Review – Lionheart by Stewart Binns

About a month ago on Twitter I picked up a call for guest reviewers, put out by the splendid Sharon from Shaz’s Book Blog. She was looking for folk to take some of her teetering TBR pile off her hands, and I thought – hell, I could do that.

So I stuck my hand up, Shaz posted me a book, I read it, and then I wrote about it. Here’s what I wrote (also posted here at Sharon’s place).

Lionheart, by Stewart Binns

Published by Penguin, November 2013

The blurb:

1176, England. King Henry II reigns over a vast empire that stretches the length of Britain and reaches the foothills of the Pyrenees. But he is aging, and his powerful and ambitious sons are restless. Henry’s third son, Richard of Aquitaine, is developing a fearsome reputation for being a ruthless warrior. Arrogant and conceited, he earns the name Richard the Lionheart for his bravery and brutality on the battlefield.

After the death of his brothers Richard’s impatience to take the throne, and gain the immense power that being King over a vast empire would bring him, leads him to form an alliance with France.

And so Richard begins his bloody quest to return the Holy Land to Christian rule.

The review:

I started this book with a great deal of anticipation – I love a good historical novel, and the twelfth century is a time about which I know very little. The book is the fourth in Binns’ Making of England quartet, dealing with the period from 1176 to 1199 and recounting the reign of Richard the Lionheart and the Third Crusade to the Holy Land, Christendom’s abortive attempt to recapture Jerusalem after its capture by Saladin.

The story is told from the point of view of the fictional Sir Ranulf, a relatively lowly English knight who becomes a military advisor to the King and travels with him across Europe and the Holy Land. The narrative is rich with detail, the story lurches from fights and betrothals to betrayal and captivity, and the historical events and battles were clearly meticulously researched.

So far so good. However, for me a historical novel needs more than an in-depth understanding of the period. It needs good characterisation, believable dialogue and emotion, and I felt all these aspects were lacking. Sir Ranulf was a wooden and one-dimensional mouthpiece for the historical events, with little emotional rise and fall in his narrative.

In order for him to be present at all the major events in Richard’s life the author needed poor Ranulf to make some very foolish decisions – I felt a bit sorry for him, to be honest, since at various points he lost almost everything (friends, lands, titles, two women he loved – oh, and a hand) pursuing Richard across the known world. The King himself, who by all accounts was a charismatic, forceful and brilliant man, came across as flat and rather nice-but-dim, an impression exacerbated by the frankly appalling dialogue. It was rigid and stilted, mixing modern idioms with older formulations in a rather slapdash fashion.

Overall, in its wealth of historical detail this book was informative and interesting; if it had been written and presented simply as an account of the Third Crusade I would have enjoyed it much more. However, as a novel I felt it didn’t really work. It lacked depth and emotion, and I ended up annoyed with it because the novelisation elements felt so clumsy. All in all, the effect was to turn the Third Crusade into something like Five Go Mad in Palestine, with lashings of historical detail but not much soul.

Edited to add:

The book is (or soon will be) available from the usual online outlets – here and here for starters – but if you want to read it, I have a copy you can have. No, really, I insist. You can have it. First person to send me their address via the contact form below gets it…

Review: The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

This book is a long way from one that I would choose for myself. I read it for a book club, but I don’t think I’ll be picking up anything else by Kate Morton.

The central character is Laurel, a famous actress who witnessed a terrible event during an otherwise perfect bucolic childhood, and the author uses parallel timelines to reveal the characters involved and the reasons behind what happened. Laurel searches for answers as her mother lies dying, while we (the readers) are given a privileged view into long-past events through the eyes and thoughts of the people who lived them.

As such, the plot structure was frustrating, since there was very little revelation in Laurel’s story because we already knew more than she did. The plot took a long time to get going and only really accelerated in the final section, which was for me the most interesting and the best-written. I didn’t really like any of the characters – this is not necessarily a bad thing, because I have read many books in which I disliked characters, but I need to be interested in them, and I really wasn’t interested in any of the people in the book apart from two – Vivien, Laurel’s mother’s friend from the 1940s, and Gerry, Laurel’s brother who plays a bit-part role. The last section of the novel, which I liked the most, was told from Vivien’s point of view.

