BooksOfTheMoon

Quicksilver: Volume One of the Baroque Cycle

By Neal Stephenson

Rating: 3 stars

I was wondering as I was reading this, how I was going to review it. Even as I’m typing this, I have no idea. Quicksilver is a meandering labyrinth of a novel, covering the early years of the Royal Society, the aftermath of the English civil war and turmoil in Europe.

It took me a long time to get into it. I really only persevered because I had read and enjoyed Cryponomicon (albeit many years ago) and wanted to give Stephenson the benefit of the doubt. It was really only after the end of the first “book” when Eliza turned up, that I finally sat up and found a character that I cared about, which is nearly four hundred pages in!

The first book covers the early years of the Royal Society, with our (fictional) protagonist Daniel Waterhouse hanging around such luminaries as Newton (with whom he shares an apartment), Hooke, Wilkins, Leibniz and Oldenburg. We see the Society grow along with Daniel, but we also have a separate timeline that sees an older Daniel being persuaded back to England from the New World (where he appears to be working on something like a difference engine, or possibly analytical engine). We see Daniel get on the boat and have a few adventures, but never see the end of that voyage (presumably being held back for later volumes?).

Book two follows the Vagabond Jack Shaftoe and Eliza, the young woman he rescues from Turkish slavery (who’s from an imaginary set of islands near Scotland). Jack isn’t very interesting to me, but Eliza is. She soon discovers the concept of money markets and investment, and establishes herself, first in Amsterdam, then in France as what we could call an investment banker. Oh, and she’s spying for William of Orange.

There’s a lot here about the antagonism between Catholicism and Protestantism. Daniel is a puritan and after admitting to himself that he’s never going to shine in the Royal Society alongside Newton, Hooke et al, he dives into court politics and ousting the Catholic Stuarts. William of Orange is a major player, as is Louis XIV, and their manoeuvring decimates Europe. As a non-believer and someone not brought up in the Christian tradition, I find all the energy spent over that split to be wasteful and tedious. The intrigue can be interesting in its own right (and Stephenson is good at writing that intrigue), but knowing its driving force just makes me sigh.

Stephenson calls the Baroque Cycle (of which this is the first volume) science fiction, but if it is, it’s incredibly subtle. Yes, the book has a lot of (proto-) science, maybe a prototype computing engine of some kind, and (if you read other, related works) possibly an immortal, but just reading this on its own, it’s pretty solid historical fiction.

For most of the way through, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to pick up the sequels, but, gods help me, I got sucked in towards the end, and it’s pretty likely now that I will read them.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099410683
Publisher: Arrow Books
Year of publication: 2014

Dissolution (Matthew Shardlake, #1)

By C.J. Sansom

Rating: 3 stars

It’s a time of turmoil in England, as Henry VIII has declared himself absolute head of the Church, and his minister Thomas Cromwell wields much power. One of his commissioners, sent to a monastery, is murdered and Cromwell sends the lawyer Matthew Shardlake to investigate.

The author has impeccable historical credentials, and the world that he creates is very believable. The people live in fear as Reform is in full swing and they are afraid of saying the wrong thing in sight of the wrong person. Matthew is an idealist, and a bit of a zealot, believing full well in the new ways. His investigations, however, reveal more than he would like, and his journey is very much the core of the book. The murder mystery is interesting; in many ways a classic format, as the monastery is isolated, and it’s midwinter, meaning that it must have been someone from the inside that carried it out, and Shardlake has to investigate the histories of all the senior monks, many of whom have their own secrets to hide. Shardlake’s assistant, the young Mark Poer, is as idealistic as his master, but in a different way. He sees the corruption at the heart of the regime, and despises it, leading to conflict between the two men.

The weakest part of the book for me were the religious aspects. As someone who isn’t a believer, and who never grew up in the Christian tradition, the question around the English Reformation has always seemed to me to be more about Henry’s desire to chase some flesh than anything substantial in doctrine. I found the arguments between Shardlake and the monks tedious, and the former mostly seemed to use his position as Cromwell’s commissioner to bully and harass the monks with, not that I had much sympathy for many of them – the corruption of the monasteries was no myth.

The most sympathetic of the inhabitants of the monastery are the outsiders: Brother Guy, the Spanish Moor who is their physician; his assistant Alice, a young women among men whose vow of chastity isn’t as always strong as it should be; and Brother Gabriel, a gay man who finds his passions hard to control. I was also surprised by how accepting the others were about that last. Don’t get me wrong, they thought it was awful, but also that it was something that just happened, sometimes.

