The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

Robert Harris has become a favourite author of mine in recent years; I loved An Officer and a Spy, the Cicero trilogy and Conclave, and so far only Archangel has disappointed me. When I received a copy of his new novel, The Second Sleep, a few weeks ago, I was so excited about reading it that I dropped several other books I was in the middle of so I could start it immediately. But would it live up to my high expectations?

The first thing to say is that, if I had started to read this book without knowing the author’s name, I would probably never have guessed it was by Robert Harris as it’s so different from all of the others I’ve read! Whether or not you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing will depend on whether you prefer to know what to expect from an author or whether you like a lot of diversity. Personally I found this a bit too different and it took me quite a long time to settle into the story. Once I did, I started to enjoy it, but I can’t say that this has become a favourite by Harris.

At first The Second Sleep appears to be a conventional historical mystery. We are told that the year is 1468 and we are introduced to a young priest, Christopher Fairfax, who has just arrived in a small, remote village in the south-west of England to conduct the funeral of parish priest Father Lacy. Fairfax expects to return to Exeter Cathedral within a day or two, but when he discovers that there may have been suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of Father Lacy, he ends up staying in the village for much longer than planned. It seems that the old priest had been putting together a collection of forbidden books and artefacts and it was this which may have led to his death.

And that’s really all I can tell you about the plot. After a few chapters it becomes obvious that there is nothing conventional at all about this story, so I would hate to give too much away and spoil things for other readers. All I will say is that the central idea on which the novel is based is both fascinating and frightening, as well as having a lot of relevance to today’s society.

The Second Sleep is a very atmospheric novel and Harris carefully builds a sense of time and place, describing the landscape, the lives of the villagers and the sense of isolation that comes with living in such a remote location. Up in the hills, an unusual construction known as the Devil’s Chair – where Father Lacy fell to his supposedly accidental death – becomes the focus of the strange occurrences taking place in and around the village. It’s a bleak and eerie setting which perfectly suits this unusual and unsettling story.

Although this book never quite reached page-turner status for me, the pace did pick up after a while and the ideas the novel explored were intriguing enough to keep me interested. The story seemed to be building towards something dramatic and I expected more twists and revelations at the end. When the ending came, however, I was left thinking, ‘is that it?’ I wondered if I had missed something, so I read the final chapter again but found it no more satisfying the second time. Looking at other early reviews of this novel (the book is published today here in the UK), most people have loved it, so although I did find a lot to enjoy I’m sorry that I couldn’t quite manage to love it too. I do have both Munich and Pompeii on my shelf, though, and am still looking forward to reading both of those sooner rather than later.

Thanks to the publisher Hutchinson for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor

I’ve been curious about The Chronicles of St Mary’s for a while; I enjoy anything to do with time travel, so I thought there was a good chance that I would like these books, but you can never be sure. That’s why, when the publisher made several of the books in the series available through NetGalley a few months ago, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to try the first one and see what it was like.

Just One Damned Thing After Another (the title is taken from a quote by Arnold Toynbee) introduces us to Madeleine Maxwell who, as the novel opens, is encouraged by her old schoolteacher and mentor, Mrs de Winter, to apply for the position of historian at St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research. Max, as she is known, is instantly intrigued; she has had a passion for history since discovering a book about Henry V and the Battle of Agincourt as a child. She applies for the job and is invited for an interview, but as she is shown around her future place of work, she quickly becomes aware that this is no ordinary academic institute…and that the historians of St Mary’s are no ordinary historians.

The Institute has developed a form of time travel which allows the historians to travel back in time inside fully equipped ‘pods’ in order to investigate some of history’s many mysteries – large and small – at first-hand. From “being able to say with authority, ‘Yes, the Princes in the Tower were alive at the end of Richard III’s reign, I know because I saw them with my own eyes’” to understanding the secret of Greek Fire and how to handle a Roman chariot, the possibilities are endless. But so are the dangers: pods that malfunction with terrifying results, hostile groups of rival time travellers, as well as all the other hazards you would expect to find on a journey into a less enlightened time. Max and her friends are constantly getting into trouble – particularly Max, who seems to attract disaster like a magnet – but they see it as a risk worth taking in return for being able to see and experience so many wonderful things.

