Tag Archives: England

Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: Or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History by Giles Milton

The first thing I have to say about Nathaniel’s Nutmeg is that its title is misleading.  Nathaniel Courthope, the gentleman referenced by the title, features him for a very small amount of time.  What the book is about, the struggle between the Dutch and the English to gain and keep control of the Spice Islands, is an interesting topic, but I felt a little let down.  I imagined a more swashbuckling tale than the one that was delivered.

That’s not to say that I didn’t like the story Milton had to tell.  I knew that the spice trade was big, but I never knew how much it fueled naval exploration.  European people really wanted their spices, mainly because they attributed all sorts of magical healing powers to them.  Plus, they’re tasty.

I love that Milton is telling me a story that I’ve never heard before.  I knew, vaguely, that there are places called England and the Netherlands, and that their peoples were both seafaring and entrepreneurial.  I had no idea that the two nations fought a kind of cold (sometimes hot) war over the spice trade.  I didn’t know that it was for spice that the East India Company was founded.  I didn’t know that the fate of navies are so dependent on good leadership.

I appreciate Milton’s set-up for the story of Courthope, but the book feels lost for the first two hundred or so pages.  I kept thinking that the next chapter had to have Courthope in it, since the book’s named for him.  It’s quite frustrating, as a reader, to be forced into reading about what otherwise might be a quite interesting narrative because there’s a constant expectation for a particular person or event.  The marketing of the book, frankly, ruined a good part of the history Milton wanted to tell.

Giles Milton, the author, also attributes to Courthope the eventual ownership of Manhattan by the British due to the trouble he caused the Dutch by holding onto Run for as long as he did.  If he wanted to make that point, it would have been nice to have the juxtaposition — the lessening of the Dutch control in the Americas as their power grew in the East Indies — put to the forefront.  I think it’s a far-fetched idea, that the British gained New York solely because they traded Run for it; there was an actual battle in Manhattan for the land.  New York: The Novel devotes its first section to the waning power of the Dutch there and the rise of the English, and there were skirmishes.  Run may have been in the formal agreement, but I have serious doubts about whether it was truly a large part of the overall treaty between the two countries.  This, therefore, makes Milton’s claim for Courthope rather flimsy, in my opinion.

Overall, I would have enjoyed this book a lot more had it not advertised itself as the story of one man.  I would have known what I was getting into, and could have experienced it for what it is, and not for what I expected it to be.

Rating:  2/5.

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

There aren’t many epistolary novels around — the only one I can remember having read is Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary, and that’s intended for children.  I think the plot of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was served well by the structure.  The nature of the story almost requires the input from many of the characters, and the idea of using letters to tell the story is a fresh way to go about this.  It made for a refreshing reading experience.

My favorite part of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is the story of the German occupation of the island of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands.  I had no idea that any part of Great Britain was ever taken over by Nazi forces during World War II.  I found the story of the islanders compelling, and I believe it was made more so by the piecemeal way I had to put the story together.  The letters allowed me some of the history, but not all of it, and not all at once.  It’s a feeling that simulates, in a way, the way it might feel like to be in a war — never knowing exactly what had happened, getting the information you do get from all sorts of sources, some more reliable than others, and having to make the connections yourself as to what exactly did go down.  I absolutely love this part of the book.

I also like the characters.  Juliet, our heroine, is a cheerful and intensely curious woman.  The islanders are all diverse, but also have a cohesiveness to them that makes them realistic.  Juliet’s publisher, Sidney, and his sister are also present, but mainly as a device to allow Juliet to tell her story — they aren’t fully present, but I still like them.

My only issue with this book is that it is a pretty predictable romance — Juliet has a checkered past with romance.  Juliet is wooed by a man she’s not sure she loves.  Juliet runs away and finds a more suitable love interest.  I’ve read it before.  More interesting to me was the love story between a dead islander, Elizabeth, and a Nazi officer.  That story, I feel, should be the center of the book, because it’s so much more compelling.  I found myself not really caring about Juliet’s love life and, instead, wishing that things had turned out differently for Elizabeth.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is, overall, a sweet book with a unique story.  I don’t think it likely that a similar book will be written soon, and that’s a good thing.  Some stories deserve to stand on their own.

