Five books this month! That’s mostly thanks to a few incredibly lazy days just sitting in the garden reading, and also a couple of really entertaining reads. Even the couple that weren’t necessarily very good were diverting enough to keep me settled in my deckchair, and Agrappina has gone straight to the top of my favourite books of the year and made a pretty high entry on my top non-fiction books ever.
Emma Southon – Agrippina
The period of the first few emperors of Rome is absolutely fascinating, and has been studied, written about, mythologised and dramatised pretty much ever since it happened. It’s a transformative period for a massive civilisation that ripples through history today; but it also plays out like a spectacular melodrama with endless plotting, scandals, betrayals and murders. However as Southon points out throughout this book, the lure of a good story has frequently overpowered what we today would consider ‘good history’. With very few direct primary sources (even the Roman writers we’d probably think of as primary sources were often writing hundreds of years after events) everything is suspicious.
This is particularly true of a person like Agrappina. A woman in a completely male world. Historians throughout history have interpreted her as manipulative, self-serving and power-mad, but Southon brings a fresh approach questioning absolutely everything, going back to the sources and considering the agendas of the writers. These were people to whom the idea of a woman looking out for herself was horrifying, whereas Agrappina’s action’s take on a rather different spin when you consider that most of her family had been exiled and/or murdered, including young children who’s only crime was inconvenient location in the family tree. I’m not going to call it a ‘feminist’ take, because that’s incredibly patronising, it’s a ‘fair’ take, respectful of the context and acknowledging the many things that just can’t be known.
The biggest thing I can praise about the book though is that the author’s voice is loud, proud and HILARIOUS. There is no dry academic language here, she grumbles about confusing naming practices, swears about sources, calls out respected historians for their double standards, she makes off hand pop culture references and freely admits when she isn’t sure of something. I absolutely loved spending time in her company and I came away informed, intrigued, challenged and hugely entertained. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Philip Gwynne Jones – Venetian Gothic
Another very solid thriller from Philip Gwynne Jones. The mystery element is maybe not as strong as some other writers, but it’s more than made up for by the incredibly rich description of Venice, not as a glamourised romantic vision, but as a real place where people live. The central characters are also well formed with flaws and eccentricities alongside their charms. This is not a series that will ever set the world alight, but they are good fun reads and a lot less disposable than the average thriller. And they really make me want to visit Venice again.
Jasper Fforde – Early Riser
I was just reading back through my reviews of previous Jasper Fforde books and I’ve been pretty critical of him in the past, in a way that makes me wonder why I keep picking his books up. There’s a four year gap in his bibliography before this book was published, and he’s come back in better form than ever. Early Riser hung together better than I think any of his other novels have. There’s a characteristically weird world, but this one feels completely real, it’s fully formed and makes sense (in a nonsense kind of way). Also the plot is smoothly developed through the book, with twists and turns on a coherent journey and a cast of characters that are entertaining and curious. I was pretty gripped through the whole thing and ended up completely satisfied.
Temi Oh – Do You Dream of Terra-Two
I’m afraid that I don’t think this is a very good book. On a surface level it’s a solid page turner with a fundamentally interesting idea, good pace, diverse characters and lots going on. But unfortunately anything beyond the very superficial starts to fall apart. The story revolves around a group of astronauts sent on a 20+ year mission to another planet. OK, solid idea, but the details are all ridiculous. 6 of the crew are teenagers who’ve gone through years of highly accelerated training that seems to have completely overlooked even the most basic psychology and mental health considerations leaving the whole set up completely ridiculous. I kept suspending more and more of my disbelief and switching my brain off until there was almost nothing left. I’ve got nothing against a book that’s dumb and fun, but this book isn’t presenting that way, it’s trying to be full on science fiction, and it’s sadly just not good enough.
David Foenkinos – The Mystery of Henri Pick
Walter Presents is a collection hosted by Channel 4 which curates the best in international television, and this is the first in a book series trying to reach a larger audience for books not originally written in English. Despite my best intentions, I’ve never actually watched anything on Walter Presents, but this book caught my eye. It’s by a French author and from my incredibly limited experience of French cinema I’d say it certainly feels French. Despite being entirely based in the real world, there’s a slightly fantastical feel to the story.
From a plot point of view, nothing much happens – an abandoned book is found and turns out to be a masterpiece. We then drop in with various characters who are connected to the story, meandering through their connections and how the publication of the book slightly changes their lives. It’s a book that encourages words like “gentle”, “charming” and the ultimate in faint praise -“nice”. It’s engaging enough while reading, but not impactful enough to really linger. The only thing I will say is that I would recommend not reading the epilogue, it felt like the author slightly chickened out of deciding which end to have and included an alternate one that would have been a much darker story than the one the rest of the book tells. That was a real disappointment right at the very end.