We don’t learn a huge amount about any of the historical periods to which Max travels (only the Cretaceous period has a significant amount of time devoted to it), but that’s not really the point of the book. The enjoyment is in following the adventures Max and the other St Mary’s historians have as they travel through time – and in sympathising with Max’s various accidents and mishaps, some of which are her own fault, but certainly not all! The story is narrated in Max’s own strong and humorous voice, which adds to the sense of fun.

Apart from Max herself, though, I didn’t feel that I got to know any of the other characters very well, but maybe they will be developed further in future books. Although I don’t feel the compulsion to continue with this series immediately (I did enjoy meeting Max, but I think I would find it a bit overwhelming to spend too long in her company), I do still plan to read the second book and am looking forward to finding out where the historians will travel to next. And of course, now I’m wondering where I would choose to go if I had one of the St Mary’s pods at my disposal…

This is book 9/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay’s newest novel, A Brightness Long Ago, is a prequel to 2016’s Children of Earth and Sky but although they are set in the same world and share one or two characters, each book also works as a standalone. I think this is probably my favourite of the two, although I enjoyed both.

Like most of Kay’s novels, A Brightness Long Ago takes place in a land which closely resembles a real historical setting – in this case, Renaissance Italy. Our narrator is Guidanio Cerra of Seressa, a city which, with its lagoon and canals, clearly corresponds to Venice. Guidanio is looking back at events from his past, beginning with his time at the court of Uberto of Mylasia, a cruel tyrant who once ‘sealed an enemy in a cask to see if he might observe the soul escaping when his prisoner died’ and who has become known as the Beast due to his treatment of the young girls and boys he summons to his chamber at night. As the son of a humble Seressan tailor, Guidanio knows it is a great honour to have been given a position at Uberto’s court but he quickly discovers what sort of man he is serving and so he is not at all sorry when the Beast is assassinated one night by the latest young woman who has been brought to his rooms.

Her name is Adria Ripoli, the Duke of Macera’s daughter, and she is acting on the orders of her uncle, Folco Cino, a leader of mercenaries. Having witnessed Adria enter Uberto’s chamber to carry out the assassination, Guidanio helps her to escape before she can be captured. He expects never to see her again, but as chance would have it their paths do soon cross again and Guidanio finds himself drawn into the conflict between Folco Cino and his rival mercenary commander, Teobaldo Monticola, two powerful men whose actions could determine the fate of Batiara (Italy).

A Brightness Long Ago explores some of Kay’s favourite themes, such as chance encounters, the spinning of Fortune’s Wheel, and the idea that the small decisions each of us make every day of our lives could have wider repercussions, affecting not only our own future but the future of others too – in other words, that everything we do matters. These are topics that Kay returns to again and again in his novels but they seemed particularly dominant in this one and that was my only slight criticism of the book – not the ideas themselves, but the way the authorial voice is constantly reminding us that ‘things matter’. I would have preferred a more subtle approach, I think! Anyway, the writing was still as beautiful as I’ve come to expect; as some of you will know, I choose a quotation from every book I read for my end-of-month Commonplace Book posts – I will have a difficult choice when I come to put this month’s post together as almost every sentence in this book was worthy of being quoted!

The 15th century Italian (or Batiaran) setting was already familiar to me from Children of Earth and Sky, but even if you haven’t read that book, if you have any knowledge of Renaissance Italy you will probably be able to draw parallels between some of Kay’s characters and members of the Medici, Borgia and Sforza families, among others. There’s a dramatic horse race – one of the most memorable set pieces in the book – inspired by the real life Palio race which has taken place in Siena for centuries, and the fall of Sarantium (Constantinople) is also covered. The different names Kay uses for these people, places and events, along with the two moons in the sky – one blue and one white – mean this book can be classed as ‘historical fantasy’, but there aren’t really any other fantasy elements in the story at all. That’s not a problem for me, but if you’re new to Guy Gavriel Kay and hoping for something with magic and wizards, I would recommend starting with Tigana instead.

