Hemlock: Tales of a Traveler by N. J. Layouni – A Review

Hemlock

Pages: 400
Published: 2014

Hemlock: Tales of a Traveler by N. J. Layouni tells the story of Martha, a woman who slips on a stepping-stone in the Lake District and travels to somewhere else. It’s not the past, for reasons we’ll come to, but she’s clearly no longer in twenty-first-century England.

The place in which she wakes up bears a superficial resemblance to the Lake District, but is most definitely not in England. Her rescuer lives in a cave and is confused by her synthetic clothing and her smartphone. When he takes her to the nearest village, she’s horrified by what seems to have happened to her.

Martha refers to what she sees around her as medieval, but it’s not. It’s clearly a fantasy world. There’s no glass in the windows, but tea is drunk and it’s drunk from china cups. Men wear trousers and middle-class matrons wear mob caps. Most intrusive of all, the hero smokes tobacco and the heroine draws attention to it by telling him constantly that it will kill him.

After I started reading it, I discovered that Hemlock is the first part of a series (or serial, as Layouni calls it) and that it has a cliffhanger ending. If you’ve been with me for any length of time, you will know that I don’t like first books in series that don’t tie up at least some of the loose ends. I believe that a reader should be given some completion for having invested time and money in a novel. Layouni seems to believe this as well. There is a cliffhanger at the end of the novel, but enough of the sub-plots were concluded to allow me to put it down at the end without any frustration. At least two of the questions raised in the novel were answered and the relationship between the two main characters had reached a satisfactory point.

I enjoyed the novel. Martha’s slow acceptance of and adaptation to the world into which she has fallen is credible, as is the relationship between the two main characters.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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2019 Week Thirty-Three

Welty

I’ve finished Ovid’s Fasti and I’m still working my way through The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, so there isn’t much to report about the Goodreads Reading the Classics challenge this week. I am enjoying the short stories a bit more, though. Why I live at the P.O is one of Welty’s more famous short stories and I read it a few days ago. It’s an amusing depiction of a very dysfunctional family and the highpoint so far.

In other reading, I decided to continue with the time-travel romance, even though I knew it ends on a cliffhanger. It’s Hemlock: Tales of a Traveler by N.J. Layouni. The reviews on Goodreads are overwhelmingly positive, so I decided that I would live with the ultimate disappointment of an unfinished story. It turns out that I could.

When I finished Hemlock, I started Solar by Ian McEwan. It’s the first book of his that I’ve read, so I have no idea what to expect. So far it’s quite funny with some excellent one-liners.

Books read in challenge: 7

Books read in year: 33

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Fasti by Ovid – A Review

Fasti

Finally, I’ve come to the end of June and thus to the end of the collection of Ovid’s poems. Although I struggled with them to the last, as I worked through them, I began to understand them more.

I have a picture in my head of Ovid as a kind of tour guide, taking a group around Rome. He’s pointing out the various temples and sacred buildings, and members of the group ask about the stories behind the buildings and the gods whose days are celebrated within them. It’s a poor picture, as Ovid’s poems are set out as a calendar and not as a guide to Roman temples.

Ovid’s Fasti has got everything but the kitchen sink. There’s astronomy, although much of it is incorrect. There are stories about the gods, which I think are much more fun to read in his Metamorphoses. There are derivations of the names of the gods, holidays and months. I think this is my favourite part. I suspect that St. Augustine was familiar with this book, for he included some very outrageous derivations for the names of the Roman gods in The City of God. Compared to some of the derivations mentioned by Ovid, they no longer seem quite so outrageous, although most of Ovid’s are supposed to be true, while St. Augustine’s are questionable, to say the least.

The poems are set out in the form of a calendar, which is what fasti means. Not every day has an entry, since not all days were equal for the Romans. The days mentioned were special in some way. Most of them mark a celebration of a particular god, but others record the founding of a temple, a triumph in a war, or an important event in the history of Rome. Some are only a couple of lines long and describe what’s happening in the evening, or morning sky.

