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

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Lucius Verus by M.C. Bishop

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Sometimes books just appear at serendipitous times. Last month this book was released, penned by one of the top scholars in his field, a man whose work I trust implicitly. I happened to have just finished writing my novel on Commodus and sent it to my editor. But since Verus was the uncle of my emperor and has an important role in my tale, I simply had to read this. Glad I did. There was so much in here that I needed to add to my story, and fortunately I had that opportunity during the editing stage. ‘Lucius Verus’ was something of an eye-opener.

Bishop starts out on his journey through Verus’ life by explaining that he is not attempting to ‘rehabilitate’ Verus and remove the stigma that history has left, but rather to remove the chaff from accounts and reveal only what truths or perceivable truths lie beneath the endless bias of biographers ancient and modern. In a way, he might have failed in that task in the nicest possible way, because by the end, I found Verus thoroughly rehabilitated and sympathetic. Much, fortunately, like the character in my novel. Phew.

This book is actually two subjects rolled into one, as the title suggests. It is at one and the same time a detailed and as accurate as it is possible to be biography of the man who co-ruled the empire with the great Marcus Aurelius, and a military narrative on the Parthian campaigns of the 160s AD. That it achieves both aims smoothly and without feeling at odds with one another is superb.

For those who are unfamiliar with Verus, you will probably be aware of his adoptive brother Marcus Aurelius and his nephew Commodus. From 161 AD until his death in 169, he shared the rule of the Roman empire with Aurelius, the two working in consort as co-emperors. Verus is not one of those emperors who was damned by the state (with whom I am gradually dealing) but perhaps by dint of being an easy comparison with his famous brother, he has been somewhat tarnished and sullied by biased historians after his death in much the same way the damned emperors were. Aurelius is the great philosopher-king, an emperor who shunned war, yet spent much of his reign on the borders fighting the enemies of Rome. A man of wit and wisdom and a calm and mellow one, even. Verus has ever been painted as the dissolute playboy prince. He is presented to us by historians as a drinker, a hedonist, lazy and a poor comparison to Aurelius. Bishop set out to pull apart the clear bias and try to find the real man beneath. An admirable attempt, I have to say. Throughout the text, Bishop repeatedly shows two facets that make his work stand out:

  • An almost unparalleled knowledge and understanding of the Roman world, which manifests in every tiny detail he produces being presented with clarity, sureness and relevance.
  • A wry wit and easy style that prevents any danger of the book slipping into dusty irredeemable academia.

The book begins by explaining its purpose and goals. Bishop then goes on to examine in detail all the sources on Verus’ life and evaluate them carefully. From there, he moves onto a biography of the emperor’s life until his accession to power with his brother. We then learn of the situation in the east and are treated to a little history of the borderland. An examination of the joint emperors’ rule and the nature of their sharing of power follows before we head east with Verus to examine his campaign in more detail than I expected. On the conclusion of that, Bishop then goes on to tell us of Verus’ life from there until his untimely death, before evaluating the ‘wastrel’ emperor and presenting his conclusion to the reader. The appendices are as interesting and important as the rest of the text, too, including copies of the emperor’s letters ans, most impressive of all, an attempt at redacting the infamous Historia Augusta, trimming the chaff and presenting a more factual, more reasonable selection within it.

I am not going to go into any further detail on the contents here, though I will say that there was not a section or even a page that I was tempted to skim over. And I challenge anyone to read the book and not have their opinion of Verus altered. In short, the book is probably my favourite of Bishop’s works (and I have a dozen or so), and as a clarified biography of a maligned man, it matches Winterling’s Caligula, which was the main basis for my own last imperial work. Pride of place on my shelves and a more than worthy exploration of a man who has been largely ignored thus far by historians.

HIGHLY recommended.

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Written by SJAT

June 15, 2018 at 11:47 am

Shadows of War by Michael Ridpath

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Shadows Of War (Traitors Book 2) by [Ridpath, Michael]

A year or two back I reviewed Michael Ridpath’s Traitor’s Gate, and it was in my top books of the  year. I was somewhat excited to discover a sequel was out. I have little reading time these days but I shuffled this straight to the top.

Book one was set in Germany in the year before the Second World War. It was a tense thriller the built constantly and presented a time and place that was darkly fascinating to explore. I had no idea how there could be a book two.

Shadows of War presents a whole new story set in the first half year or so of the war (39-40) as Germany begins to press home its power, threatening Western Europe and Britain defies the Nazi regime, despite a strong sector that favours terms with Hitler and a cessation of hostilities.