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh has written nine novels, as well as several non-fiction books, but so far my experience of his work has been confined to Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke and Flood of Fire, three novels known as the Ibis Trilogy, which are set in China and India during the First Opium War of 1839-1842. I loved those books, so even though his new one, Gun Island, sounded completely different, I was still looking forward to reading it.

Unlike the Ibis Trilogy, Gun Island is set entirely in the modern day. Our narrator, Dinanath Datta – known as Deen – has been leading a quiet, uneventful life in Brooklyn as a dealer of rare books. In fact, sometimes it is too quiet and uneventful. Approaching his sixties and feeling very alone in the world, Deen visits Bengal, the place of his birth, in the hope of meeting someone special with whom to share the rest of his life. Instead, he meets a distant relative who tells him the story of the Gun Merchant, a legendary figure who had dramatic adventures at sea while fleeing the wrath of the snake goddess Manasa Devi, before taking refuge on the island of Bonduk-dwip or ‘Gun Island’, a land free of serpents.

As Deen digs deeper into the legend and embarks on a journey to one of the historical sites associated with the story, he enlists the help of his friends Piya, a Bengali-American teacher, and Cinta, an Italian academic. But it is not until he gets to know two young men – Tipu and Rafi, who help him to see the world from another perspective – that Deen finally begins to unravel the riddles of the Gun Merchant.

The first half of the novel, set in India and America, is fascinating; I particularly enjoyed Deen’s visit to the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans. Although I found the pace quite slow, I loved the exploration of the Gun Merchant legend and what its true meaning may have been. Amitav Ghosh is obviously an author who likes to play with words and language, something which is more prominent in Sea of Poppies and its sequels but is apparent in this book too. We – and Deen – soon discover that some of the names of places and people mentioned in the legend could mean something entirely different than they initially seemed to.

Two other themes play an important part in the novel and both are hugely relevant to modern life: climate change and migration. These are introduced into the story gradually at first, as Deen’s friends share their theories of how increasing temperatures and rising water levels are leading to the movement of both wildlife and people. In the second half of the book, however, after the action switches to Venice and begins to focus on the stories of migrants who have made the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean from Libya, the story seems to lose its way. Ghosh clearly feels passionate about these issues, but the way he incorporates them into the novel is a bit too heavy-handed and at times I felt as though I was reading a long essay or an article in The Guardian instead of a work of fiction. I think part of the problem is that we see everything from Deen’s perspective and, for most of the book, he is a passive onlooker, listening to accounts of other people’s experiences rather than experiencing things for himself.

Gun Island is an interesting read but the balance between the story and the message isn’t quite right. There are also far too many coincidences, with Deen meeting people by chance whom he had previously met on the other side of the world. As I did enjoy those other books by Amitav Ghosh, I would be happy to try more of his work, but this particular novel just wasn’t for me.

This is book 3/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper

This week Simon from Stuck in a Book and Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings are hosting another of their club events, where bloggers read and write about books published in a chosen year. This time the year is 1965 and as usual I found a wide variety of books to choose from, as well as a few that I’d already read. Over Sea, Under Stone, the first book in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence was published in 1965 and as I’ve wanted to read that series for a long time this seemed the perfect opportunity to begin.

I did wonder whether I might have read this book when I was younger and forgotten about it, but as soon as I started to read I knew I couldn’t have done as it didn’t seem familiar at all. The story begins with three children – Simon, Jane and Barney – arriving in Trewissick, a small fishing village in Cornwall where they will be spending the summer holidays with their parents and Great Uncle Merry. The children have fun exploring the large house the family are renting, particularly when they move some furniture and discover a secret door leading into a dusty hidden room.

Up to this point, I thought the book had a feeling of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe about it, but the plot soon goes in a very different direction when the children find an ancient manuscript inside the hidden room. The manuscript includes a drawing of what appears to be the Trewissick coastline and some text which they are unable to translate, apart from a possible reference to King Arthur and his knights. Could it be a treasure map – and if so, what sort of treasure is it leading them to?

