The Historical Novel Society sends out a newsletter once a month with book review roundups from all the major newspapers. The newsletter covers not just fiction, but non-fiction as well. Here are some interesting books. Clicking on the book titles will take you to the review.
Ragnarok by AS Byatt
Why do myths endure? We don’t need them anymore to explain our world. We don’t believe in them. But because they boil human experience down to its essence, speak of our greatest fears and desires, and offer such rich soil for the imagination, they can bear retelling a thousand times.
Canongate’s myth series broaches the question by inviting eminent authors to look at them afresh, and Byatt has chosen the most uncompromising of the lot – the Norse version of Armageddon.
Rather than transplanting, reshaping or reinterpreting her chosen myth, as other authors have done, Byatt boldly retells it in a relatively pure form, though with a deeply personalised slant.
The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng
His debut novel, published in 2008, is a complex tale of intrigue and betrayal that unfolds on the Malaysian island of Penang during the brutal Japanese occupation in World War II.
Rich in detail of the history of Japanese imperialism in colonial Malaya, the story draws the reader into one man’s struggle at a pivotal moment in history.
The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller
This whopping whodunit, which also manages to create a poignant portrait of soldiers’ lives in the aftermath of World War I, presents a devastated, grayed-down England suffering under the profound loss that overwhelms survivors – both soldiers and those left at home.
The novel revolves around the execution of an officer in France for cowardice and desertion and the rippling effect on the soldiers and families involved. It was inspired, Speller tells us in an author’s note, by the execution of more than 300 British soldiers by firing squad in the Great War. That only three of them were officers raised intriguing questions about class discrepancies.
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann
1493” picks up where Mann’s best seller, “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus,” left off. In 1491, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans were almost impassable barriers. America might as well have been on another planet from Europe and Asia. But Columbus’s arrival in the Caribbean the following year changed everything. Plants, animals, microbes and cultures began washing around the world, taking tomatoes to Massachusetts, corn to the Philippines and slaves, markets and malaria almost everywhere. It was one world, ready or not.
City of Fortune: How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire by Roger Crowley
Roger Crowley’s hugely readable, well-written and informative book – take it there with you this summer! – explains how the Venetian Republic grabbed the riches that built it. Grabbed: it’s not the kind of language we associate with the beauty of San Marco or the notion of La Serenissima. But though diplomacy was always a Venetian art, the city was not built on serenity.
It had a large empire which, in its heyday, stretched down the Adriatic, along the Peloponnesian coast, across to Crete, up the Adriatic and into Asia Minor, with its eastern outpost at Tana on the far end of the Sea of Azov beyond the Crimea. An empire is not tranquil: it requires war, conquest, impressment, imposed government and slavery. Venice engaged in all these in the name of trade. The beauty of Venice, just like the beauty of nearly all great European cities, rests on profit and brutality.