S.J.A.Turney's Books & more Blog

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Blood In The Tiber

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bitt

Blood in the Tiber is a mystery set in the late Roman Republic, during the aftermath of the Sertorian war in Spain and the third Servile War (Spartacus’ mob.) It comes from the pen of Annelise Freisenbruch, who has a solid pedigree as a Roman historian, teaching the subject and having already released a non-fiction account of the women behind the Caesars.

Without wanting to throw any spoilers at you, the plot revolves around that old chestnut, the rivalry between two of the triumvirs of Rome, Crassus and Pompey, though some decades before their most famous moments, when they shared power with Julius Caesar. The story centres on a girl of marriageable age named Hortensia, daughter of a renowned orator and lawyer, and involves murder, theft and treason in the houses of the mighty and even in the forbidden sanctuary of the Vestal virgins, culminating in a plot which could shake the Republic to its core.

I will say at the outset that there were a few things that irked me slightly, but I’ll only begin with this, because it’s worth getting them out of the way. One was the appearance of an alligator at the games, when that species is native only to America and China. *Addendum. In conversation with the author I have discovered that this was an intentional addition and is meant to be a highly exotic Chinese alligator, so bear this in mind when you read.* One was the shortening of people’s names in a very twee manner – Hortensia to Horty and Crassus to Crassy – the latter seeming extremely strange when used by people like Pompey. And the third was the use of the name of a place in Spain – Alcantara – which is a Moorish name a thousand years too recent, when compared with her use of Lacobriga (probably modern Lagos). There were a few typos and minor hiccups, but those three were the ones that I consider worth mentioning. They are the reason I mark an otherwise five star tale down to a still-thoroughly respectable four.

On the other hand, Blood in the Tiber is a well-constructed plot. It is very tightly-written, with every loose end tied up, and even a couple of surprises in there. The characterisation is well-done, particularly in the case of the bad guy and of the Lusitanian gladiator side-kick of our heroine. The prose and descriptive are smooth and masterful and the whole thing feels polished and neat. Most impressive to me was that Freisenbruch has taken a cast of largely real historical characters and weaved a fictional plot about them that does not interfere with recorded history in any fashion. Another big win is the level of historical detail that has been filtered into the book from a writer who is clearly well-informed on the subject. I like to consider myself fairly well-educated on the subject of Rome, but the detail of wills and their creation and the process of scribes and their equipment threw new and interesting information at me.

To some extent, I was unsure of the target audience of the book. Sometimes it seemed to be clearly aimed at an adult readership, but there were times when it seemed more angled towards the young adult audience, especially in respect of the heroine. Perhaps this might provide a win for Freisenbruch, as her work may be of equal interest to both markets and while containing a little more adult material, I would not baulk at letting a teen read it.

The upshot? Blood in the Tiber was an entertaining and well-written tale that kept me reading whenever I had the chance, and for all the few faults I could find with it, at no time put me off reading onward. If you are looking for a nice little mystery set in the chaotic period of the Roman Republic, this is worth picking up and I would recommend it.

Written by SJAT

November 18, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Michael Ridpath – Traitor’s Gate

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There will be those of you out there who watched Valkyrie and loved it.

Traitor’s Gate does the same thing but better.

There will be those who hated Valkyrie.

Traitor’s Gate is more accurate and more tense. You will prefer it.

There will be those who’ve never seen Valkyrie.

Don’t bother. Read Traitor’s Gate!

I’m not an avid reader of the WW2 era, nor a student of the period, though I’ve delved here and there. I’ve watched a number of movies based on the period, including some from the German point of view, but it’s still far from my comfort zone.

To be honest, if a friend of mine had not raved at some point about how good the book was, I would never had picked it up on a whim, needing a change from Roman stuff, and read it.

I’m glad I did. Though early on, I realised that this is not strictly speaking a war book. This is a book about people and espionage and the hell that was the Third Reich before the war. This is a tale about a confused and dreadful time during which trust was hard to come by, and humanity even more so.

