The Physician, by Noah Gordon

The Physician, by Noah Gordon, was recommended to me by a lovely book shop owner in Launceston when I was there one day doing a book-signing. Without telling me too much about the tale, the owner pressed the very thick book into my hands and said, “I think you will love this.” I always feel a shiver of trepidation come over me when someone I like or even whose reading tastes I share says this to me.  More than anything, I want to like, no, love the books that are recommended with such passion and I fear that if I don’t, I am somehow letting them down.

The good news is with The Physician, I did indeed love this book – so much so, I felt bereft when it ended.

Set mostly during the 10th Century, this is the story of a young Englishman, Robert J Cole who, from a very young age, learns he possesses a gift – the gift, basically, of sensing a person’s life force. The reader follows his life from the discovery of this gift around the age of nine to middle age; from the tragedy of his beginnings to the triumphs of his later years. Rob J has a varied and amazing life and how and why he becomes a physician and the journey he takes to train is, quite simply, sensational. We’re taken around England and given insight into the peripatetic life of a Barber-Surgeon (to whom Rob J apprentices himself), to France, across Europe and to war-riven Turkey and then Persia and its amazing culture and religious Otherness. Determined to train under the man he’s been told is the best physician in the world, Rob J makes incredible sacrifices: physical, emotional and, above all, spiritual. But in making these he gains more than his heart and mind’s desire.

The pace is wonderful, the characters so well drawn you feel emotionally attached to them in ways that are sometimes painful but always deep and meaningful. The settings are magnificently and realistically drawn and the different cuisines, the food and drink are mouth-wateringly described. I adored this book – the detail, the humanness of it and the way the macroscosm of the worlds and religions Rob J encounters are also microcosms of the everyday – of the humanity (or lack thereof) in us all.

Shaman is the sequel and I will read that with joy – only, for now, I want to savour the affects of this magnificent book – rightly hailed as a triumph. I cannot recommend it highly enough, so much so, I dare to say, read it, “I think you will love this…”

 

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Cavalier: The Story of a 17th Century Playboy, by Lucy Worsley

As I read this wonderful book, Cavalier: The Story of a 17th Century Playboy, by Lucy Worsley12834777, I could hear her voice with all its lilting passion telling me the history of William Cavendish and his rise, downfall and rise again – the latter occurring along with the Restoration of Charles II. Poetic, often moving and with incredible detail about the social mores and hierarchy of the English aristocracy at the time (from old King James, his son Charles I, the Civil Wars and Cromwell, to Charles II), it’s also a tale of sexual intrigue, gossip, and conspiracy.

 

Recommended for lovers of history, architecture (there is a long chapter on the Cavendish home – a former abbey) and those who like beautifully written books. It’s clear Worsley knows her subject so well and the detail leaps from the pages and is underpinned by meticulous footnoting and research. A terrific read.

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An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

12142746An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears is a book I resisted reading for a while for the simple reason I thought it a tad too long. There were other books I wanted and needed to read, so it kept being moved to the bottom of a very big pile. Even owning a Kindle was not reason enough to embark on such a journey. Well, more fool me.

An Instance of the Fingerpost (which is taken from a larger quote by Francis Bacon) refers to the way in which a fingerpost points in only one direction and how, when presented with “facts” and “truths” in relation to a situation, humans tend to only see one solution/suspect. So it is with this simply marvellous tale of murder and intrigue set in 1663, during the reign of Charles II, who was restored to the throne on the back of the Interregnum after the death of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell and the failure of his son, Richard, to hold power.

Set in Oxford, it basically tells the story about the murder of a university don, a Dr Grove, who appears to have been poisoned. Told in four parts from four different points of view (a Venetian medical student and traveler, Marco Da Cola; a passionate and angry young man, John Prescott who is trying desperately to prove his father isn’t the traitor to the crown he was believed to be; Dr Wallis, a stern and unbending cryptographer and, finally, Anthony Wood, an archivist and historian), the tale unfolds slowly, in detail, allowing time for the reader to understand not only the incredible narrative being told, but the person telling it. Rich in detail, philosophical insights and human observation, other characters become significant, such as the bold and assertive Sarah Blundy who earns the enmity and admiration of people in equal measure, and her injured mother, the so-called witch, Anne. Then, there are also the genuine historical figures who pepper the book such as the Earl of Clarendon, Cromwell’s former spymaster, John Thurloe, scientist Robert Boyle, architect Christopher Wren, Mr Lower, Bennett, the king, and other well-known names from a heady, culturally progressive and violent period.

When Dr Grove is found murdered, all sorts of reasons are given for his death and various suspects and their motives come to light, but without spoiling the story, it’s when someone the reader least suspects confesses, and shocking events follow, that the narrative (and the reader’s heart) quickens.

But Grove’s murder is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Bubbling away beneath the brutal death of this pompous man are plots and secrets aplenty as well as those who fear what the discovery of these might do to a kingdom fractured by religion, potential wars and the lascivious desires of a once deprived and exiled king.