So overall, a well-written, and well-researched historical crime story. The resolution to the mystery did depend on knowledge that was hidden from the reader, I’m not sure if we could have guessed it before the reveal, or if that’s just my inability to spot a twist coming. I wasn’t a fan of the religious aspects, but I liked both the history and the crime aspects of it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780330450799
Publisher: Pan Books
Year of publication: 2007

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

By Mary Ann Shaffer

Rating: 5 stars

My sister recommended this short epistolary novel to me, and while I’m not usually a reader of historical fiction, I absolutely devoured it. Set just after the end of the Second World War, author Juliet Ashton has just finished a tour for her last book and is now casting about for what to do next. Serendipitously, she gets a letter from a stranger on the Isle of Guernsey, which leads to a correspondence and an introduction to the eponymous Society.

Guernsey was the only part of the UK that was occupied by the Germans during the war, and the correspondence between Juliet and the members of the Society teases out the complexities of the occupation and the relationship. It was a terrible time, and there were many atrocities, but there were kindnesses and love as well, and the book balances that well.

The members of the Society are well-drawn, and, interestingly, one of the clearest is someone who doesn’t write any letters of their own but is a prominent figure in many of the others. To say any more would be a spoiler. Possibly my favourite character is Isole, a hedge witch and keen practitioner of phrenology. She’s an awful lot of fun and I love her voice when she’s writing. A delightful romance also develops later in the book which is lovely to read.

The epistolary form through an entire novel is unusual and, I imagine, hard work to do. I did enjoy it though. The voice for the period is mostly well done as well.

I had all the feels while reading this book, I loved it.

Book details

Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Year of publication: 2009

Pied Piper

By Nevil Shute

Rating: 4 stars

I probably wouldn’t have found this book on my own, but a friend recommended it to me and it sounded delightful: an old man goes on a fishing holiday to France in the middle of the Second World War. While he’s there, France is invaded by the Nazis, and he has to make his way home, except that a British couple also out there ask if he’ll take their children back to Britain as they can’t leave. He agrees, and spends the book acquiring more children to bring safely to Britain.

This is a charming and sweet book. Our protagonist, Mr Howard, shows boundless patience towards his charges and a determination to get them out of danger and to safety, whether in England, or to send them to his married daughter in America.

Howard’s decision to go to France on holiday perhaps shows poor judgement, but there are mitigating factors, revealed later in the book. But it also perhaps shows how little the war had impacted gentlemen of a certain age and class at this point, that he felt that a fishing holiday was safe. Although I imagine nobody expected France to fall. Certainly not a quickly and completely as she did. The book is also contemporary to events: it was written in 1942, only two years after the fall of France, when the book is set. At this point, the outcome of the war is far from certain, and to write such a positive book in the midst of it is quite the achievement.

Spoiler
I really loved the relationship that built up between Howard and Nicole, the French girl whose father he knew, and who, it turns out was the lover of his dead son, John. This is something that surprised me in a book written at this time – that such a relationship, with heavy implications that it was a physical one – outwith marriage was not only written about, but in a positive, non-judgemental way. Howard even accepts and describes Nicole as his daughter-in-law, despite the fact that John died before they could marry.

An enjoyable, slow-paced book, albeit with added danger towards the end. But even Nazis want to see their children kept safe.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099530220
Publisher: Vintage Classics
Year of publication: 2009

The Glass Woman

By Caroline Lea

Rating: 2 stars

In 17th century Iceland Rósa marries the wealthy Jon, a chief in a distant village, so that her elderly and ill mother will get the food and warmth she needs. In her new husband’s home, she finds no love, only fear and distrust, and something lurking in the attic.

The comparisons in this book to Jane Eyre (the locked attic) and Rebecca (the mysterious first wife) are clear, but I didn’t find The Glass Woman nearly as compelling as the other two. There’s a relentless misery to Rósa’s life with Jon, and her fear, rising to terror at times, of him is painful to read. His isolation of her and his insistence that she be an obedient wife just make make angry. It may be accurate for the period, but it’s still infuriating.

What’s also really infuriating, is that so much of that could have been resolved simply through trust and conversation. Not all of it, perhaps. Jon’s apprentice Pétur is a troubled young man, and Egill, the priest, is greedy and small-minded. Trouble would be inevitable, but it needn’t have been so between Jon and Rósa, if he’d been able to trust her enough that she felt able to come to him with her fears. And that’s frustrating.

Also, from the time that she marries Jon, Rósa’s life is unrelentingly grim. There’s no bright points in their marriage at all, which makes it unpleasant to read, for my taste, at least. In saying that, it’s a very readable book, with the mystery drawing me ever onwards.

The Icelandic landscape and climate is very vividly drawn, becoming a character in its own right, as it draws the characters in, ever more claustrophobic. The clash between the new religion of Christianity and the old, Nordic, gods is interesting and feels real. The new religion needs to stamp itself to the land and so any reference to the old is forbidden, on pain of exclusion or death, but the roots aren’t so easily expunged.

I was promised a modern gothic novel and I suppose I got one. But one that felt too unrelenting to my taste.