Though the direct protagonist and antagonist are fictional, the story introduces us early on as supporting characters to two key figures in the history of the 3rd Reich, both of whom were already familiar to me. Reinhard Heydrich is one. If you know anything about the period, that name should make you shudder. He was one of the architects of the Holocaust and one of the most brutal and unpleasant people during the war, running the Gestapo. The other is admiral Canaris, head of the German secret service, hero of mine and unsung hero of the war. To be honest, if I’d known it involved Canaris, I might have read it earlier.

Essentially, this story tells the dreadful tale of an Englishman in Berlin in 1938 battling with his family loyalties and his conscience in a world rapidly descending into hell. It is refreshing to see a tale that tells of high-powered and intelligent Germans, even in the party itself, understanding that Hitler was bad for Germany as well as for the rest of the world and beginning to put together a plan to remove the Fuhrer from power.

A lot of the story relies on secret negotiations between high level anti-Nazi Germans and peripheral members of the British government, arranging to carry out a coup against Hitler should the Fuhrer decide to invade Czechoslovakia despite British and French opposition.

Traitor’s Gate is a tremendously tense novel, building up with the crescendo of Nazi power in the days before the annexing of the Sudetenland. For those of you who’ve seen Valkyrie, it carries the tense moments of planning the coup in at least as stunning a manner – better, in fact. Despite the fact that even the least informed reader will go into the meat of the novel already aware of the fact that Hitler did not in fact die in 1938, and therefore we know that any plot failed, the novel is so well written that it is impossible not to be swept up in the tension and hope against hope that somehow the plot succeeds. Impressive, that.

In addition to the plot concerning a potential removal of Hitler from power, the story is cleverly interwoven with another thread involving a woman with Jewish ancestry (you can guess the direction that one’s taking.) This allows Ridpath not only to explore aspects of divisions in the higher ranks of the Third Reich and grand moral and political concerns, but also to investigate and reveal the deeper, more personal effects of the rise of Nazi power on the ordinary people of Germany. I gave to say that at least one anecdote told in relation to this thread will stay with me for a long time.

So… the characters are extremely well constructed and smoothly filtered in among real personages of the era, all of whom are excellently portrayed. The feel of the book is utterly atmospheric. It is like stepping into the page and finding yourself in just pre-war Berlin. The plot is tightly-constructed and builds continually to an impressively tense conclusion (especially given the foreknowledge that Hitler doesn’t die!) Clearly Ridpath’s research has been spot on and his storytelling is impeccable.

I simply cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is exactly the sort of book I would not have thought to read, and I would have missed out. Don’t make the same mistake. This will most definitely hit my top ten of the year.

Go get it and read it. You will NOT be disappointed.  Oh, and, currently at £2.19 on kindle it’s also a bargain!

Here’s his website. Here’s the Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk listings. And here’s his twitter handle.

Written by SJAT

November 7, 2014 at 11:02 am

A Day of Fire

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adayoffire

What Pompeii the movie should have been.

 

The benefit of such a tale being told in six different stories by six different people is that it bears a certain resemblance to the good old-fashioned disaster movie. These days they tend to be released as love stories or thrillers or suchlike against the background of a disaster, but you remember the old ones? The Poseidon Adventure? Airport? The Towering Inferno? Even Volcano, I suppose. Part of the joy of those movies was that the story was not one plot but a basket of inter-weaved plot-lines set against a single series of events, often throwing disparate characters together and telling the whole tale from a variety of viewpoints. And that’s what we have in Day of Fire, with the stories cleverly interlinked to a greater or lesser extent.

Off the bat, I’ll say that the only writer of the six included here that I’ve previously read is Ben Kane, but his pedigree is such that it would hook me regardless. Happily I was pleasantly surprised. There being such a variety within I couldn’t hope to review the book as a whole without attention to the individual tales, so here’s a blow-by-blow review, interspersed with a few appropriate pics of Pompeii ripped from my collection for colour.

