jasper fforde: the last dragonslayer


In the Ununited Kingdoms magic has lost its power, magicians are forced to demean themselves by carrying out simple tasks such as pizza delivery and unblocking drains.  In the kingdom of Hereford commerce is important and war against the Duke of Brecon a priority.  Jennifer Strange is a foundling indentured to Kazam, a company which deals in the magical arts, but Jennifer has a destiny – she is the Last Dragonslayer.
Up to about 5 years ago I was a huge fan of Jasper Fforde, I found the Thursday Next series witty and entertaining.  For some reason I stopped reading the new books, I think that I picked one up and wasn’t in the right frame of mind to get into it!  Having seen that this book was being adapted for TV I decided to pull it off the shelf and see if I could rekindle my love for Jasper Fforde.  This is a children’s book and therefore is not quite as sophisticated as the adult novels in terms of in-jokes and links to other media but it is an amazing children’s book.  The ideas are just as crazy, the story entertaining and the writing is fizzy – it’s like Harry Potter on hallucinogens.

alison weir: six tudor queens – katherine of aragon


Catalina is the youngest daughter of two powerful Spanish monarchs.  Educated, mannered and devout, Catalina has been raised to make an advantageous marriage and at age fifteen she is sent to England to become the bride of Prince Arthur, heir to the throne.  Katherine, as she is now known, is concerned that Arthur is ill and, when he dies only five months later, her world collapses.  Salvation comes in marriage to Arthur’s younger brother Henry and the couple rule for many years, the only blight on their life is the lack of a male heir.  After Katherine goes through the menopause, her paranoid husband starts to worry about the lack of an heir and when he falls for a clever woman at court her decides to divorce Katherine.  To Katherine this is unthinkable and her battle for what she feels is right drives her husband to schism with the Church and the rest of Europe.

Essentially this is a fictionalised biography of Katherine of Aragon but it is of excellent quality.  Alison Weir is an outstanding historian and this comes across in her historical fiction.  Anyone who has read about Katherine of Aragon will recognise descriptions and direct quotes from contemporary sources as they go through this book.  Weir avoids the clichés of historical fiction in the main, there is little overt romanticism but by contextualising the story some points become clearer to the modern reader.  By looking at the everyday life of a noble Catholic woman in the 16th Century the nature of Katherine’s devotion to her cause is more understandable.  I look forward to the rest of the series.

thomas enger: burned

Henning Juul is returning to work as a journalist after a fire in his flat which killed his son. Mentally and physically scarred Juul has to cope with changes at his online newspaper, his boss is a former mentee of his and he is working in partnership with the man his ex-wife is seeing. Quickly Juul becomes involved in a murder story, a young woman is found in a tent, stoned to death, flogged and with her hand chopped off. The police immediately think that this is a ritual crime linked to Sharia law and committed by her Pakistani boyfriend. Juul is not so sure…

I am embarrassed to say that this book had been sitting unread for several years which is a real pity. The translation is excellent in the fact that it keeps a real lyricism to the writing but seems to flow incredibly smoothly. The plot is very tight, there are numerous twists and turns and a nicely unresolved resolution. By looking at what seems a ritualistic crime Enger highlights the tensions between immigrants and the local populace in Norway, the crude approach of the police exemplifies this. Juul is sympathetic character with an excellent backstory and this has the makings of a really gripping series of novels

conn iggulden: conqueror


Mongke has become Khan, son of Tolui and grandson of Genghis, and to cement his rule he creates vast khanates for his close relatives.  His brother Hulegu consolidates rule in Persia but youngest brother Kublai is told to go into the east.  Kublai is a scholar, not a fighter, but he is of the line of Genghis and he accepts the challenge.  Harrying the great Sung empire, Kublai is close to conquest when he hears news of the death of Mongke.  When his younger brother Arik-Boke declares himself Khan, Kublai is stung into action and politics to become Khan himself.  this divides the Mongol nation and sets family against family.
This final book in the series focuses on Kublai Khan.  In the historical notes Iggulden says that he deliberately chose to end the series with Kublai becoming Khan, rather than extend the series to cover his whole life.  I think that was a really good call.  Iggulden is at his best when writing action, he is less successful at dialogue and politics and this book has plenty of action.  At its heart is a strong story, family discord and the movement of Mongol nation from a plains-based nomadic group to a more cultured trading nation and all of this taking place within three generations.

graham masterton: scarlet widow


18th century New Hampshire and in the idyllic settlement of Sutton the world seems to have turned upside down.  Pigs, cows and fish seem poisoned after a visitation from diabolical forces but then people are affected.  A mysterious stranger appears and claims to be an intermediary for a demon who wants to repossess parts of the country, the demon will only be appeased if tracts of land are signed over and then the victims will be left alone.  Preacher’s wife Beatrice Scarlet does not believe that Satan has appeared in the area, she thinks the attacks have a more human explanation, but her husband is a devout believer.
At the heart of this book is a really interesting story, a fairly original mystery, the problem is that this story is spoilt by a disjointed narrative.  One of the keys to a good historical novel is the sense of time and place, in this book the places are very well realised from London to New Hampshire.  Unfortunately there is little sense of time, I worked out that the setting was either the 17th or 18th century but that didn’t seem important to the writer.  The first quarter of the book seemed slow and not a huge connect to the main narrative, yes it was important to know that Beatrice had grown up being trained as an apothecary and her parents had died but why the extensive story about the corpses.  the detour to Birmingham introduced a character who reappears later but why the sudden jump to the events in New Hampshire.  It was almost as though the story was twice as long as that published and a serious but crude editing process had taken place.  Finally I found the rape gratuitous and pointless.

jean-francois parot: the baker’s blood


Back in favour with his superior and trusted by the King, Nicolas le Floch is entrusted on a diplomatic mission to Austria.  Whilst there he realises that the relationships between the two countries are complex and that spying and diplomacy are used by both to undermine and influence.  Returning to Paris le Floch discovers unrest among the masses and rumours of a plot to drive up the price of bread, then the local baker is discovered dead.  Is this part of the plot or is it a simpler tale of a man who is being cuckolded?
Again Parot has created a complex and satisfying mystery with a continuing sense of time and place.  The research and referencing around the political and social history is outstanding.  Parot has taken an unashamedly royalist stance in terms of both his characters and his treatment of the potential rebels but he is adept at showing that even with the ruling classes there is discord and political manoeuvring.

ben kane: hunting the eagles


Five years after the disaster of the Teutoberg Forest and the Romans are keen for revenge against Arminius and the German tribes.  The legions whose eagles were captured have been disbanded and the few remaining soldiers have been allocated to other duties.  Tullus has been demoted, even though he managed to rescue the largest number of survivors, but a chance meeting with Germanicus, heir to the Emperor, gives him the chance for redemption and revenge.  A huge force invades the tribal areas, capturing Arminius’ wife and laying waste to the countryside but a retreat for winter leads Tullus and his comrades across a bog, harassed by Germans.  Is history about to repeat itself?
I found this book far harder work than the original.  This is possibly due to the fact that there is little action until the last third of the book and the description of fighting is the strength of Kane’s prose.  Most of the book is taken up with descriptions of everyday life in the camps and development of the characters.  However some of the dialogue seems clunky and, whilst Kane has gone to a great deal of effort in his research, it feels superfluous.  This is still an enjoyable read but struggles due to the fact that little happens and it feels like a book that is in the middle of a series