on the continent as a maid of honour to Regent Margaret of Austria and then to Queen Mary of France, Anne Boleyn was determined to retain her independence and reputation. Anne grew up witnessing the behaviour of lords and even kings to women at court, including women of the highest rank. Rape and assault were far from unknown and, later on, when Anne is a maid of honour in England to Queen Katherine of Aragon, she sees the way that Henry VIII pursues and captures her sister Mary, almost right under the eyes of his wife. Anne Boleyn will not be used in the same way.

The story of Anne Boleyn is a familiar one but Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession is a novel I have been longing to read since reading and thoroughly enjoying Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen, the first novel in Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series. That marvellous novel breathed new life into the ultimately tragic tale of this woman who refused to be beaten even when her daughter was taken from her and all she had left was her faith. Anne Boleyn is a less sympathetic figure to many, including me, and I did wonder how Alison Weir could make me engage with her. I needn’t have worried. I was riveted from the very beginning when we meet a young girl who manages to be both modern and belonging to her own time. Anne is presented as a wonderful observer of life, a witness to grandeur and intimacy, and increasingly she becomes a player in the world she has dissected.

Anne is fiercely intelligent and not a little intimidating. She is a contrast to her sister Mary, to the other Mary (Henry VIII’s sister and Queen of France) and to Queen Katherine. Katherine is bound to retain our sympathies, especially if you’ve read the previous novel. And it’s pitiable watching Katherine try to be such a good friend and patron to this young girl so newly returned from the French court. We all know what’s going to happen. Anne is friend to few.

Henry VIII looms over the novel as you’d expect and his character transforms through the novel from a young man in love to one bored and prepared to kill. It’s a compelling portrait and, at times, as Anne dangles the king on the end of a leash, it’s almost possible to feel sorry for him. But we’ve seen what he can do. Anne’s sister Mary Boleyn is a constant reminder of that. But while Henry changes through the book so too does Anne and what makes it so interesting is that she knows it. She is transformed by power and later by fear. She is aware of it and she hates it. She hates what she becomes. And it’s both painful and irresistible to read.

I love the way in which Alison Weir writes. She presents a great deal of historical detail and background while preserving the drama of the story and finding new ways in which to tell it. The Tudor court was full of incredible personalities and they’re all richly painted here, including Anne’s brother George, his wife Jane and their grand uncle the Duke of Norfolk. But it’s Anne and Henry who dominate the book, sweeping away anyone in their path.

We all know how Anne Boleyn’s story ended and those pages here tore my heart out. At times, this is an emotional novel and it pays to remind yourself when reading it that, although this is a work of fiction, these were real people. Anne has to adapt constantly and you can certainly understand why even if it makes her difficult to warm to. I was hoping to find a different approach to Anne in this novel and that’s what I found. Likewise, it provides an original perspective on the role of women in the Tudor and French courts. I also loved the novel’s size. Its substantial length allows the reader to wallow in this incredible story.

As this series continues it will be fascinating watching Henry’s progression towards his monstrous destiny as he discards his wives, and others, by the wayside. I can’t wait for the novel on Jane Seymour – to watch her emerge from the shadow of her more famous predecessor, Anne Boleyn.

Other review
Six Tudor Queens I: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen

The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan

Two Roads | 2017 | 309p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth HoganWhen Laura takes on the role of assistant to Anthony Peardew, an elderly author of short stories, she soon discovers that she has entered a house of wonders. Anthony collects lost things, storing the little bits and pieces in his study, their provenance carefully recorded on labels. His dearest wish is that one day these items can be returned to their owners. The value of such treasures has little to do with their financial worth. It has everything to do with the memories that they contain. Even a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, an umbrella or a glove can be priceless in the hands of the person who wants them back so badly. But Anthony’s death makes his wish an impossibility. And so he hands it on to Laura, leaving her his house. But with the house comes far more than a collection of lost things, including the opportunity, gifted to her by Anthony, for Laura to find herself.

Eunice has found her dream job. She works for Bomber, a publisher with more than his fair share of eccentricities (not to mention an appalling sister called Portia), and Bomber is to become the great love of Eunice’s life.

I fell in love with The Keeper of Lost Things from its extraordinary, curious opening sentence. Instantly, I knew that I was in safe hands as I found myself immersed in the two parallel stories – one taking place in a house called Padua, Anthony’s beautiful home and now Laura’s, and one in the company of Eunice and Bomber and their beloved and spoilt dogs. If I had to choose between these two stories, I couldn’t. One knows from the very beginning that these two worlds, one of which covers forty years of time, will finally converge and waiting for them to do so is exquisitely tantalising.

To call Ruth Hogan’s writing beautiful does it no justice at all. The prose is elegant and so rich in colour, but it also light and enchanting. Interspersed throughout are little short stories which tell the story behind some of the lost things in the collection. These stay on the mind. They are so gently painted that it took a while for this reader at least to realise that these stories are not entirely as you’d expect. There is an increasing melancholy and pain in these tales, which belies the charm and hope of the narrative in which they are set. It’s this that reminds us that The Keeper of Lost Things isn’t just a novel about reunion and love – although it most certainly embraces these things – but it is also about loss and grief. It isn’t just objects that can be lost. People are lost, too.

And the people in The Keeper of Lost Things are astonishing! How I loved them! Perhaps most of all Sunshine, the girl who lives next door to Padua. The way that she plays with language is superb, in quite the opposite way to Portia who tortures words in her novels. The Keeper of Lost Things is worth reading for Portia alone! But all of the characters, whether human or canine, are to be loved. They are drawn by Ruth Hogan with such tenderness and care. And the setting of Padua, with its gorgeous garden (and gardener) is perfect.

The Keeper of Lost Things is a warm, compassionate and witty novel. It cares for the reader as much as it does for its characters. At times it made me both laugh and cry. It is indeed a feel good novel – it certainly did me good – but there are shadows hiding in its corners, which enrich it. I’m so very glad I read it.