Monthly Archives: May 2013

And now for something completely different…

thIn addition to my own reading challenge and being a member of a local reading group, I occasionally review books. Here’s one:

Sword & Scimitar by Simon Scarrow ISBN 9780755358380

I’ll be honest, I would not ordinarily have picked up this book. Although I like historical fiction (in small doses), I don’t usually choose ‘sword and sandals’ epics; ‘crusades and crosses’ in this instance.

The story opens dramatically in 1545, on board The Swift Hind, as a battle starts to defeat an invasion at sea from the Muslim Turks, led by Sultan Suleiman. Our hero – Sir Thomas Barrett – is a young knight, sworn into the Order of St John to protect Christendom against ‘the infidels’. He is brave, skilful, wealthy and handsome. Just as a battle is waging against the enemy, both sides proclaiming God’s truth and protection, so there are subtle battles within the Order; for power, recognition and love.
Sir Thomas falls in love with a captive from the galley they ‘liberate’. As to be expected, Thomas and Maria’s affair is forbidden and they are forcibly separated. He is exiled from the order and spends the next twenty years looking after his Herefordshire estate. Although he never recovers from this separation, he keeps himself physically in shape, ready for action.
Thus, in 1565, Sir Thomas is summonsed to London to meet Queen Elizabeth’s principal secretary, Walsingham. The ageing knight is to be welcomed back into the Order to rejoin the holy war. Why has Elizabeth’s ‘Spymaster’ recruited Sir Thomas? Why has he specifically appointed a new squire to accompany the knight on his quest to the island of Malta. Who is this talented youth? Why is he, Richard, so elusive?
The bulk of the novel details the Siege of Malta of 1565 (no, I hadn’t heard of it); the passions and pain felt by both sides in this bloody siege.

From the dramatic opening on board ship to battles on land and sea, this is a romp of a historical novel; you can see, smell and taste the hand-to-hand combat. I confess, I started to skip some of the battle scenes after about half-way through, but was interested enough to read to the end.
The prose is rich in detail; just enough to help you visualise the action and context. The main characters are well rounded and (just) avoid becoming cliches. Familiar tropes are used: brave, handsome young knight falls in love, they are separated, he always loves her, tries to find her, continues to battle against the enemy (both within and without the Order), reassesses his attitude to the enemy, finds both truth and love by the end.

To my surprise, I enjoyed this ‘males in mail’ romp. It was less cliche-ridden than I had anticipated; there was a balance between the action scenes and the more thoughtful, slower paced conversations and reflective scenes. There was some romance amongst the slaughter; a thread that held my interest, along with the slight mystery surrounding Richard the ‘squire’.
If you like Ken Follet; you’ll love this; if you like Phillipa Gregory, give this a try. It was interesting to read a novel such as this from a male perspective, with more action on the battlefield than in the bedroom.
A good choice for a holiday read, particularly somewhere like Malta, where most of this is set, or as an antidote against the vagaries of the British weather, curling up against the elements; pure escapist enjoyment.

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Posted by on 16/05/2013 in Uncategorized


The Merrie Month of May


And so a new month begins. Ok, it’s the 5th already but the sun’s shining today and it feels as though Spring might just be beginning.

In order to celebrate the fecundity of nature’s bounty, and the desire to romp through woods barefoot, I’m planning to dip into some Hardy. I’ve already read the major novels: Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Trumpet Major, The Well-Beloved. All heart-wrenchingly beautiful. But major gaps in my canonical reading remain, hence the seasonally arranged pile here. My Kindle’s already loaded with many, many more free versions.  I’m looking forward to Claire Tomalin’s biography alongside this selection.

Oh, and his poetry.

Did you know Hardy wrote a poem about ‘Amabel’; typically dark and heart-breaking.

And so, off to read (kids permitting)…


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On Not Reading Fiction

As expected, April’s reading challenge was cruel; i completed fewer books than I expected and only dipped into a fraction of what i had hoped for. Of course, non-fiction isn’t really a category or genre. It’s limitless in scope; many people never read fiction and never run out of interesting books. To be honest, it made as much sense to choose ‘non-fiction’ this month as it might have done to read only ‘fiction’ one month without specifying author, style, theme, content, etc.

Although this was intended to be a challenge outside my comfort zone, I gravitated towards areas I’ve already studied: history (British, English, monarchs, Tutors and Victorians mainly), theology (Christian, usually contemporary, Anglican, liberal), autobiography or memoir, with a sprinkling of contemporary poetry.

