Vindolanda – Adrian Goldsworthy

As well as reading and talking about books I’m quite partial to a laugh. Rob too, especially when politics is happening. We are prone to relieving the tension by trying to have whole conversations made up of quotes from some of our favourite comedians. Monty Python and Blackadder feature heavily, of course, as does the Mighty Boosh but our fall-back funnyman usually seems to be Eddie Izzard. Not sure why – apart from him being a pretty amazing guy, hilarious, clever and able to do stand-up in multiple languages – but bread guns and spider-gravy are part of our natural vocabulary. I mention this because it is impossible for me to think about the people who invaded these islands back in  AD43 without saying (quite possibly out loud) ‘we’re the Romans’ in a very squeaky voice. Which made reading historian Adrian Goldsworthy’s novel, Vindolanda, entertaining in a way he probably didn’t expect.

9781784974688Vindolanda was a Roman fort near to Hadrian’s Wall (although it was built before the wall itself) which I have visited a few times – full of low walls (another Izzardism) and with fascinating displays of what everyday life would have been like in the first century AD. It is in this area that the novel is set and where the hero, centurion Flavius Ferox, is responsible for keeping the peace between the Romans and the British tribes. His job is being made all the harder by a mysterious druidic figure known as the Stallion and the possibility of a Roman traitor. I particularly enjoyed the fact that Ferox is a bit of a maverick, with a past involving a missing woman and a drinking problem. This kind of policeman is a standard figure in crime thrillers (which this is despite its historical setting) – I can see no reason why they shouldn’t have existed in Roman Britain…

Goldsworthy’s detailed historical knowledge is obvious here. The military systems, the layout of forts, the life of the wives of senior officers, the politics of the relationships between the invaders and the native peoples all flow effortlessly onto the page. I never felt, however, that I was reading anything but a gripping crime thriller. Story always seemed as important as the historical facts. If you are looking for a series for fans of authors like Simon Scarrow, Conn Iggulden or Robert Fabbri from the ending of the book it seems obvious that Ferox will have further crimes and mysteries to solve in future volumes.

Jane

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Broken River – J. Robert Lennon

I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for odd place names. Our personal favourite, in the Jane and Rob household, is the magnificently odd (but slightly naughty) Broadwoodwidger in Devon. Closer to home we enjoy going through Thurgoland and a trip back home to Essex isn’t complete without giggling at Vange. Essentially we are very peurile. I particularly like the kind of odd town names you get in the U.S.A. – small town America does the best place names with classics like Yeehaw Junction, Paint Lick, Bitter End or Hop Bottom. They lend themselves to book titles too – Laura Ingalls Wilder and L.M. Montgomery knew this – so I was interested in what kind of place Broken River would be…

9781781257975It turns out Broken River is a fairly broken sort of small town. It has a closed down cinema and a few stores: the only part that is really thriving is the local prison. Its main claim to fame is the brutal murder, many years previously of a couple living in an isolated house on the edge of town. The story follows the family who move into the house – a writer, her unfaithful sculptor husband and their precocious 12 year-old daughter – the men responsible for the original shooting and, slightly oddly, an entity referred to as the Observer. This means the book is a blend of thriller, a contemporary family saga and something a bit stranger but it does it very well. The Observer character could have been a distraction but it actually tied together the various groups of characters pretty well as well as allowing us to shift our focus between groups.

This is an interesting book and it is certainly a change from the run of psychological thrillers. In fact, since many of the characters follow the same website which delves into unsolved crimes, it is possibly more interested in the psychology of those who are fascinated by murder.

Jane

Genesis (River of Ink 1) – Helen Dennis

It has been a while since I read any children’s fiction. Looking back at my magic spreadsheet it looks like it was towards the end of last year that I last reviewed anything younger than a teen/YA novel – don’t judge me: I like spreadsheets and I need to keep track of a lot of books and reviews. Its not that there aren’t lots of interesting children’s books out there but I don’t seem to find the time to squeeze them in. Which is odd as they can, in the case of picture books and fiction for primary age children, be read in a lunch break. I think it is just working out what to say about them is a lot harder – after all, it is a few years since I was at school. And when I was there I mostly read Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and C.S. Lewis (which I think may have been covered already by one or two people over the years). I’ve read the popular current authors like J. K. Rowling and Julia Donaldson but again these are pretty well represented…

So, I dipped my hand into the lucky dip of children’s fiction and came up with a few things to review – starting with Genesis, the first volume in a series called River of Ink and suitable (in my view) for children 10 and older. genesisI did struggle a little at the beginning of the book as one of the characters irritated me but it turned out he was a fairly minor player so I was able to get over that. (Hearing Supper’s Ready in my head every time I saw the title is an ongoing issue and one that’s not likely to go away anytime soon…). By the end I was almost hooked enough to find the previously annoying character endearing.

