Here we are with Book 2 of Ailish Sinclair’s ‘A Dancer’s Journey’. Think of it as the second act in a three act ballet – the one where everyone runs around in a riot of colour and sexuality (more or less explicit depending on the date of the original production).
We start with Aleks and Amalphia back in the castle after the drama of Tendu. All seems well, but Aleks is worried that Amalphia is being drawn into a permanent relationship without any other life experience. She should, he thinks, live life on her own for a while, meeting other men and finding out what the city has to offer, rather than burying herself in a Scottish rural idyll.
It’s not a totally mad idea and it sets us up for whole novel’s worth of sex and experimentation but – I don’t know, it doesn’t quite do it for me.
Re-reading my review of Tendu, I said Amalphia came over as very young and slightly out of her depth sexually. This goes double (triple, literally at one point) in Cabriole. Perhaps it’s just that I’m a sad old man, but the frantic sex and the constant angst got me down a bit. This is a girl who is beautiful (she always denies it but the modelling shoots give you a clue), talented and sexy, but who spends so much time and energy moaning.
“I was aware that my state of mind was not quite as balanced as it should be; it took very little to send me into a state of dread. A sweet and sickly scent had me recoil and stagger back in the dressing room one afternoon. Someone was wearing the perfume that Michelle had always used… The other girls looked at me and turned away, my role as social outcast more solidified than ever.
At home too, irrational panic would sometimes rise. Was the pain in my legs my own or was I sensing that Aleks was ill or hurt?”
She drifts straight into a job with a well-respected company and I know enough about ballet to have some idea of just how amazing that would be to most people just starting out. Most outrageously, a lover has given her a luxury apartment in London: seven figures worth of property in a city where many young people (especially in the arts) dream of any sort of flat at all. (A dancer friend of mine was kept awake by the sound of rats running across the ceiling of her room.) Does she just luxuriate in the wonderfulness of her life? No, she’s in her early twenties, so she just works on her inner Emo.
What should make it all more fun (for her and the reader) is the sex. Lots of it. Lots of boys, lots of permutations. But it doesn’t really work. She finds that kink (very mild kink, if truth be told) isn’t really doing it for her. And it’s all really quite tame. I live in London. I have dancey young friends. Honestly, Malph, darling, what you’re describing is what people I know call ‘Friday’. (And, to be clear, I have the dullest, most monogamous life you can imagine and even my friends are more exciting than this.)
The story (and the sex) only really comes alive when Aleks returns to the scene which, fortunately for the reader and Amalphia, is quite often. He’s all Ukrainian and godlike, turning her on by speaking Ukrainian in bed. (Side note: why is this sexy? The only time this has ever come up in conversation with my friends was Czechs who insisted that English was the sexiest language for lovers. Perhaps, in the interests of scientific enquiry, I should run a survey.) He is a brilliant character.
There’s another man. I can’t say who because Spoilers. In comparison to Aleks he is, frankly, dull. But nice. And good.
Amalphia is torn. How to resolve the agonising choice she faces: the amazing sex god or the nice guy who truly and straightforwardly loves her.
This is the crux of the book, the point that justifies everything that has gone before. And, sadly, I can’t say anything about it because if I do then Ailish (and possibly you, dear reader) will have to kill me for ruining a satisfying conclusion. Because the conclusion really is good. According to Ms Sinclair, it was too shocking for her publishers to cope with. And, unlike all the sexual shenanigans, it’s genuinely different.
Cabriole was always going to struggle to keep up with Tendu. Tendu had a mad scientist and terrible experiments in a secret dungeon and lots and lots of Aleks (OK, maybe I’ve got a bit of a crush on Aleks) and it was totally insane, but huge fun. Cabriole is more a journey through a confused young woman’s life and I seem to know enough confused young women (at my age, everyone seems young) not to find the fictional versions that exciting. But it’s a fun story and Sinclair writes well and the insights into the ballet world are interesting and, by the end, I’m held again. The third book in the series should be well worth the wait.
Cabriole is available on Kindle at £3.99 (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Cabriole-Dancing-City-Dancers-Journey-ebook/dp/B0CGJ1QP4G) or in paperback at £13.99.
I’m back from watching Napoleon and, given that many of the people I know (and thousands of those I don’t) will be rushing to share their views, I thought I’d join in.
