Wednesday, 28 March 2018

A Long Way From Home, by Peter Carey

March has been a great month for me – I am lucky to have read so many stunning books in four weeks, and Peter Carey’s latest story is so good that I have to include it in this month’s great reads, for that it was it is: a truly great read; a riotous comedy on the surface, and a stark, unforgiving indictment of Australian Colonialism beneath.

Irene Bobs narrates alternate chapters: in 1953 she is most happily married to her diminutive husband Titch, ‘the best car salesman in West Victoria’; she is fiercely protective of little Titch, especially in regard to his tyrant of a father, a loudmouth blowhard who has abused and belittled Titch all his young life: well, that’s not going to happen anymore, especially when she and Titch have a chance to take on the new GMHolden franchise by entering a Holden in the Redex Trial, a make-or-break car race circumnavigating Australia.

Irene is a crash-hot driver, taught by her husband; she will be the co-driver even though women are not recognised as such in the race (The Little Woman should be at home with the kids) but their neighbour and navigator Willie Bachhuber will satisfy official regulations. Out from under the hated fatherly thumb at last! Until the hated father turns up at the starting line in Sydney: he’s not going to let his pathetic little son steal any kind of a march on him - the scene is set for treachery most foul.

Neighbour Willie narrates the story as well; he is tall, blonde and Aryan, raised as a Lutheran by German missionary parents and has already experienced racist abuse in the few years after the war ended, but that is the least of his concerns: he has left his wife because she presented him with a black child, proof positive of adultery that he never suspected, and his job as a school teacher has been terminated for losing his temper at being called a ‘Balt’ and hanging the guilty boy out of a high window until he apologised. Yes, it’s time for him to go on a long road trip too.

Well. There’s nothing like a long car journey to make or break relationships and the Redex Car Trial is no different: what began as the prospect of adventure, excitement and a test of stamina and inner strength, ends in grief, disillusionment and the time-worn revelation that people are never what they seem, particularly when ancestry and degrees of ‘blackness’ are the subject.

Peter Carey loves his country, but he casts a pitiless and clinical eye on its shameful Colonial past and the unspeakable crimes perpetrated by Pastoralists against the aboriginal inhabitants, the first dwellers in the great Red land of Australia. No-one escapes his truth; nor should they: nothing is hidden under the rug in this story. Mr Carey has twice won the Booker Prize – ‘A Long Way Home’ is a worthy contender for more honours.


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Prince of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence

You read it here first: What an adventure!

Mark Lawrence’s debut novel has all the requisite ingredients for the ideal fantasy – a wronged and vengeful hero, warring kingdoms, ghosts, necromancers, murders most foul, and a complete lack of honour, except amongst thieves.

At the tender age of nine, Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath was forced to witness the slaughter of his mother and younger brother William by Count Renar of the Highlands and his troops. If he expected his father the king to avenge their dreadful murders, he is sorely disappointed;& instead, the king negotiates compensation in the shape of land and horses for his loss. Seeds of hatred and revenge are sown in the fertile ground of Jorg’s grief and heartbreak: he takes to the road and joins a band of mercenaries and outlaws, and because he no longer cares if he lives or dies, he becomes their leader through sheer recklessness and a bravado that is fearless and suicidal – oh, Jorg has problems, alright – he has already lived five lifetimes and he’s only fourteen!

Mark Lawrence has created a rip-roaring, no-holds-barred, heart-in-the-mouth pageturner in this first book, and in spite of the reader knowing they shouldn’t believe a word of it, they are totally sucked in, swept along with the clever plot and more action than a body should rightly have to endure – oh, it’s great stuff, and this is just the first book of a Trilogy. ‘King of Thorns’ is next, and a fascinating question for the reader is to figure out exactly the timeline in which Mr Lawrence has set his stories: a vastly altered central Europe might be the setting, but who can be sure? Everyone fights in armour with medieval weapons, but Jorg wears a wrist-watch! (which doesn’t make an appearance till book two) – and he lets loose what seems suspiciously like a nuclear explosion halfway through book one.

I have come to the conclusion (I’m ashamed to say it took me a while) that Jorg’s story is set far into the future: it’s possible that the world we knew has been destroyed for whatever terrible reason, and the regenerating human race hasn’t progressed beyond another Medieval Age in its attempts to survive. Which all adds to this trilogy’s great appeal.