The end, when it came, felt rushed because of the need to spring all the final surprises in the last few pages, and while I did get a genuine “oh, riiight!” moment, it felt like a sudden slap in the face and I still felt that there was a lot more that could have been done throughout the rest of the novel to drip-feed hints and follow up details.

So – this is a decent story told in a workmanlike way, but for me it did not sparkle. The characters were mostly rather flat and did little that was unexpected, and any interesting things they did do were largely unexplained or sidelined. No more Kate Morton for me, but thanks anyway.

~100 word review: The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

I read this because I enjoyed The Historian, Kostova’s first novel, and I wasn’t disappointed. A psychoanalyst becomes deeply involved in the life story of his patient, who is a world-renowned artist but also (evidently) a world-class fruitloop with an obsession reaching back into the history of Impressionism. The novel allows the analyst’s obsession with his patient to mirror the psychosis of the artist, with complex and occasionally uncomfortable results.

My only criticism would be that a number of endings within the main storylines were thrown away too cheaply in the final few chapters. However, this doesn’t detract from the clever writing and absorbing qualities of this long book. Recommended.

I’m a bestseller! (In one shop, in one city…)

My little Norfolk Dialect book came out a few weeks ago – I somehow failed to announce it here, being mired in a Sargasso Sea of work, family stuff and … well, mainly work. I’ve been subcontracting for Routledge, working for agencies in Europe and keeping up with academic and private clients – well, let’s just say I haven’t always achieved my requisite seven hours of sleep a night. I’ve really enjoyed having all the work, of course, and I’m not moaning about it, but it’s in the nature of freelancing that there will always be fat times and lean times. I’ve just come through a fat time.

And in the middle of all that, Norfolk snuck out. I did mark it with friends and family (I said “yay” a few times and sent copies to my folks), but didn’t really have the energy to do more than that. While I wasn’t looking, though, the book has started to make its own quiet way; it was spotted front and centre in a bookshop in central Norwich (with thanks to @longjohnhill for the heads up), and then I received this image from my Dad this morning:


And there I am, on (almost) the same bestseller list as such luminaries as F Scott Fitzgerald, John le Carre, Hilary Mantel and Dan Brown. (Mainly the first three, to be honest.) The image shows a cutting from the Eastern Daily Press weekend edition from a couple of weeks ago, and Jarrold is a local printer/publisher/bookseller. Local number one bestseller? I thank you.

In my career as an author, I think it can pretty much only go downhill from here, to be honest…

~100-word review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Oddly disappointed with this, influenced (I think) by reading Maya Angelou immediately before. The story of black domestics and their relationships with their white employers in 1960s Mississippi was well told, the characters beautifully differentiated and the events obviously drawn from affectionate and vivid experience, but in the aftermath of the emotions elicited by Angelou this one felt uncomfortably frothy. I wasn’t challenged by it, which was unexpected in a book dealing with emotional relationships in the context of such deep and vicious racial divides.

I can see why it is a bestseller, but I was expecting something deeper and I didn’t find it. A beach read, rather than a piece of social commentary.

~100-word review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I first read this as a teenager – I thought everyone did, but it seems not, because the members of my book club hadn’t, and none of them liked it. At all.
It’s a good thing I missed that meeting, because things might have got ugly. This book has lost none of its power to shock and move, although my emotions this time round were profoundly different as the mother of an 11-year-old daughter. I cried, I laughed and I raged at the injustice and the agonising self-justifications of a deeply wronged black child in 1940s America, and I’ll give the book to my daughters to read. When they’re a bit older.

Review: The Lost by Claire McGowan

This book, due for publication on 11 April, was sent to me as a review copy, and I’m really glad it was. I know Claire as an acquaintance on Twitter, and I have to admit I’m always a little chary of reviewing or reading for people I know, in case the book is terrible and then I have to lie (or “forget” to write the review). Fortunately, no such worries in this case.

The story is set in Ballyterrin, a small town in Northern Ireland close to the border with the South (which is still, despite the end of the Troubles, very much a foreign country). Paula Maguire, a forensic psychologist, is reluctantly called home from London to be seconded to a newly-formed cold case squad to investigate the massive numbers of disappeared across the area, lost during the years of sectarian unrest.