 

The Son by Vicky Alvear Shecter

 

Pompeii - The Brothel

 

introduces us to the locale, the time, and the initial problems with Vesuvius, taking us through a story of young lust, betrayal and intrigues, told with an easy, familiar style that is well informed and thick with Pompeian atmosphere, dropping us into the troubled life of the nephew of the great admiral Pliny the Elder. I was initially unsure of it as an opening tale, perhaps because it is so often said that a novel will only sell if the opening scenes are crammed with blood and action (and such is my most common reading fare) and perhaps, given the fact that this is a tale of Vesuvius, I was expecting an opening scene filled with volcanic action. But very soon I settled into the tale and started to enjoy the ride. The last stages of the story were particularly well presented and the story left me with an impression of polished style and a solid understanding of human nature. All in all, it was a superb opening to the collection.

 

The Heiress by Sophie Perinot

 

Pompeii - Via Stabiana 01

I found a little more troublesome. Not for the story or the characters, which were both very well presented, and again the flavour was just right, but for the fact that the story was written from two viewpoints and one of them was presented in the first person, present tense, which I find faintly headache-inducing to read. Still, as I said, the story was well enough told that it made me persevere, and I’m glad I did, for the end result was one of enjoyment and, after all, half of the tale is told in the first person past tense. This story of a woman hurtling with unstoppable momentum towards an arranged marriage she fears has a real feel of humanity about it, and introduces us to a number of recurring characters. It also perhaps made me reconsider the importance of the arranged marriage in Rome and the effects upon those involved.

 

The soldier by Ben Kane

 

Pompeii - Amphitheatre (Interior 02)

 

is a Kane tale in spades. Ben is one of the leading lights in both the Roman and Military genres for a reason. Unlike many who can admirably present a battle and a tale of spilled blood and spilled brains, Kane is one of the very best for interlacing a human element that gives such stories a real depth of feeling, and that is if anything more pronounced here than in his previous novels. This tale of a broke and desperate ex-soldier pinning all his hopes of surviving his creditors on a gladiator is a real gem. Kane’s usual military action comes here in the form of the games in the arena rather than battle, but that is a small part of the whole, which is a tale of brotherhood and survival more than anything else. This is also the first tale in the collection that focuses heavily on the effects of the eruption on the city of Pompeii, which has been building in the previous two.

The Senator by Kate Quinn

 

Pompeii - Arch of Nero 01

 

was the biggest surprise of the collection for me. It was, I think, also my favourite tale in the book. I’d not read anything by Kate before, and while I may well read other books by these writers going on, I have already bookmarked Quinn’s ‘Mistress of Rome’ on the strength of this. Essentially this section, which builds beautifully on the back of characters and events that have already appeared in the earlier tales, tells the story of a disillusioned senator about ready to give up on life who finds himself, after an earlier encounter, trapped in the doomed city in the company of a feisty young woman (also following her earlier appearance.) It is the story of their journey through the destruction and terror of the disaster and their interaction, in particular the effects said interaction have upon each other. It is told with warmth, understanding, humour, love and at times a bleakness. I would rank it one of my favourite explorations of character I’ve ever read.

 

The Mother by E. Knight

 

Pompeii - House of Pacuius Proculus 01

 

to be quite honest I had a little trouble with again, since again the whole tale is written in first person, present tense for each point of view. I persevered, since the story once again built upon characters and events from earlier in the collection, and by the time you hit tale 3 in this book, you want to know what happens to everyone (which is a good sign.) And once again, I have to say that the story was fine and well-told, but made hard work for me by the tense in which it was written. The story of a woman about to give birth in a doomed city is a deep and troubling one.