Rating: 4/5.

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The Virgin Widow by Anne O’Brien

Historical fiction tends to fall into two categories — adventure and romance.  As indicated by its title, The Virgin Widow firmly falls into the latter category.  It doesn’t disappoint in that area, and actually surprises the reader with an English-based historical romance that doesn’t take place in and around the reign of Henry VIII.  The author, Anne O’Brien, also appears to have done her research and written a book that feels true to the times.

The best thing about this book is the setting.  I don’t know a whole lot about the War of the Roses.  It was great to read a book that takes place during the power struggle between the families of York and Lancaster.  It starts off with Anne and her family, the Nevilles, on a boat from England to Calais, with Anne’s sister, Isabel, in labor.  Anne’s father, the Earl of Warwick, was adviser to the Edward IV, the King of England, but the two have had a falling out over the Queen, Elizabeth, and the amount of influence she has over the King’s decisions.  The plot of the book goes on to follow some of the events of the war, which, to me, is great.  I can learn while I read?  Fantastic!

I also think that Anne is an admirable character, for the most part.  She is smart and spirited, and, since the book is in first person, we get to follow her thought processes. I suppose this is probably standard for romance novels; being in the person’s shoes allows for a more complete fantasy.  I still liked it.

O’Brien gives Anne’s story a nonlinear structure to discuss Anne’s childhood, which is also nice.  I liked the excitement of the opening chapter with the quiet storytelling of the next couple.  It wasn’t an obtrusive way of making a book both grab the reader and tell the character’s story fully.

The Virgin Widow does, however, have a couple of flaws.  The first is how Anne, for such a strong girl and, later, woman, comes to believe she  has to rely on a man to protect her.  I’m guessing this is part of the romance, but I found it off-putting.  Why on Earth would a widow, an independent person with her own rights, have to stay in a household with a man in it, for example?  She shouldn’t need safe-keeping.  This bothered me quite a bit.  I don’t know how O’Brien justified Anne’s passivity with regards to her decision-making and personal safety, but I didn’t care for it.

My other issue is with the writing itself.  I’ve rarely seen so many ellipses in a book.  It was a bit distracting.  Not everything a woman says has something else implied at the end or is a half-finished thought.  The men usually get full sentences; why don’t the women, too?

Overall, I think that The Virgin Widow is a historically-accurate romance, which counts for a lot.  I’d like to see a more forward woman in Anne when it comes to men, since she’s bold in other ways, and a bit more polish on the dialogue.  Other than that, it’s a fine light read.

Rating: 3/5.

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Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? by Tom Holt

Tom Holt’s Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? is a silly caper story involving a hidden cache of Norsemen, an archaeology graduate student, and their journey together through Britain while trying not to gather too much attention — and failing.  It’s a story that reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s DiscWorld books, which means that it was an entertaining read involving quirky characters and a kooky plot.  This is a good thing.

The entire thing starts with the discovery of a Norse ship uncovered by a construction crew in Scotland.  A rather naive grad student, Hildy Frederiksen, is sent to check it out.  She’s excited to see that the boat is a complete specimen, goes back to her hotel, and then gets the urge to return to the mound.  Once there, she discovers the crew of the boat awake and walking around, which they most certainly should not be doing, having been buried there for twelve hundred years.

The crew really is a well-honed battle group whose slumber has been in place merely until the time is right to prevent a particularly bad person from doing … well, something particularly bad.  Hildy takes on the responsibility of finding food and clothing for the men, as well as shuttling them around and getting them acquainted with the modern world.  This last task, surprisingly, isn’t as hard as it would seem.  The Norsemen take modern technology in stride, thinking it the same as their magic; most likely it is, seeing as they have brooches they connect to electrically-charged chthonic spirits to make things happen.