Is it a good movie? I thought so (though my partner, who watched it with me, was not convinced). It is a wonderful piece of cinema. The fact that we watched it on a huge IMAX screen helped. It is, in every sense, a big film and worth catching in the cinema. Waiting for it to turn up on Apple TV may be a mistake.
What it isn’t is a film about Napoleon, the historical character. It’s best viewed as a romantic drama loosely based on the characters and events of Napoleonic France. There’s no point in playing every historian’s favourite game of ‘spot the mistakes’. They start in the first few minutes of the film, which are so determinedly ahistorical as to suggest that Ridley Scott is making it plain that this is not a conventional historical drama. This is historical entertainment for a generation brought up on the Amazon version of Vanity Fair or on Downton Abbey.
I enjoyed it because I liked the interpretation of the romance of Napoleon and Josephine. Josephine has a significant role in my book Burke and the Pimpernel Affair, so I’m interested in her character, but I do not claim to be an expert. The way the relationship is shown in the film seemed credible to me even if some of the details did not. How you feel about Scott’s take on Napoleon and Josephine’s marriage will probably define how you feel about the film as a whole because everything else is subordinated to it. Most notably, Napoleon abandons his army in Egypt not because of the military and political imperatives that drove him back to Paris but because Josephine has been having an affair. Whilst it’s true as Ridley Scott points out, that I — and other, better, historians — weren’t there, so what do we know? it seems implausible, especially as the affair had been flagrantly started back when Napoleon was on campaign in Italy.
Napoleon’s military achievements are sketched out simply as a background against which to tell the story of his romance. Even the Russian campaign is presented mainly through letters home telling her how much he’s missing her. Yes, he was married to Marie-Louise of Austria by then, but, as far as the film is concerned, it’s still all about Josephine. Marie-Louise is introduced in one scene, produces a son in the next and is then never seen again. Josephine is given more screen time holding the heir than his mother.
When I say the military achievements are ‘sketched out’, I’m being generous. While the battle scenes are enormous, there a very few of them. We get a quick sketch of Toulon, then straight on to the Battle of the Pyramids. (That’s one battle I do know about because it features in Burke and the Bedouin and it’s fair to say that Scott’s depiction of it has hardly any details in common with the real thing.) We get wonderful aerial shots of Austerlitz and then we’re retreating from Moscow. In the next scene (literally) we’re abdicating. (The abdication document is easily available online, so I’m not sure why even that detail doesn’t look quite right, but I’m trying not to quibble.)
The strangest editorial decision is the way that the Battle of Waterloo is represented. It’s entirely understandable that Scott isn’t concerned with what historical purists think about the representation of the other battles, but Waterloo is a famous battle in film, as well as history books. Why Scott has decided to present such an idiosyncratic and, let’s face it, wrong picture of the battle is a mystery. I was really looking forward to the battle of Waterloo and ended struggling to watch.
After that, it’s just an interview with Wellington aboard the Victory (standing in for the Bellerophon and confusing my partner, who may not be a Napoleon buff but who recognises the most famous ship of the time in Britain) and then St Helena where he is shown sitting in the garden and rewriting history before apparently dropping dead on camera, ahistorical to the last.
So, yes, a good movie but not a great movie, and a horrible waste of a wonderful story.
James Burke and Napoleon
My James Burke books are all set during the Wars with France and Napoleon is the big bad wolf behind most of the plots, but only once do we see the man himself. That’s in Burke and the Bedouin, which has a rather better account of the Battle of the Pyramids than Ridley Scott offers, as well as a thrilling story of derring-do in the desert. It features the Battle of the Nile, too.
To encourage everyone to get a better picture of what Napoleon was doing in Egypt, Burke and the Bedouin is just 99p on Kindle until 29 November.
The Battle of Waterloo also features in the series in the unimaginatively titled Burke at Waterloo. You get the Battle of Quatre Bras and an assassination plot against the Duke of Wellington thrown in.
Josephine fans may enjoy Burke and the Pimpernel Affair, which is a relatively light-hearted romp with a prominent role for the Empress.
When I read that The Illusions is a historical novel (it’s set at the end of the 19th century) that combines a story about stage magicians with supernatural elements about people playing with actual magic, I couldn’t resist it. That’s the central idea in my own novella Dark Magic although that’s one of my contemporary books. I wanted to know how another author had tackled the same issues. In fact, Hyder’s story is more similar to mine than I had expected. It pits some regular stage magicians against an evil dark magician, in the same way that mine pits a company of stage magicians against a company dabbling with Black Magic. There’s an additional twist in The Illusions, as some of the stage magicians have real magical powers as well, although they do not reveal these to their friends.