On sharing their news with Great Uncle Merry, the children learn the true significance of the map they have found and set off to follow the clues it contains. But it seems that other people have also been looking for the map and will stop at nothing to get hold of it and discover its secrets for themselves.

Over Sea, Under Stone is described as a children’s novel, but I think it is one of those books that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. It did often remind me of the Enid Blyton adventure stories I loved as a child, but this book feels darker than anything Blyton wrote. The villains are quite sinister and there were several points in the novel when I was genuinely worried about the children! It doesn’t help that our young heroes and heroine make some stupid decisions and choose the wrong people to trust – but they are children, after all! I liked the way Susan Cooper gives each of them his or her own strengths and weaknesses and their own chance to shine and play a part in solving the mystery.

The Cornish coastline is beautifully described and although the village of Trewissick is fictional, it felt very real to me and I wasn’t surprised to learn later that Susan Cooper based it on Mevagissey, a real fishing port in Cornwall. The coast, with its rocks and caves, beaches, cliffs and bays, is an integral part of the story and not just a pretty setting!

This is a great book and I do regret not reading it as a child, as I’m sure I would have loved it then. I will definitely be continuing with the rest of the series, although I’m aware that the other books are a bit different and have a stronger fantasy element.

~

I will have another 1965 read to tell you about later in the week, but for now here are some other 1965 books I have previously reviewed on my blog:

Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart

Stoner by John Williams

The Flight of the Falcon by Daphne du Maurier

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

‘You’re right, of course,’ he said finally. ‘I’m not very good at thinking up plots, that’s the problem. I feel like all the stories in the universe have already been told.’

‘But that’s just not true,’ I insisted. ‘There’s an infinite supply for anyone with an imagination’.

This month is Reading Ireland Month. I wasn’t sure whether I’d have time to join in, but then I remembered I had A Ladder to the Sky on the TBR pile and, of course, John Boyne is an Irish author. I have read and enjoyed several of his books and this – his most recent, published in 2018 – sounded as though it would be another good one.

John Boyne’s books are always imaginative and always a little bit different to anything else I’ve read and this one is no exception. It tells the story of Maurice Swift, an aspiring novelist whose ambition knows no bounds and who is prepared to do whatever it takes to climb the ‘ladder to the sky’. The first section of the book, however, is written from the perspective of Erich Ackermann, a successful author who is touring Europe to promote his latest novel. Erich, a gay man in his sixties, has almost given up on the idea of finding love, but when he meets Maurice at a hotel in West Berlin in 1988, he feels an instant attraction to the young man and offers him a job as his assistant. Soon he finds himself confiding in Maurice, telling him all the secrets of his past and his youth growing up in Nazi Germany. But can Maurice be trusted – and what might he do with the information he has been given?

While I was reading this opening section, I was beginning to feel confused. It wasn’t really what I’d expected from the blurb – it seemed as though Erich Ackermann was the protagonist of the novel rather than Maurice and instead of reading a story about an ambitious young author I was reading one about Nazis and the fate of a family of Jews during the war. Eventually, though, I understood the point of all this and saw where the plot was heading. As one of the characters in the novel remarks, sometimes you need to give a book at least one hundred pages before making up your mind (“Yes, perhaps you’ll be bored at the start, but what if it gets better and suddenly everything that went before falls into place”) and that was certainly the case here. The book became more and more enjoyable the more I read, and by the time I reached the end I could appreciate the clever structure and the way in which Maurice’s true nature was revealed.

I won’t go into too many details about the things Maurice does as he tries to climb the ladder of ambition, but I can tell you that he is not a pleasant person at all. He is ruthless, cruel, completely without morals and doesn’t seem to care how much he hurts and betrays people. As an author, he suffers from a problem which will be familiar to many aspiring writers – he knows he can write, but he doesn’t know what to write about. Unable to think of any stories of his own, he decides to steal other people’s. But these are not just simple cases of plagiarism; the methods Maurice uses to obtain these stories and pass them off as his own are much worse than anyone could imagine.

