Blood and Sand by Rosemary Sutcliff

Rosemary Sutcliff is probably best known as a children’s author, but she also wrote several novels for adults and Blood and Sand, published in 1987, is one of them.

Blood and Sand is based on the true story of Thomas Keith, a Scottish soldier serving in the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars. Taking part in the Alexandria expedition of 1807 – an operation designed to capture the city of Alexandria in Egypt – Thomas is taken prisoner by Ottoman forces at El Hamed. Most of his fellow captives are sent back to Cairo as prisoners of war, but the Ottoman general in command of El Hamed has other plans for Thomas, who is ‘an extremely personable young soldier who speaks French, knows how to bear pain like a gentleman, and is the best swordsman and shot in his regiment’. Sent to train in the desert with the Bedouin cavalry, Thomas gradually rises through the ranks to enter the service of Tussun Bey, the Viceroy of Egypt’s youngest son, and to become Governor of Medina.

You may be wondering how it was possible for a Christian to reach such heights within the Ottoman Empire, so I should explain that Thomas makes the decision to convert to Islam. He does this partly because he is advised that it is the only way to progress in his military career but also because during his time as a prisoner he reads about and studies the Islamic religion and decides that conversion is something he feels comfortable with. However, it seemed to me that he made this choice a bit too easily and quickly; I would have found it more convincing if he had struggled with it more and if he had thought more often of the life he had left behind in Edinburgh and to which he would now never be able to return.

As far as I can tell – I had never heard of Thomas Keith until reading this book – most of the characters in the novel really did exist and most of the events described really did happen. This certainly seems to be true of the battles and military campaigns, but also two of the novel’s most exciting and memorable scenes: a dramatic duel and a desperate battle for survival on a dark turnpike stair. Of course, it’s Sutcliff’s skill as a writer which brings these scenes to life and fills them with suspense and tension, but it sounds as though the real Thomas Keith must have had a fascinating career and some hair-raising adventures. It’s surprising that he has not been a more popular subject for historical fiction.

In her author’s note Sutcliff says that the only area where she relies completely on her imagination is with the romance she creates for Thomas. This possibly explains why our hero’s love interest doesn’t appear until halfway through the book and only plays a relatively small role in the story. A much more interesting and moving relationship is the one between Thomas and Tussun, the Viceroy’s son – a relationship which develops over the years as Tussun grows from an impulsive, hot-headed teenager into a mature, well-respected leader and although it stops short of actual romantic love, is deeper than a normal friendship.

I enjoyed the first half of the novel very much, but later in the book Thomas and Tussun become embroiled in fighting against the Wahabis of Arabia and the heavy focus on military action was much less interesting to me than the more human story I had been finding so engrossing. That’s just my personal taste, though, and the battle scenes will probably appeal to other readers more than they did to me. I didn’t love this book quite as much as I’d thought I was going to at first, then, but I will certainly be reading more by Rosemary Sutcliff, having enjoyed both this one and The Rider of the White Horse.

Beneath a Burning Sky by Jenny Ashcroft

I was drawn to Beneath a Burning Sky by the setting – Egypt in the late 19th century – and comparisons to other authors I’ve enjoyed, such as Victoria Hislop and Dinah Jefferies, made it sound even more appealing. Including it on my 20 Books of Summer list ensured that I got to it quickly but, although I did find a lot to like, I was left with feelings that were much more mixed than I’d hoped.

The plot is an exciting one. It begins shortly after twenty-two-year-old Olivia marries businessman Alistair Sheldon and leaves England to live with him in Egypt, the country where she spent her own early childhood. It’s not long before she becomes aware of the true nature of her cruel, abusive husband, but she is unwilling to admit to anyone just how unhappy her marriage is and devotes herself instead to settling into her new home in Alexandria and to getting to know her sister Clara, with whom she has just been reacquainted after many years.

When Clara disappears on a trip into the city – seemingly abducted from a busy street – Olivia is devastated. This is the second time she has lost her sister and she is determined to do everything she can to rescue her. As she searches for clues to explain Clara’s disappearance, however, she becomes convinced that her own husband, Alistair, may have had something to do with it. It’s a terrible situation to be in and even the one bright spot in Olivia’s life – her relationship with Edward Bertram, Alistair’s lodger – is just another additional complication. As the story unfolds, there is plenty of the “love and betrayal and mystery” promised by the blurb; all the ingredients for a great novel, so I was disappointed that, for me, they didn’t quite come together to form a successful whole.

My biggest problem with the book was the beginning. I found the opening chapters confusing and muddled. A lot of characters seemed to be introduced all at once – and had such involved and eventful backstories that I wondered if this was actually a sequel and if the early lives of Olivia and Clara had already been covered in a previous book (it isn’t and they hadn’t). Things did settle down after a while, but I still felt that some aspects of the plot were never fully explained or resolved.

