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Posts Tagged ‘Stephanie Dray

Top 10 reads of 2015

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How propitious. Thursday is blog day and this post, which is my top 10 reads of 2015 happens therefore to fall on New Year’s Eve. These are the best of my reads this year and are presented in order of Author surname, not preference. And, oddly, there are some of my fave authors not represented here, simply because I’ve not read one of their books this year. And for good measure I’ve thrown in a bonus read at the end! Enjoy the list.

Tobias – Prue Batten

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The first in a trilogy of spin-offs from Prue’s Gisborne series, Tobias was a hit this year since it maintained her absolutely tip-top standards of prose, style and character, while taking a step forward in terms of plot and action. It represents Prue’s best work so far and is a perfect marriage of style and content. Read my review here.

The Emperor’s Silver – Nick Brown

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One of my all-time fave series came back with a bang this year. Nick Brown took a novel character type and a little-used era and created the Agent of Rome. And his protagonist has grown and acquired friends through the series, and though this one stands out partially for the intricate plot, it mostly does so because of the impressive character growth of the supporting cast, which was long anticipated and very welcome. Read my review here.

The Great King – Christian Cameron

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The Long War series is one of the most immersive and expansive series in historical fiction, and the Great King stands out from the rest of the series for me because it contains everything I seek in this kind of work. It covers one of the greatest military engagements in Greek history, explores the Olympic Games and leads us a journey into the heart of Persia. All really good stuff. Read my review here.

The Devil’s Assassin – Paul Fraser Collard

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Jack Lark is one of the best literary inventions of the past decade. A truly unique character idea and one that initially I thought would have trouble managing a second book. And this one is the third! The third Lark book is also a game changer, taking us off on a tangent from what we were expecting, which is a brave move for an author and sometimes fails in execution. This one didn’t. Read my review here.

The King’s Assassin – Angus Donald

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The Outlaw chronicles have been a welcome staple of my reading for years now, and consitently make my top 10. King’s Assassin is something new, though. It feels different from the other novels in the series. To some extent, it felt like what had been a proper boy’s adventure series had grown up, passing through to become something different. It is the penultimate in the series and there is a definite feel of something coming to an end. Read my review here.

America’s First Daughter – Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie

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A new writer for me – two new writers, in fact. I’d encountered Stephanie’s work as part of the A Day Of Fire collection, but this was something else and a phenomenal achievement. It was a new type of read for me entirely, and one born from the most unique perspective. It opened up new avenues of interest in my life, and for that alone it deserves a top ten spot. Read me review here.

Eagles at War – Ben Kane

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Again, Ben Kane moves into a new milieu, having dealt with the Caesarian era, Hannibal and Spartacus. And this time he’s moved more into my period of choice. To take on the Teutoborg disaster and try to cover the scope in a single novel is a massive undertaking and he did it justice from both sides of the conflict, which was nice to see. Read my review here.

Lady of the Eternal City – Kate Quinn

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Again, a contributor to A Day Of Fire, Kate Quinn proved herself to me with this novel, which is languorous and exotic and yet at the same time informative and pacy, showing a side of the emperor Hadrian that I had never even imagined. A win on several levels. Read my review here.

Thunder of the Gods – Anthony Riches

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The empire series is on its eighth book now and seems to be running from strength to strength. Here we have moved geographically into the Middle East to explore the Parthian world in a truly action packed and fast paced military adventure. The reason for this win: Riches has settled into the characters beautifully and has managed to change directions with the overall plot arc now. Read my review here.

The Holy Thief – William Ryan

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One of the most atmospheric books I have ever read. Quite simply that. A Gorky Park for this decade, Holy Thief is a perfect marriage of intricate plot and foggy, dangerous, cloying atmosphere. The protagonist is extremely real and sympathetic and I felt totally drawn into the time. Read my review here.