On the face of things, I would saw SoW lacks a little of the tension and grit of the first book, but I think what it lacks in the stressful action, it makes up for in other ways. This book’s exploration of the politics and the motivations on both sides is extraordinary. And a dozen times through the novel I came across a fact that was of such intense interest and surprise to me that I had to run off to Google to convince myself that this wasn’t just hokum made up on the spot for the plot. For the record, it isn’t. The book is fictional, but everything in it is possible, even when you can’t believe it.

Though there are scenes of exciting espionage and action, much of the more military aspect in this comes from a peripheral source that, in truth, the book doesn’t specifically need, but which supplies a great deal of pertinent information in a manner that also gives us a soldier’s eye view of the frontlines of General Guderian’s blitzkrieg push into the west.

There is at least one moment in the book that utterly threw me. A totally unexpected event that I tip my hat to the author for.

It is at times poignant, at times dark and frightening, at times exciting and even uplifting. I think, though, that the thing I value most in the book is its atmosphere and its portrayal of the time and people. If the events that Ridpath recounts here happened, and they very well might have, then it casts a dark reflection of our great pride in being a nation that stood up to Nazi horror.

Shadows of War is a worthy sequel, a book that made me blink, made me think, and left me with questions and a torrent of emotion. I guess that says it all. Rest assured I shall seek out a third book if Ridpath decides to write it. I highly recommend reading this and its predecessor. Probably back-to-back they are even better.

Go get it, people.

Written by SJAT

June 5, 2018 at 10:01 pm

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My Dear Hamilton

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mdh

Two years ago I had the delight of reading America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie. It was one of my top reads of the year, despite being on a subject about which I knew virtually nothing and had never previously considered. It’s taken the intervening time for the same pair to produce their next book, and I have been eagerly awaiting it. The problem with these two authors is that I tend to run out of superlatives while describing them.

My Dear Hamilton is a grand, sweeping tale of love and betrayal, of war and political wiles, of the birth of a nation and the changing of the world, spread over some fifty years of the life of Eliza Hamilton, wife of the founding father Alexander Hamilton. It begins during the worst times of the War of Independence and follows the life of Eliza as she becomes involved in the war on a personal level and lives through the aftermath, her relationship with her husband and dealing with the scandalous fallout of his affair, follows through to the death of her husband (no spoilers here, but this took me by surprise) and on for some two decades following as Eliza continues to be a strong woman with a destiny and a purpose far beyond being Hamilton’s wife.

Firstly, I knew NOTHING about Alexander Hamilton, let alone Eliza. I have a passing knowledge of the War of Independence and the founding fathers, probably in line with most British readers, who focus largely on the famous names (Washington, Franklin, Arnold etc). To learn about him through Eliza’s eyes, as well as about the impressive woman herself and several other cast members, was superb. A particular highlight for me was their portrayal of the French general Lafayette, who I knew very little about, but who is something of a scene stealer. It was interesting to learn part of American history about which I was completely oblivious. The characterisation of each and every character is beautifully developed from what must have been dry letters from which they worked, and the scene setting of a troubled, changing world is masterfully done.

The best thing about these two authors, though, even with vivid characters, beautifully-crafted scenes, and depth of historical detail, is the writing itself. They manage to tell the story in an eminently readable way, with a flow and an ease of prose that is utterly impressive given that they also manage to keep the language entirely in keeping for the era, without resort to modern idioms and colloquialisms. Reading every page is a pleasure for the writing alone.

So there you have it. A worthy successor to America’s First Daughter. In fact, My Dear Hamilton might even be better.

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And there’s more. I also had the opportunity to ask the authors a few questions, so here we go:

How difficult was it to put across such a complex relationship and the equally complex world in which they lived and yet not lose sight of either in the process?

Eliza’s relationship with Alexander was one of the great joys in writing My Dear Hamilton–and one of the biggest challenges. There were a number of times in writing this book that we felt like we were drowning in the research–but we also know that’s part of the process, especially when you’re writing about a couple who seemed to know everyone in early America, and about a woman who lived to be 97! And we were in good company in being sometimes overwhelmed by the Hamiltons, because Lin-Manuel Miranda felt the same way working on Hamilton: An American Musical and the advice he got was to cut out anything that wasn’t directly relevant to the story he was trying to tell in the musical. We tried to do the same. Cut out anything that didn’t have a direct bearing on their relationship or Eliza’s experience. That’s why we have so many deleted scenes!

Was it difficult to deal with the aftermath of a sex scandal without imposing on it modern morals and experience?