All that said, The Illusions has very little in common with Dark Magic. For a start, Dark Magic is a novella while The Illusions is very long. I had an e-book, so I can’t say how many pages there were but it seemed to take a while to read. It also has quite a large cast of characters. As the story goes on you learn which of these characters are important and which are secondary and the relationships between the important characters become clear. At the start of the book, though, the characters are introduced one by one and it is not at all obvious what they have to do with each other.
The first person we meet is Arter Evans but he dies quite early on. The character who matters is his assistant, Cecily Marsden, always known as Cec. Cec appears soon after Arter, but the opening paragraphs are entirely from Arter’s viewpoint and this makes it difficult to immediately relate to Cec – a difficulty increased by introducing her in terms of what she has learned of magic, rather than how she feels about it.
No matter. A few pages later, Arter is dead and Cec flees to “the one person in all of Bristol that might be able to help”. So we meet Skarratt. There’s a hint that Cec does not like Skarratt. She’s right not to – he’s a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work – but we do not know why she dislikes him so much or, indeed, why he is the one person who might be able to help.
No matter (again), for we leave Cec and are introduced to Eadie. She is picking at a loose thread on her dress. She is, we are told, nervous.
I am not one to insist that it is always a crime to ‘tell’ rather than to show, but it would be nice to occasionally see things internalised. If we were in Eadie’s head we would see that she was nervous. We would not have to be told that she picked up a loose thread “nervously”, nor that she is “reassuring herself” that she does not need to be frightened.
Perhaps there simply isn’t time to get into Eadie’s head, for we are about meet another character, George Perris. They are both there for a séance. Eadie intends to expose such seances for the frauds they are. (I never quite worked out how but I may just not have been paying attention.) Perris’s approach is more direct. He breaks up the séance, causing real distress to the sitters. Eadie is angered by this and berates Perris but, already, she can’t miss that he is “one of the most handsome men she’s ever seen”.
Somewhere in the roomful of characters at the séance there is another significant person in the story, but don’t try to work it out because now we are in Paris at a performance by Valentin, who is seeing visions of a woman called Olivia who…
You see why I was frustrated at this point.
Once the characters have come together and we know the relationships between them, everything makes a great deal more sense. The plot is quite complicated but revolves around a feud between Skarratt on the one hand and Valentin and George on the other. Valentin and George are putting on a magic show intended to cement George’s reputation as the greatest magician in England, while Skarratt is set to wreck it largely out of spite and jealousy. Fortunately for George both Valentin and Cec possess real magical powers with which they are able to foil at least some of Skarratt’s evil plans.
The story draws in the early days of moving pictures (Eadie is developing new techniques, though we learn little of the technology), and a complicated series of relationships as the characters (except the loathsome Skarratt, of course) sort themselves into romantic couples.
The descriptions of tricks from the Golden Age of magic are fascinating, though I fear the author is often as misdirected as the audience. The thing about magicians is that they often seem to do things that appear impossible. This doesn’t mean that they actually do impossible things, but some of the descriptions of the tricks here clearly are impossible. This means that the distinction between the tricks that are being done by expert magicians are difficult to distinguish from those which are being done by expert magicians who are also possessed of genuine magical powers. That, I think, weakens a central element of the idea behind the book. By the end (no spoilers) stuff is happening that is clearly absolutely impossible. In fact, so impossible that you would think even the audience would notice. But perhaps they, like us, are lulled into a false sense that it’s all just a magic show by the number of impossible tricks they have witnessed from regular magicians. It’s still odd that Valentin is prepared to do some of these tricks given that he is supposed not to be letting his friends know about his magic powers. Never mind: it’s a dramatic ending to the book.
The failure to show us how the characters feel, rather than just to tell us what they are feeling, meant that they never really came alive for me. As a result, I found my interest slipping. On the other hand, I was drawn back in by the plot, which zips along. I had the impression that it was written more for younger readers who may be less worried by the rather two dimensional characters and more interested in the plotting, which is fair enough. If that’s you (or a young friend) you may well enjoy this book.
