The Colour of Heaven – James Runcie

I fear that historical novels are never ‘as good’ once you’ve read Dorothy Dunnett….

The plot of this relatively slim volume sounded promising enough – young orphan adopted by glass-making family is sent on a quest for Lapis Lazuli, the pigment that produces ‘the colour of heaven’ – but the telling is just too thin. Runcie skates over the thirteenth century’s scientific discoveries and their dissemination (spectacles) and the pre-Marco Polo travel and trade (travelling from Italy to present-day Afghanistan) with the concomitant meeting of cultures. And as for the love story, wholly unnecessary (unless Runcie is looking to sell the movie rights to Ridley Scott).

Dorothy, do it justice!!

Buy it: Amazon link

Passing Under Heaven – Justin Hill

Set in 9th century China at the twilight of the Tang Dynasty and their Empire, Justin Hill’s novel is a gem. It tells the tale of the doomed lives and loves of Minsiter Li, a Government Official from a powerful family, who buys as his concubine Little Flower/Lily, a beautiful and educated orphan from the northerm fringes of the Empire. When their love thwarted by pride, custom and family, Lily turns to poetry and becomes a courtesan to the rich and powerful…. so far, so clich

Small Island – Andrea Levy

The blurb and the plaudits didn’t entice, but to have continued to overlook this book would have been my loss. Small Island follows the lives of two couples, one from Jamaica the other from England, focussing on their experiences during World War II and the years that followed when Empire faded into Commonwealth, and Jamaicans moving to England became immigrants rather than fellow war veterans and members of the Empire.

The strong and individual voices of the characters make this a powerful, thought-provoking novel, when it could easily have been far more heavy-handed and less convincing.

Buy it: Amazon link

Now, do I go back to give The Star of the Sea another go…. or abandon that ship for another of the recent selection from the Barbican library’s fiction section…..?

Holy Fools – Joanne Harris

Another easy read from Joanne Harris, and the first one I’ve read whilst in France where the novel is set. Timewise, the setting is the renassiance (although the feel is more middle ages) with the murder of King Henri IV throwing the tranquil world of the Abbey of Ste Marie de la Mer into chaos, and in particular that of the lead character Juliette, a former actress and rope dancer who had taken refuge in the convent to protect herself and her baby daughter after the betrayal of the troupe of travelling players she’d grown up in.

I have to agree with the Amazon reviewer who describes Joanne Harris’s leading ladies as being as predictable as the Model-T [Ford]…. and whatever else the reviews say, Joanne Harris is no Dorothy Dunnett.

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The Clerkenwell Tales – Peter Ackroyd

A Christmas present from Phil selected from my Wishlist, this slim novel continued the crime theme I’d started with Cabal.

Set in mediaeval London, half of the book’s attraction was that the action takes place around where I live, and many of the street names and places remain in place in the 21st century. Peter Ackroyd tells a tale of religious and political intrigue, with each chapter advancing the plot from the perspective of a different character. Cleverly done, making for an easy read. But then I’m biassed by the location, in terms of both in time and place.

Buy it: Amazon link