As I found last year, I read less during this ‘no fiction’ month. Perhaps the lure of a story well told is the most compelling choice; a book full of information about ‘stuff’, no matter how well and entertainingly written doesn’t leap into my hand alongside my cup of tea. I know it should. I know there is a plethora of well-written, gripping reads which happen to be ‘not made up’. Many such books adorn my shelves (in the non-fiction section of my ‘library’, arranged by subject rather than alphabetically; I’m not that obsessed with order.). I simply ran out of the time (and some days, the inclination) to dive in head first.

20130404-143451.jpg As I reflect on what I read (or didn’t read) in April, I realise that non-fiction is easier to ‘dip into’; to dabble with a bit of this, a dash of that, not desperate to follow the plot to the end. Although many historical books read like fiction (the soap opera of the Tudor dynasty for example), there isn’t the same sense of loss when you reshelve a book unfinished. I can always pick it up again, refresh, then continue where I left off. I usually know the end result if it’s historical; memoirs can often be delightfully gossipy or impressionistic; theology can be life-adjusting, knowledge without time limit.

Some months seem to be time for ‘dipping’; more time spent living than reading. Times to choose to watch a film together rather than trying to read while he screen-surfs; going to reading group, meet-the-author events and a quiz on World Book Night rather than staying in, reading. (We won the satisfyingly challenging quiz though; found some use for all that information at last); checking out piles of library books only to return them a few weeks later, having moved them around the house, to be reshelved unread, until the next borrower.

So, what did I dip into?
As I type, I am faced with a small pile of general theology/Christian life titles: The Life and Work of a Priest (Pritchard), Praying the Jesus Prayer Together (Ramon & Barrington-Ward), The Wounded Healer (Nouwen) alongside a couple of books on Islam and the Qu’ran.
I am also about to start (breaking my rules on changing topic each month: live dangerously!): Unapologetic by Francis Spufford. I’ve heard great things about this apologetic of ‘why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense’. I’m looking forward this reading this one.

Iimage‘ve also been reading about writing: Reading Like a Writer (Prose (the author not the style of reading: great name, I know!)), Who’s Afraid of Jane Austen? (Hitchings), How to Read a Book (Adler & van Doren) and the wonderfully glossy re-vamped The New Writer Magazine. I’m hoping these will inspire me to continue to find time to write alongside my reading.

Historical books have included: Crown & Country (David Starkey; one to return to as I only made it as far as the 7th C), Winter King (Thomas Penn, the reign of Henry VII), Behind Palace Doors (Michael Farquhar). Alongside this English monarchy-obsessed dip I’ve enjoyed watching Lucy Worsley’s new BBC series Fit to Rule which explored the lives of English monarchs through their physical and mental illnesses. I realise I know very little about the Hanovarians; I though Queen Anne was only a style of chair – I should have known better.

Iimage am glad I gave myself chance to start Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. I’ve been too busy being a forcibly extrovert Mummy recently to continue much further than the first chapter but I hope to find more ‘quiet’ to read and reflect further on the characteristics and power of introverts.

The memoirs I have read, in varying degrees of completion, include: In the Blood (Andrew Motion), It’s Not Me, It’s You (Jon Richardson), With the Kisses of His Mouth (Monique Roffey), The Book of Silence (Sara Maitland), Out of Me (Fiona Shaw; an author I met this month), Wife in the North (Judith O’Reilly), Call the Midwife (Jennifer Worth), A Beginner’s Guide to Acting English (Shappi Khorsandi).image

Still untouched on my shelves are a few books I had every intention of enjoying: Wedlock: How Georgian Britain’s Worst Husband Met His Match (Wendy Moore), Shelf Life (Simon Parke), She-Wolves (Helen Castor; admittedly, I read up to page 57 last year), Delusions of Gender (Cornelia Fine), Elizabeth (David Starkey), Watching the English (Kate Fox) – and that’s just one shelf.

A month of trying to not read fiction has whetted my appetite for more stories. However, I shall try to temper my joy of stories with at least one non-fiction choice. A little learning can go a long way…

This month’s main tea of choice: Fortnum & Mason’s Yunnan loose leaf tea (!)

Postscript: This month’s reading group fiction choice was: The Guilty One by Lisa Ballantyne. An emotionally involving court-room thriller set in the North-East. Worth giving up non-fiction reading time for.


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