Book Review – The Life of Emma, Lady Hamilton by J. T. Herbert Baily (history)

Here’s the blurb;

Emma, Lady Hamilton, is best remembered as the mistress of Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson and the muse of English painter George Romney.

In The Life of Lady Hamilton, J. T. Herbert Baily traces the life of Lady Hamilton, born in 1765 to a blacksmith and christened Amy Lyon, along its startling rise to the upper echelons of English society and power.

Disputing other reports of Emma’s early life that depict her working as a model and dancer for charlatan James Graham’s ‘Temple of Health’, Baily depicts a young girl whose early falterings give way to later strength.

Losing her virtue at a young age, with a child to show for it, Emma swiftly came under the protective wing of Charles Greville, who installed her in a home in London and paid particular attention to her education, introducing her to music and art and improving her command of language such that she was in no danger of embarrassing herself — or, more importantly, him — when in Society.

For Emma herself, life with Greville was more than she ever dreamed, and a deep and abiding love for her protector blinded her to any realistic understanding of the future of their relationship.

Greville’s financial difficulties, Baily explains, led to his need to cast off Emma — through an underhanded scheme that delivered her into the hands of his uncle, Sir William Hamilton.

Devastated, Emma initially refused Hamilton’s overtures, but eventually became his mistress, and in time his wife.

Yet her relationship with Hamilton, and even Greville before him, paled in comparison with her passion for Nelson, and his for her.

Though both were married, they secretly carried on an affair that produced a daughter and lasted until the day of Nelson’s death, from which Emma never truly recovered.

James Thomas Herbert Baily (1865-1914) wrote several biographical works and also served as the editor of The Connoisseur, a British magazine for collectors.

Albion Press is an independent ebook publisher of classic books that have fallen out of print but deserve to be read once again. And indeed this biography of Emma, Lady Hamilton, should be as much interest to the reader for its content and writing style, as the object of its subject.

The book was written in the early 1900’s, by someone who clearly professed a great deal of respect and admiration for Lady Hamilton, and perhaps found it a little difficult to reconcile it with the more stringent mores of the early Twentieth Century. When reading the work, which is quaint and relies quite heavily on the actual texts of letter that Lady Hamilton wrote during her life, it is quite sobering to think that the author knew nothing of the two World Wars, or the vast advances in technology which have since overtaken the world, or even of the advance of Women’s Right, or of the more demanding rigours now required of a work of historical biography. There is no discussion of source material and at one point the author does make an assumption that the reader knows all about Nelson and the battles he commanded, which I think is no longer in the social consciousness of most people, swept away by the politics and war of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first.

However, the book is still worth a read for those who are interested in Lady Hamilton for both general interest and for those interested in the study of how women have been variously catalogued throughout history, and perhaps for those interested in the study of the Twentieth Century. Much current historical thought has its basis in the scholarship of the late Nineteenth and Twentieth Century and without their efforts history as we know it would not exist. For all it’s antique style, and flaws, this book is thoroughly enjoyable and only gets a three star review not because of its content and writing style but because of its age!

And you can buy a copy here;

Book Review – The Earthly Gods by Nick Brown (historical fiction)

Here’s the blurb;

“Unable to make any progress in locating the missing Indavara, a desperate Cassius has been given an unrewarding assignment in Antioch. But when an old ally’s daughter is kidnapped, he feels duty-bound to repay a long standing debt. Disillusioned with the tawdry demands of the Imperial Security Service, he disobeys his superiors and leaves Syria, determined to do some good.

Accompanied by nomadic chieftain Kabir and a trio of warriors, Cassius soon finds himself in Greece hunting a vicious band of slave-traders trafficking women across the Empire. But these are no common criminals, and as Cassius sets out to bring them down, he finds himself up against ruthless, cunning men with powerful friends and a lot to lose.”

This is the first Agent of Rome novel that I’ve read, but about the fourth or fifth ‘Roman’ novel I’ve read in recent weeks.