However, this is a town where everyone has a past, and where religion still separates the community along sharp lines. The violence of the Troubles is in the past, but it is still very much present in family histories, as close and intimate as parents killed, lost or profoundly damaged.

The story unfolds gradually as Paula recognises a pattern of disappearances, vulnerable teenage girls who have vanished or killed themselves, all of whom have links with a church organisation with an insidious hold over the town’s youth. Meanwhile she rekindles links with family and old friends, struggling to deal with her own past as she unpicks the lives of the missing girls.

The story is compelling, with fine degrees of shading and a subtly nuanced approach. Paula ran from Ballyterrin in her teens, and as the novel progresses we discover the full story of what she ran from and how it continues to have an impact on the present, for her as well as for others who were involved at the time. She seemed in some ways a driven character, in others surprisingly feckless – she is perceptive and analytic of the motives of others and highly focused on discovering when became of some apparently long-dead girls, but she also lurches through a couple of ill-advised one-night stands and consistently puts herself in dangerous situations through her disregard of the advice of others. Her internal monologue is revealing; the hard-bitten, demon-driven maverick detective is a well-known literary trope, and Paula is an interesting sideways glance at this.

The town of Ballyterrin is a brooding presence throughout the novel, created in grim detail with its history of sudden and startling violence combined with stifling suburban and religious values, and Claire’s use of Northern Irish vernacular in the dialogue (and occasionally in the prose descriptions) grounds the book firmly in its historical and geographical setting. In the final analysis, the shakedown at the end of the book combines all these elements and sets up a number of further lines for the sequel (which I happen to know is nearing completion). I look forward to reading it.

Writing and other animals

So my own purposely played-down resolution doesn’t look so clever now, does it? I shall write, I resolved, way back at the beginning of January. Be a writer, live the writing dream, write more, write better. And this is my first post here since that time. To be frank, it doesn’t look good.

In my defence (and how did you know that was coming?), I have been writing, just not here. On Saturday night I sent off the final manuscript of the Norfolk Dialect book, 12000 words which I have researched, written, edited and rewritten since Christmas, and which will be published somewhere around April by Bradwell (who also published the Sussex Dialect book I wrote last year).

This is massive for me – although 12k is not a long manuscript, I’m still enough of a novice at this writing/publishing lark that I agonise over most every word, beat myself up over small sections of text, and have little confidence in my own craft. I do realise that this is probably true of most writers, except the most egocentric and self-confident, but it doesn’t make for fast or easy manuscript production.

Amazingly, however, I managed to turn Norfolk out a couple of weeks early, spurred on by the idea of a work-free week on holiday with my extended family (ironically, in a cottage in rural Norfolk). The last few weeks have been tough, trying to finish the dialect manuscript and also working on editing a long academic manuscript for publication by Routledge and fitting in other shorter edits for other clients, as well as wading to and from school though snow and supporting children through exams and illnesses.

So that’s why I haven’t been writing here. Not an excuse but an explanation, and a small amount of self-justification because I knew I shouldn’t have made that wretched resolution.

Sigh. I never learn.

…and a resolution for 2013

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. I know my own propensity for fleeting motivation followed by a slow slide into failure and residual guilt, and I realised long ago that New Year’s resolutions are simply setting oneself up for a fall. So I stopped writing lists of resolutions and sticking them up on my wall, only to be torn down somewhere around mid-February when I was too ashamed to look at them any more. I stopped telling my loved ones that I was going to join a gym/start running again/clean the house/keep in touch, and I gave up on the idea of ever being able to quit biting my nails*. In a nutshell, I relaxed and allowed every New Year to pass by without lying to myself.

So what I am doing here? Why am I writing this post, about to inflict a resolution on myself and the world? I think the answer lies in the fact that this year’s effort is not so much a resolution as a life choice, a career choice and a sanity check, all rolled into one. Because this year, dear reader, I’m going to WRITE MORE. There’ll be journal entries, work on books, stories, notes, letters, reviews, and entries here – some of my words will remain private, some will be for friends and family, and some will be published, here and (I hope) elsewhere.

My (probably unrealistic) ideal is to write at least something each day, even if only a few words, because if I know one thing it’s that writing takes practice, and no one ever wrote a masterpiece by simply thinking about it. So I guess this is by way of a warning. Brace yourself, 2013.