Although I came to like and care about the two main characters, Olivia and Edward, and wanted them to find some happiness together, I thought the novel’s villains were just too evil to be true. Alistair had no nuances to his character and no redeeming qualities at all, while Olivia and Clara’s grandmother Mildred, a bitter, spiteful woman, had a hatred for her granddaughters which seemed out of proportion to the explanation that was given. There were some interesting characters amongst the Egyptians, though, particularly Nailah, a young woman whose story is linked with Olivia’s in ways which don’t become clear until the end of the book. The decision to write the novel from the perspectives of both Egyptian and British characters provided an opportunity to compare lifestyles and attitudes and to see things from more than one angle.

I didn’t feel that I learned much about the history of the period but, to be fair, it wasn’t really that sort of book. I think it will have more appeal to readers who enjoy romantic suspense rather than those who are looking for a more detailed work of historical fiction – personally I enjoy both, so despite my problems with Beneath a Burning Sky I still liked it enough to keep reading to the end, curious to see what had happened to Clara and whether Olivia and Edward could find a way to be together.

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

This is Book 7/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

The Curse of the Pharaohs by Elizabeth Peters

Curse of the Pharaohs This is the second book in Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series. I read the first one, Crocodile on the Sandbank, two years ago in January 2012 and enjoyed it, so I’m not sure why it has has taken me so long to get round to reading this one.

The Curse of the Pharaohs is set in the late Victorian period and begins five years after the previous book ended. Amelia is happily married to the archaeologist Radcliffe Emerson and they now have a young son, Ramses. Despite longing to return to their work in Egypt, Amelia and Emerson have spent most of the last five years at home in England because they’re unable to agree on what to do about Ramses. But when Lady Baskerville, an old friend of Emerson’s whose husband has recently died, asks Emerson to continue Lord Baskerville’s excavation of an Egyptian tomb, he and Amelia are unable to resist. To make things even more interesting, there are suspicious circumstances surrounding Lord Baskerville’s death – and a possible link with an ancient pharaoh’s curse.

Leaving Ramses with his aunt and uncle, Amelia and Emerson head for Egypt where they begin the exciting task of excavating the pharaoh’s tomb, but soon there are more deaths and more attacks, often accompanied by sightings of a mysterious woman dressed in white. Amelia is now convinced that Lord Baskerville was murdered and that the murderer must be one of the people she and Emerson have met since their arrival in Luxor: the Irish Daily Yell reporter Kevin O’Connell maybe, or could it be Madame Berengaria, who believes she is the reincarnation of an Egyptian Queen, the rich American Mr Vandergelt, or even Lady Baskerville herself?

Beyond the actual mystery – which I found stronger and more complex than the one in the first book – there are two things I particularly liked about this book (and they are the same things I liked about the previous one). The first is the setting. Egypt is always fascinating to read about! I like the fact that although Peters herself has a PhD in Egyptology, she doesn’t go too deeply into the technical details of the subject, so that even those of us who know very little about Egyptian pharaohs, hieroglyphs or archeological digs can follow what’s happening and share in the enthusiasm Amelia and Emerson have for their work.

The second thing I love is Amelia’s narrative voice. From other people’s reviews of books in this series it seems that a lot of readers find Amelia’s strong, opinionated personality very off-putting at first. Luckily that hasn’t been a problem for me; it only took two or three chapters of Crocodile on the Sandbank for me to get used to her and start to warm to her. I think her practical, no-nonsense style fits perfectly with the entertaining plots and the ridiculous situations she finds herself in.

I enjoyed this second book as much as the first, although I did find the two very similar and while I’m looking forward to the third, The Mummy Case, I am concerned that they might lose their appeal unless I try to space them out. However, I have another sixteen or seventeen books to go, I think, so I’ll try not to let too much time go by before picking up book three! I can’t wait to get to know Ramses better in future books. He’s still just a lisping baby in this book but I’m looking forward to him being old enough to join Amelia and Emerson in their adventures!

The Sacred River by Wendy Wallace

The Sacred River This is Wendy Wallace’s second historical fiction novel. I remember hearing about her first, The Painted Bridge, last year but never got round to reading it so I was pleased to have a chance to read this one, The Sacred River. This book is set in the nineteenth century and is the story of three women and how their lives are changed during a visit to Egypt.

Harriet Heron is twenty three years old but still feels that she is treated like a child. She has suffered from severe asthma for many years and feels stifled by her over-protective parents. Having always been fascinated by the Ancient Egyptians, Harriet is delighted when the doctor manages to convince her mother and father that a trip to Egypt for a change of air will improve her health. Finally she has a chance to escape from her sheltered life in London and see the world.

