S.J.A. Turney's Books & More

Reviews, news and inside the world of books.

The Huntress by Kate Quinn

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To be honest, this review isn’t going to be long and in-depth. It doesn’t need to be. I’ll start by saying ‘Buy this book. Don’t ****ing argue, just do it.’ Anyone who’s already a fan of Kate Quinn’s work will need no encouragement anyway. Anyone who isn’t just hasn’t read it yet.

Kate cut her teeth on Roman and Renaissance novels, and only in the last couple of years has she moved into 20th century novels, interestingly at roughly the same time as Manda Scott did the same thing on this side of the Atlantic. And yet, like Manda, Kate has risen to be one of the preeminent novelists writing in the genre. Her first novel in the era, ‘The Alice Network’ was an immediate and huge hit with me, and the esteem in which I held it was borne out as it achieved accolade after accolade and hit the bit time in a way most of us writers of fiction can only dream.

Guess what? The Huntress is better. Second novels in a series (and yes, I know this isn’t strictly a series, but you know what I mean) are usually something of a minor dip. If the first novel is a big hit, it’s very hard to match it. Few writers come close, often returning to form with the third. And given how good Kate’s last book was, I felt nervous for her. No need. It’s a step up yet again.

I can only see big things for The Huntress. I have simply run out of hyperbole.

Buy it.

Buy it.

BUY IT!

Get it here.

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Written by SJAT

February 26, 2019 at 8:36 pm

Eventful times

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me

Ever wanted to hear why I write what I write? How it came about? My inspiration for certain things? Ever want to ask questions or just chat or perhaps buy books or get them signed? Well there’s a few opportunities coming up this year, and I thought I’d blog just to keep you all up to date.

The first one’s coming up in March.

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So it costs £15 to become a Friend, which you can do HERE. For your 15 pounds you not only get to help support a volunteer run library, which is worthy on its own, but you get to come to this and other events, and at this one you get all this:

  • Beer from the keg, with the first drink free
  • Sausages from a local excellent manufacturer
  • A talk from yours truly, in costume, as well as a Q&A
  • A short dramatization of part of Caligula, performed by local actors
  • Music
  • A raffle with some great prizes
  • A Roman fun quiz
  • Signed books
  • The opportunity to pop out for a beer with me afterwards and talk books and history

I highly recommend becoming a friends, as other events are worthwhile too. Last year they had the wonderful Imogen Robertson. Bedale, North Yorkshire, just off the A1 on Weds 6th March. Hope to see you there. It’ll be a great night.

Then after Bedale, there’s Selby Library in May, in which I’m doing an evening alongside Sharon Bennett Connolly.

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Just £5 for two talks, refreshments and a book signing. And perhaps Sharon and I can answer a few questions for you too.

And then thirdly, in June there is Eboracum festival

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That’s in York, from Friday 31st May to Sunday 2nd June. A weekend of Roman reenacment and parades, events and more, which will include a number of authors including yours truly in an author marquee to sell and sign books and talk the hind leg off a donkey. If you want to stay in York for the weekend’s festivities, get onto booking accommodation early, as it fills up and gets expensive really quickly.

So there you go. Three different events to come see  me at, and I’d love to see you at them all.

Written by SJAT

February 18, 2019 at 10:49 pm

Pharaoh’s Treasure

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Fancy a fascinating dip into some non-fiction history? Here’s a subject you might not have sought out, but one that might capture your fascination. I read the title and the description and simply decided I wanted to know more. It’s not a text I need for research, but like so many good books, it is one that when read will inform everything I ever look at hereafter. It is the history of paper, and with it the written word.

It’s a subject that’s always hovered on the edge of what I do, since the day I wrote about Caesar’s ‘paperwork’ and then panicked about the fact that the Romans didn’t have paper. But did they? Now that’s a question that this book will address. It is informative and interesting, yet despite everything for me the most important value it has is that it has defined the word ‘paper’ and I will cite it forever in my author notes for books.