‘Prince of Thorns’ was a gripping read, but book two, ‘King of Thorns’ is even better. Roll out book three! Mark Lawrence isn’t just a good storyteller – he’s a great one. Whatever I read next, this will be a hard act to follow.

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Road Brothers, by Mark Lawrence

For lovers of the Fantasy genre (and there are SO many!) it has been too long since Mark Lawrence has fed our addiction – well, not really; it just seems that way, and I am really envious of a friend to whom I recommended the Broken Empire trilogy: he gets to binge-read all three books in one hit if he likes them, and I can’t imagine him NOT finding those page-turners irresistible.

As a sop to his fans, Mr Lawrence has produced a book of short stories dealing with the origins of some of the characters who support Honorous Jorg Ancrath, Prince of Orlanth, as he rampages his way across the remains of nuclear-wasted Europe, initially meeting derision and disbelief because of his youth, then horror and loathing at his ruthless disregard for the rules of war, his complete lack of honour in battle, and his brilliant strategies.

Jorg fights to win, and he fights dirty. He sweeps like a plague across the land, and those who follow him don’t always agree with his methods but are powerless to stop him. They just obey without question, including brother Sim, who in the guise of a story-teller has been ordered to charm and bewitch a pretty and frivolous princess, tricking her into smuggling him into her heavily-guarded chamber so that she may listen to his seductive tale – until she finds that it has a fatal ending for herself, and death and defeat for her people as brother Sim kills her guards and finds an entrance for Jorg’s troops to storm the castle.

The Nuban: that towering black man whose origins are as mysterious as his devotion to Jorg. He is indeed a mighty warrior, but where did he learn his skills, and how has he ended up so far from his homeland in Afrique, and why was he aimlessly wandering with the band of outlaws and mercenaries that Jorg decided to join? Makin, a member of Jorg’s father King Olidan’s guard, whose devotion becomes absolute when he rescues Jorg from the castle’s burning infirmary – and realised that no-one seemed to care whether 9 year old prince Jorg lived or died, least of all his father. Mr Lawrence has done it again – produced yet another page-turner which has us all reading feverishly, then grinding our teeth because his great stories have come to an end.

I’m not usually a fan of short stories – I don’t like to have to switch subjects and actions after short intervals, but ‘Road Brothers’ is like meeting great old friends (and enemies!) after too long an absence.  It was a pleasure to greet them again.


Conclave, by Robert Harris

‘Conclave. From the Latin con clavis: ‘with a key.’ ‘ and the term for the meeting of Cardinals, the Princes of the Catholic church gathered together to elect a new Pope.

It is hard to imagine that such an event could provide the basis of a thriller, but Robert Harris has done just that: his latest novel cannot be described any other way, for it is as suspenseful and shocking – particularly at the end, as it should be – as any thriller worthy of the name.

Mr Harris sets his plot in Rome a few years hence: the Holy Father has died of a heart attack and, after the pomp and magnificence of his funeral obsequies have been completed, it is time to convene all those eligible to select his successor. Papal tradition must be observed at all times: when the cardinals are locked in the Sistine Chapel to vote they do so in absolute secrecy; their voting papers and any notes they make are burnt when they leave the chapel in the evening. A Papal Election must to be seen to be utterly scrupulous and above reproach, one hundred and twenty of Catholicism’s finest advocates voting according to God’s wishes.

Except that as the hours wear on, it becomes clear that there are men of ambition hiding behind piety and humility – Jacobo Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals and Convenor of each increasingly tense meeting in the Sistine Chapel is appalled to discover that the whole process is just as riven with factions, innuendo and scandal as any secular election. He is a good man – and an honest one as he admits that the late Holy Father would not accept his resignation from office ‘because we need managers’. He feels slighted. Surely his religious career of more than fifty years has elevated him into higher realms than a ‘manager’. Nevertheless, he decides to make the best possible job of ‘managing’ the selection of the next Pope, but is not above allowing himself a cynical smirk as he reviews the front-running candidates:

The current Camerlengo (Chamberlain) of the Holy See, Cardinal Joseph Tremblay, a French-Canadian very conscious of his film-star looks and perfectly coiffed silvery hair; Cardinal Joshua Ayedemi, a mighty Nigerian with a powerful physique and a bass-baritone voice to match, and the African continent’s great hope to be the first black Pope, and Lomeli’s own personal preference, Cardinal Aldo Bellini, Secretary of State. Lomeli prays fervently that the right man will be chosen for the huge task of leading the Church and more than a billion Catholics with courage and honesty, but as voting progresses and stalemates occur it becomes plain that God is not going to make the choice easy for the 118 cardinals.