Harriet soon sets off on her voyage to Egypt in the company of her mother, Louisa, and her Aunt Yael but before they reach their destination, Alexandria, a meeting with an artist on board the ship causes tension between Harriet and her mother. It seems that the secrets of Louisa’s past could be about to be revealed, destroying Harriet’s happiness in the process. But this is not just the story of Harriet and Louisa; another character with an interesting story is Yael, Harriet’s aunt. On their arrival in Alexandria, Yael is shocked by the lack of health care available to the city’s children and plans to start a clinic to educate their mothers, but she soon discovers that the people she had been relying on to help her are reluctant to get involved.

Harriet is a wonderful character and I loved the way she grew and blossomed as a person over the course of the novel, as her health improved and she began to find the freedom she had always longed for. But I also liked Yael and admired her for her energy, determination and desire to make a difference. Like Harriet, she discovers a happiness and fulfilment in Alexandria that was lacking from her life at home in England. Louisa is the only one not enjoying life in Egypt and the reason for this is only revealed very slowly. We know it’s due to something that happened in her past and that it involves Eyre Soane, the artist the women meet on the ship, but the details remain a mystery until later in the book.

Egypt is always a fascinating and atmospheric setting, yet I don’t seem to have read many books that are set there. Harriet’s (and presumably the author’s) enthusiasm for the wonders of the ancient world, for archaeology and hieroglyphics shines through and it was good to have the opportunity to learn a little bit about the subjects Harriet is so passionate about. I must remember to look out for Wendy Wallace’s first novel, The Painted Bridge, having enjoyed this second one so much!

Thanks to Simon & Schuster for providing a review copy.

Jasmine Nights by Julia Gregson

Jasmine Nights It’s 1942 and World War II fighter pilot Dom Benson is recovering in hospital after being injured in a plane crash. It is here that he meets Saba Tarcan, a talented young singer who has come to entertain the wounded soldiers in Dom’s hospital ward. Saba and Dom are instantly attracted to each other but before their relationship has a chance to develop, Saba passes an audition to join ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association) and is sent to North Africa to perform for the troops.

Soon after her arrival in Cairo, Saba is approached by the Secret Service and finds herself agreeing to spy for them. She is under strict orders not to tell anyone about her mission, but when Dom returns to action with the Air Force and is also sent to Egypt will their relationship be able to withstand Saba’s secrets?

I love reading novels set during World War II and I particularly enjoy those that approach the subject from an unusual perspective or cover aspects of the war that we don’t often hear about. Jasmine Nights does both, so it really should have been a book that I loved. Unfortunately it wasn’t. I had no problems with the style of Julia Gregson’s writing, I thought the settings – wartime Cairo, Alexandria and Istanbul – were fascinating to read about and there was certainly enough material here to form a compelling story. It just lacked that special spark that would have transformed it into a book that I could wholeheartedly recommend.

Individually, both Saba and Dom are interesting, complex characters. Despite her strict Turkish father disapproving of her choice of career, Saba is ambitious and determined to fulfil her dreams of becoming a successful singer and escaping the monotony of her life in Wales, even if it means losing contact with her family. After joining ENSA, Saba is forced to juggle her relationship with Dom, her singing career and her desire to serve her country and help the war effort. Over the course of the novel, she has to make some difficult decisions and try to decide which of these things is most important to her. Dom also has an interesting story of his own and we see him struggling to come to terms with the idea of flying again after his crash and his guilt about escaping death when some of his close friends were not so lucky.

I liked both main characters but their romance never felt very natural or believable to me. A wartime love story should be very emotional but this one left me unmoved and I would have preferred more focus on the spying storyline instead. I knew female entertainers sometimes acted as spies during the war, but I’ve never read about the subject in a novel before and this was what had initially attracted me to this book. Sadly, I found this aspect of the story disappointing too. There was a lot of build up but it seemed to take such a long time before Saba found herself in any real danger and for a book about war and espionage it was strangely unexciting, without any of the suspense and tension I would have expected.

I did enjoy the descriptions of life as part of ENSA and the variety of colourful characters Saba meets in the troupe, including Janine the dancer, Willie the comedian and one of the other singers, Arleta, who becomes a good friend of Saba’s and was probably my favourite character. But this was not enough to rescue the book for me and I just felt that there was not enough depth, not enough emotion and none of the magic I was hoping for in a book that had sounded so promising.

Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters

Crocodile on the Sandbank is the first of Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody books, a series of historical mystery novels set in Egypt and following the adventures of a Victorian lady with a passion for archaeology.