This novel is different to all the others as it is entirely fictitious and not reliant on an historical event, or on an important battle. Instead, the story reads a little more like a travelogue through some of the Roman provinces, ending up in Byzantium. For me, this wasn’t a particularly thrilling account, concerned rather too much with money, horses and obtaining food and somewhere pleasant to sleep (which seems to have been almost impossible).

The main ‘mystery’ itself – concerned with three missing girls from a Syrian tribe that one of the main characters has come upon in a previous novel, seemed very thin in places – I felt there was a lot of ‘padding’ to the story and not actually much story but a lot of travelling and interaction with other Romans who Cassius is trying to avoid – as effectively he’s AWOL from his post. This was perhaps done as a literary invention to create some tension to the novel, in which case, I don’t think it was very successful.

The sub-plot, concerned with Cassius finding his missing bodyguard, is given little room in the novel – just the odd chapter here and there told from the missing man’s point of view – and the eventual reason for the kidnapping of his bodyguard is not so much far-fetched, as downright disappointing, and his eventual discovery is accomplished incredibly quickly in the end and without any great drama.

Overall, I find the novel to be enjoyable but not riveting and although I read it quite quickly, some of that was down to simple perseverance. Perhaps I would have done better to start with an earlier book in the series but I’m not sure that Cassius, with all his arrogance, will ever quite be my idea of any sort of hero.

And you can buy it here;

Book Review – Eagles in the Storm by Ben Kane (historical fiction)

Here’s the blurb;

“Arminius has been defeated, one of the three eagles has been recovered, and thousands of German tribesmen slain. Yet these successes aren’t nearly enough for senior centurion Lucius Tullus. Not until Arminius is dead, his old legion’s eagle liberated and the enemy tribes completely vanquished will he rest. But Arminius is still at large, devious, fearless and burning for revenge of his own. Charismatic as ever, he raises another large tribal army, which will harry the Romans the length and breadth of the land. Into this cauldron of bloodshed, danger and treachery, Tullus must go – alone. His mission – to find and bring back his legion’s eagle – will place him in more danger than he has ever faced before. Can he succeed? Can he even survive?”

This is only the third book about the Roman Empire that I’ve read, and bizarrely, one of the other one’s (read in the last two weeks) begins where Ben Kane has clearly started his trilogy that ends with Eagles in the Storm. That’s a long way of saying that even though I’ve not read the two other books in this series, I have some idea of the storyline that Ben Kane has been writing about, and while it’s probably not necessary, as there are more than enough illusions to the previous 2 books in this one, it meant that I was very comfortable and could enjoy this book without worrying that I was missing out on back story.

The story is mainly told from three different viewpoints – Tullus, a Roman Army Veteran, Arminius, the enemy of the Romans and Piso, one of Tullus’ soldiers.

Tullus is an honourable soldier, bedevilled by the events that happened in AD9 when his men, under the command of Varus, were annihilated by the traitor Areminius, the Eagle of his Legion stolen, leaving him carrying the burden of revenge ever since.

Aremenius, the chieftain who masterminded the events of AD9, has been striving to keep the disparate tribes of his homeland united against the Romans ever since, and the previous year (AD15) saw him suffer a setback that he wishes to overcome with a new campaign against the Romans. This is pretty hard to organise, as the chieftains he needs to convince are not easily swayed, because they seem to spend much of their time a little bit too drunk!.

Piso, one of Tullus’ soldiers, provides the view point of a ‘normal’ soldier in the Roman army.

While I can’t attest to the historical accuracy, because I’ve never studied this time period, I found this to be a very enjoyable story, if a little too obsessed with the need for the men to ‘pee and poo’ (I’m using polite words here) while on the march, or while fighting. This is essentially a book about men but then, it’s a story of soldiers and I assume that the Roman’s perhaps didn’t invite women into the ranks.

The pacing of the book is good, there is a slight wrinkle near the end, but in the end everything ends as it needs to, and as it should. So yes, it’s a little bit predictable, but hey ho, it’s still a fun read and I’ve already downloaded the two ‘shorts’ that Ben Kane has written to accompany the trilogy.