An added complication is the late arrival of a mysterious Filipino cardinal appointed secretly by the late Pope: Cardinal Vincent Benitez, Archbishop of Baghdad is unknown to everyone, but his credentials are impeccable; he has as much right to vote – and be considered for Pontiff – as every other man in the room. It appears that the Late Holy Father is controlling events even beyond the grave, especially when Lomeli starts reluctantly investigating scandalous rumours connected to various candidates and is horrified at what he finds: the love of God comes a poor second to the love of power.

Mr Harris propelled me at lightning speed through the twists and turns of his masterly plot; the grandeur of St Peter’s, great bastion of Christendom has never been more eloquently portrayed and his characters are all too recognisable for the men they are, rather than the paragons they desire to be.


Munich, by Robert Harris

Mr Harris is well known for constructing thrillers out of historical events, the outcomes of which are already known (see ‘Conclave’ review below), and he repeats the process with ‘Munich’, a fictitious account of the last-ditch talks held in that Southern German city between Dictators Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in an effort to avoid another World War.

Chamberlain wants to avoid war at any cost, for Britain is woefully underprepared for conflict; Hitler has been rearming for years; he wants to give Germans ‘Lebensraum’, room to spread out, and the ideal way to do that is to invade his neighbours – all of whom are allied with each other, or with Britain. Diplomacy seems not to be working effectively; the Devil is indeed in the detail and Chamberlain’s ‘Politics of appeasement’ are feared to be ineffectual. Leaping into this explosive mix are those who would depose Hitler, some by any means – they are ardent German Nationalists but not Nazis, even though they belong to the Party (the Politics of Expedience!), they don’t want their country plunged into another crippling conflict not twenty years after the last one: the Austrian Corporal has to go.

To that end one of a secret band of plotters smuggles into England compelling proof of Hitler’s plans for war, giving the lie to the public perception that the Reich Chancellor desires peace in Europe if only the Sudetenland, rightfully Germany’s is returned from Czechoslovakia.

The secret papers have been delivered to Hugh Legat, a minor diplomat in the British Foreign Office, at the behest of an old friend from Oxford days, Paul Von Hartmann; he wants Hugh to warn his superiors of Hitler’s perfidy, and Mr Harris is such a competent writer that he can invest suspense into every hour of the factual events that are now history: the reader sits in Hitler’s apartment with Chamberlain and Mussolini, all the time trying to prod Chamberlain into seeing what a liar Hitler is, that he has no intention of ever honouring any promises he might make, and that war is as inevitable as the sunrise.

There are some interesting character studies in ‘Munich’, particularly Mr Harris’s interpretation of Mr Chamberlain: ‘ how odd that a man so fundamentally shy should thrust himself into public life and fight his way to the top’, a politician savvy and shrewd enough to know that his pact with Hitler was on very shaky ground, so ‘ more than half of next year’s government expenditure would be devoted to arms’, for Hitler would be sure the cross the line eventually. Britain must make hay while the sun shines - despite the ringing assurance of ‘peace for our time’ the heady relief that the entire country feels is only temporary.

And the rest is History.


Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Now We Are Dead, by Stuart MacBride

Mr MacBride’s archetypical burnt-out but brilliant copper Logan Macrae features only peripherally here; instead the floor is given to Detective Chief Inspector Roberta Steel, proudly gay and relentless enemy of Aberdeen’s bad guys – until her illegal efforts to put rapist Jack Wallace behind bars result in exposure, a court case, and demotion to Detective Sergeant. And an insatiable desire for revenge against the Motherfunker who dobbed her in – Logan Macrae. (See review below).

