History has a reputation for being a little dry, so I couldn’t recommend this book more to those who struggle with the subject. Manchester skips over all the dull facts, the stiff economics, the endless recitation of dates that might give you traumatic flashbacks or induce narcolepsy. Instead he transports readers into the very world as it was five hundred years ago, describing in detail what life was like for the average citizen in some obscure European duchy, complete with all the disconcerting details of sex, squalor and superstition.
It’s incredible how much actual history is left out of our daily curriculums. The corruption of the papacy is eye-opening to say the least, as well as the shockingly lascivious behavior of popes and all their minions alike. No wonder the details aren’t common knowledge, they certainly don’t paint the Vatican in a particularly rosy light.
Manchester is an exceptional writer: clever, astute, and wonderfully articulate, the book offers a great deal of humor not only as a result of his prose, but simply by the nature of its content: Luther’s holy revelations while sitting on the toilet; Anne Boleyn’s laissez faire attitude about her slender neck about to get the chop.
While the section dealing with the Reformation might seem to drag a bit, Manchester rounds out his book with the circumnavigation of the globe. No tedious facts about Magellan and what days he sailed where for King Peter the Portly, 27th of his name, but rather, what it was actually like to step onto a ship in Europe and simply pray to make it across the ocean. The anxiety, the adventure, the terror of life adrift in the Pacific, and then the discovery of paradise in the Philippines—or so it seemed.
A fascinating story about our own barbaric history as it unfolded across Europe during the Renaissance; what we were like, what we thought, and how we survived against all odds during the Dark Ages and beyond. One of the most compelling history books I’ve ever read. here to edit.
4.7 / 5.0
Truth be told, there was simply no way I wasn't going to read this book. The premise alone was enough for me - A Russian detective, having fled revolution and civil war investigating a series of grisly murders in 1920's Shanghai.
The story follows one Inspector Danilov around the bustling Chinese capital as he hunts for a serial killer on a particularly brutal campaign. A wonderfully unique setting for a crime story, full of various secondary European elements - British, French, and, of course, Russian - which add an interesting multicultural flavour to the Chinese locale during a fascinating period in its history.
Unfortunately, despite the promising synopsis, I felt the novel itself fell somewhat short of its mark. The story was typical of a murder investigation, a few genre tropes here and there, and regrettably I found some of the characters rather thinly drawn. Danilov himself I thought deserved much more of a backstory, which, when it came, was a bit late on in the plot and consequently lacking in impact.
The writing, in my opinion, is passable for a quick and fun read, however failed in immersing me as thoroughly into the setting as I would have hoped. The dialogue between characters - some little more than caricatures - was at times a bit campy, making the exchanges feel slightly wooden and overly contrived.
Certain sections of the book are written from the killer's perspective, which was an interesting touch, while the murders themselves, and indeed most of the violence is rather brutal, even excessive at times. Although I suppose in fairness, serial killers aren't generally known for their restraint. I also quite enjoyed the nods to traditional folklore and local customs, the author himself clearly very familiar with the ground he covers.
A light read, a fun little jaunt through historic Shanghai on the hunt for a sadistic madman. I was hoping for a bit more in terms of the wondrous setting being brought to life, but still, entertaining enough.
3.0 / 5.0
Furst sets the tone early in this one, a wonderfully macabre scene in a shadowed alley, and an imminent political assassination.
The story follows Carlo Weisz, a journalist, though mainly his involvement with the underground press; a dissident movement of Italian émigrés in Paris, who fight fascism through the distribution of the newspaper Liberazione. Unfortunately for Weisz and his ragtag band of activists/intelligentsia, Mussolini's secret police are as active, and as brutal, in Paris as they are in Rome.
It's essentially a tale of life in the late 1930's, and of the risks ordinary men and women faced in taking a stand against fascism and communism. The dangers of printing and circulating free speech in a time of repression, while eking out a living beneath the gathering clouds of war. There are battle-hardened war veterans, classic British spies, and naturally an impassioned love story that drives Weisz onward.
As always, Furst is able to effortlessly paint evocative atmospheres with only a few choice words, his ability to conjure moods and ambiance are second to none. Fans of his work will also appreciate the customary nod to the Brasserie Heininger, with the added twist of a few famous, recurring characters having a soirée.