 

The Whore by Stephanie Dray

 

Pompeii - The Brothel (Wall Painting 02)

 

Curiously, I’m at loggerheads with what I want to say about the the sixth and final tale in the collection. It is another (like the second) that tells two viewpoints with two different ways – one of them being First Person, present tense. Upon first realising that I almost gave up and skipped it but, having been through the other five and knowing that this tale  revolved around two characters who have been part of the series from the start, I found myself reading and soon discovered that I could not stop. I managed to overcome my aversion to the tense very easily to read this tale of two whores in the last throes of Vesuvius, confronting and overcoming their long-term issues as they try to decide whether to stay in hell and do their duty for their owner, to flee the disaster, or – in one case at least – follow the dictates of their heart. This is the tale that ends the book. This is the on that makes you think. This is the wrap up and it is beautifully done in terms of character.

 

So there you have it. Six tales, interlinked and telling the stories of numerous inhabitants of Pompeii on the day Vesuvius erupts – the Day of Fire. As is noted in the book’s introduction, while all the tales are connected, none of the connections are critical to the understanding of the others, so if one does not take your fancy, you can easily skip to the next. The interweaving is extremely well done and becomes clearer as the collection progresses, and the progress of the eruption and the destruction of the city is well-portrayed, advancing slightly with each tale. I am pleased to see a realistic approach to the eruption here, by the way. No vast lava flows snaking through the streets or fireballs or explosions. The eruption described here follows the known sequence of events and does not – as is apparently so often the case – mix up what happened to Pompeii with what happened to Herculaneum (or even in the most dreadful cases Mt Thera or Krakatoa!)

 

Essentially, A Day Of Fire has something for everyone, and I cannot imagine any reader of historical fiction not finding within one or more tale that suits them. I have picked up a number of new authors to follow, which is the symptom of a good read.

 

The book is available tomorrow and can be pre-ordered beforehand. Go get it and have a good read, folks. And to finish, a little something about the authors:

 

Vicky Alvear Shecter

 

VICKY ALVEAR SHECTER is the award-winning author of the young adult novel, Cleopatra’s Moon (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2011), based on the life of Cleopatra’s only daughter. She is also the author of two biographies for kids on Alexander the Great and Cleopatra. The LA Times called Cleopatra’s Moon–set in Rome and Egypt–”magical” and “impressive.” Publisher’s Weekly said it was “fascinating” and “highly memorable.” Her young adult novel of Pompeii, Curses and Smoke (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic), released in June 2014. She has two other upcoming books for younger readers, Anubis Speaks! and Hades Speaks! Vicky is a docent at the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Antiquities at Emory University in Atlanta. Learn more at http://www.vickyalvearshecter.com/main/

Sophie Perinot
SOPHIE PERINOT is the author of the acclaimed debut, The Sister Queens, which weaves the story of medieval sisters Marguerite and Eleanor of Provence who became queens of France and England respectively. Perinot has both a BA in History and a law degree. A long-time member of the Historical Novel Society, she has attended all of the group’s North American Conferences, serving as a panelist at the most recent. When she is not visiting corners of the past, Sophie lives in Great Falls, VA. Learn more at: www.SophiePerinot.com

Ben Kane

BEN KANE worked as a veterinarian for sixteen years, but his love of ancient history and historical fiction drew him to write fast-paced novels about Roman soldiers, generals and gladiators. Irish by nationality but UK-based, he is the author of seven books, the last five of which have been Sunday Times top ten bestsellers.Ben’s books have been translated into ten languages. In 2013, Ben walked the length of Hadrian’s Wall with two other authors, for charity; he did so in full Roman military kit, including hobnailed boots. He repeated the madness in 2014, over 130 miles in Italy. Over $50,000 has been raised with these two efforts. Learn more at http://www.benkane.net/

 

 

Kate Quinn

KATE QUINN is the national bestselling author of the Empress of Rome novels, which have been variously translated into thirteen different languages. She first got hooked on Roman history while watching “I, Claudius” at the age of seven, and wrote her first book during her freshman year in college, retreating from a Boston winter into ancient Rome. She and her husband now live in Maryland with an imperious black dog named Caesar. Learn more at http://www.katequinnauthor.com

eliza knight
E. KNIGHT is an award-winning, indie national best-selling author historical fiction. Under the name, Eliza Knight she writes historical romance and time-travel. Her debut historical fiction novel, MY LADY VIPER, has received critical acclaim and was nominated for the Historical Novel Society 2015 Annual Indie Award. She regularly presents on writing panels and was named Romance Writer’s of America’s 2013 PRO Mentor of the Year. Eliza lives in Maryland atop a small mountain with a knight, three princesses and a very naughty puppy. For more information, visit Eliza at www.elizaknight.com.

