Books for Christmas

Last week I posted here to say that books make excellent Christmas presents. I’m not about to start recommending a list of books for Christmas, but by pure coincidence I have a couple of reviews that I need to post, so I’m going to put these up here and if the books appeal, I suggest you buy them.

The Poison Keeper: Deborah Swift

It’s difficult to write a review of a book that you feel is simply practically perfect in every way, especially when the plot contains so many twists, turns and surprises that there is hardly anything you can say that won’t include a spoiler. So here is a very short review of Deborah Swift’s The Poison Keeper. It’s set in 17th century Italy – mostly in Naples – and it follows the adventures of a young woman who is forced by circumstances to take up her mother’s trade as an apothecary. She starts reasonably enough providing remedies for minor ailments, moves on to abortifacients and, almost before she knows it, she’s providing poison for murder on a scale that makes the authorities wonder why it is that so many rich men are suddenly dying and leaving their wealth to their wives.

As I said, it’s difficult to explain why a book like this is so extraordinarily good. Perhaps it’s the convincing period detail, perhaps it’s the wonderful characterisation, perhaps it’s the moral quandaries that the characters face. Is the poisoner, in the end, any worse than a mercenary soldier? If men can use their strength and power to humiliate and subjugate women, is it legitimate for women to use a bit of pharmacology to even things up?

The story is told with Swift’s usual verve and skill and is one of those books that had me putting off things that really ought to have been done just so that I could get on to the end of the story.

We’re coming to that season when everybody has to choose their books of the year. The Poison Keeper has definitely made my shortlist.

The Paris Apartment: Lucy Foley

The Paris Apartment is being compared to books by Agatha Christie, but this is grossly misleading. Agatha Christie wrote carefully constructed detective mysteries in which the clues were made available to the reader and much of the satisfaction the books gave came from working out whodunnit. The Paris Apartment is more of a thriller. Four people share a luxurious apartment building with a conciergerie who lives in a little shed in the courtyard. Ben has been invited by an old friend to take the only empty apartment for a peppercorn rent. (We never discover why the apartment is empty, which is a minor, but real, irritation for any Agatha Christie style detective fans who want all the loose ends neatly tied off.)

Ben’s sister has invited herself to come and stay with him, but when she arrives he is missing. She sets out to solve the mystery of his having vanished.

The story is told in the first person by each of the people living in the flat (including, for a while, the apparently deceased Ben). The place obviously harbours an evil secret. We are even told that the basement used to be used by the Gestapo for torturing prisoners, which adds an appropriately macabre undertone to the story. As the story goes on, layer after layer of mystery is revealed. I’m not going to say anything else about the plot as there are many twists and turns before the denouement. I didn’t see most of them coming, but somehow they did not seem that surprising after they had happened. Possibly it’s because the whole thing is written like a jigsaw puzzle and the pieces do definitely fit neatly together, but credibility and characterisation are sacrificed to making the mechanics of the plot work.

Did I care about the people or their ultimate fate? Absolutely not. But was I curious enough keep reading? Yes. So this is a book which will pass away a wintry afternoon over the Christmas holidays and I’m sure it will make a more than acceptable gift for mystery thriller fans. Just don’t give it to anybody who really likes Agatha Christie.

Please note that I got a pre-publication copy. If you do want to give it as a Christmas present, it will have to be Christmas 2022, as it isn’t being published until March.

And don’t forget my books

Some people seem to lose count. (I do myself.) There are five books about my Napoleonic-era spy, James Burke. A sixth, Burke and the Pimpernel Affair will be published early in 2022. If you want to read more about the series, click on this link:

There are three books in the John Williamson Papers, which tackle issues of power and colonialism in the mid-19th century:

I’ve also written two contemporary urban fantasies (Dark Magic and Something Wicked), which are a complete change from historical fiction. They are fun to write and fun to read. If you want to enter a world of Black Magic and vampires and (with the publication of the next one in early 2022) werewolves, do take a look.

Two historical novels I’ve enjoyed recently

I usually write quite long reviews because I have been asked to review a book by somebody or because I think that there is a lot that can sensibly be said about it, but this week I’m doing two very short reviews simply because I really enjoyed these books and would like to share them with you.

‘The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez’: Ann Swinfen

Elizabethan spies. Mary Queen of Scots. All those plots you read about at school (if you are old enough to have done history when Good Queen Bess was what you got taught about).

Absolutely gripping stuff in stunningly well-written novel by someone who certainly knows their Elizabethan history. Brilliant characters, (largely) convincing plot, loads of lovely period detail.

I wish I could write nearly as well as this. It’s a model of how to do it.

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‘Shadow on the Highway’: Deborah Swift

This has a YA feel to it and the story seems a little too fantastical, but the Historical Note suggests it’s not nearly as fantastical as it might be. Two strong female characters, a suitably chilling villain and a story that positively romps along, helped by fluid prose that’s a pleasure to read. I seem drawn to English Civil War stories almost despite myself. This one holds up well on the period detail. There’s the odd bit of military stuff I wasn’t entirely convinced of, though that could well be my ignorance showing. The life of a servant back in the 17th century seems suitably grim with lots of description of domestic chores, miserable accommodation and doubtful diet.

It’s a light read but served very well for a holiday break. It’s a lot of fun.

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And one by me

A quick reminder that The White Rajah is available again on Amazon with a shiny new cover. Now seemed a good time to republish a novel based around James Brooke’s adventures in Borneo as a film on the man’s life (End of the World) is coming out on 21 June. It’s got pirates and battles and derring-do, but it’s mainly a reasonably thoughtful novel about colonialism and good and evil and suchlike. It’s not as easy to read as, say, Shadow on the Highway, but there is a lot of excitement as well as an exploration of what happens when Europeans take responsibility for the development of what we would now call Third World countries.

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