It surprised us that modern moralists are probably both more forgiving in some ways and less forgiving in others regarding this sex scandal. Hamilton’s contemporaries condemned him for the Reynolds affair mostly out of religious sentiment; the idea that a man might stray even if he loved his wife was more common at the time. So it’s possible that we condemn him more for betraying his wife than any sense of sexual morality. Our approach to the founders has always been to take into consideration a reader’s contemporary moral point of view, but also respect that these were men and women of their times, looking for ways they differed from their contemporaries in ways good and bad.

Elizabeth Schuyler had such a far-reaching and varied life, was it difficult to stay on point in the Hamilton tale and not get lost in the wealth of angles?

Yes! Fortunately, we had each other to help keep the other on track. But since she lives to be 97 and did so many interesting things in the fifty years after her husband died, we definitely felt pulled to want to tell all the parts of her story. That was especially true because no other book in fiction or nonfiction has much treated Eliza’s life after her husband’s death, so we wanted to share as much as we could about those decades. As a result, it was hard to rule scenes out, but we did–to the tune of about 60,000 words of deleted scenes!

In your use of letters and documents, did you ever need to, or were you tempted to, skip ones that did not easily fit the tale you were telling?

When writing historical fiction, you always have to leave things out. Usually the reason is that it isn’t germane, it’s too detailed, it starts a whole new kind of story, or it’s boring. When dealing with Founding Fathers though, we tend to err on the side of caution in including things that are important to a fair treatment. But in writing this book there was one letter in particular that we debated for a long time, ultimately deciding to leave it out. It was a letter between Alexander Hamilton and his very close friend and brother-in-arms, John Laurens, that included some bawdy joking about Hamilton’s wedding night. We don’t entirely let Alexander off the hook in that moment, but in the end, we decided that it might too greatly stretch readers’ willingness to sympathize with Hamilton and Eliza’s thinking about him.

How much did you have to ‘fill in the gaps’ in the historical record, and were there any times/angles that were not covered adequately in the letters?

As we mention in our Note from the Authors at the back of the book in far more detail, most of what we know about Eliza must be extrapolated from the evidence left behind by her husband, her father, and her family members. The  internal struggles she must have faced in the aftermath of betrayal and tragedy remain frustratingly out of reach for historians. But, thankfully, fiction can go where historians rightly fear to tread. And as novelists we were honored to look at the historical pieces of the puzzle and imagine the rich inner life that the historical fragments leave unspoken. We attempted to craft plausible answers to questions about Eliza’s reaction to her husband’s adultery. How she balanced her deep religious faith with disillusionment and worldly practicality. And how she might’ve come to terms with both the man—and the country—that she sacrificed for and which sometimes disappointed her.

Having brought Eliza to the reading world, and before that Martha Jefferson, what’s next?

We’re working on a project on women of the French Revolution together, and Stephanie is embarking on her next solo project featuring the Marquis de Lafayette! So please sign up to receive alerts about our next releases at DrayKamoie.com!

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So that’s it, folks. The book is out and highly recommended. Go get it HERE

And don’t miss out on other fascinating blogs involved in My Dear Hamilton’s blog tour so far:

and more tomorrow:

Hearts & Scribbles – Excerpt
Literature Goals – Excerpt
Reviews by Tammy and Kim (Rachel & Jay) – Review & Excerpt
What Is That Book About – Excerpt

MDH Tour Banner

Joan of Arc by Moya Longstaffe

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joa
Joan of Arc is one of those fascinating iconic figures that we are all drawn to: an underdog who stands her ground and defies the establishment. I have had a minor fascination with her since I was a kid, standing in Rouen and looking up at the tower that bears her name, or looking at the horseshoe she reputedly nailed to the door of a church in Chablis.
That being the case, this was guaranteed to be an interesting book for me. But it was so much more than I expected. I should have noticed the clue in the title. Joan of Arc and the Great pity of the land of France. This is more than just a biography of the maid of Orleans (it is that too, and it’s a good one, but she’s been dealt with often.) What this really excels at is putting Joan in the historical and political context.
I expected to belt through the first few chapters that were essentially scene-setting. Mistake. Partially due to the fascination of the subject, and partially due to the way Longstaffe puts it over, I as dragged deep into the text on every page, always learning, always fascinated. The mad king of France in particular impressed me. By the time we started to learn about Joan, it was extremely easy to see how the Franco-English situation had created the perfect world for such events, and how she fitted into it.
The portrayal of Joan and the examination of her life and events that follows is detailed without being a slog, colourful, interesting, and above all objective. In fairness, I’ve read other biographies and seen documentaries and films, so little was truly new for me, though there was some deeper investigation into some of the more obscure angles. It was a good, solid biography though, as I said before, made far superior by the context into which it fit.
The last third of the entire book deals with her capture, trial, execution and the ongoing story. This was nice. All too often a book on Jeanne skips the preamble and the later moves. Often they rush to Joan believing she was given a task by god so they can trawl through the military and political manoeuvrings that constituted her life and works, and then pretty much end with the gruesome burning. Not this book. Just as it sets the scene and then places Joan in it, it slowly, methodically, and very thoroughly, wraps it all up. we are treated to an in-depth investigation into her trial and then tantalising ideas of what it meant for the future.
All in all, this was an excellent biography. Not necessarily new ground, but examined in a new way for me, and made richer and more meaningful in doing so. I heartily recommend it not just for research but also simply for the joy of learning. A lovely read.