To add awful insult to terrible injury, the brutal rapes are still happening, and with each new crime, the ‘raping wee shite’ she put away (now released from prison and trumpeting his innocence all over the media) cannot resist sending a video of himself and ‘friends’ going to the movies, having dinner, clubbing – all at the exact times that the rapes occurred: Roberta knows Wallace is behind each crime, but proof is impossible to come by and it is not long before she is in trouble with her superiors – again! – for surveilling the Wee Shite’s house, much to his delight; he has a video of her doing just that and he has made an official complaint of harassment to her boss. Just what she needs. To make matters even worse, she is told that if she keeps up with the harassment, she won’t just be losing her job, but her behaviour will be terminating the job of her long-suffering but protective assistant Detective Constable Tufty, in her opinion a ‘useless wee spud’ – but her useless wee spud. She’s on a final warning.

There is an element of Keystone Cops to the opening chapters of ‘Now We Are Dead’; there is lots of comedy, clever repartee, not to mention cheeky young kids training to be tomorrow’s crims, but Mr MacBride brings us all back to cruel, stark reality with Steel and Tufty’s efforts to prosecute a debt collector for ruthlessly beating an old lady and cooking her little dog in her microwave, and the discovery by them of an eight month old baby left in his cot with a tin of dog food while his mother died from an overdose on the filthy mattress in front of him. In both cases, the neighbours refuse to give evidence: in the baby’s case the neighbours got out the air freshener when the smells got worse. Which proves that such is Mr MacBride’s storytelling skill he can take readers anywhere he likes on the emotional spectrum that he chooses, and it is not always a comfortable journey.

It is clear too, that Steel and Tufty are in line for a very messy showdown with Raping Wee Shite Jack Wallace; once again it isn’t pretty, but again Mr MacBride demonstrates his effortless mastery of the Crime genre. My only criticism is that he doesn’t write his stories quickly enough: there should be one every six months, not a measly one per year!


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Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Sing, unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward

What a pure pleasure it is to read another book by Jesmyn Ward, author of ‘Salvage the Bones’, a story I reviewed in 2012 and have never forgotten,  (See review below), simply because her stories are unforgettable. It is JoJo’s thirteenth birthday. He will be a man soon, though he tries to be one now, so that he can help his grandfather with all the hard work on his little property, and care for his three year old sister Kayla, the centre of their love and protection, for she is the one who needs them most.  The children’s beloved grandmother is bedridden with terminal cancer but their mother Leonie comes and goes as she pleases, giving the bird to every establishment rule in the Southern Mississippi Book of Black and White Behaviour. For Leonie is Black, but Michael, the father of her children is White, the son of the local Sheriff who, despite having two grandchildren from his only son, still calls Leonie The Nigger and won’t let her on his property.  Southern racism is bred in the bone – but that is not the worst thing, unbelievably.  No, the worst thing is that Leonie is a drug addict and Michael has been imprisoned for three years for cooking meth. Yes, JoJo needs to become a man soon so that he can protect the family he has left. Leonie is not up for the job – ‘she kill things’, purely from neglect thinks JoJo, but she horrifies him anew with a mad idea for herself and the two children ‘as a family’ to take a two-day car trip to collect Michael on the day he is released from prison.Her father is unable to prevent her because of his sick wife, so the odyssey begins, and such is Ms Ward’s complete mastery of readers’ minds and hearts, that we endure every awful mile with Kayla sick and crying in her car seat, JoJo emanating dislike and disapproval in frosty waves towards his mother (whom he calls Leonie;  she doesn’t deserve to be called Mama), and Leonie refusing to give her children any refreshments out of sheer jealously at their closeness. Ms Ward displays all the mean human traits here but understanding of each character comes as Leonie, JoJo and an unquiet Spirit called Richie, a boy from Grandfather’s bleak past narrate each chapter. Secrets are exposed, a terrible event in the family history is retold and, while justice will never be theirs, JoJo, Kayla and their loving grandfather share a peace, contentment and hope previously denied. This is a wonderful book. Ms Ward’s prose sings us an aria, plaintive, harmonious and perfect: how blessed we are to have writers of this calibre among us. SIX STARS!!