Book details

ISBN: 9781405934619
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 2019

Daddy-Long-Legs (Daddy-Long-Legs, #1)

By Jean Webster

Rating: 5 stars

This is a short little novel from the early part of the 20th century that takes the form of a series of letters from Judy, a young orphan woman, to her benefactor. She knows nothing about this man, other than that an essay of hers amused him enough for him to put her through college on the condition that she write him regular letters without expecting anything in return.

It’s short, but Judy’s voice is clear and a whole lot of fun. It’s lovely to see her develop during the course of the letters that she sends, from a shy, reserved girl into a confident woman who is happy to take her benefactor (who she calls Daddy Long Legs, due to the only sight that she’s ever had of him being a distorted shadow from a car’s headlight) to task. The twist is fairly easy to spot, but that’s not really the point of the book. Webster gives us a very clear portrait of an orphan, and the various insecurities that brings. She’s a lovely character and her portrait of her new, expanded world, along with her roommates is delightful to read.

Book details

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Year of publication: 1912

Midnight Never Come (Onyx Court, #1)

By Marie Brennan

Rating: 3 stars

As Elizabeth I takes the throne of England, so another monarch ascends the throne in a different court, below London. Thirty years later, Michael Deven, a young gentleman joins Elizabeth’s personal bodyguard also joins Francis Walsingham’s rank of spies and gets enmeshed in a web of intrigue that draws him to the faerie Onyx Court and it’s terrible Queen Invidiana. He and Lady Lune of that court must penetrate the web of deceit, intrigue and danger to the pact that threatens both courts and both Englands.

It took me a long time to warm to this book. For the first few chapters in particular, I had to stop on a fairly regular basis to look up names and references (thank you Wikipedia!) and try and distinguish historical personages from invented ones. That didn’t help my attention, which wavered until nearly half way through the book, when it suddenly started to click, as the various strands of the story started to come together. Deven is a likeable enough character, although he doesn’t really have a huge amount of personality. Much more interesting is the faerie Lady Lune who gets more development and an intriguing mystery to her background.

The story was well weaved into the historical narrative, with the fantastic emerging at major points in Elizabeth’s rule, as the Onyx Court interferes in Elizabethan politics and diplomacy while also mirroring it below the ground.

I was interested in this following recommendation from a friend and because I adore the Lady Trent books by the same author. However, while I enjoyed it, I’m not that desperate to pick up the next book in the series (unlike the Lady Trent books!). Thankfully, for readers in my situation, the story is entirely self-contained. You might want to find out what happens next to the Onyx Court, but even if you don’t, you’ll certainly not feel short-changed at the end of this one.

Book details

ISBN: 9781785650734
Publisher: Titan Books
Year of publication: 2008

Dodger

By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 4 stars

Dodger is a tosher, someone who scavenges in the sewers beneath Victorian London to make a living, and he’s a good one. Not only is he a tosher, but he’s a geezer. He knows everyone and everyone knows him. His world changes entirely when he helps a young woman in need during a storm and gets involved in politics, intrigue and international espionage for his troubles.

I thoroughly enjoyed this historical novel by Terry Pratchett, (although the author decries that title in the afterword, as he moved some historical figures around in time and space so that they would all encounter each other during the novel) and Dodger is as engaging a character as ever emerged from the Disc. His friend and mentor, Solomon Cohen is also fantastic. His dry wit and imagined conversations with God make him a joy to read (and I would have loved to read about the adventures that he had in his youth, before he settled in London).

I’m always fond of a book where someone uses brains to solve problems, rather than hitting people with sharp implements until the problems go away (it’s one reason I’m so fond of Doctor Who), and although Dodger is good in a scrap, it’s his wits that keep him alive in the depths of London’s less salubrious areas and also what he uses to ultimately solve the problem in front of him.

Coming up from the sewer, Dodger meets a number of historical figures, including Charles Dickens, who helps him throughout the book. Benjamin Disraeli, Joseph Bazalgette, Robert Peel and Charles Babbage all show up, even if some are just extended (or not so extended) cameos. There are also a couple of lesser known figures, including Henry Mayhew, who, like Dickens, tried to publicise the plight of the poor in London (although he did it through facts and figures, rather than prose) and Angela Burdett-Coutts, an heiress and philanthropist and one of the richest women in the world. None of these seemed forced into the novel and they add to the richness of the story by interweaving it with the real London of the time.

While this book doesn’t have the laugh out loud humour of Pratchett at what I regard his best, there’s a vein of humour running through it, even if it is at quite a low level. An entertaining and, at times educational (it didn’t occur to me to wonder about the dog’s name until it was brought up at the end of the book) book, definitely worth the time of a fan of Pratchett, Dickens or London.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552563147
Publisher: Corgi Childrens
Year of publication: 2012

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