Written by SJAT

March 21, 2018 at 11:23 pm

Richard II: A True King’s Fall

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r2

I do like to intersperse, in the rare leisure time I get, my fiction reading with a little non-fiction (quite apart from all the Roman non-fiction research I do.) This book was an interesting choice, because to sum up everything I knew about Richard II in one sentence: “Pubs called the White Hart are named after him.” Pretty feeble, eh? The white hart was Richard’s own insignia. Also I tend to get a little mixed up in the Plantagenet era. On the bright side, the Richards aren’t to difficult to separate. 1st was a bloodthirsty warrior who bankrupted the country fighting his crusades and yet for some reason is the country’s most beloved monarch, and 3rd is Shakespeare’s hunchbacked villain. No for me, of course. I’m a Yorkshireman, so I know him for the heroic king and Henry Tudor for the usurping French/Welsh tart. But that’s an argument for another time. Damn you, Stanley…

The book opens with a who’s who. More non-fiction should do this. A common issue with numerous eras is lots of very similar names and trying to keep them straight in your head. I get that a lot with Roman names. To have a handy reference point at the start is invaluable in a world where at first glance everyone appears to be called Henry or Edward.

Then we launch into the biography in chronological order beginning with his youth, obviously. And that, I would make clear, is what this is: a biography of the man Richard II, not an account of his reign. It delves into family, relationships, motivations and the minutiae of Richard’s personal life and connections. It does not provide a vast wealth of information about the time and events of his reign.

As such, I found it interesting, yet it left me with unanswered questions. Since I know so little about his reign I was constantly cross referencing with my friend Google to fill in the socio-political gaps. But hey, I’m used to that with my Roman research. And this being non-fiction, it’s not like you’re going to lose the pace and feel of it by branching out to find out more about Wat Tyler.

But what Warner omits in terms of the political history, we gain in terms of an in-depth look at the character and life of an oft-overlooked monarch. Oh, and it is graced with some lovely colour plates too. In short, if you’re wanting a study on the reign of the White Hart King, and you’re not au fait with the history already, this might not serve you so well. But if you want to understand the man, or you are already versed in the politics of the time, then it should be a treat.

Written by SJAT

February 17, 2018 at 9:27 am

The Last Hour

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Image result for the last hour

Rarely does a book all-but leap off the shelf, batter me round the head and say ‘read me’, but the Last Hour was one such rarity. At first glance all I knew was that it was a thriller set in the later Roman empire about a man struggling to make his way through the city against unassailable odds to halt a plot. Sounded soooo good. And I love Sidebottom’s writing – his Ballista books are some of my favourites.

It was not until I actually opened the book, courtesy of Netgalley, that I realised this is for me absolutely the best of both worlds. This is all what I said above, but it is ALSO a Ballista book. This is a new Warrior of Rome novel, taking the whole series and its wonderful characters in a bold new direction, which I love.

It was interesting reading this after the other Warrior of Rome books, for gradually over the series Ballista has built up a familia of fascinating characters who have become almost as central to the plots as the hero himself. They are often set in quite a sweeping scale with epic fights and Cecil B. DeMille scenes. The cast of the Last Hour is seriously stripped back, focusing almost entirely upon Ballista himself, with walk-ons and mentions for everyone else. And it is all tightly-set. One man, in one city, in one day. The focus in terms of time and character is a new and very welcome thing.

With this whole novel set in a single day in Rome, Sidebottom gets to unleash every ounce of his considerable knowledge of the Roman world in a steady flow and in an incredibly engaging way. There is not a hint of ‘info dump’ here. Everything Sidebottom writes that will educate the reader is slipped seamlessly into the tale, and believe me, there’s a lot. I like to think I know the ancient city of Rome well. I’ve explored it endlessly in books and research and on foot with my camera. But even though I know the place well, still I get surprised by some of the revelations in this book.