The book begins with ancient Egypt, as you might guess from the title. The Pharaoh’s Treasure? *Said in a worryingly Rolf Harris voice*: ‘Can you guess what it is yet?’ Well, without wanting to spoil the book for you, said treasure is the oldest paper ever found, in a box, in a tomb. We move from there to the first written record. No surprises that this is also Egypt, the records of one of the pharaoh Khufu’s administrators. Typical of humanity that the earliest writing found was not left by a playwright or a comedian, but a bureaucrat, eh? Still, an astounding discovery.

There is a lot of focus on the importance of the written word. In Egypt this means the book of the dead and all the burial texts. The Eighteenth to Twentieth centuries unearthed ever increasing numbers of important texts in Egypt. The vital part paper had in the Egyptian world is clear, and the book moves from there into the Judeo-Christian world and the same value that is applied to paper and written records there.

There is some fairly in-depth discussion of the manufacture of papyrus (yes, we get the word paper from it, as the book reminds us), and on its production, which reached an almost industrial scale in later Egypt. We move on from there into Greece and particularly Rome. This is, of course, my specialist subject. Anyone who studies Rome will know that their culture were the first to become almost obsessively bureaucratic, and Rome moves the written word to the next level. Apparently (according to Pliny who lists the different grades of Roman paper) there was even a type of Roman packing paper!

The book then moves on to examine the new value of paper and the written word for fiction, text books, theatre, and on to libraries, the vast trade in writing, in ink, in pens and so forth. The existence of the Great Library. We move on into the Byzantine world, where bureaucracy reaches a peak perhaps unseen in the history of man, and then to the Roman Church, where it’s value and use is blindingly clear.

Then there was something that brought a massive surprise to me. Something that probably made more impact than anything else in the book. The history of paper and the written word changed immeasurably, following the events of a specific battle in the 8th century. I’m not going to spoil that one for you, and I’m not even going to mention the battle or its long-reaching effect. You’ll have to read the book for that.

There is some final rounding up of the data and conclusions, but that’s it. And if you don’t read the book for anything else, I hope you’re intrigued enough about the battle to go for it. It’s a very specifically-aimed book and will be of little direct actual use to most folk, but as a fascinating piece of historical research with some startling conclusions, it is well worth the time. Recommended.

Written by SJAT

February 7, 2019 at 11:41 pm

A Grave Hobby

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One of my more out-there hobbies is gravestones. I really do rather like wandering churchyards and looking at the stones. Some can be really informative, some can be humorous, some can be poignant, but almost every churchyard has something worth seeing. Some of my faves are the pyramid grave of Charles Piazzi Smyth, Scottish astronomer royal and Egyptologist in Sharow churchyard, the ‘fisherman’s gravestone’ in Ripon cathedral graveyard, the stone built into the wall of West Tanfield church of what must have been the oldest man in the world, and the grave of a man’s leg in Strata Florida churchyard. See? Always something.

Today was our annual family trip to Whitby for the nephew’s birthday and once we had climbed the 199 steps (I count them every year and always come out at 198 myself) the family went to look at the Christmas tree competition/display in the church. Having seen it twice, this time I mooched around the graveyard while I waited for the others. This is just a small selection of stones I came across.

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Many of the stones are sandstone and like the abbey beside them have been carved out by the wind over the past few centuries. This one is unreadable, but the pattern and the look of the stone is simply beautiful, and to me warranted the photo anyway,

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Here’s an interesting segue between style and content. Fascinates me how the weather has obliterated much of the text above a specific line, below which has hardly been touched. This is a gravestone existing in two worlds. And just to add some multicultural content, this appears to be 1864, and one of the interred appears to have died in somewhere called Geelong in Australia. Since transportation ended there in 1868, one must assume he was some kind of official or soldier to be shipped home?