Although I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it, I think it has been useful. It has given me some insight into life in Rome at the beginning of the first century A.D.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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2019 Week Thirty-Two

Fasti

If you pay attention to such things, you’ll notice from my statistics at the bottom of the page that I haven’t finished a book in a couple of weeks and I’m falling behind in the Goodreads Reading the Classics challenge. What would normally be my reading time has been otherwise occupied this week. I did start a novel set in the Middle Ages, however, only to discover later that it has a cliffhanger ending. I don’t know whether I want to continue with it, as I’m not a fan of books that don’t have proper endings, even if they’re leading on to the next book in the series. On the other hand, it comes highly recommended by someone whose opinion I respect.

The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty are still failing to make much impression on me. One of them came to an end so suddenly that I turned over the page expecting there to be more. It felt as if she had just set down her pen and forgotten to come back and finish it. If I’m honest, quite a few of them so far have been like that. They’re in chronological order, though, so I’m hoping that they become more fully formed later. The writing is wonderful, though, and I’m enjoying her skill at presenting rounded characters simply by means of dialogue.

Ovid and I have reached June, the final month of Fasti. I feel quite sad that I haven’t enjoyed it more. It some ways he’s covering similar ground to that in Metamorphoses, which I loved. That book is also a collection of poems about the gods, but it has a bit more narrative than Fasti. The end is in sight, though, and I will finish it.

Books read in challenge: 6

Books read in year: 31

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Lamentation by C.J. Sansom – A Review

lamentation

Published: 2014
Pages: 641

Lamentation is the sixth book in the Shardlake series. Once again, Catherine Parr, the sixth wife of Henry VII, has a mission for the lawyer. This time she’s the one in need of his help. A book she’s written on a religious theme has been stolen. It’s not heretical, but the king won’t be happy when he finds out about it. To make matters worse, a page torn from the book has been found in the hand of a murdered religious radical. Shardlake assumes that he will find the book when he finds the murderer, but it’s not that simple. Whoever has the book poses a threat not just to Catherine Parr, but also to the king.

I found the pace of this novel a bit better than the previous one. There’s a lot going on and Shardlake doesn’t have much time to reflect on what’s happening, which means that he seems a little less melancholy than usual.

The resolutions of the Shardlake novels have become increasingly outrageous as the series has progressed and I can no longer suspend my disbelief that he manages to escape with his life at the end. That’s not a spoiler, since the books are written in the first person. I’m surely not the only reader who despaired when Shardlake went to meet an enemy believing that said enemy would be alone as requested. It’s not as if he has no experience in matters of intrigue and he’s certainly dealt with a lot of people who aren’t to be trusted. He’s also willful beyond reason in misinterpreting what goes on in his own household.

My bigger complaint is that the book is full of real, very important people. In the earlier books Shardlake would encounter the very important person who gave him his mission at the beginning of the story then report back to him at the end. Gradually that changed and he started meeting important people in the middle of the book as well. In this book he’s in and out of Whitehall Palace almost every day, bumping into members of the Privy Council and even meeting Lady Mary (later to be Queen Mary). This last is quite unnecessary except to make us wonder how Shardlake will fare under her rule, assuming he manages to stay alive until then. Someone even asks Sir Edmund Walsingham, the Lieutenant of the Tower of London, how his nephew, Francis, is. The nephew will eventually be Elizabeth I’s spymaster, but he plays no role in this story. William Cecil, who will become Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, also appears in the novel.  It feels occasionally as if Sansom is throwing in everything including the kitchen sink.

You might think I didn’t enjoy the novel, but I did. For the most part I loved it and I’m looking forward to reading Tombland, the last Shardlake novel so far.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

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2019 Week Thirty-One

Welty

Since I’m making slow progress with Ovid’s Fasti, I thought I’d get started with the next book on my list for the Goodreads Reading the Classics Challenge: The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. There are about forty stories in the collection and I thought I would read about one a day, in the hope that I will finish both books by the end of August.