Quite simply, this is a historical/political thriller that would sit well on a shelf alongside modern thrillers by Tom Clancy, Dan Brown, or Frederick Forsyth, but with an added dimension, in that it is also a cracking historical novel. As I said earlier: the best of both worlds. The book is out on the 8th of March. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Written by SJAT

February 7, 2018 at 9:36 am

Winter’s Edge

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Image result for winter's edge anthology

Having been involved myself in a number of multi-author collections, I am always fascinated to see how such things are handled by other writers. Winter’s Edge is a collection of 7 historical tales penned by 7 different writers, some who I know and some who I don’t, each story set in a different period and location but linked through with a common thread – knives with wolf-head handles. In order we have:

WOLF OF SATURNALIA is a Roman tale by Paul Murphy that kicks off the collection. Set in the early empire it is a tale of a former Roman general and his extended familia, including a perilous journey through bandit infested lands on the way from Rome to Campania. This tale is slotted between two books of a series and there is minute amount of reader expectation in terms of character and setting. Towards the tale’s conclusion there is a feeling that the reader would gain more having read the characters in their original novel but, that being said, the tale is still engaging and exciting, with vivid description and a good range of characters. There is a good exploration and understanding of the nature of the Roman familia woven into the tale.

VIELLE by Prue Batten takes place in the 12th century and involves what seems to be Prue’s subject of choice: troubadours. With good reason, I suspect, since she clearly knows her stuff and has a feel for the subject and era. Like all Batten’s work, the tale flows like silk over marble with stunning prose. Immerse yourself in the world of Richard Coeur de Lion and his love of music in this wonderful and only slightly heartbreaking tale. This story is entirely a standalone tale, and feels fully rounded as a one off.

DA VINCI AND DI PAOLO is the third tale, set in 16th century Italy and France and from the pen of Teddy Hester. I had not come across Hester before and it seems she is generally a writer of erotic romance, but this tale shows a clear talent also for historical fiction. Her tale is as smoothly penned as Batten’s, her prose flowing and her subject wonderful, from a flight from Sicily under Turkish threat to the glories of the Renaissance Loire. This story spoke to me personally, as I know the locations well and am familiar with the staircase mentioned in the tale. Though this tale also has hooks into the author’s main works, they are peripheral enough that it feels like a rounded stand-alone tale.

SWEET NIGHTINGALE by David Neilson takes place in 18th century Austria. I have to admit to initially being rather confused with this tale, which throws names and details at the reader rapidly from square one, especially with the era being unfamiliar to me. Once more, I feel that there is a certain level of expectation of reader familiarity with Neilson’s characters. Soon, however, the story settled into a well-written little smuggler/conspiracy tale with some vivid character and detail, so I’m glad I stuck with it. Atmospheric.

BINGLEY AND DARCY by Martin Rinehart I’m afraid was not for me. Not for the quality of the writing, mind, which seemed to be fine, but I have an almost pathological dislike of that period literature (Austen, Brontes etc) and I simply cannot find any engagement with such stories. That being said, this is probably someone else’s perfect cup of tea. It did seem very Austen-esque, after all.

ONCE WAS LOST by Lena Maye came as a surprise for me. A complete bolt out of the blue. Set in the Dust bowl in the depression of 30s America it is so far out of my comfort zone that had it not been part of this collection I would never have read it. What I began by dreading became probably my second favourite story in the book. Written with sympathy and skill and unbearably emotional prose, it tells the tale of a young mute girl trying to manage a farm in the most impossible conditions and how a random occurrence began a chain of events that changed her world. It was beautiful and haunting and will stay with me.

WARM ME SOFTLY by D. M. Davis is quite simply the best possible conclusion to the collection. In addition to being a self-contained tale that encapsulates the spirit of Christmas and the affairs of the heart, and with a style and grace of its own, Davis manages also to tie up the thread – the daggers – that binds all these stories together with aplomb, making them an integral part of a tale that is yet not truly about the knives at all. Masterful. This is one of those When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail types of story and is a superb example. All in all an excellent conclusion.

The upshot? This is an engaging collection of tales with something for everyone. The stories are of so many different subjects and styles, that there is bound to be a tale for you, or more. And for the price, you can’t ask for more. Grab yourself a winter heart-warmer. Read this collection.

Written by SJAT

November 21, 2017 at 11:06 pm

Posted in Private