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What I love about the Mewburns’ gravestone is the increased sense of urgency as one reads down. It is (and has long been) common practice for a person to be buried and their inscription added to the stone. Then a second body will be added to the family plot, and another load of carving added. In this case, the Mewburns seem to have crammed as much in as possible, with being verbose, clearly. I love how the ‘font’ gets smaller and smaller.

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This is clearly the unlucky corner of the graveyard. 3 stones here in clear view. Examine them at your leisure, but here’s the killer, so to speak: rear – “Ann their daughter who died in infancy”, front left – “boy” can just be made out lower right next to the destroyed area, front right – “who died in his infancy”. Don’t hang around with these families…. that’s all I’m saying.

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Oh, and I reckon about 1 in 6 stones in the churchyard are either ‘Master Mariner’ or ‘drowned at sea’… John Ward here, was just such a mariner who drowned at sea.

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The Reverend George Young was certainly an accomplished and respected individual…

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Sometimes a grave stone is interesting only from the imagery. I like to call this style ‘Peek-a-boo’. Creepy little sh*t, isn’t it?

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The Beikers clearly had land. Look at that coat of arms. Unusual I think on a late 18th century stone in a small parish churchyard. And just for fun, two creepy peek-a-boo cherubs accompany it.

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So that ends my brief sojourn through the stones of Whitby St. Mary’s. At that moment my phone went and the family had finished viewing a hundred Christmas trees and were ready to hit the sweetshops and amusements. Perhaps next time I will find the other interesting stones within.

🙂

Happy holidays everyone.

Si

Written by SJAT

December 28, 2018 at 10:40 pm

Posted in Travel

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Colossus: Stone and Steel by David Blixt

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Every now and then you discover a book that has somehow completely passed you by. I generally like to think I’m aware of the better releases in the Roman genre. I write in it, so I keep my eye on it, of course. I became aware of Blixt and his books through mututal connection. I write books with the historical fiction collective known as H360. So does David. We’ve not worked on a project together yet, but there is that connection, and I discovered in looking at his Verona series that he also has a Roman series.

Now the H360 team don’t take on bad writers, so my interest was truly piqued. I opened the book not knowing what to expect. Sometimes I will read a book purely on the author’s name, sometimes on the title and sometimes (yes I know they say you shouldn’t) on the cover., without reading even a basic blurb. Consequently I had no idea what Colossus: Stone and Steel was about other than it was Roman and written by David Blixt.

Pleasant surprise time. Stone and steel drew me in and kept me reading at any given opportunity until I hit the end and wished I had time to start the next book. Stone and Steel was simply an excellent book.

We start with excitement and atmosphere in first century Judea. The characters are fictional but very realistic and strong, and I was being quickly drawn in when I read a name, made instant connections and realised we were reading about the writer Josephus, one of my fave personalities in ancient Rome. In fact, I had toyed with writing the story of Flavius Josephus myself, and it was a project in a shelf somewhere. Glad I never tried, because I couldn’t do him the justice Blixt does.

You know why? Because this book is partially about Vespasian and the Flavian family, and Rome and its pernickety emperors and implacable consuls. But it is more about the Jewish people in Roman Judea and their struggles against sometimes Rome but more often each other. And while I know imperial Rome quite well, my familiarity with ancient Israel is less than fragmentary. So this book really struck me perfectly. It was at once familiar and strange, Roman and Jewish, imperial and rebellious. Blixt shows a deep understanding of the time and culture and displays a most impressive ability to portray this in fiction.

So now you know this is about the Flavians and Josephus and the Jewish War. And for those who  know the history I will also add the name Jotopata. This is the tale of brothers and friends and family on both sides in a war that no one really thinks can do any good. This is a tale of internecine warfare, of the unstoppable war machine and the uncrushable Jewish spirit. It is the story of a brutal siege and of cultures clashing.