I bought the collection of stories in 1994 when I attended an event celebrating writers of the American South. I suspect that one of the reasons why I haven’t read it in those 25 years is that I haven’t come across Eudora Welty’s name since. I’ll have to reread my notes from that day to remind myself why one of the speakers thought she was worth reading.

One of the things that I’ve been finding out recently is that I don’t really get on terribly well with American short stories from the middle of the last century. I don’t know why. I’m hoping that these stories will prove to be the exception.

In Ovid’s Roman calendar I’m well into May, but it’s getting more difficult to keep going. The stories of gods and men are proving to be repetitive. What is interesting, though, is that not all the celebrations recorded are for everyone. There are some attended just by women and some that are just for men. Some of the celebrations are sober affairs and some are feasts where the participants are expected to get very drunk.

There’s only another month to go after this one and I’m looking forward to reaching the end.

Books read in challenge: 6

Books read in year: 31

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

 

 

 

 

 

 

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First lines in July 2019

lamentation

I have stolen this idea from author Catherine Meyrick, who recently published a blog post on openings of novels. It’s a great idea. Authors are told that the first few sentences of a novel are the ‘hook’ to drag the reader into the rest of the story and I’ve been collecting first lines from the novels I read for about a year.

I think my favourite opening line of all time is “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”. It’s George Orwell’s 1984. He captured the attention of my teenage self by mentioning the month after which I’m named, but the oddity of clocks striking thirteen grabbed me by the throat and started me wondering about an author who didn’t seem to be aware that clocks don’t strike thirteen. It was a set text at school and we read some dreadful stuff that year, so I can forgive my younger self for thinking this novel wasn’t going to be any good either. It made a big impression on me, once I realised that Orwell knew what he was doing.

July has been a bit short of fiction, so I only have two examples of first sentences for you. At the beginning of the month I read Traitor’s Knot by Cryssa Bazos. Its first sentence is “The Roundheads were closing in.”. If you know nothing about the civil war in England in the middle of the seventeenth century, you’re probably lost, but it’s in the book description that the novel is set in that period and you probably wouldn’t read it if you knew nothing about the war.

If you do know something about the civil war, this single sentence probably tells you quite a bit. The first chapter is more of a prologue and has the heading “Naseby, 14 June 1645”. Naseby was a decisive battle in the war, but you don’t need to know that to be able to work out that that the character from whose point of view the first chapter is going to be told isn’t a Roundhead, but is probably in some danger from them. He, or she, is therefore a Royalist. If you know that there was a battle at Naseby you might assume that the point of view is that of a soldier. All of this information is confirmed in the next sentence. In five words Bazos has set the scene perfectly.

My second book in July is C. J. Sansom’s Lamentation, set during the last few months of Henry VIII’s reign. Sansom’s first lines are usually unremarkable, but this novel opens with “I did not want to attend the burning.”. Since this is the sixth book in the Matthew Shardlake series, the reader has probably read the previous novels and knows that the books are narrated by Shardlake himself.  The reader therefore knows who doesn’t want to attend the burning. Shardlake has told us in previous novels that he has been forced before to attend executions in the past. He has also communicated his dislike of them. It’s no surprise, therefore, that he doesn’t want to go to the burning. The reader must then ask why he’s going to be there. Who has enough power over him to make him do something that he finds abhorrent? Readers of the previous novels will know that many people have that power. A burning will have the authority of the king and Shardlake has already caught the king’s attention and not in a good way. The reader will conclude that Shardlake is at the burning in an effort not to draw attention to himself from those who can do him harm, which is later shown to be the case.

I enjoy collecting first sentences and I’m thinking of making this a regular feature. Have you read any good first sentences recently?

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2019 Week Thirty

Fasti

I’m making progress with Ovid’s Fasti and reached May. Reading the April poems, I learned something interesting, to me at least. According to Ovid, the month after which I’m named is the month devoted to Venus, goddess of love and protector of Rome. He also has an interesting derivation for the name of the month. The derivation I’ve always known is that it comes from the Latin verb aperio – to open. April is the month in which flowers start to open, so that makes sense. Ovid’s theory is that it’s named after Aphrodite, the Greek equivalent of Venus. This idea was apparently quite popular at the time. No wonder I write romance novels!