The story is grounded in the morality of the times, in what ordinary people will do and how much they will risk for their conscience. While the ending might seem a bit rushed, ultimately, this is a tale that is very much about savouring the journey, rather than racing toward the destination. It doesn't go down as a fan favourite in certain circles, but is highly enjoyable for fans of the genre, and Furst's work in particular.
4.5 / 5.0
A wonderfully complex story of love, deception and intrigue in postwar Berlin, where a famous German writer reluctantly returns home to work in secret for the American government.
Kanon's depiction of the German capital is, understandably, in stark contrast to other historical fiction taking place in the thirties during the rise of fascism. In 1945, Berlin is a city of rubble: burnt out buildings and bombed out cafés, even the glamorous Adlon Hotel struggles through its forced austerity. The atmosphere is vivid, if dreadfully bleak, and the mood is very much one of citizens making the best of their situations. The atrocities endured by women during the period effectively strip the reader of any rose-coloured nostalgia regarding the era.
Kanon's writing style can take some getting used to: at first, seemingly stilted with its own awkward rhythm, but once you get a feel for it, the technique works wonders, allowing the reader to understand the characters and their emotions almost through a stream of consciousness. There's some great, snappy dialogue - an area where Kanon regularly excels - and it takes place all over Berlin: tense conversations in the thick fog; during car chases; amidst passionate love affairs; while dumping bodies into the Spree river.
It's difficult, at times, to keep track of who's who at the Kulturbund, but the uncertainty makes perfect sense - while citizens struggle to piece their lives back together after the war, the city is caught between East and West, and increasingly entangled in the politics and divided allegiances of the nascent Cold War. With an appropriately satisfying conclusion, Kanon reminds the reader to continually question who, if anyone, you can truly trust among the ruins of war-torn Berlin.
4.2 / 5.0
Something a little different than usual for me, but it's come highly recommended and didn't disappoint. An eerie whoddunit murder mystery that takes place on a remote island off the coast of Ireland during a wedding.
I find commercial fiction like this sometimes sacrifices prose and literary style for mass appeal, but Foley is an excellent writer (and storyteller) and conjures a sinister atmosphere: dark, stormy, insidious. The dilapidated manor, the sheer cliffs, the peat bog, the tombstones crumbling in the cemetery.
While the story is suspenseful and unpredictable, I never really cared for any of the characters from the outset. Most are vain, entitled, or tedious, and by the end found myself despising the vast majority of them. It was almost unfortunate that there was only one murder (...or was there?)
Foley is good at weaving the anxiety throughout the chapters, all told from different character perspectives, leaving cliff-hangers for the reader at every opportunity. The last chapters are especially brief and keep the pace of the story barreling forward as the mystery culminates. I didn't call it, in the end, there was an inkling of something towards the beginning but I wasn't nearly close enough.
Hats off to @lucyfoleyauthor and a shoutout to @readswithrosie where I first heard about this book. A tense thriller that slowly brings all the puzzle pieces together into a grim, yet impressive picture.
3.9 / 5.0
This one was incredible. A fascinating tale about espionage during the Cold War, made all the more impressive by the fact that it's a true story.
The book charts the rise, the influence and the defection of Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB agent who covertly worked for MI6 for over a decade, and reads as if every spy movie ever made was based around his extraordinary life. There's Gordievsky, assisted by the British in becoming head of the KGB in London, interrogations with truth serums (apparently that's a real thing), the threat of nuclear war, Russian spies who could have potentially become Prime Minister of England, dead drops, secret codes, and onward from there.
It's not only the story of Gordievsky, but an insight into the all-consuming paranoia of the Cold War era, both among individuals and entire intelligence agencies. It helps demystify what drives some to betray their countries or become disaffected with deeply ingrained ideologies. It was fascinating to learn just how disillusioned so many Russians were when Soviet tanks crushed Czech opposition during the Prague Spring of 1968. Gordievsky himself is easy to root for, as you witness him question the violent and oppressive excesses of Marxism and decide, for matters of principle, to seek to undermine its influence.
A brilliant page-turner, it's hard to believe it's a genuine story of one man's career as a covert agent. And if you don't feel like taking my word for it, it's perhaps best described by the inimitable John le Carré: "The best true spy story I have ever read."
5.0 / 5.0