In the Cold Dark Ground, by Stuart MacBride

Logan Balmoral MacRae is back, and about time, too, I say! In the tried and true genre of Crime fiction – you know; burnt-out detectives with shattered private lives but an uncanny knack for solving the most difficult crimes – well, Burn-Out Logan makes his recent experience of demotion to Police Sergeant in a small but dreary town in North East Scotland entirely credible. Yes, he – and his team of fellow reprobate law-enforcers - all suffer from varying degrees of exhaustion and burn-out, but policing anywhere is a tough job: someone has to do it and they’ve put their hands up. More fools them.

Not much has changed since Logan’s last appearance in ‘The Missing and the Dead’ except to worsen: his beloved girlfriend Samantha has been in a coma for five years (truly!). She will never wake and he has been told by hospital staff that it is time to say goodbye, a situation he has been dreading and shying away from even though his rational mind knows it is inevitable. Another death is imminent: wee Hamish Mowat, crime boss supreme of Aberdeen is in the terminal stages of cancer. In a last conversation with Logan, wee Hamish informs him that he wishes Logan to take control of his empire for he knows that upon his death all the other crime lords from near and far will be circling like vultures, ready to break up his ‘life’s work’: he is convinced that Logan (despite the fact that he is a Police Officer – how I wish I’d read all those earlier books!) will be the only one strong enough to hold it all together. All this under the homicidally jealous eye of Reuben, the Reubenator, wee Hamish’s wing man who has the intimidatory strength to keep things going – but not the brains. Reuben hates Logan, and Logan knows it is only a matter of time before the Reubenator mounts an attack.

He is almost relieved when a conventional murder rears its ugly head: a man’s naked body is found in the woods, hands bound behind his back and a rubbish bag taped over his head. Despite the classic imitation of a local gangland-style killing, Logan is not convinced that the Bad Guys actually did this – for once, they are innocent – of this crime, anyway, and when the Major Investigation Team from Aberdeen (still run by his old boss and friend – and proud lesbian – DCI Steel) mounts an investigation, his suspicions prove to be correct.

Sadly, Logan’s week from Hell doesn’t end there: he is also asked by the Police Internal Professional Standards division to covertly investigate DCI Steel: there is suspicion that she manufactured evidence to send a sexual predator and rapist to jail. As much as everyone abhors his crimes (for which he was never convicted) Scottish justice has to be SEEN to be done: who better to investigate Roberta Steel, than her trusted friend and confidante, the turkey-baster father of her children, Logan Balmoral MacRae. Yes, let’s add betrayal to the list of Logan’s Lousy Week.

Last but not least, a new Superintendent from the Serious Organised Crime Task Force is visiting and seems have taken an inexplicable and irrational dislike to him, thus making his life doubly miserable. Could anything else go wrong? Well, of course it can and it does, at a breakneck pace that this reader could barely stand – I wanted to yell ‘Slow down, slow down!!’ – and all because I didn’t want this mighty episode in the hapless (but not entirely hopeless) life and times of Logan to end. Stuart MacBride is a storyteller Extraordinaire, a superb wordsmith who is in the enviable position of being unable to write fast enough to supply his readers’ demands.


Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward

This story is narrated by Esch Batiste, aged 15 and the second youngest child of a black scrap-dealer in a small Louisiana town near the Mississippi River delta.  She has two older brothers, Randall aged 17, and Skeetah, aged 16. Junior, the youngest at 8, survived childbirth, but their mother didn’t, and the family has not managed well without her: each carry their own memories of her loving ways and try to exist on them like a precious food that will soon run out, and they each have their defences against the harshness of their existence, Randall in his athleticism and the hope that he will eventually be eligible for a free school basketball training camp which could lead to a college scholarship, and Skeetah to make money for the family by breeding pups from his beloved pitbull, China.

Esch loves to learn and reads prodigiously, particularly the Myths of Greece, and one story, that of Jason and Medea, strikes her as having a similar parallel to her own hopeless yearnings for Randall’s best friend Manny.  The person most adrift is their Daddy, unmanned and helpless without his life’s partner. He turns inward and away from his children, giving the new baby entirely into their inexperienced care; for the next eight years he puts food on the table but very little else. His heart has turned to stone.

