New Read: The Plague Charmer

A year or so ago, I read Karen Maitland’s The Raven’s Head. While it was darker than I am used too, the real issue was the thoroughly unlikeable protagonist! However I was suitably impressed by the writing to want to read more. So I was thankful to have the chance to read another of her dark historical fictions: The Plague Charmer.

In this book, Maitland took me back to 1361 – thirteen years after the Great Pestilence ravaged England – to Porlock Weir, a small fishing village on the bleak Exmoor coast. After drought, an ill-omened black sun and afeared rumblings of the pestilence’s return, this beleaguered community is hit by a terrible storm, that smashes weirs, floods homes and blows in a half-dead woman. This mysterious stranger offers to help the villagers, but for a price no one is willing to pay. Shortly after the deadly sickness arrives and as fear turns to hysteria, the stranger’s cost no longer seems so unthinkable…

Maitland shows the following trials and tribulations of the villagers through the narrations of a varied assortment of characters: Will, the dwarf; Sara, a packhorse man’s wife; Matilda, a militantly devout woman; Janiveer, the woman from the sea; and some of the inhabitants of the nearby manor; who blockade the road, trapping the villagers, to protect themselves. Plus there are many more diverse characters for our narrators to interact with. Such a large cast did make it harder for me to make personal connections, but I did still become fond of Will and Sara, and it was interesting to have a large range of people from the Medieval social spectrum featured.

I also can’t fault Maitland’s eye for detail. She really has thought of every little detail and aspect, so that this tale of suffering, loss and fortitude with touches of the supernatural is brought vividly to life. After finishing the book, I was fascinated to discover in Maitland’s research notes that she took inspiration from many real Medieval places, events and people. So while this was still darker than I would prefer, I found myself absolutely gripped! The characters helped too, as they are well drawn and realistic: there are good, bad and murky in between characters. Plus Will was a great character to lighten the mood.

Overall, I thought The Plague Charmer was a compelling and completely believable dark historical fiction, with clever supernatural twists. I would definitely be up for reading more by this author. Good read.

Thank you to the publishers for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

Have you read this? Or have you read anything else by Karen Maitland?


New Read: The Vietnam War (A Very Brief History)

Last year, I had a bit of an US politics theme going on in my reading through Mark Black’s A Very Brief History series. I read about Richard NixonJohn F Kennedy, The Cuban Missile Crisis and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. So it seemed only fitting to continue this in the new year with The Vietnam War instalment.

Before reading this, what I knew about this disastrous war was what I’d learned from watching the amazing films: Good Morning Vietnam (1987) and Forest Gump (1994). Turns out they’d taught me a fair bit! From reading this though I was able to get a better grip on the numbers involved; the shocking loss of life and the complicated politics behind it. Also I always thought the only foreign forces involved were the Americans, but Australia and New Zealand sent troops to support the South Vietnamese too. While North Korea, the Soviet Union and Republic of China weighed in with support for the North Vietnamese. All in all this war was a whole lot bigger and more devastating than I had ever imagined. No wonder it went on to define a generation.

If it hadn’t been for these Black’s short histories, I doubt I would have ever read about US presidents, politics or this war otherwise, which would be a shame because I have learnt so much from them. This clear, fast paced and concise history is broken down into bite-size chapters on: the background of the war; US foreign policy; the escalation of the war; policy under Richard Nixon; policy under Gerald Ford; other foreign involvement; the US defeat and withdrawal; and the aftermath of the war. This style is helpful for a reader, like me, to learn quickly the main events and essential facts.

Overall, I thought The Vietnam War: A Very Brief History was another quick and interesting read. A good starting point on an important event in history, but I would need to read on for more in-depth detail. With six more editions from this series on my Kindle, I think it seems appropriate to read the Ronald Reagan one next. Okay read.

Have you read this? Or anything else about the Vietnam war?

New Read: Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus

As a practicing Christian, I like to read Christian literature to help with the growth of my faith and I am very lucky that my church has it’s own book club to help me with this. After finishing and discussing Crazy Busy by Kevin DeYoung at the end of last year, the club’s first book of 2018 was the award winning, international bestseller Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi.

In this engaging and though-provoking book, Qureshi candidly describes his dramatic journey from Islam to Christianity. Personally, I didn’t know a great deal about Islam so it was fascinating to find out more. It was truly touching how Qureshi offers such an intimate window into his loving childhood and close-knit family, who instilled in him a passion for Islam. At first a strong advocate for his Islamic faith, it was both inspiring and utterly heart-breaking to see the inner turmoil that ensues when Qureshi is unable to deny Jesus anymore but does not want to deny or hurt his family either.

As well as being a spiritually uplifting read this was an education for me. Firstly, I learnt that there are more strands of Islam than simply Shia and Sunni, as Qureshi’s family are part of the small, persecuted Ahmadiyya sect. Secondly, rather than reading the Quran from cover to cover, as a Christian might the Bible, I learnt that Muslims are taught to memorise sections that are considered sacred and important. Being from a loving, peaceful family these were the sections Qureshi learnt, however on further investigation he was horrified to discover many violent sections too; which could be used to incite hatred and war.