When we first meet Amelia at the beginning of the novel, she has recently inherited a fortune following her father’s death and is planning to use some of her money to visit Egypt. Passing through Rome on her way to Cairo, Amelia rescues a young woman, Evelyn Barton-Forbes, who has been abandoned by her lover and the two become friends and travelling companions. After they arrive in Egypt, Amelia and Evelyn meet archaeologist Radcliffe Emerson and his younger brother Walter, who are working on a dig at Amarna. The two women soon team up with the Emerson brothers to tackle a mysterious mummy who seems to be stalking them at night!

Amelia is the book’s first person narrator, but I wasn’t sure at first if I was going to like her. She has a very sharp, witty narrative voice and for the first few chapters I found her alternatively amusing and irritating. Luckily though, after I got to know her better I started to warm to her. As well as being outspoken and sarcastic she’s also brave, intelligent and loyal to her friends – and definitely not a conventional Victorian woman! Emerson is a very strong character too and I enjoyed watching his relationship with Amelia develop.

Although I am interested in history, Ancient Egypt has never been one of my favourite subjects to read about, but Amelia and Emerson are so enthusiastic about Egypt and archaeology that I ended up with more enthusiasm for the subject too. The adventures they have exploring tombs, discovering mummies and deciphering hieroglyphics all sound so fascinating!

The mystery itself wasn’t one of the novel’s strong points though. It was hard to believe that someone as intelligent as Amelia wasn’t able to immediately work out what was happening and who the villain was. But like Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries, I think the charm of this book was in the setting and the characters (or Amelia and Emerson, at least – the other characters didn’t have a lot of depth) rather than the mystery.

The overall tone of Crocodile on the Sandbank is light and entertaining and although I’m not completely convinced about this series yet, I did like this book enough to want to read the second one. I’ll remember to pick up The Curse of the Pharaohs next time I want to relax with another fun Egyptian adventure.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

The famous historian Claudia Hampton is dying. From her hospital bed she tells the nurse that she is going to write a history of the world: “A history of the world…and in the process, my own”.

Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger won the Booker Prize in 1987 and yet it’s not a book that I’ve ever heard much about. Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t know anything about it, as I would otherwise probably have felt too intimidated by the thought of reading it and might never have picked it up. And that would have been a shame because although it was certainly a complex, challenging book, it was also one that I found very rewarding and I didn’t regret the time and effort I put into reading it.

I really wanted to love Moon Tiger. And I did love parts of it. The whole book is beautifully written (I particularly liked the final chapter) and I found myself constantly marking passages I wanted to remember. The only problem I had was that the story was too fragmented for me. The narration jumps from third person past tense to first person past tense to third person present tense – as well as back and forth in time. Eventually I began to really appreciate how well-structured the story actually was, but unfortunately it didn’t start to work for me until I was halfway through the novel.

As Claudia explains at the beginning of the book she is taking a ‘kaleidoscopic’ view of history. One idea leads to another with only very tenuous connections between them. The most tiny and innocent things that happen in the hospital (a conversation with the nurse about God, a poinsettia plant brought in by her sister-in-law) trigger memories which lead to other memories and then other memories…

Sometimes the narrator also changes very abruptly, so that we see the same scene from two different perspectives. This made things even more confusing, but did help build up a full, balanced picture of Claudia. And Claudia is not the most likeable of people. I loved her as a character – she’s fascinating and unconventional – but not as a person. At first I couldn’t understand her animosity towards her sister-in-law, Sylvia, and I was frustrated that she wasn’t more loving to her daughter, Lisa. The reasons for her behaviour are revealed only very slowly as the story progresses and the secrets of Claudia’s past come to light. This gave the novel some suspense and mystery, as not everything was obvious from the beginning and a lot of things didn’t fall into place until near the very end. I still couldn’t actually like Claudia, but at least I could understand her better.

I did like the way Claudia talked about history and how she was able to relate historical events to events from her own past. To Claudia, history is a personal subject – she writes her history books for the general public, in language that they can understand. And just as it would be difficult to write a history of the entire world in strictly chronological order, the story Penelope Lively tells in Moon Tiger is not chronological either.

Where the book really comes into its own is in Claudia’s recollections of Egypt when she was working in Cairo as a war correspondent during World War II. The descriptions of Egypt are vivid and realistic, the type that could only be written by someone familiar with the country (as Penelope Lively was). It’s in these sections that we begin to see a softer side of Claudia – and in case you were wondering, this is also when we finally learn what a Moon Tiger is!

I still find it hard to say what I thought about this book. I was impressed by it, but did I actually enjoy it? No, not really – but it was certainly one of the most interesting and unusual books I’ve read this year.