Despite their poverty, the Batiste children still have their goals and aspirations - until& terrible unplanned events wreck their hopes: they are floored by fate’s cruelty and don’t believe that things could get any worse – until they do, with their father bedridden by an awful, fluky accident, and Hurricane Katrina about to hit the Louisiana coast. Ms. West’s account of the Hurricane alone is stark and terrible: we are there trying to shield ourselves in our pathetic little shelter from the howling, roaring wind and waterfalls of rain; we are completely given over to our gutclenching fear in the face of such a huge, elemental power, and watch in terrified disbelief as the water floods our mean little dwelling and threatens to drown us all. I cannot remember when I last read such splendid prose.

Ms. West is a true wordsmith; she paints compelling, unforgettable pictures with her beautiful language and her characters are so strong and true that I didn’t want her lovely book to end, for despite the parallels to Greek tragedy, the story ends on a triumphantly hopeful note: the Batistes and their friends survive, and they survive because they love each other enough to make all the right sacrifices. They now have even less than before, but what they have gained is immeasurable.


Monday, 5 March 2018

The Woman who Stole my Life, by Marian Keyes

Stella Sweeney is a beautician in Dublin. Her husband Ryan is a thwarted artist (his talent was never recognised or appreciated but he has channelled his gift into making posh bathrooms for posh people); they are parents to a teenaged boy and girl who require a lot of supervision and organising, and it is a source of great pride for her to know that despite she and Ryan’s working-class origins, they can afford (just) to send their children to an exclusive private school. Nothing but the best for Jeffrey and Betsy. They are Stella’s main focus in life; her reason for getting up in the morning. Ryan is another matter – his main focus seems to be on his business, then Ryan: the grand passion that controlled their young lives has now disappeared, lost in the stresses and strains of everyday living – so what else is new? This is what happens to us all, and that is the secret of Marian Keyes’s success: her great ability to recount stories of people just like us, her readers; people we can identify with so easily.

Where Ms Keyes starts to leave reality behind is the unbelievable misfortune Stella suffers when she contracts Guillain-BarrĂ© Syndrome, ‘an auto-immune disorder which attacks the peripheral nervous system, stripping the myelin sheaths from the nerves’. Got that? The body can recover eventually, but until that happy day, Stella spends a huge amount of time in hospital, paralysed and unable to communicate at all – except after a time to establish a winking, blinking code with a hunky neurologist who – quelle horreur! – eventually becomes her (gasp) lover! How could this happen to someone who couldn’t move a muscle for more than a year? And what about hubby and the kids? A? A? More importantly, how does a writer convince her readers that this is just an everyday occurrence? Well, I have to say with some regret, that she didn’t convince ME – which is a shame, because I was entirely willing to suspend belief – up to a point.

Never mind, though: for the most part, Ms Keyes writes beautifully of what she knows i.e. the publishing world, this time exposed in all its two-dimensional ugliness, and her supporting characters are as strongly drawn as ever. Lastly, let us not forget her biggest virtue as a writer: humour. That wonderful Irish variety of humour, so inimitable and so vital; such an arsenal against all the troubles that beset us ordinary folk and without which we would be defenceless indeed. Ms Keyes may have missed the bus with ‘The Woman who Stole my Life’, but I’ll be waiting for her at the next stop.


Vindolanda, by Adrian Goldsworthy

British historian Adrian Goldsworthy’s debut novel is a labour of love, for the history of Iron Age Britain under Roman occupation, Rome’s military power abroad, and the Pax Romana – a high level of peace which as he states, was maintained by force.

It is A.D 98; Centurion Titus Flavius Ferox is drowning his considerable sorrows in a mouldering far-flung garrison in Britannia’s North. He has been banished for being too close to a conspiracy which deposed Emperor Domitian; now Trajan is in power, but for how long? He doesn’t know and cares even less: he has lost his true love and life holds no pleasures except the booze – until his scouting party, led by his reluctant friend Vindex arrives back with some tortured corpses in tow and the news that the locals are being exhorted by shadowy figures of the Druid priesthood to rise up against the Roman Oppressors – and they seem to be having some success.

Ferox is not a Roman by birth; he is a Silurean, born in what is now South Wales, but his tribe was eventually defeated after a long siege by the Roman Army and as was the custom, he was given as a hostage, trained in the military and eventually given Roman Citizenship in exchange for his Sacred Oath of Allegiance. His loyalties lie with the Empire now, and to that end he must carry news of the impending unrest to the nearest seat of Roman government, the huge fort of Vindolanda near the River Tyne.