The story is a little like Will Hill’s Department 19 series, or maybe a junior version of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, since it features mysterious orphans, a shadowy (and probably evil) corporation and peril in various European cities. The main characters are a boy who emerges from the River Thames with no knowledge of who he is and Kassia, who is home-schooled by her rather neurotic mother. The mother is an interesting personality and it will be fascinating to see how she develops in future books in the series – the same goes for Dante, Kassia’s deaf brother. On the side of the ‘baddies’ I’m looking forward to learning more about Victor, a young boy in care who can’t believe his luck when he is suddenly given a home by a man who claims to have been his dead father’s employer.

I don’t think I’m liable to swap all my reading to the children’s sections but it is reassuring to know that there are still good stories being written for youngsters. A blend of mystery, danger and riddles to be solved and a diverse cast means this should appeal to boys and girls from 10 upwards.

Jane

 

13 Minutes -Sarah Pinborough

When I was in my teens I remember going to my local library and feeling very mature because I had progressed to the ‘teen reading’ section. I was also very annoyed because the section was never – never – kept in any kind of order. According to the librarian most teens found the idea of order oppressive (although I don’t think she used those words) which we can add to the list of ‘not quite truths’ that adults persist in telling themselves about teens. You know the stuff, teens don’t speak apart from grunts, teens are self-centred, teens are rude, lazy, and ignorant. In my experience most of this is untrue (most of the time) – teens are as mixed a range of personalities as adults and some of them put adults to shame as carers, volunteers and workers.

These days libraries may be changing the name of their ‘teen’ sections to ‘young adult’ and therein lies a new problem. What’s the difference between teen and YA fiction? I don’t think I know the answer but after reading various opinions I think I’m going to plump for an emphasis on ‘adult‘. We are even thinking of splitting the teen section at work into two – one for younger teens, up to about 14 or so, and the rest for older or more mature young people who can deal emotionally with more content of a sexual or violent nature. It isn’t even purely about age: I know some who can cope, quite maturely, with stories featuring graphic scenes of rape or bullying, at 13 and others who don’t want to deal with that kind of thing even as proper adults. Anyway, I suspect this is a discussion which will go on for a long time – especially now that issues of gender identity, mental health and racism feature so much more obviously and are not so much hidden away.

This is all relevant to the most recent book I have read to review, 13 Minutes by Sarah Pinborough, as it seems to me to fall quite clearly into the YA category rather than being suitable for younger teens. The story centres on Tasha, beautiful, clever, popular and fighting to remember how she came to fall into a freezing river. She was dead for 13 minutes and can’t work out who would want to kill her, but her best friends (and fellow ‘Barbies’ in the eyes of embittered childhood bff, Becca) are acting suspiciously. 13

This is a great thriller with lots of plot twists. Think of a high school Gone Girl. Or Cluedo where the correct answer is ‘in the 6th Form Common Room with a set of GHDs’. Pinborough is absolutely spot on with the life of teenaged girls (and boys), what is important (status within friendship groups) and what isn’t (parental approval). It is quite chilling and makes me glad I’m not a teenager in today’s world. Part of the plot involves a school production of The Crucible and it is easy to see the parallels to the play’s atmosphere of passion, the protection of reputations and the way a community can turn against a member who is different.

I can’t say much more about the plot without major spoilers so I won’t. Suffice it to say that my final thought were that it was fitting to refer to the girls in this story as ‘Barbies’ – after all they are toys, made to be played with. To be manipulated…

Jane

Great Zoo of China – Matthew Reilly

I’m not usually a thriller reader – I’ve read the biggies, like Dan Brown and, of course, I’ve seen all the Indiana Jones films but I certainly wouldn’t say I was any kind of aficionado. Matthew Reilly, then, was just a name I’d seen on books at the till or while shelving until my eye was caught by The Great Zoo of China.

Thergreat zooe are a lot of thrillers out there with plots that are, usually, more or less unrealistic. Thrillers cover everything from spy novels to Arthurian history – if there is excitement and a villain then it could be called a thriller. Explosions are a bonus. Dragons, however, usually equal fantasy (or, in the case of Anne McCaffrey, science fiction) and this is what drew me to the Great Zoo.

This book has been described as Jurassic Park with dragons and I would agree with this – and it is definitely not a bad thing. There is usually, as I said, something slightly larger than life about books (and films) in this genre but there does seem to need to be some kind of reality for us to connect to – because of the Chinese setting the replacement of dinosaurs with dragons actually seems very realistic. And what is even more realistic is the way in which the Chinese government closes ranks when things, as you would expect, go wrong in their showcase, dragon-based theme-park.

This is an fast-paced book with a well planned plot. After a recent book-diet of literary fiction, historical novels and gritty crime it was a refreshing change – a dragon-flavoured sorbet to clear the palate as it were…

Jane