Monday, 17 November 2014

It's been an exciting few days.

This weekend, Carol McGrath has hosted an article of mine about Waterloo on her blog. It suggests that Waterloo might not have been the British victory it is usually presented as. Why not nip over and have a look at it?

Meanwhile the latest Historical Novel Society reviews are out. These are published once a quarter and simply getting a review means that the book is taken seriously as a historical novel. I had already been very excited by the review of Burke in the Land of Silver (reviewed as His Majesty's Confidential Agent) but I only just realised that the latest reviews also included TheWhite Rajah.
If you want to see the full reviews, click on the links. The highlights are: "An involving tale of adventure, intrigue and unlikely love," (White Rajah) and  "a well-crafted adventure yarn with exotic settings and plenty of suspense." (Land of Silver).

Besides reviews of my books, there's a few reviews that I've written. Given that I blogged on 19th-century history elsewhere this week, I thought I'd take the opportunity to use this post to promote some other authors’ books. Here are the reviews.

The Tsar's Dragons by Catherine Collier

[After I had been given the book to review I discovered that Catherine Collier is also published by Accent. This does not mean I can't review her book honestly.]

In 1869 Tsar Nicholas invited a Welshman to develop mining and ironworks in Ukraine. John Hughes brought with him Welsh miners and iron-workers. They built a new city on the Ukrainian steppe: Hughesovka (now Donetsk).
It was a huge project, and Collier’s account is on a similarly mammoth scale. The Tsar’s Dragons has 552 pages and is the first volume of a trilogy. It is more family saga than history, although there is a lot of historical detail, which certainly reads convincingly. There were some points where I stumbled (could a photographer then have taken a candid “snap” without the subjects being aware?), but I was more worried about social attitudes. Whilst anti-Semitism and the abuse of women are realistically (and sometimes graphically) portrayed, almost all the characters are noble and liberal, with just a couple of ‘baddies’ for contrast. Theirs seem 21st-century attitudes transplanted to 19th-century Russia. The repressive nature of the regime is not mentioned, although we are reminded that the serfs had recently been emancipated. Whilst Nicholas did start to liberalise Russia, things here are progressing so well that the Russian Revolution seems unnecessary.
The modern attitudes of the characters make the primitive conditions of life in the Welsh mining villages and the cruel realities of living and mining in Ukraine both even more horrifying by contrast. Collier is unsparing in her descriptions of beatings and rapes, and her account of a mine collapse is gripping. Like all family sagas, this has its share of passionate love and illicit liaisons, much of it setting up a situation which should make the second volume satisfyingly dramatic.
If you like family sagas and want to learn more about an unexplored bit of 19th-century history, this is for you.

Ticket to Paradise by Elizabeth Morgan

In 1865, the English were giving the Welsh a hard time. (Nothing changes.) Desperate to preserve their language and way of life, some emigrated to Patagonia. This story follows those who founded the town of Rawson, on the Argentine coast. It follows their struggles as they finally make a viable settlement but, at the same time, see their identity subsumed into the wider Argentine society.
It’s a fascinating story, well told. Morgan writes well and with a great ear for the cadences of Welsh, which enlivens her dialogue. The history is riveting, and I was interested enough to find Rawson on the map. The map does confirm my suspicion that the area is not surrounded by grassland, as described in the book. That was always incompatible with the problems that the settlers had in growing crops. It’s a shame that Morgan’s geography isn’t as good as her history.
The story-telling is let down by some neat moralising (the Reverend is a pious and unpleasant man, put in his place by the atheist hero), an unnecessary (and unhistorical) aside involving Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and an unconvincing battle between the Welsh and a band of bloodthirsty Indians. There is also an unfortunate epilogue set in the Falklands War, in which the language and attitudes of 2013 civilians are written unconvincingly into the dialogue of 1982 soldiers. These failures, though, are trivial when set against the gripping accounts of daily life and the relationships between the characters. The book provides a useful introduction to an important period of both Welsh and Argentine history. Strongly recommended.

The Art of Killing Well by Howard Curtis (trans.), Marco Malvaldi

It’s 1895. The famous cookery writer, Pellegrino Artusi, has been invited to spend the weekend with a baron and his family. At the castle, there is a murder. (At least we know the butler didn’t do it: he’s the victim.) It was carried out by one of the house party or one of the household servants. A policeman arrives. Suspects are interviewed, the policeman solves the crime. It’s a classic country house murder mystery in the English style, but set in Italy. There’s no real sense of period. I’m not sure that the concept of the weekend was even around in 1895 Italy (the phrase only became common in England in the 20th century). The style is (as the author post-modernly points out) late 19th century, except for the frequent post-modern intrusions. The historical Pellegrino Artusi is not particularly rounded, except in girth, and the other characters have the two‑dimensionality of most country-house murder suspects. The recipes, though, are convincing. All-in-all it’s a pleasant read for Agatha Christie fans, but hardcore historical novel enthusiasts should look elsewhere.

I'll post again soon with recommendations for books for Christmas. Until then, happy reading!

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