*For the record, I did quit biting my nails, but not as the result of a New Year’s resolution.

2012 in review

So here we are at the tail end of the year. For me and my family, 2012 has been a year of spectacular highs and one or two crushing lows – a weird year in some ways, but it’s been creative and funny and scary and challenging and all of that stuff. In summary:

January was the month of snow, walking to work across drift-covered fields and nervy preparation for our first ever skiing trip in February, which was terrifying and exhilarating and expensive and fabulous and a thing to be repeated when we have saved up again. Real life, school and editing seemed terribly dull on our return.

March disappeared in a blur of school and work stuff (seriously, I’ve been back over my diary, and nothing happened. NOTHING), so we’ll move swiftly on to April, which was Book Club month, the inaugural meeting of a small group of friends from work. We have kept meeting, and during the year we have read a variety of books – not always ones I would have chosen, but isn’t that the point of Book Club? We’ve also had some truly memorable conversations, and not always about the books. Reading ladies of AHS, I salute you and look forward to more in 2013.

April was also the month when I was, rather astonishingly and out of the blue,  commissioned to write a book of my own. Therefore, writing and research in May, burying myself in the ancient and splendid Sussex dialect and peppering my conversation with words like sureleye and pathery. Turns out writing a book is actually quite hard work. Who knew.

June was more writing and great joy when I turned in the manuscript on time, but also sunshine, our brief warm summer, spent at school and guiding Molly through the first real round of her GCSE exams. Not that she needed much guidance; if ever a girl deserved to do well by dint of organisation, application and sheer gutsy hard work it would be my Molly. So proud.

In July I concentrated on getting to the end of the school term without collapsing or killing anyone (dropping my hours to four days a week certainly helped with this), and had a week at home on my own when Tom took the children to the coast (they had already broken up, I was still at school – happens every year). This was at the same time dark, empty and dreadful, and blissful, liberating and QUIET. Then, of course, came the Olympics – a fortnight of marvelling and weeping and laughing and marvelling all over again.

August was Big Theatre month, when we sang and danced and played and acted until we (literally) dropped, and between us produced The Blue Dress, the best show we have ever pulled off. So proud of all the Big Theatre babes, but (naturally) of my own children most of all. We also camped in Yorkshire, spending five wet and windy nights under canvas wondering where the tent was going to spring a leak next (once – memorably – under my bed).

Back to school in September, but as always the bitter pill was sweetened considerably by my birthday on the 11th. Also, I took part in a community performance of Carmina Burana, accompanying an 80-strong choir as part of a semi-pro orchestra brought together for the day. I’ve never been prouder to call myself a violinist.

October was theatre again, recalling the Big Theatre cast and reprising The Blue Dress from the summer for a triumphant three-night run over half term. I also worked through the final edits for the Sussex book, involving lots of to-and-fro between me, the commissioning editor and the designer before we finally arrived at the print draft.

Eventually in November  Sussex Dialect was published, amid a great deal of pink-cheeked grinning on my part. Pity my poor friends and family, who have been forced to read the wretched thing over and over again and answer questions about it. (They haven’t really.) I also took part in my first podcast recording, having a total ball with Dion, Barry and Clo from the Scrolls book group at Geek Syndicate. I definitely want to do more of this.

December, as always, was a frenzy of concerts, school performances and preparations for Christmas, but also, out of nowhere, Wandering Weeds was published, containing a short story of mine which I had more or less given up for lost. Unbelievably happy about this, especially since fantasy fiction is what I really want to be writing. In the absence of any further ideas, though, I also signed a contract to write a Norfolk dialect book. Something of a pattern here.

Through this all I have edited, and written, and knitted, and edited more, and edited a LOT more, and generally wondered where all the work is coming from. If my freelance work continues to gather momentum in 2013 I’ll have to take serious stock of whether my current school commitments are sustainable, but that’s for the future. For now, I’m looking forward to going back to school and getting my teeth into writing Norfolk and editing a couple of novels which are lined up for the early part of 2013. Also, the last two months of 2012 showed an impressive average of a book published a month; I know I can’t sustain this over the next few weeks, but if 2013 can match 2012’s total in terms of publications with my name on (or in) them, I’ll be delighted.