 

Stephanie Dray

STEPHANIE DRAY is a multi-published, award-winning author of historical women’s fiction and fantasy set in the ancient world. Her critically acclaimed historical Nile series about Cleopatra’s daughter has been translated into more than six different languages, was nominated for a RITA Award and won the Golden Leaf. Her focus on Ptolemaic Egypt and Augustan Age Rome has given her a unique perspective on the consequences of Egypt’s ancient clash with Rome, both in terms of the still-extant tensions between East and West as well as the worldwide decline of female-oriented religion. Before she wrote novels, Stephanie was a lawyer, a game designer, and a teacher. Learn more at: StephanieDray.com

S J A Turney: Marius Mules VII The Great Revolt (Review)

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Originally posted on parmenionbooks:

Author Bio: in his own words

I live with my wife, son and daughter, and two (close approximations of) dogs in rural North Yorkshire, where my wife and I both grew up, surrounded by friends and family. A born and bred Yorkshireman with a love of the country, I cannot envisage spending my life anywhere else, though my anchor is sometimes tested as the wanderlust hits and we travel wherever I can find the breathtaking remains of the classical world. I have a love of travel and history, architecture and writing and those four interact well enough to keep me almost permanently busy.

Since leaving school and University, I have tried a great number of careers, including car sales, insurance, software engineering, computer network management, civil service and even paint ing and decorating sales. I have lived in four counties and travelled as widely as time and budget allowed and find myself…

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Written by SJAT

October 26, 2014 at 8:39 pm

Facts about Fritz

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An unusual review of a little gem for you today. As you know I occasionally like to review the odd non-fiction work among the novels I read. Well the other day I came into possession of a copy of Facts about Fritz by Robin Schafer and Tim Hardy. Rob is a German military historian and consultant (and without doubt the most knowledgeable such I have ever come across) and Tim is a talented graphic designer. Together they have combined their skills to release this wonderful item.

If, like me, you have a passing knowledge of the First World War, mostly gained through school, holidays in northern Europe… and Blackadder, of course… then this book might prove as fascinating and informative to you as it does to me. If you are already an expert, it is pitched a little below your level to be honest, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth having. Far from it.

Essentially, this book is 50 pages, with every two pages being an individual fact sheet on one aspect of the German army in 1914-1918. The production is superb. Glossy and beautiful, it’s a thing of beauty. But beyond that, it is chock full of period photographs, fascinating images of artefacts surviving to the present day, anecdotes and accounts from witnesses as well as the facts themselves as provided by the informed mind of Rob. The content varies from short factoids – such as

“Approximately 40,000 Messenger dogs operated with German units during the war.”

to letters written by the men at the front, to lengthy paragraphs detailing for instance the Reich’s Postal Service, to extracts from contemporary tales. All interspersed with appropriate imagery.

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Subjects covered include such wide-ranging matters as the Iron Cross, Flags, Trench Newspapers and the Flying Circus.

The book is an objective and factual work on the army of the Kaiser’s Germany and should be fascinating to anyone who has even a passing interest in the era. The book costs £7.99 and is currently only available through Tim Hardy’s website HERE. I would also urge you to keep an eye on Rob’s site -  as well as being fascinating in general, he has another book on Fritz and Tommy coming out next year through the History Press and that will be worth grabbing.

Back with some more choice fiction for you in the next week. :-)

Written by SJAT

October 22, 2014 at 10:55 am

Pasha – Julian Stockwin

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pasha

I cannot tell you what a pleasure it is to be back at sea once again with Captain Thomas Kydd. Though the majority of my reading is of novels set in the ancient world or at most in the high medieval era, every now and then I like to dip into another era for a change, and Stockwin is fast becoming one of my absolute favourites.