Hidden documents, unfair accusations, half-truths, outright lies, deceptions, decoys, murder and betrayal all feature in this incredibly plotted, wonderfully detailed book that brings an era of suspicion, intrigue, distrust but also wonder to life. The accuracy of the portrayals of real and fictitious figures (though even the fictitious ones are based on real people and events) is breath-taking. I was filled with admiration and so much respect (as well as a healthy does of lexical envy) for Pears who has written a tour de force with this book. When I finally finished, I was tempted to start again so as to really appreciate the way traps were laid, truths and evasions set into place before the big and ultimate reveal.

What a magnificent tome this is. I highly recommend it for lovers of history, mystery and just damn fine writing and stories.

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Pepy’s London: Everyday Life in London 1650-1703 by Stephen Porter

11987791Short, sharp and interesting, if sometimes a little dryer than the title might suggest, Porter’s brief history of London as it was immediately after the execution of Charles I, throughout the Interregnum and Oliver Cromwell’s reign, the leadership (!) of Richard Cromwell to the restoration of Charles II, James II’s time on the throne, the Glorious Revolution and the beginnings of the reign of William and Mary, is packed full of facts and observations.

Though the title suggests this is London as Samuel Pepys experienced and wrote about it, it’s more than that. It’s also a London on the brink of religious and political upheavals as suspicion and faith caused many tensions and riots. It’s a city enduring and moving with swiftly changing economic circumstances and robust and exciting scientific discoveries, as well as a place that was culturally enterprising and rich, as theatre, music, writing and art underwent another Renaissance.

Using Pepy’s life as a yardstick by which to measure the altering moods and landscape of the city, Porter offers a keen insight into the various people and events that helped to fashion London into what it is today. Whether it was intolerance for immigrants, appreciation and exploitation of other cultures, growing literacy, expanding borders as the Empire grew, trade, war, frosts, plague or fire, what is clear is that London was rarely if ever dull – whether you were gentry or from the lower classes.

The just over half a century covered really does encompass an amazing array of transformations  – and not just in terms of leaders and governing styles. Porter is such a good historian, my only beef with the book is that it is so dry at times and when you use the name Pepys in the title, I think it’s dryer than it has a right to be! Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this great overview. The illustrations are also terrific and really well explained.

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Sisters of the Fire by Kim Wilkins

29937614The second book in the Blood and Gold series, Sister of the Fire is set a few years after the thrilling events of the first book, Daughters of the Storm, conclude. Once more, we’re drawn into the lives of the five very different sisters as they hurdle towards their unknown and dark destinies. Whether it’s the fierce and loyal Bluebell who’s on a mission to locate a sword that’s been crafted for the purpose of slaying her and which she fears one of her sister’s possesses; or forlorn Rose, the princess set aside by her Trimartyr husband, King Wengest, and who’s forced to live away from the man she loves and with her aunt and son – that is, until she learns the life of her daughter, the indefatigable Rowan, is in danger. We also follow the struggles of Ash as she comes to terms with the terrible power she wields, the fate she sees for the realm and will do anything to prevent. Then there are the twins, Ivy and Willow. Weak and ineffectual in comparison to her sisters, Ivy has been given in marriage to a man she doesn’t love and whose chronic illness threatens to unbalance the city she holds in care for her beloved sons. Then there’s the zealot, Willow. Having turned her back on the faith she was born into, Willow has become a warrior-priestess for Maava and, in her efforts to prove herself worthy of her cruel god’s love, will do anything – even betray the family and kingdom who remain steadfast to her.

Vast in scope and setting (the reader is taken from rocky shores, craggy islands, deserted towns, bustling cities to mystical forests and arcane castles), Sisters of the Storm is a tour de force of the imagination. Each of the main women in the story, and the men who either exploit or love them fearlessly, as well as the children the women love unconditionally (if not always well), are masterfully realised and sometimes brutally rendered. Wilkins doesn’t shy away from exposing their great strengths and tragic and even irritating weaknesses. You believe in these people, these flawed, majestic beings and the goals they pursue, and their need to forge or at least control their fates to the best of their ability. Just as they love with great ardour and conviction, so the reader does too, as we segue from one sister’s path before stumbling upon another’s, championing their individual or collective causes or mourning their dreadful decisions. The prose is evocative, moving and, at time, violent.

There’s no doubt, Wilkins, as story-teller par excellence, has a flair with words – a few well chosen ones conjure the depths of despair, the ache of maternal or passionate love, the fury of betrayal. Likewise, landscape is rendered minimally but with no less impact. You hear the ocean, smell the forest, and enter the bloody battles with your heart racing and your senses afire. The novel is imbued with wildness, mystery and beauty and these are carried through every page of this marvellous conclusion to a terrific series.

I also appreciated the fact that as you reach the final lines, not all doors are closed, not all paths end. I hope Wilkins returns one day to tell more tales about these divergent, complex sisters’ and their families, and the epic, but always recognisable world she’s created.

PS. I also have to say, I think the cover is simply stunning and reflects the contents beautifully…

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