My copy also boasted bonus content. This included ten extra contributions from scholars and experts, one to be read at the end of each section, which I found really insightful and helpful. There is also a new epilogue that covers the first ten years of Qureshi’s life as a Christian, including: his ministry, marriage, the birth of his daughter and thankfully, reconciliation with his family. Sadly just before reading this I heard Qureshi died last September from stomach cancer. He was just 34 years old. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends. We can only be thankful that he was able to share his beautiful story before he became ill.

In conclusion, I found Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus to be an eye-opening look at Islam and an inspiring tale of finding true peace in Jesus. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend my book club meeting this month to discuss this book as I was unwell. However I have my copy of The Case for Grace by Lee Strobel, who coincidentally provided the foreword for Qureshi’s book, lined up to read for our next meeting in March. Great read.

Have you read this? Have you read any other books about conversion?

New Read: Cleopatra

After Elizabeth I, my next greatest historical obsession probably has to be Ancient Egypt and its most famous queen: Cleopatra. So when I saw that Endeavour Press were offering a re-issue of Cleopatra by Ernle Bradford for free, via their weekly newsletter, I just had to give it a go!

Over time Cleopatra has been much maligned as an infamous woman, who was given to sexual excess and capable of every perfidy, but is that really true? Or is that just Roman propaganda? Instead it could be argued that she was a woman, a monarch and a politician of infinite courage, intelligence and resources. Who, from a young age until her death, fought to free her country and to secure her son’s inheritance from the iron dominance of Rome. The subject of many a biography and tragedy, Cleopatra continues to fascinate two thousand years after her glorious but doomed life.

Using ancient sources Ernle Bradford pieces together the life of Cleopatra from birth to death and reflects on the many different portraits of her throughout history. I particularly found interesting the sections on the early Ptolemies, the rise and decline of the dynasty and the founding of one of the wonders of the ancient world: the city of Alexandria; all of which I knew little to nothing about before. Also it was interesting to find out, in  tremendous detail, about Cleopatra’s two great love affairs with the powerful Roman men: Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony.

Cleopatra clearly set out to seduce Anthony and amidst their tumultuous passion they did seem to bring out the worst in each other, which would ultimately lead to their doom. On the other hand Cleopatra really did seem to have some true affection for Caesar. Furthermore with Cleopatra being just seventeen when they met and given Caesar’s Lothario reputation, it is highly unlikely she was the one doing the seducing in this case; unlike what history and films have claimed. Caesar’s shocking downfall was clearly a blow to her both emotionally and politically, as they had hoped to rule the Mediterranean world together and found a Julian-Ptolemaic dynasty.

All in all I thought Cleopatra was an extremely interesting, balanced and accessible history of the life and loves of one of the most controversial women in history. Good read.

Have you read this? Or have you read anything else about Cleopatra?

New Read: The Shadow Queen

Having read and enjoyed The Forbidden Queen, The King’s Sister and The Queen’s Choice, three of her previous historical fictions, Anne O’Brien has become one of my go-to authors for my historical fix. So I was excited at the end of last year, to pick up her latest offering The Shadow Queen, which was released earlier that year.

In The Shadow Queen, O’Brien swept me back to 1340 to meet the beautiful, headstrong Plantagenet princess, Joan of Kent. She was the daughter of the attainted traitor, Edmund of Woodstock, the 1st Earl of Kent and first cousin to King Edward III. Joan has come to be better known to history as ‘The Fair Maid of Kent’, the wife of the doomed Black Prince and the mother of the child-king Richard II. However in her lifetime Joan’s reputation was not so good due to her ambitious nature and a string of salacious marriages!

First, at the tender age of just 12 years old, Joan secretly married Thomas Holland, a lowly knight, without gaining royal consent. This was followed only a year later by a bigamous marriage to the far more suitable William Montacute, the heir to the Earl of Salisbury, which was arranged by their mothers. With the chaos that ensured after all was revealed and the Pope was appealed to, to decide the matter, you’d have thought Joan would have learnt her lesson. But oh no! As a young widow, Joan went on to secretly marry Edward Woodstock, the son and heir of her cousin the king, again without royal consent or a Papal dispensation for their close kinship.

Of course if Joan had learnt from her mistakes and curbed her behaviour we wouldn’t have such a fascinating life to read about now! Previously, I have not read anything about Joan, so this was as much a history lesson as it was an entertaining read. O’Brien portrays Joan as an independent, passionate and ambitious woman, in a time where these were most unattractive traits in a woman. I couldn’t help but admire Joan who knew her mind from a young age and acted upon it, whatever the consequences, however I can’t say I particularly liked her because many of her actions are also rash and selfish.