If you’ve not read any of the Kydd series, I’d best warn you that you might not want to start with this volume, Pasha being the fifteenth book in the series. Of course, the bright side of that is that if you haven’t read any of them, I’m switching you onto not just one book, but 15.

Set in the late 18th to early 19th century, the series follows the nautical adventures of one Thomas Kydd, a low born southern Englishman who rises through the ranks of the British Navy, as well as those of his confidential secretary Nicholas Renzi. The first volume begins in 1793, meaning – those of you familiar with the era will probably already have thought of this – the reader has some of the most amazing and world-changing events to come.

So on to Pasha – Volume 15 – which takes place in 1807. After the disastrous debacle in South America from book 13 and the brief sojourn in the Caribbean in book 14, Kydd is called back to England. Fearing for his career and even legal repercussions after South America, our hero returns with his ship l’Aurore to face his doom. What he is returning to is far from what he expected.

More than any other book in the Kydd series I am fearful of giving anything away with Pasha. It is a book far too easy to spoil for the prospective reader, and so I shall attempt to tempt you without detailing too much plot.

As you might guess from the title, this book takes place in the Eastern Mediterranean – the domain of the Ottoman Empire. Sent east from the coast of Spain with orders to put himself at the disposal of the British ambassador in Constantinople, Captain Kydd finds himself at a critical moment in Ottoman history. Allied with both Britain and Russia, the Ottoman sultan is in the unenviable situation of being attacked by their Russian ‘friends’ while being wooed by their enemy the French. The British ambassador is desperate and nervous and on the verge of something precipitous, and Kydd is unable to do much more than do as he is told.

Throw into the mix a British nobleman acting as a spy and intriguer in the court of the Sultan, and things can only become more complex. At stake in this mess is the potential for Napoleon Bonaparte to secure an alliance with the Ottoman Empire and with it, a route for his forces into the wide world without having to break out past the British Navy. So no pressure, then?

Cue intrigue, races under fire, sea battles, imprisonment, escape, trickery, panic, land assaults and so much more in a switchback tale that is easily the best in the series and stands to be one of my top books of the year.

Incidentally, there is one scene in the book that will stay with me for a long time, because it reminds me very closely of one of my favourite movie moments of all time. Remember that scene in Das Boot, where the sub has been stuck on the bottom of the sea and manages to resurface but has to make a run through the Straits of Gibraltar on diesels, with the captain in the conning tower, yelling ‘Verdammt’ as he pounds his fist on the sub while guns blast from both sides? You don’t? Well now go out and watch that movie too! But there is a comparable scene in Pasha that held me with the same power.

Finally, I will say once again that Stockwin’s writing is among the most authentic in the field. Not only has he managed to get the feel of the era in his speech and descriptive, but his own history in the Royal Navy informs everything he writes and lends it an air of authority. Moreover, in addition to that wonderful prose and conversation, in this particular volume, he manages to add in the exotic heady culture of Ottoman Istanbul. It is a win, quite simply.

Kydd is back, and volume 15 is the best yet, full of surprises and excitement.

The book is out today. Go get it.

Written by SJAT

October 9, 2014 at 8:00 am

Praetorians in Sherburn

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Never fear, I have two reviews coming up shortly. Excellent stuff, too. But in the meantime, if anyone who reads my blog and lives in the north of England would like an evening of informative entertainment, I am running a talk on the infamous Praetorian Guard at Sherburn-in-Elmet library on Thursday 16th October ay 7:30 pm.

PraetorianPoster

In addition to the talk (with some fun power-point imagery, some Roman kit to check out and a freebie) I will be around for Q&A and book signing afterwards.

If you have any interest in the ancient world, this could be a fun night. Come join me.

:-)

Written by SJAT

October 3, 2014 at 8:43 pm

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