A review for Shiny New Books: The Sun King Conspiracy

This is just a quick post to let you know that Issue 10 of Shiny New Books is out today!


If you haven’t come across it yet, Shiny New Books is an online recommendations magazine for book lovers and is packed with reviews and other features. I was happy to provide a review of The Sun King Conspiracy by Yves Jégo and Denis Lépée for this edition.

This is what the book is about:

The Sun King Conspiracy “This fascinating and complex historical thriller is set in 1661 at the court of France’s Sun King, Louis XIV. As the novel opens, Cardinal Mazarin, Chief Minister to the young king, is dying. Having effectively ruled France alongside Anne of Austria throughout Louis’ early years, the balance of power is set to change with his death. When a fire breaks out in Mazarin’s palace, some incriminating coded documents are stolen from the dying Cardinal – documents which must be prevented from falling into the wrong hands. The theft sparks a power struggle among rival factions, with political figures as prominent as Nicolas Fouquet and Jean-Baptiste Colbert drawn into a race to find the mysterious papers.

Also drawn into this dangerous game – much against his will – is Gabriel de Pontbriand, an aspiring young actor who has come to Paris to pursue his dream of a career in the theatre. Mazarin’s stolen documents unexpectedly come into Gabriel’s possession and, to his horror, he recognises the signature at the bottom of one of the papers. Caught between the schemes of unscrupulous politicians on one side and a secretive religious brotherhood on the other, Gabriel finds himself at the heart of a conspiracy which has the potential to change the future of France and its monarchy forever…”

You can read the rest of my review here – and don’t forget to explore the rest of the new issue!

The Moor’s Account – and a Shiny New Books Q and A

Just a quick post to let you know that Issue 7 of Shiny New Books is out today!


Shiny New Books is an online magazine for book lovers and is packed with book reviews, news and other features. In this issue, I have provided a Q & A with author Laila Lalami. Below you can read my review of her Man Booker longlisted novel The Moor’s Account.

The Moors Account In 1527, the Spanish conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez embarks on an expedition to the New World. With five ships and six hundred men, there’s every reason to hope that the voyage will be a success and will result in the area now known as the Gulf Coast of the United States being claimed for Spain. Within a year, however, most of the men have succumbed to disease, lack of food, extreme weather and encounters with Native American tribes. Eventually, only four of the original party remain: the treasurer of the expedition, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca; the nobleman Alonso del Castillo Maldonado; Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, an explorer; and finally, Estebanico, a Moroccan slave in the service of Dorantes.

The story of the disastrous Narváez expedition is told in a chronicle written by Cabeza de Vaca, yet Estebanico – one of de Vaca’s three fellow survivors – is only very briefly mentioned. Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account gives Estebanico a voice of his own and an opportunity to tell his side of the story, including details which were omitted from the ‘official’ records.

As well as his account of the expedition, Estebanico also tells us about his early life in Azemmour, Morocco, and how his fortunes rose and fell. Born Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori, he was once a trader, selling men into slavery – before, ironically, becoming a slave himself. The two threads of Estebanico’s narrative are told in alternating chapters and I found that as I learned more about his background I gained a deeper understanding of the sort of person he was and of the qualities which helped him to survive when so many others did not.

Unlike most of his fellow explorers, Estebanico has not come to the New World in search of fame or fortune; all he wants is to be given his freedom and a chance to return to Azemmour. He is in a unique position, being part of the Castilian party yet not fully accepted as ‘one of them’ – at least until his intelligence and his gift for learning languages make him indispensable to the group and the barriers between slave and master begin to break down. His status as slave means that he offers a different perspective on events and also a more sympathetic view of the tribes of indigenous people they encounter.

Lalami very successfully conveys the strangeness and newness of the world in which Estebanico has found himself; the landscape, the plants and animals, the native tribes and their customs – all of these are described through the eyes of someone to whom everything is fascinating and unfamiliar. It would have been interesting to have been able to trace the progress of the journey on a map. On the other hand, this is a journey into the unknown and Estebanico and his companions only have a very vague idea of where they are headed, so I was happy to wait until I’d finished the novel before looking up more details of the expedition online.