Into The Fire – Manda Scott

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One of the most ambitious novels I have ever encountered, Into the Fire was a duel timeline treat dealing with modern police procedure and political shenanigans and the campaigns of Joan of Arc. It was a masterpiece in both times and probably hits my top ten of all time. Read my review here.

So there we go. 11 books in a top 10, and each and every one a gem. If you didn’t get round to reading one of them this year, go get it for 2016. Happy New Year and happy reading everyone.

America’s First Daughter

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This review has been a while in coming as I’ve been working out how to tackle it. Firstly let me make clear just how stunning a book it is. Now let me explain a little…

America’s First Daughter is not exactly my general sphere of reading. I tend towards swords, explosions, boobs and fart jokes in my reading. Alright, that’s maybe a simplification, but you get the idea. I like my historical fiction generally action packed and usually ancient or medieval. So the saga of a 18th-19th century family, their relationships and the political turmoil that surrounds them is a little out of my comfort zone. But every now and then it does you good to step outside your comfort zone. And with Stephanie now being an acquaintance of mine through involvement in a joint work, I felt it would do me no harm to read this, especially when she very kindly offered me an advance copy, wondering what an Englishman would make of what is in essence a very American book.

Firstly, I’ll tackle the form of the book. This is to some extent an old-fashioned family saga. It purports to be a tale of the daughter of Thomas Jefferson and in principle it is that, but it is much more besides. It is a tale that delves deep into the lives of the whole family and many of their friends – and enemies, in fact. It is the tale of the birth and growing pains of a nation. And it is epic in scope, both temporally and geographically. Covering more than forty years, it takes us from the last days of the American revolution to the late 1820s, showing not only a changing, growing family, but also a changing, growing world. And it takes us from the States to France and back. A truly epic work (and at 592 pages, you can see that!)

And so on to the style. There are a few writers who are capable of creating works of fiction that are so beautifully crafted that it matters little what tale they are actually attempting to tell, it will always be exquisite. Guy Gavriel Kay is such a writer. He could write a user manual for an Epson printer and make it something you clutch to your heart. Mostly, though, this appears to be the province of female writers. Prue Batten is one. I’ve said before that her writing is like silk. She could write a telephone book and I’d be riveted to it. Recently I have discovered several female American authors who have similar skills. Kate Quinn is one. Stephanie Dray is another. Their writing is heady, hypnotic and thoroughly immersive. And that is what I get from reading America’s First Daughter.

In short it is a beautifully written treatment of a family in the early days of the United States. The tale opens with out eponymous heroine in her father (Thomas Jefferson)’s study, after his death, going through the seemingly endless letters and correspondence he has left. And thus begins the story of Martha Jefferson and her family. Each chapter opens with a letter from or to one of the Jefferson family, which gives the chapter its direction. The authors then expand on the letter and give it form and content as Martha Jefferson recounts the chapters of her life in relation to that letter, each one taking us a step forward in time. It is a fascinating way to view a life and I can only doff my cap to the ladies for the sheer inventiveness of what they have done and for what must have been one of the most immersive and challenging research projects of all time. Imagine taking the collected correspondence of a man known for his letters, sorting them out and crafting a story from them. Impressive, isn’t it?

But for me (possibly due to my outsider’s view of the subject) the real win for America’s First Daughter was what I learned or was led to reconsider…

  • The very agrarian culture of the early Unites States with its landowners and estates, granting them political rights – reminiscent to me of ancient Rome in odd ways.
  • The amazingly close gap between the American revolution and the French revolution (a mere 13 years!)
  • The strange world of women in the era, given a very Victorian value system, and yet with strong women forging their own destinies very much ahead of their time.
  • The surprising strength of the abolitionist cause in Virginia, well in advance of the civil war. In fact the level of liberal thought seems more prevalent than I’d expected for the time.
  • Again, though, hos close the Revolution and the Civil war are in time, given how they seem to belong to such different eras in history.
  • The word Yankee. Its use led me to look up its origin and guess what: no one seems to know. It is a mysterious word.
  • The close cultural connections between the US and France at the time. And some of the history of Lafayette (who I mostly knew from a street name in New Orleans!)