This book is released on 23rd March 2017 and can be purchased from here:

 

Book Review – The Confessions of Young Nero (historical fiction)

Here’s the blurb;

“The New York Times bestselling and legendary author of Helen of Troy and Elizabeth I now turns her gaze on Emperor Nero, one of the most notorious and misunderstood figures in history.

Built on the backs of those who fell before it, Julius Caesar’s imperial dynasty is only as strong as the next person who seeks to control it. In the Roman Empire no one is safe from the sting of betrayal: man, woman—or child.

As a boy, Nero’s royal heritage becomes a threat to his very life, first when the mad emperor Caligula tries to drown him, then when his great aunt attempts to secure her own son’s inheritance. Faced with shocking acts of treachery, young Nero is dealt a harsh lesson: it is better to be cruel than dead.

While Nero idealizes the artistic and athletic principles of Greece, his very survival rests on his ability to navigate the sea of vipers that is Rome. The most lethal of all is his own mother, a cold-blooded woman whose singular goal is to control the empire. With cunning and poison, the obstacles fall one by one. But as Agrippina’s machinations earn her son a title he is both tempted and terrified to assume, Nero’s determination to escape her thrall will shape him into the man he was fated to become—an Emperor who became legendary.

With impeccable research and captivating prose, The Confessions of Young Nero is the story of a boy’s ruthless ascension to the throne. Detailing his journey from innocent youth to infamous ruler, it is an epic tale of the lengths to which man will go in the ultimate quest for power and survival.”

The Confessions of Young Nero is the third book I’ve read in the last three weeks about Rome and her Empire. I was most intrigued to find out more about a time period that I’ve little studied and which previously, I’ve had little interest in, but did find it quite annoying that there are no years given throughout the text – I wanted to know where Nero’s story fit with the other books I’ve read.

To begin with, The Confessions of Young Nero is a very good introduction to the life of corrupt Rome. The story starts when Nero can be no more than a three year old, and, being told in his voice, progresses well as he grows and develops while all around him the ambitions of his family, and then his mother in particular, guide his path. There are murders and plots and deaths and a wonderful collection of debauched characters, as there should be in any story of Rome, and all in all, the story begins to build to something that promises to be truly intriguing.

Sadly, this doesn’t happen. No sooner has Nero become Emperor than the focus of the book shifts and suddenly all the drama and intrigue happens only in Nero’s fantasies as he strives to be an artist as opposed to an Emperor. This would not have spoilt the story if the focus had been a little less on building works and reciting poetry, and playing musical instruments and more on how he actually governed, as there is very little of this, other than the occasional long list of people he has in positions of power who are fulfilling certain roles for him.

I understand from reading the comments by the author that this is very much a revisionist approach to Nero, and I have no problem with that at all. For too long the stereotypes of historical figures have masked any efforts to find out the truth beneath all the lies and mishaps of the survival of historical documents, and yet, in this case, the story that emerges isn’t one that holds the readers attention as well as it should have done.

There were brief glimpses that the story would become somewhat more interested in the way that Nero actually ruled, but these are never fully realised, and the reader is left thinking that being the Emperor was easy-peasy provided you could stay alive to do so. This is a shame. I would have liked to know more about events in Britain and more about events concerning the followers of Christ, but these details are only given in short bursts, two tantalizing to offer any real insight.

The author presents an incredibly detailed view of Rome and its surrounding cities – how realistic this is, or isn’t, I can’t say, but there are points when it does feel as though you might be strolling around Rome or Pompeii, and that is an enjoyable aspect of the novel.

I would say it started as a good 4/5 star novel, but withered away at the end when I was only reading because I knew I’d nearly finished it.