Essentially, Stone and Steel is well-written, beautifully researched, clever, informative, atmospheric and a must read for every fan of the genre. The characters are fully fleshed-out, the action exciting, the history accurate. The book ranks up easily along with the very cream of Roman fiction. I heartily recommend it.

Read Blixt’s book. You won’t regret it.

Written by SJAT

December 24, 2018 at 11:41 pm

A Gross of Pirates

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While there’s really no way I could claim to have read this for research, read it I did, and entirely for fun. I have written about pirates many times: the fictional Ghassan and Samir in Dark Empress, Kemal Reis and other Barbary sailors in The Priest’s Tale, and the Mauri pirates in my forthcoming fourth book in the Praetorian series (Lions of Rome), and so I thought I had a pretty good handle on pirates of all sorts of eras and cultures. Heck, I even own three textbooks on historical piracy.

This book opened my eyes. And gave me so many ideas for novel plots it’s untrue, to boot. A gross of pirates is exactly what it claims to be. I expected it to be another informative, and perhaps dry, history of piracy. This it is not.

What it is is a catalogue of real historical figures. A gross of them, in fact, categorised into eras and cultures. There are well-known names in there: John Paul Jones, Barbarossa, Morgan, Drake, Calico Jack. But with 144 pirates in there, clearly you are going to find names you’ve not discovered before.  For me, particularly fascinating were Jeanne de Clisson, Uluj Ali, and Henry Every.  In fact, of 144 pirates, I could say in truth that I knew less than 20, which is pretty good.

Each pirate is treated with a brief precis of their life – a mini but well-presented biography. With 308 pages and 144 pirates, you can immediately work out roughly how much page space is given to each character. As a writer, I can tell you that this is no bad thing. Having a word limit imposed makes you hone and pare down the text so that what you end up with is a really well-written and pertinent piece of writing, rather than perhaps a rambling account given to descriptive. The old Dragnet line leaps to mind: ‘Just the facts, ma’am’. And Breverton does an excellent job with this. Each account is engaging and informative.

In short, if you are an academic or writer with even a remote interest in the sea and its history, this book will give you endless resources. If you are just a lover of history or the sea, this will be an engaging and fascinating collection. If you simply like to read something fun, then this is actually for you too. Read. Enjoy. ’nuff said…

You can buy the book here, and I urge you to do so. 🙂

Written by SJAT

December 15, 2018 at 10:29 pm

Competition Time

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Do you want to win a collection of Roman goodies?

Do you?

Well here’s your chance. One lucky winner can get their hands on this amazing prize:

Prize

And all you have to do to win this prize is to upload to my Facebook Page a photo of you with a copy of Caligula somewhere interesting. That’s right. Just post your pic here, and you’re in with a chance to win. It can be a hardback, paperback or ebook with the cover showing, I don’t care. Here’s my feeble effort, but I have to try, coz if I won, the postage would be REALLY cheap…

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I know. The expression. I look like an axe murderer. But that’s just the terrifying thought of having to let this lot go: Here’s what’s in the prize:

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Signed copies of the first three Praetorian novels

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Roman ‘as’ coin of Caligula, obverse Caligula with head bare, reverse Vesta seated.

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CD of the album ‘Bloom’ by the excellent band ‘Caligula’s Horse’ AND the DVD of the classic BBC series ‘I Claudius’. Note that the DVD is region 2…

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A bottle of excellent red wine made from the same Aglianico grape and in the same locale as the ancient Falernian wine, the slopes of Mount Falernus in Campania.

AND… Caligula himself as used in my various promotional photos over the year

That’s the prize. I hope I win it! But it’ll probably go to one of you lucky people. The winner (the most interesting pic) will be chosen by an independent celebrity, and not myself, to avoid any preferential treatment. The winner will be drawn on Friday 21st of December, so get thinking and photographing. And, of course, if you haven’t bought and read Caligula yet, now is the best time ever.

Good luck everyone.

Written by SJAT

November 30, 2018 at 11:53 am