Vindolanda’s modern excavation has revealed many fascinating details of the everyday life of a Roman military outpost, and Mr Goldsworthy has cleverly included real life figures mentioned in wax tablets painstakingly translated from the Latin. Commander of Vindolanda, Prefect Cerialis and his wife Sulpicia Lepidina actually existed in the correspondence; now they live again as Ferox saves Sulpicia and her maid from ambush on his way to the fort – while her husband is off hunting with guests.

Which sets the scene (naturally!) for a budding romance between the rescuer and the rescuee. Rescuee? Anyway. I have to say that Mr Goldsworthy’s characters, while as historically accurate as he can draw them, are pretty predictable: Vindex, Ferox’s friend and Scout Supreme uses a lot of very modern swear-words; he’s a likeable rogue and the perfect brave sidekick; Sulpicia is noble, beautiful, posh, Patrician and so far out of Ferox’s league that he can hardly believe that they do have a stolen night of lurve together while Cerialis is off having his wicked way with a slave girl. The local tribes as they mass together for the great rebellion are well characterised and the battle scenes are detailed and suitably bloody, with Ferox learning to his great discomfort that the tribes know so much about Roman battle plans that a traitor must be supplying them with information. Who and why are the mysteries that must be solved before the suppression of the rebellion turns into a massive defeat from which Roman military might may never recover.

For the layperson Mr Goldsworthy has produced a detailed Glossary and a helpful section of Historical Notes to illustrate the authenticity of his story, and Ferox and Vindex will ride the Iron Age Range again in a promised sequel. Good stuff!


The Break, by Marion Keyes

It has been too long since Marion Keyes’s last novel (see January 2015 review below) – too long between laughs and Ms Keyes inimitable chronicles of dysfunctional Irish family life. Well, family life in general, really, for her characters are instantly recognisable to us all; they are our neighbours, friends, workmates – they are us, whether we acknowledge it or not.

The O’Connell family meet every Friday at Mum and Pop’s for a meal provided by one of the five siblings – It’s Amy’s turn tonight and take away Pizzas will have to do; she is perennially short of time - and money; she has two teenagers to care for and a twenty-two year old daughter from a disastrous first marriage who lives at home, but only because she has to. Amy has recently started a new PR business with two colleagues which has yet to make a profit, but the paramount worry is her husband

Hugh, devastated by the recent loss of his beloved father and brother. He is a different person, remote and unreachable, a stranger to them all, and his solution to the way he feels is to Take a Break. To back-pack solo round Thailand. For six months. By himself. Without Amy or any of his family. WTF????

And how will she break it to the family? Pop, who has Alzheimer’s and addresses everybody as ‘WHO THE FECK ARE YOU??!! Mum, who wants to break out from under the Selfless Carer’s yoke by sneaking off to the Pub with other Selfless Carers for a bit of fun – ‘I got drunk and won a Pub Prize. Turkish Delight, the Mint kind! - bossy eldest sister Maura who understandably has issues, having to be surrogate mum while her own mother was in hospital with TB for months on end. Her husband is called the Poor Bastard because he never gets a word in edgeways, especially on a Friday night when everyone and their kids make an appearance – no, it is not a suitable forum to discuss Hugh’s grief and his insane solution to make himself feel normal again.

Ms Keyes effortlessly navigates the shoals and currents of family life, especially as she tackles through the experiences of one of her teenage protagonists the archaic and rigid Abortion laws of Ireland; nor does she shy away from the all-powerful and pervasive effect of Social Media on the life of everyone – even Mum, who becomes the face of EverDry, an Incontinence product marketed by Amy’s firm: Mum is heartbroken when the campaign ends – that was her Moment in the Sun, even if it was to promote Wee Pads!

Amy’s huge problems are not solved overnight – or in Hugh’s six-month escape, but her big, messy family moves on, bearers of unwanted advice, takeaway dinners (Derry’s are the best; no-one stays away on a Friday night when it’s her turn) and unity. Always unity, because that’s what families do best, isn’t it?

Fair play to you, Ms Keyes, you’ve written a grand story again, so.