And you can buy it here;

 

Book Review – My Name is Victoria by Lucy Wolsey

Here’s the blurb;

“‘You are my sister now,’ Victoria said, quietly and solemnly. ‘Never forget it. I love you like a sister, and you are my only friend in all the world.’ Miss V. Conroy is good at keeping secrets. She likes to sit as quiet as a mouse, neat and discreet. But when her father sends her to Kensington Palace to become the companion to Princess Victoria, Miss V soon finds that she can no longer remain in the shadows. Miss V’s father has devised a strict set of rules for the young princess, which he calls the Kensington System. It governs her behaviour and keeps her locked away from the world. He says it is for the princess’s safety, but Victoria herself is convinced that it is to keep her lonely, and unhappy. Torn between loyalty to her father and her growing friendship with the wilful and passionate Victoria, Miss V has a decision to make: to continue in silence, or to speak out. By turns thrilling, dramatic and touching, this is the story of Queen Victoria’s childhood as you’ve never heard it before.”

I received a free E-Arc from Netgalley.

First things first, I loved this book. Okay, I loved 90% of this book. It was a thoroughly enjoyable novel, a fascinating insight into the early years of Princess Victoria and an exceptionally well-researched novel. If anyone has read the Lady Grace Mysteries set in the first Elizabethan England I would recommend this story to them.

The first half of the story follows the exploits of the young Princess and her friend Miss V. at the age of about 11. This part of the story is long and detailed, but that’s no bad thing because the second half of the novel is somewhat faster paced and follows the two girls between the ages of about 16 and 18.

The author manages to portray the enemy of the story, Miss V’s father, Sir John Conroy, in both a sympathetic and a cruel way, highlighting his meanness and ambitions for his future, while also showing him as an almost loving father to his daughter, Miss V. It is only near the end of the novel that his ambitious nature makes it almost impossible to like the man anymore.

Princess Victoria’s mother is a shadowy character who is hardly ever seen, and it’s the nurse and the governess who populate the majority of the story, along with their dog, Dash, and poor old Princess Sophia, at least until near the end of the story when a few German princes make an appearance. And it was from here on that I disliked the story. I genuinely can appreciate the author’s intentions in making some changes to the accepted story, but the more I think about them, the more I think that it’s just a reach too far to expect the reader to accept the changes. Almost like Alison Weir with her fictional books on Elizabeth I, I found the changes to undermine my own, previous, appreciation of the ‘historical personage’ and it went too much against what I was expecting to be easy to accept and quite frankly, it annoyed me a little.

Still, if I can forget that, I must applaud the author for this attempt to portray the early years of Princess Victoria. This is a fascinating and enjoyable account and I would recommend it.

And you can buy it from here from 9th March 2017;

Book Review – Oswald: Return of the Kingby Edoardo Albert (historical fiction)

Here’s the blurb:

“The exiled family of King Aethelfrith of Northumbria arrive, after much hardship, on the island of Iona, where the monastery founded by St Columba has become a centre of worship and learning. Young Oswald becomes firm friends with a novice, Aidan. When Aidan professes his final vows, Oswald and his little brother Oswy are received into the church. As befits a young prince, Oswald learns to fight. However, Aidan’s example attacts him and he is on the point of deciding to become a monk when news reaches Iona that his half brother, Eanfrith, has been killed by Cadwallon, the king who defeated Edwin. Oswald sails back to Northumbria and meets Cadwallon in battle, defeating and killing him. Oswald, now undisputed king of Northumbria, gives Aidan the island of Lindisfarne as his base. But Penda, the last great pagan king in England, is raising troops against him.”

I received a free E-Arc from Netgalley.

Oswald, Return of the King is the first book I’ve read by the author.

Oswald is, unfortunately, a dense read that suffers with some pacing issues, but more than anything, is plagued by unnecessary and near constant Bible quotations. It would perhaps, have been better if the novel had been named after the monks of Lindisfarne or Iona, because the focus of the novel is not actually Oswald. The author has made great use of the work of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, (as must everyone who writes and studies about this time period), and I couldn’t help thinking that Bede would have been overjoyed by the author’s firm adherence to his ideas – to write a history of the Church – and not a history of the people throughout this period, but for myself, I felt that this detracted from what should have been an exiting read and instead descended into a long and tedious story about a highly fictionalised accounting of how Christianity was introduced to the Saxons of England. Christianity was a weapon, just like a warrior’s sword, shield and spear, but the author, writing for a Christian Press, makes no reference to the political nature of the imposition of Christianity.

