A Respectable Trade – Philippa Gregory

I missed out on the mini series they made of this stand-alone Philippa Gregory novel – I’d not caught the PG bug, and the adverts made the whole thing seem a bit worthy.

I was wrong. The book is great, and the end leaves you with more unknowns than you might expect. Although the early chapters give you a lot of insight into what’s going on in Mehuru’s head, I found it disappointing that this tailed off once he’d got to Bristol at which point the book became much more action-narrative based. That said, the action’s gripping, and you are still aware of the emotions that the main characters go through and the battles between the upwardly mobile Traders and the downwardly mobile niece of the Gentry as well as the ensalved Africans, and the host of lesser characters that make up the backdrop of 18th century Slaves and Sugar Trade.

An excellent and accessible book for people who don’t know much about England’s 18th century slave trade, and the way it underpinned many other trading activities, and influenced Parliament.

Buy it: Amazon link

The Birth of Venus – Sarah Dunant

An excellent historical novel, evoking the crazy days of Savonarola’s reign in early renaissance Florence, subtly weaving together the early, less well known, years of well known historical figures with intruiging fictional characters.

As one of the Amazon reviewers puts it:

The beginning is extremely gripping – when I read it I thought ‘wow – who is this nun who decided to fake a breast tumour, commit suicide and had an erotic silver serpent tattooed all over her body??’ What on earth can she have gone through, what kind of person was she before she became a nun?’

I read this (morning, noon and night!) on the recommendation of Karen Grimshaw after I’d given her The Lady and the Unicorn for her birthday. We shared the delights of Lymond and Niccolo at St Andrews, and Karen reckons Sarah Dunant isn’t far off Dorothy Dunnett status. Hurrah!

Such a shame that The Birth of Venus is a stand-alone novel, and Sarah Dunant’s other books seem to be modern day detective fiction…. let’s hope there are more where it came from.

Buy it: Amazon link

The Years of Rice and Salt – Kim Stanley Robinson

I thoroughly enjoyed this historical novel meets SciFi/Fantasy – my two favourite fictional genres! A good borrow from Phil.

As the blurb on the back said, “Imagine a world without Europe….”

…. or more accurately a world where the population of Europe is almost entirely wiped out by the Plague in the Middle Ages. Focussing key people, eras and events, Kim Stanley Robinson describes the next 600 or so years (it’s hard to keep track of where “we”‘d got to in his timeline) and conducts a huge thought experiment over the course of 800 pages.

It would have been useful to know that “Extra continuity is given by a touch of fantasy as the Buddhist wheel of reincarnation brings back the same characters (coded by initials) again and again with varied roles, relations and sexes.”

Buy it: Amazon link

The Crimson Petal and the White – Michel Faber

A page turner of a novel, set in the London of the last quarter of the 19th century, with the plot and the narrative slowly metamorphosing in the telling of the tale of a London prostitute’s life changing from the lurid to the (almost) respectability. Crammed full of colourful characters and lots of detail on all manner of subjects – a great New Year novel.

Buy it: Amazon link

Falling Angels – Tracy Chevalier

At its simplest, this is a tale of two girls, who become friends and grow up in London during the first two decades fo the 20th century. Overlying this simple story is the emergence of women’s suffrage, and the slow but steady social changes between the death of Queen Victoria and the upheavals of World War I.

The action revolves around a fictional graveyard in North London, where two families have adjacent plots, and where the girls themselves meet, and then befriend a young grave digger, whose contributions to the narrative provide an insight into how the metropolitain world worked at the start of the 20 century.

Buy it: Amazon link