Mixed in here is the story of Danny Bennett, a fluff-piece reporter who earnestly wishes to write something more substantial.  He stumbles on the Norse gentlemen, and his future gets entwined with theirs.  Also making an appearance is the enemy’s guy Friday, whose experiences help to fill in a little back story (and provides for some nail-biting).

I think this book is really quite good.  The writing is light, pulling just short of treating the plot as inconsequential.  Holt manages to give us a full story with some endearing characters experiencing something very surreal without it feeling like a fairy tale, which is nice.  The end feels as realistic as possible for a fantasy tale; things aren’t perfect, but they turn up good at the end.

A couple of things were a little off with the book, though.  I didn’t quite get why we needed the chthonic spirits (other than to give the plot something to turn on).  If they’re basically little living batteries, why can’t they use batteries when they discover them missing?  They managed to do that with the other brooch, so that was a little confusing.

I also felt like the book was a little light on substance.  It’s one thing to have a breezy feel.  It’s quite another to whisk the reader by points before they get a chance to sink in.  A slightly slower pace would have made Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? a little better.

The last problem I have with the book is that, without an interest in Norse history and literature, you might be a little lost during some sections of the book.  Sure, the person might know “Viking”, but I’m not sure how many know the mythology, the Eddas, and the sagas well enough to pull out some of the more interesting bits of the story.

Overall, though, Holt put together a delightfully humorous story about Norsemen in modern-day Britain.  This makes him okay in my book.

Rating: 4/5.

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Island in the Sea of Time by S. M. Stirling

Island in the Sea of Time sounded good to me.  I love alternate history and speculative fiction.  What could be better than a book that blended both in an innovative way, incorporating some science fiction into the mix?  Unfortunately, despite some good aspects, Island in the Sea of Time fell flat for me.

Let’s start off with the good.  I liked the idea of an entire island of people from our own time being suddenly tossed into the far past.  What challenges they would face?  How would they meet the obstacles facing them?  A fantastic plot, in my opinion.

I also delighted in the anthropological aspects Stirling put in.  Linguistics is an interest of mine, so I found some of the exposition language structure and evolution absolutely fascinating.  His conjectures on how various cultures functioned and how they would react to visitors from today’s world were obviously well-researched, at least on the European side.

The cultural part that I disliked, however, was the heavy focus on building or maintaining technological conveniences, creating weapons, military training, and warfare.  I just wanted to skip over the pages that dealt with this stuff, and that’s bad, since it makes up about half the book.  Many (and I mean many) of the characters have military training, which I found too convenient to be believable.  This leads me to my next issue with the book.

The residents of Nantucket are far too accepting of their situation.  There are a couple of freak-outs in the book, as well as allusions to points of crises within individuals.  I, however, find it difficult to believe that there wasn’t a wholesale rejection of the time shift.  There are off-hand comments about suicide, but they felt like they were obligatory mentions so that Stirling could get on with the story.  We follow no character who has such inclinations; this probably would have made Island in the Sea of Time more compelling, more human on an emotional level.

Character abilities and skills also felt too well-distributed to reflect reality.  A Coast Guard ship just happens to get trapped in the time shift, so we have a military force with at least one fighting ship, plenty of trained soldiers, and modern weapons.  There’s the woman who runs the greenhouse, so we have someone who knows how to grow crops and can teach others how to do so.  We have a librarian who is apparently so freaking talented that she can keep everyone apprised of the information they need to perform their jobs.  We have a historian with interests in the time period the island has been thrust into, as well as a working knowledge of linguistics.  We have an astronomer, who has the ability to communicate with the English tribes because she also can speak a Baltic language that is similar to proto-Indo-European. We have a captain who is, apparently, God’s gift to both military strategy and tactics.  And we have a native woman who is gifted in so many ways that it makes suspension of disbelief very difficult.  On top of that, we lose exactly one of the main cast of characters.  He doesn’t happen to be a central character, either; we probably follow him about a half-dozen times, whereas most of the other characters get approximately thirty to forty sections scattered throughout the book.  That smacks of the unreal to me.