If you like the idea of seeing real magic and stage magic mixed together, but in a more contemporary context, you might consider reading Dark Magic. All the stage magic in the book is true to life (I’ve spent far too long hanging round with magicians) and the ‘real’ magic is gloriously over-the-top. Reading The Illusions, I did feel that there was an absence of real jeopardy. With all this magic and evil flying about, nobody seems to get really hurt. (There’s one broken limb but it heals rapidly and with remarkably little pain.) For me, a book with ‘real’ magic and a villain like Skarratt really wants to have some seriously unpleasant things happening. Be warned: Dark Magic does do horrible things to its equivalent of Skarratt. On the other hand, it is often laugh-out-loud funny (or so reviewers tell me). I’m not sure that The Illusions wouldn’t benefit from more humour, come to think of it.
Anyway, if stage magic and dark forces are your thing, why not read them both?
Dark Magic is available on Kindle and in paperback. The Kindle edition costs just £1.99.
Another Tuesday, another review of a book by Deborah Swift.
One of the things that really impresses me about Swift’s writing is her ability to move, apparently effortlessly, between different historical settings. Last week I was reviewing her 17th century Italian renaissance novel, The Fortune Keeper, and this week we are in World War II. Life in London during the Blitz is wonderfully evocative, with trips to a Lyons Corner House where you eat Shepherd’s Pies that are mainly potato and beetroot is everywhere. Normal life continues between air raid warnings. It’s spot on.
I can hardly mention the plot. It starts with Nancy being betrayed by her fiancé practically on the eve of their wedding. She flees her quiet life in Scotland to move to London where she gets a job in the offices where her brother works. When she applies, she has no idea that she will be a decoder with the Special Operations Executive – part of the lifeline supporting field agents in occupied Europe.
She soon finds herself falling for a young man who has arrived to shake up the way the SOE codes its messages. So far, so clichéd (and the opening pages with the cad in Scotland did leave me worrying that the book might all be a bit of a cliché). But suddenly the plot kicks into gear with twists and turns that continue throughout the book. Infuriatingly, as a reviewer, I can’t say anything about any of them because any clue as to what is coming will spoil the story. (The title is a spoiler in itself, which annoyed me. I bet that was the publisher’s choice and not the author’s.)
What I can say is that the romantic betrayal that the story starts with is just the first of many betrayals we are going to discover. This is a story about loyalty and betrayal: betrayal because of cowardice or betrayal because you have to sacrifice your friends for your country. It reminds us that not that long ago London was full of people with secrets, determined that no one should ever learn what they were doing for their country – or for the enemy.
Swift writes about the experience of agents in the field and how they can (or more often can’t) survive in a world where German troops are everywhere and where nobody can be trusted. There are scenes of considerable violence. I complained in a review of another Deborah Swift book that she couldn’t write a fight scene, but the fight scenes here are terrific – and she is not afraid to depict the horror of killing with bare hands or whatever tools are available. One agent kills someone by hitting them with a spade and the reality of that killing and how it feels to murder someone so up close and personal is chillingly spelled out.
Whatever you do, don’t get attached to anyone. The body count is high and the human costs of Occupation are graphically captured. Usually you can reassure yourself that it will all come well at the end, but I kept turning the pages worrying about who would die next.
The book ends without the irritating cliff hanger that too many authors put at the end of the first book in what is clearly going to be a series. (OK, someone survives. But I’m not telling you who.) The fact that there will be a Book Two leaves the end of The Silk Code mildly anticlimactic. There is still a war. There will be more deaths. But briefly, until the next book starts, we are allowed an interlude of something almost like peace.
This is a brilliant book, one of Swift’s best. I can’t wait for the next one.
The Silk Code will be published on 17 May and is available to pre-order now at the ridiculously low price of £1.99: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Silk-Code-sweeping-heart-breaking-historical-ebook/dp/B0BY95RMCJ
Burke and the Lines of Torres Vedras
While you’re waiting for The Silk Code to publish, why not pass the time with Burke and the Lines of Torres Vedras? It’s set almost a century and a half earlier but Britain is again at war and spies and counter-spies are still vital to the country’s military success. The story of the Lines of Torres Vedras (like the activities of the Special Operations Executive) is true but Burke’s adventures (like Nancy’s) are fictional. Both books, though, feature espionage and counter-espionage, political back-stabbing, and occasional bloody violence. You may well enjoy them both.