There are so many more things I reexamined because of the book, but you get the idea. One mark of a good book has to be how much it makes you think, after all.

And I think also that it is quite brave of the authors to tackle this time and these people. It’s not like writing about ancient Rome or the crusades, because the people Stephanie and Laura are writing about here are real people whose families still exist and might be picking up the book and reading about great, great, great, great grandpappy. This is only perhaps 7 generations back, and I have knowledge of my family at that time. To tackle such troubling social situations involving those families is impressive.

One line from the book that stays with me and goes some way to explaining the epic scale of the work is “Though I’ve known personally five of the six presidents before him…”

If you are a lover of deep, very personal, very emotional prose, then you’ll probably buy this without my recommendation. If you are a lover of action adventure, well, take a punt. Have a try – you might well be surprised. I was. Stephanie and Laura (who is thus far unknown to me) have created something with such depth and languid style that it deserves to be read. And you’ll have to wait for a short while yet, I’m afraid, since it is not released until March 1st next year. But you can pre-order it here, and I recommend that you do.

Rome and Egypt

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Something a little different for you this week. Two short novellas from two excellent writers, both of whom are contributors to the imminent ‘A Year of Ravens’ to which I have added my own humble tale. And both of these works are available on kindle for free, by the way!

First up we have The Three Fates by Kate Quinn

kq Kate is an author of both ancient and Renaissance novels, though to me (and to many) she is best known for her tales of Rome’s more powerful women during the height of the empire. I recently read and reviewed ‘Lady of the Eternal City’, her latest, and you can check out my review here. I was perusing potential things to add to my kindle when I came across The Three Fates (and the second novella I will be reviewing). Instant download. The Three Fates, I will say from the off, is definitely not a standalone work. As Kate mentions in her notes, this is, in fact, the original beginning of that aforementioned novel, which was later cut and then made it into the world as a free novella by way of introduction. But then, it’s free, so it doesn’t matter to the reader if it is more of a prologue than a tale in itself.

The Three Fates is more of an introduction to the characters (or a reintroduction if you have read Empress of the Seven Hills). It doesn’t have a nicely-defined end, but it does provide a very good introduction to the protagonists and antagonists of ‘Lady’. As a taster it does the job impeccably. It introduces you in a short read to Kate’s writing, which is heady and absorbing and brings the perils and glories of the Hadrianic court into glorious light. Download it for free, read it and see whether you want to go on. I would recommend doing so, having read ‘Lady’, but with this novella you can make up your own mind with no pressure.

Secondly, I also found The Princess of Egypt Must Die by Stephanie Dray

sdI find it harder to comment on this one as an introduction since I’ve not yet read Stephanie’s ‘Lily of the Nile’ to which this connects. The difference between this and Kate’s is that this novella can stand alone as a read. Taking the story from Alexandria to the mountains of Thrace, this story hooked me for the oddest of reasons. Not because of the writing, which is certainly high quality, atmospheric and gripping, and not because of the characters, though they are well fleshed out and believable. And not because of the point of view, since it is written in first-person present tense, which is not my favourite POV to read from.

No. This hooked me because it is a fantastic, strange and wonderful mix, belonging to an era of great change and cultural mixing, when the pharaohs were as much Macedonian as they were Egyptian. The world is an odd mix of Egyptian, Greek, Macedonian, and even more barbarous peoples such as the Thracians. And Stephanie seems to have submersed herself in the cultures of all of them and got into the heads of her characters who feel truly alive in a fascinating world. In fact, it was so absorbing that Lily of the Nile is now on my list, largely because having read the novella I need to read on…

So there you go. Two free novellas to help you while away an hour or two. I highly recommend them both.

Happy Thursday, all.

Written by SJAT

October 15, 2015 at 9:25 am