Also unfortunate, in my opinion, Stirling focused on the prehistoric British inhabitants, which was baffling to me, seeing as the island tossed back in time was Nantucket.  We are given very little information about the Native Americans of the area; he allows us to read about their first encounter, and then leaves them almost completely.  This struck me as strange; why toss away a fascinating people who could help the Nantucketers with farming, gathering and the like — as well as trading — in favor of the long sea voyage and constant skirmishes in England?

The other aspect of this is, when we are allowed to view one extended encounter with Central American natives, they are portrayed in a horribly brutal light.  While this might be accurate, some of the actions taken by the Olmecs were horribly graphic — graphic enough to cause me to have a nightmare about one particular scene.  It freaked me out to no end, and also felt unfair to the indigenous Americans.  Why do they get to experience such a characterization, while the European peoples encountered are as nuanced as the Nantucket residents?

Based on the comments by Harry Turtledove and Robert J. Sawyer, I thought I was in for a spectacular read.  I’m saddened to find that wasn’t so.  A more Nantucket-based, psychologically sensitive book would have been fascinating.  Since this is one in a series of books, many of the battles could have waited.  As it is, Island in the Sea of Time leaves the reader with a dry book about martial history, martial tactics, and flat characters.

Rating: 1.5/5

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Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders appears, on first glance, to be a standard piece of historical fiction geared toward women.  It features a strong heroine.  It spends a lot of its time dealing with tasks that are traditionally considered to be those of women: cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, tending to the sick.  There’s some romance.  There’s the always-popular witch hunt when people become ill.  Yet to dismiss this book as simply another piece of historical fiction is to miss the extraordinary storytelling Brooks displays here.

Year of Wonders tells the story of a small English mining town beset by plague.  Anna Frith, our heroine, is a young wife and mother who escaped an abusive childhood home to find a short amount of happiness with Sam before her husband is killed in a mining accident, leaving her with two young boys.  She later takes in a lodger to make ends meet, who turns out to be carrying the plague.  Soon, her boys are both gone, and the village is taken in a wave of disease no one can stop.  The village, spurred by their minister, Michael Mompellion, takes the drastic step of sealing themselves off from the world, to avoid the spread of the disease.

A pretty standard story, after all.  I’ve heard it told before.  What makes Year of Wonders unique in a crowded field is Brooks’ gift for character development.  Anna is a full-rounded person, with a quickness of mind and a caring heart.  Yet she also takes some questionable actions, such as allowing her father to suffer when he is convicted of stealing from an ill man.  In other words, she’s human.  It’s interesting to be in her head and to see the events in the village unfold before her eyes.

Many of the other female characters are the same way.  Anys, the town’s younger healing woman, is brusque, yet, through her actions, Brooks indicates that she cares about the people she treats.  Elinor Mompellion, Michael Mompellion’s wife, is mild and gentle, but not without her secrets.  Brooks excels at showing us women in their entirety, which is better than most writers can manage.

Brooks’ word choice and description is wonderful, as well.  Her writing has a tone that is approachable, for the most part, but also contains vocabulary and phrasing that indicate to the reader the book is about a different time and a different place.

My main problem with Year of Wonders is in the development of some of the male characters.  Some fell a little flat.  I suppose they really aren’t the focus of the book, but it would be nice if they were their own people.  The only one I found compelling for a good amount of the book was Mr. Mompellion, but by the end of the book, I had little interest in him.  It’s too bad.  Their actions might have been more interesting if we knew about them as we went along, instead of afterward, like the childhood of Anna’s father, or not at all, such as her dead husband, Sam.

On the whole, though, Year of Wonders is a very good historical novel.  It felt well-thought-out, smooth, and realistic.  Those three things go quite a ways to making a book a worthy read, which this definitely is.

Rating: 4/5

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