Although Estebanico’s account does not really exist and Lalami is simply imagining how he may have chosen to tell the story, the novel is written in such a way that I could easily believe everything in the book happened exactly as described. I appreciated the author’s efforts to make the novel feel like an authentic sixteenth century manuscript – while it isn’t entirely convincing, it never feels inappropriately modern either and strikes a good balance between readability and historical accuracy. I also liked the names the Spaniards have for the places they pass through: for example, the Land of the Indians, the Ocean of Fog and Darkness, the Island of Misfortune and the Bay of Oysters. A strange reptile discovered near the beginning of the expedition is given the name El Lagarto because it looks like a giant lizard. Names, of course, are very important to Estebanico, having had his own name – and with it part of his identity – taken from him.

Another major theme of the novel is the power of storytelling and the right we all have to tell our own story and make sure our voice is heard. It’s fortunate, then, that Laila Lalami is such a talented storyteller herself. The Moor’s Account is an educational read (unless you’ve read about the Narváez expedition before, you should find, as I did, that there’s something new to learn on almost every page) but it’s also a fascinating travelogue and a gripping adventure novel which kept me turning the pages wondering where Estebanico’s journey would take him next.

Heir to a Prophecy – A Shiny New Books review

Just a quick post to let you know that Issue 4 of Shiny New Books is out today! If you haven’t come across it yet, Shiny New Books is an online magazine for book lovers and is packed with features and reviews.


I was happy to provide a review of Mercedes Rochelle’s Macbeth-inspired historical fiction novel, Heir to a Prophecy. This is what the book is about:

Heir to a Prophecy “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none.” In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, these are the words spoken by the three witches to Macbeth’s friend, Banquo. Soon after this, Banquo is murdered and his son, Fleance, flees Scotland and does not appear again in the play. In Heir to a Prophecy, we follow Fleance as he escapes to Wales and joins the court of the Welsh king, Gruffydd ap Llewelyn. Here he meets Gruffydd’s daughter, Nesta, and they have a child together. The name of this child is Walter and it is through him that the witches’ prophecy will eventually be fulfilled.

According to some legends, the Stewart monarchs of Scotland were descended from Fleance, although more recent research has shown that in reality Banquo and Fleance probably never even existed. However, this doesn’t make Heir to a Prophecy any less enjoyable to read. The witches’ prophecy is a starting point which the author uses to explore the history of the 11th century, mixing fact, fiction and fantasy together into one fascinating story…

You can read the rest of my review here – and don’t forget to explore the rest of the new issue!

Mr Mac and Me – a Shiny New Books review

Just a quick post today to point you in the direction of the new Christmas ‘Inbetweeny’ issue of Shiny New Books which is packed with reviews, features and a Christmas quiz.


I was pleased to provide a review of Esther Freud’s latest novel, Mr Mac and Me. This is what the book is about:

Mr Mac and Me In Mr Mac and Me, Esther Freud paints a beautiful portrait of a small rural community and the ways in which it is affected by war. Our narrator is young Thomas Maggs, a quiet and observant thirteen-year-old boy who has grown up in the Blue Anchor Inn on the Suffolk coast. Life is difficult for Thomas and often very lonely; his father is an alcoholic, his mother is still grieving for the six babies she has lost, and his two sisters are growing up and have lives of their own now. Thomas wishes he could go to sea, but knows that his twisted foot will prevent him from pursuing that particular dream.

In 1914, two newcomers – a man and a woman – arrive in the village and begin to paint the flowers and the scenery. The man is the Scottish artist and architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the woman is his artist wife, Margaret MacDonald. With Margaret frequently returning to Glasgow, Mackintosh spends his time walking in the countryside, sketching, taking notes and looking out to sea. Recognising another lonely soul, Thomas befriends ‘Mr Mac’, joining him on his walks and watching him as he paints.

With the outbreak of war, however, the villagers become suspicious of Mr Mac and soon even Thomas begins to wonder why his new friend is receiving letters from Germany addressed to Herr Mackintosh. Has Mac really come to Suffolk just to admire the scenery or is he up to something more sinister?

You can read the rest of my review here and don’t forget to explore the rest of the new issue!