I finished reading two novels this week. One is Purpurland by Horst Eckert. When I started reading it last month, I complained about the tricky vocabulary.  As I expected, that became less of a problem as the book progressed and I was able to follow the murder investigation without too much bother. I even had my own theory about who the murderer was and why. I was wrong.  Despite that, I enjoyed the novel.

The other book I finished is C.J. Sansom’s Lamentation, which I’ll be reviewing in a couple of weeks.

Books read in challenge: 6

Books read in year: 31

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amazon

2019 Week Twenty-Nine

Fasti

In Fasti I’ve reached March. I can’t say that I’m enjoying it so far. I’m trying telling myself that this is the Roman equivalent of a book of saints’ days I possess, except with political comment. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints lists the saints; gives a brief biography; says when they were canonised; when their feast day is; and whether or not they are (or were) particularly venerated in England. Ovid tells his reader the name of the god being celebrated on a particular day; the derivation of the god’s name (or the name of the celebration); the history of the particular event being celebrated and the name of the temple in which it’s being celebrated. As in Metamorphoses, he’s very good at telling the stories about the gods.

I think my biggest drawback as a reader is that I don’t know enough about the gods to start with. One of my purposes in doing this challenge was to learn more about the myths and legends of antiquity. Unfortunately, the editors and translators of most of the books I’ve read assume that I have more knowledge than I have. The glossaries and notes are not as helpful as they might be. The other problem is that the gods are really confusing. They have Greek names and Roman names and the stories about them often contradict themselves. Fasti is a bit easier to read now that I understand more what it’s about.

In other reading, I’ve started Lamentation by C.J. Sansom.  It’s the sixth in the Matthew Shardlake series. I almost wrote that it was light reading compared to Fasti, but it’s not. The novel starts during the last months of the reign of Henry VIII with Shardlake attending a burning. After that Queen Catherine Parr asks him to find out who has stolen a book she’s written, which many, including the king, would find heretical. The start is slow and there are more than 600 pages to come.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amazon

2019 Week Twenty-Eight

Fasti

Thanks to a train ride to London this week, I’m making progress with Fasti. I’m in the middle of February. The translators have decided to go for prose rather than poetry, although the text is set out on the page as if it were poetry. In theory this should make for a  livelier read, but it’s doesn’t really work. Ovid’s style is fairly elliptical and I’m dependent on the notes to understand most of what’s going on, as I have no idea about the important people and events in Rome during the reign of Augustus, despite having watched I, Claudius twice and read the books on which it was based, also twice.

The introduction tells me that “to understand Ovid’s Fasti is to understand Augustus’s Rome”.  We’ll see.

The poem is dedicated to Germanicus Julius Caesar, a successful general from the family of Julius Caesar, who wrote some poetry himself. He’s probably best known today, though, as the father of Caligula. He died in suspicious circumstances in the year following Ovid’s death.

So far I’ve learned one thing of interest. The original Roman calendar had only 10 months. In the seventh century B.C. Numa, king of Rome, added January and February to the beginning of the year.  Despite this, the English New Year was in March until late in the Middle Ages, but the year began on Lady day, 25th March. Ever since I learned the meaning of their Latin roots, I have wondered why September, October, November and December aren’t the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth months of the year respectively. Now I know.

When I saw the book’s 40-page glossary, I began to understand why St. Augustine mocked the number of gods there were in Rome in The City of God. It’s a wonder to me that anyone could keep track of them all. Some of the names in the glossary are those of real people and places, but most of it lists the names of the gods.

In Fasti, Ovid identifies the important days of each month, explains why the day is important and, in some cases, gives a derivation for the name of the day or of the god or event honoured on the day. I’m sure it must have been fascinating in you were a first-century A.D. Roman.

Books read in challenge: 6

Books read in year: 29

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amazon