Although the novel is quite dark at times (the section narrated by Maurice’s wife, Edith, is particularly disturbing) there’s also some humour, especially when Boyne is having fun satirising the literary world and various author stereotypes – for example, we meet Henry Etta James who writes an award-winning novel called I Am Dissatisfied with My Boyfriend, My Body and My Career and Garrett Colby whose books all feature talking animals, including one about an ‘unrequited love affair between a man and a raccoon’. At one point Maurice also picks up a book by Maude Avery, the fictitious author from Boyne’s previous novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, which I thought was a nice touch. Real authors find their way into the novel too, such as Gore Vidal, whom Maurice visits at his villa on the Amalfi Coast.

I ended up loving this book; in fact, with the exception of The Thief of Time, I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by John Boyne so far. I still have four of his earlier adult novels to read: The Congress of Rough Riders, Next of Kin, Mutiny on the Bounty and The House of Special Purpose. If anyone has read one or more of those, I’d love to know which you’d recommend I read next.

Giant’s Bread by Mary Westmacott

I was aware that Agatha Christie had written several books under the name of Mary Westmacott but I had never really thought about trying one until I saw that the February book for the Read Christie 2019 Challenge was Giant’s Bread. Published in 1930, this is the first of the Westmacott novels, so seemed like a good place to start with them. Now that I’ve read it, I can see why she used a pseudonym as it’s very different from the mystery novels for which she is much more famous, but it’s still enjoyable in its own way and I will definitely be going on to read more Westmacott books.

Giant’s Bread is the story of a young man and his love of music. We first meet Vernon Deyre as a child, growing up in a wealthy household under the care of a succession of nursemaids and servants. With a highly-strung, melodramatic mother and a father who is more interested in other women than in his wife, Vernon retreats into a world of imaginary friends – and imaginary monsters, such as the grand piano, which he thinks of as a vicious ‘Beast’ with teeth. This irrational fear makes him avoid all forms of music until, as an adult, he allows himself to listen for the first time and is enchanted by what he hears.

Although the focus is mainly on Vernon as he pursues a career in music, determined to make up for all the years he has wasted, we follow the stories of several other characters too. There’s Joe (Josephine), Vernon’s cousin and best friend, an independent and rebellious young woman who wants to become a sculptor; the beautiful, timid Nell Vereker, Vernon’s childhood playmate with whom he later falls in love; Jane Harding, an older woman who shares his love of music; and Sebastian Levinne, whose family buy the house next to the Deyres’ estate, Abbots Puissants. Sebastian is Jewish, and yes, you can expect some of the anti-Semitism that appeared in so many books from this era – but despite that, I thought he was portrayed as the most likeable of the five main characters in the novel. The others are all deeply flawed people but, of course, that is what makes them and their struggles so interesting to read about.

Before I started to read Giant’s Bread, I had the impression that Mary Westmacott’s books were light romances, but that’s not how I would describe this one at all. Although characters do fall in and out of love over the course of the novel, it’s not a very romantic story – more a story of the sacrifices we are prepared or not prepared to make in order to get what we want out of life. This is illustrated particularly well with Nell’s storyline, in which she has to decide whether her love for Vernon is more important to her than her love of comfort and luxury.

Towards the end of the novel, things became much more dramatic, with some very implausible plot twists and some coincidences that seemed far too convenient! It was disappointing because up to that point I had really believed in the story and the characters. This did let the book down, in my opinion, but didn’t spoil it too much, as there had been so much else that I’d loved. The early chapters describing Vernon’s childhood were wonderful and captured the way a lonely, imaginative little boy may have looked at the world. Later in the book, I enjoyed reading about Nell’s experiences as a nurse during the First World War.

On finishing the book, I wasn’t entirely sure what message Christie wanted us to take away from it. Yes, Vernon and the others had made sacrifices, but were we supposed to agree that those sacrifices were worthwhile or not? If anyone else has read the book, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on that. I do like books that leave me with something to think about and this one certainly did. I hope the other Mary Westmacott novels will be equally fascinating.

If you’re wondering, the title Giant’s Bread comes from the lines spoken by the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk – ‘Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman. Be he alive, or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread’.