Recommendation: “The War of the Wolf” by Bernard Cornwell

Now an old man, Uhtred of Bebbanburg finds himself drawn back to Wessex by old oaths and the inevitable coming invasion of Northumbria. But while an ailing King Edward means that soon he’ll find himself marching south, for now he is drawn north by personal vengeance and what may be his final battle.

I’ve heard a lot of criticism about Bernard Cornwall’s series being very samey. I can understand the argument. But I still find that each once is just as readable as the last, and I’ve been waiting eagerly for War of the Wolf to come out in paperback.

I think these books avoid seeming too similar by being based on history. The characters are driven by on actual events, and so while the plot and characters may undeniably have a similarity across all the books, the fact they are draped over the backdrop of history gives them a realism they might otherwise have lacked.

Saying that, I would have though I’d have liked this one less. The majority of the story in War of the Wolf is not based in real events. Essentially, the book sets up the coming death of Edward and rise of Ethelstan that I assume will be the drive of the next story, leaving the majority of the story fictional. But I still enjoyed reading this just as much as the previous stories.

There’s also the fact we’re coming to the end of this series. Uhtred is now in his sixties. And while he, our narrator, can’t die, Cornwall does a very good job of showing age catching up with him. He’s losing speed. He’s still imposing, but lacks the raw power of youth that drove him before. And at the same time, he can see that Christianity is winning, and the old religion, his religion, is passing away. He’s a man beginning to face his own mortality, but in a way that suits the character.

There’s maybe two more books left to this series, assuming that it will end with Ethelstan’s rise as the first king of England (sorry for spoilers, but I think we’re out of the statute of limitations for events over a millennia ago), and War of the Wolf kind of has the feeling of a quick breather before the final push to the climax of the story of the creation of England.

If you’re a fan of the series, that fact is going to leave you more than excited for the next instalment.

Recommendation: “Transcription” by Kate Atkinson

I am by now convinced that I’ll never not enjoy a Kate Atkinson novel. I can’t say this is my favourite of hers, but that still puts it above most other books. I picked this book up the day I found it had come out in paperback. Atkinson isn’t a writer who you see and don’t grab.

Juliet Armstrong is one of the hundreds of girls brought into the security service on the outbreak of the Second World War. Soon she is selected to join an MI5 operation tracking and recording Nazi sympathisers. We jump between 1940 and the doubts of the early days of the war, to 1950 as Juliet now works at the BBC and has to face new doubts about decisions she made during the war that might be coming back to haunt her.

As always Atkinson presents her story through and emotional and beautifully rendered world. If feels like a different type of historical spy novel. A spy thriller from the point of view of the transcription girl. And it is historical, based on real operations undertaken at the time.

As I said above, it’s not my favourite of Atkinson’s novels. She has written enough now that I feel that can be said without sounding like I’m saying she’s slipping. Some books will be better than others. It’s still an amazing read, and drags you along as soon as it grabs you.

Review: A Column of Fire

Once more this year I find a book I would normally love cursed by its own quality. Or in this case, the quality of what came before it.

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This is the third book in the Kingsbridge series. Or at least I guess it’s a series now there are three books. The first book, Pillars of the Earth, told the story of the building of Kingsbridge Cathedral, intertwining the lives and relationships of all those involved against the backdrop of the national upheaval of The Anarchy. The second book, World Without End managed to pick up the story a couple of hundred years later, taking us back to the same place and the descendants of the original characters as the Cathedral undergoes further work. It succeeded in bringing together the same elements once again with enough change to create a new story without feeling like it were retreading old ground.

Unfortunately, while A Column of Fire is an amazing book in its own right it doesn’t quite hit the same notes as its predecessors. This time the story sits during the time of the Catholic/Protestant conflicts during the time of Elizabeth the First. However this time the national event take prominence, with the link to Kingsbridge almost coincidental. Again the characters are descendants of the previous casts, but this time the town of Kingsbridge is merely their home town and has no plot of its own, while the characters take part in the national drama.

This doesn’t make the book bad. It’s an excellent piece of historical fiction. But without the local point of view taking prominence it lacks the same grounded charm as its predecessors. I would definitely recommend this book, but if you’re a fan of the previous books don’t expect exactly the same feel this time around.

Review: Herring Girl

This is one of my “Pick A Random Book I Know Nothing About” purchases, and this time around I had great luck with my selection. Debbie Taylor’s Herring Girl is an amazing book. Almost perfect in fact, if it weren’t for the fact that it manages to disappoint me through its not living up to its own promise. It’s strange when the main thing that detracts from the quality of a novel is itself. That’s how I feel about Herring Girl.

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The story is set up with Ben, a 12 year old boy with gender dysmorphia who’s desperate for a sex change before puberty sets in. Learning he has to have a psychological assessment he starts visiting a local doctor who leads him into past-live regression. Together they uncover the mystery of Anne, a young girl who went missing at the turn of the previous century and may, they believe, have been Ben’s previous life.

It goes on to explore the idea of reincarnation and group reincarnation, weaving together an incredibly compelling story and truly beautiful writing. I always take gushing cover quotes with a pinch of salt, but Taylor’s writing is so beautifully researched and realised that it’s impossible not to find yourself immersed in the world of an 1890s fishing town. The passion behind it shines through. I’ve never read a historical novel that managed to so complete put you right there in the immediacy of the period.

But the half of the story set in 1898 is told so well, the present-day sections just don’t keep up. The characters are great, but the story in these parts seems to coast along as a vehicle for the Past Life sections. That’s not to say they are bad, not at all. They’re just not as good as the other sections.

The main thing that bothered me was how the gender dysmorphia plotline fell back the wayside. I thought this was going to be a really interesting story, as it was clear Taylor had done her research and created the character so well that I wanted to know more about this side of them. But as soon as the past-life murder mystery kicks in the original plotline is barely mentioned again until the end.

I also felt that the reincarnation idea and past life regression therapy concept fell into place felt a little too easily. It seemed far to simple for someone to recall a previous life, and the way they were all linked was just a little too easy. The only obstacle seemed to be that certain people didn’t believe in it on principle. It has a lot of similar ideas and themes to Katherine Kerr’s Deverry Cycle, but where in a fantasy novel it’s easier to take outlandish ideas at face value, in a real-world setting I would have expected a little more difficulty.

It definitely picks up again towards the end, and the climax is astoundingly well written and wraps up the story perfectly. But such an intriguing opening and such a emotionally devastating ending, I just felt that the middle coasted along a little too much.

I can’t help but feel I’m being unfair to this book, as I’m only being harsh due to it’s own high standards. But there we are. It’s still a definite recommendation.