Unlike The Silk Code, you can buy Burke and the Lines of Torres Vedras today on Kindle or in paperback.
I’ve got a new book out this week: Burke and the Lines of Torres Vedras. By now I’m getting a bit tired of talking about it (though I’ve forced myself to put a paragraph or two at the end of this post). I’d like to talk about a book by someone else. It’s particularly good to be able to talk about a book I’ve really enjoyed. So here we are with The Fortune Keeper, the third of Swift’s Italian Renaissance series.
The story starts with Giulia Tofana, introduced in The Poison Keeper, still living in the Jewish ghetto in Venice with her lover Fabio. Things have changed, though. She has had two children who both died and she and Fabio have adopted Mia, a young girl now on the cusp of womanhood. The new setup marks a sharp change of gear from the previous story, The Silkworm Keeper. According to a historical note at the end of the book, this was driven largely by the need to adapt the story to take account of new information about Giulia Tofana that has turned up since the first in the trilogy, The Poison Keeper, was written. Whatever the reason, it’s worked out very well. The Poison Keeper is a brilliant book, but keeping the plot going for a second in the series was a stretch and I wasn’t sure that a third would work. The reset that the new research has made necessary means that The Fortune Keeper is able to draw a deep breath and, to a degree, start again, bringing new life to the series.
Not that we are starting from scratch. Several characters and incidents from the previous books feature crucially in the plot. Although The Fortune Keeper works as a standalone novel it would benefit a lot from a brief summary of the key points of the earlier books to guide any new readers.
So what does The Fortune Keeper offer? Firstly, a wonderful view of Renaissance Venice. I don’t know a lot about Venetian history but I found Swift’s Venice completely convincing. It’s rich but decadent. The palaces are already crumbling; the tides regularly flood houses and businesses. It’s a city where corruption runs deep. There are gamblers and whores everywhere (though Swift resists the temptation to titillate with sex). We are in the Renaissance, so Mia is able to go to lectures on astronomy. There are new and better telescopes, but they are as often used to produce more precise horoscopes than to research the heavens. Some people are pointing out that the earth moves round the sun but the Inquisition are busy and awful penalties await those who dismiss the Church’s cosmology too openly.
We follow Mia through marketplaces, into silk workshops, on visits to an old astrologer and on and off gondolas and the Venetian equivalent of buses, traghettos, larger vessels that run to timetables. Life is governed by those traghetto timetables and the state of the tides and, as Giulia and her family live in the Jewish ghetto, by the times that the ghetto gates are locked.
There’s a little about the Jews, tolerated because they were the city’s bankers but not really trusted. (Apparently the Venetians were 300 years ahead of the Nazis when it came to making Jews wear yellow badges on their coats.) We learn, too, about the guild system among gondoliers, but this isn’t an essay on Venetian society. It’s a thriller and a romance, starting slow but building up to a dramatic and bloody climax. And, like all the best thrillers, it has a wonderful villain. The man is a fraud, a swindler and a serial killer – but he does have style.
The climax is, perhaps, a little rushed. It’s a bit like those movies where people move in the shadows, shots ring out, the villain collapses and the hero stands over him as the credits roll. Personally, I prefer the Lee Child approach to violent denouements. I want the hero to feint with his left and lead with his right and only as he lies helpless (some blackguard probably hit him from behind) does he draw the pistol concealed in his boot and bring the villain down. Maybe that’s just me but I think that if you are doing the big fight scene, go all in or go home.
Since I wrote this, I’ve read Swift’s latest, The Silk Code, where the fight scenes match anything Lee Child has done, so I’ve no idea why this one didn’t work for me. It’s quite a minor quibble in any case. The important thing is that mysteries are solved. Some relationships are cleared up (no spoilers), others not. Life moves on. As do Mia and Guilia. It will be interesting to see where Ms Swift takes them next.
Burke and the Lines of Torres Vedras
I can’t get completely free of Burke and the Lines of Torres Vedras. It’s published on Friday and it’s already available on pre-order at mybook.to/TorresVedras. It’s the seventh book about James Burke. (I did a quick run-through of the others on my blog on Friday, if you need to keep up.) It’s set in Lisbon in 1810 where James Burke is hunting down French agents who are trying to discover the secret of the Lines of Torres Vedras. What are the Lines? And what is their secret?
Read the book to find out: £3.99 on Kindle and £7.99 (special launch offer price) in paperback.