Other characters it was interesting to read about was Edward Woodstock, the Black Prince who I had never read about before either. Also seeing Richard II and Edward IV young after having read about them as adults in O’Brien’s The King’s Sister and The Queen’s Choice. Plus it was Joan’s third son from her first marriage, John Holland, who went on to have his own salacious affair and subsequent marriage in The King’s Sister. I just love how O’Brien’s characters overlap in her books, which makes it possible for us as readers to see the bigger picture of the time period all from the perspective of the powerful, if often overlooked, women of the time.

Overall, I thought The Shadow Queen was a well written look into the rather thrilling and racy life of the ambitious Joan of Kent. I look forward to reading more by Anne O’Brien – I already have her The King’s Concubine waiting on my Kindle for me. Good read.

Thank you to the publishers for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

Have you read this? Have you read any of Anne O’Brien’s other novels?

New Read: North and South

As part of The Classics Club, I enjoyed reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Cranford Chronicles, which is made up of the novellas: Cranford, Mr Harrison’s Confession and My Lady Ludlow. After them it seemed high time to read one of Gaskell’s full novels and it just so happened I had Gaskell’s 1854 novel North and South on my to-be-read shelf.

North and South tells the story of Margaret Hale, a young, clever and spirited young woman who is to have her comfortable life turned upside down. Firstly, by the marriage of her close companion and cousin, Edith, then by the shock revelation that her father wishes to retire from the church. This means the family must leave their quiet, rural vicarage, their neighbours and all they know to settle in the smoggy, bustling northern industrial town of Milton. Immediately on arriving Margaret has a ready sympathy for the discontented mill workers and their cause, which will sit uneasily with her growing attraction to the charismatic mill owner, John Thornton.

What immediately struck me about the relationship between Margaret and Mr Thornton is its similarity to Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. Now I own they are very different as characters, however both pairs have in common that they are blinded by pride and led by their own prejudices. Margaret thinks he is cold, coarse and money driven, while Thornton believes she is haughty and misled. I actually liked both Margaret and Thornton, although I often found myself wanting to knock their heads together! So a delicious (if not sometimes infuriating) will they, won’t they narrative runs through out the novel.

But there is much more to North and South than a rocky love story. Within the story Gaskell also poses and explores fundamental questions about the nature of Victorian social authority and obedience: ranging from religious crises of conscience (Mr Hale); to the ethics of Naval Mutiny (Frederick Hale) and industrial action (Thornton and the mill workers). This is also an emotional rollercoaster which Gaskell so vividly and realistically portrays, that it made me feel I was right there alongside Margaret; as she fights her internal conflicts which mirror the turbulence that surrounds her.

For that reason this wasn’t a quick or easy read like Gaskell’s novellas were for me. I still enjoyed Gaskell’s detailed, meticulous and personable style with her eye for the small details, but I found this was less comforting than her previous stories. Instead with its hard-hitting issues, I found I needed to take my time to mull over and absorb it all. It actually took me from July to November to read three-quarters of this book, yet I whipped through the last quarter in a matter of days as the pace and drama really ramped up.

In conclusion, I thought North and South was a touching and important look into Victorian life, love and society, and the huge upheaval that arose from industrialisation. I suspect I will enjoy this even more on re-reading it. Good read.

Have you read this? Or anything else by Elizabeth Gaskell?

What’s in a Name 2017 – 6/6 (a title with a compass direction)

New Read: Crazy Busy

As a practicing Christian, I like to read Christian literature to help with the growth of my faith and I am very lucky that my church has it’s own book club to help me with this. Our last book was Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, after which we took an extended break for Easter and the arrival of the vicar’s fourth bundle of joy! Fortunately while the vicar is still very busy someone else has stepped up to get the group back up and running, with our first book back being: Crazy Busy by Kevin DeYoung.

In Crazy Busy: A (Mercifully) Short Book about a (Really) Big Problem, the best-selling author, Kevin DeYoung rejects the modern day, crazy-busy lives we lead. With our long days of work, extended by emails at home; all our church activities and responsibilities; and phones, computers and other gadgets that keep us constantly connected and distracted. DeYoung argues that these lives of constant ‘busyness’ are far from what God intends for us and instead hopes to offer us the restful cure we are all in need, but have been too busy to find for ourselves.

As a senior pastor, a popular blogger and the author of several popular books, DeYoung brings warmth, humour, honesty and a life-time of experience to this book. Which at only 118 pages long with short, snappy chapters, it really is a mercifully short book and is ideal for reading in 5-10 minute bites. Each chapter discusses different elements and habits that may be causing unnecessary busyness in our lives for which DeYoung recommends what different actions and mindset could help cure them. Except for the chapter on children, I found all these chapters really helpful and insightful.

Overall, I found Crazy Busy to be a quick, down-to-earth and helpful read, from which there are many tips I will be taking forward to help lighten and de-stress my own life. My book club will be meeting to discuss this book later this month. Next month we will be reading Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi. Great read.

Have you read this? Have you read anything else by Kevin DeYoung?