As to the story itself, Oswald does not become King of Bernicia until 48% of the book has passed, and then there is some definite fudging of events and dates which takes the reader to the final battle – or should I say ‘finally a battle’. Until this point much has been made of the amassing of troops – but the Battle of Heavenfield, where Oswald gains his kingdom, is a disappointing fight between two men in a quarry, an amassing of troops at York slithers away as a truce is called, and Maserfield is the only battle that gets any ink – even the supposed overthrow of the Gododdin earns no more than the recall of a messenger reporting to his king.

This period of history is defined by its battles and its warriors, but this is a novel of saints and Christianity, and needs to be read with a clear understanding of what it is, and not what it could have been, or what a reader might well expect it to be.

The cover is, however, stunning!

And you can buy it here:

Book Review: A Mighty Dawn by Theodore Brun (historical fantasy)

Here’s the blurb:

“A gripping and brilliantly realized debut epic adventure set in eighth-century Denmark. This is the beginning of an ambitious new series in the vein of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones.

Hakan, son of Haldan, chosen son of the Lord of the Northern Jutes, swears loyalty to his father in fire, in iron, and in blood. But there are always shadows that roam. When a terrible tragedy befalls Hakan’s household he is forced to leave his world behind. He must seek to pledge his sword to a new king. Nameless and alone, he embarks on a journey to escape the bonds of his past and fulfil his destiny as a great warrior.

Whispers of sinister forces in the north pull Hakan onwards to a kingdom plagued by mysterious and gruesome deaths. But does he have the strength to do battle with such dark foes? Or is death the only sane thing to seek in this world of blood and broken oaths?”

A Mighty Dawn by Theodore Brun is a, sometimes brutal, coming of age tale set in the Scandinavian lands of the middle to second part of the first millennium. Paganism is the worship of choice, and the threads of Norse Mythology mingle through the story, as is to be expected for a story set at this time. It is not a work of historical fiction, but rather historical fantasy, or just plain fantasy with its basis set in the past.

I would divide the novel into three main parts. The first third, when the reader is introduced to Hakon and Inga, is very, very well written. The plot develops in an almost predicatable well (until …. well you’ll have to read it), but the author weaves the plot incredibly well so that when the big reveal came, I was incredibly shocked. I had been expecting the outcome to be very, very different to what actually happened. While Hakon is not exactly the most likable of characters at this point, he is a bit difficult to like because his concern is only with himself, he is well portrayed and the reader understands his anguish, his love and his hatred of Konur, as well as his difficult relationship with his father. The story is mired in the old Norse legends.

The second part of the novel revolves around ‘Hakon’s journey’, after his betrayal, ever northwards, and again, is a well articulated part of the story. While Hakon is now quite glowering and bad tempered, the tone of the story is lightened by the addition of his companion, Kai. a younger man than Hakon and one with a silken tongue and very good cooking skills. The journey ever northwards still contains much of old Norse legends and, because it takes place on the cusp of winter, sees them battling terrible weather in order to reach their destination through an almost deserted landscape.

It is really from this part of the story onwards that I felt the tale faltered a little. It’s still well written but I had some problems with the more fantastical elements of the storyline and these detracted from my overall enjoyment of what had started out as a very entertaining read. I also felt that the author’s great skills in producing characters as engaging as Hakon and Kai faltered a little, relying more on stereotypes than previously.

With all that said, this is a very well articulated story. The author has a good style that means that although the book is quite long, it disappears under the reader’s eyes at a fast rate. I picked the book up to only read the beginning (and work out how long it was as I was reading on the kindle), but soon became embroiled in the storyline and was then unable to put the book down, reading it over one weekend.

I would recommend the book to fans of historical fantasy and look forward to the next book in the series.

And you can buy it here: