Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell

I have two confessions:

  1. I do not really like historical fiction, pre 1900 settings.
  2. I have never read Bernard Cornwell before.

So, ‘Fools and Mortals’ was a bit of a breakaway choice for me this month. It had been an impulse buy last year as I was attracted by the reference to Shakespeare (as many of you know, I am a huge Shakespeare fan).

This was a little bit of a slow burn for me, for the very reason I do not usually pick an historical novel, there is a lot of scene setting. I, of course, appreciate the need for this as we have to be transported to the era but I often find it causes my attention to wander (or that could be reading on the commute).

However, the idea of the story did grab my attention. The complex politics of being a ‘player’ in Elizabethan England. An England of quite diverse beliefs and power and, indeed, the pressure that Shakespeare and his contemporaries may have faced to be successful in their field. However, this tale also has a hint of crime fiction: when a valuable manuscript goes missing and Shakespeare’s own brother comes under suspicion, he must work to attempt to clear his name.

Overall, I enjoyed the novel, especially all the nods to the work of Shakespeare. But I do think I need to give Bernard Cornwell another go with a different book to really form an opinion.

Any suggestions from you lovely readers about other Cornwell books I could try?

Munich by Robert Harris

I am not usually a fan of historical fiction. Usually, the reason being that they do not seem to get the balance between description and narrative. Setting the scene often seems to come at the cost of the narrative. However, Robert Harris does not fall into the trap. I do not know if it is because he covers events (in this novel) that people may have a little general knowledge of and, therefore, he does not have the same need to paint a picture, as his narrative does it for him with some of the characters that are really rather well-known.

Munich covers those events that happened immediately before World War Two. The meeting between Hitler and Chamberlain is imagined in Harris’ novel. Not only is that played out as the Allies are desperate to avoid a second war, but two young men, one on each side, may carry secrets that could change the course of history. Can the friendship and experiences of the past help change the events to come?

Munich carefully blends historical events and characters with fiction to create a thrilling story. You feel as though you are part of the events, experiencing the complex relationship between the leaders, almost as a fly on the wall. As tension builds elsewhere, you hope that right will triumph over wrong (even though you know the true outcome of events).

This is the first of Robert Harris’ novels I have read with a historical connection (I did read Conclave) but it has certainly made me keen to read others.

Do you enjoy historical fiction? Any suggestions of novels to try?

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This is a title that I had spotted in the bookshops many times but had never quite got around to picking up. However, not so long ago, a lovely friend handed it to me and simply said ‘You need to read this, you’ll love it.’ And she was right! (Don’t you love having friends who know you so well they can pick books for you?)

I won’t lie, I was mildly concerned about the length of the novel, as I am not usually one for weighty historical fiction. However, a huge part of the charm of this book is that it is written in short, sharp chapters that allow you to process the story and keep you turning the page.

The two central characters are so wonderful, you fall in love with them as soon as you start seeing their story unfold. Marie-Laure is a wonderfully strong female character. She shows that, against all odds, people find strength to survive and achieve their dreams. Werner, meanwhile, is a boy who clearly finds himself torn between the desire to do the right thing and to grab opportunities that will give him a ‘brighter’ future.

One of the real skills of this storytelling is the clever way that the stories of these two characters cross over. Ultimately, a random series of events but almost shared experience draws Marie-Laure and Werner together. We also see that there is always kindness and the desire to do the right thing, whatever side war may put you on.

The novel certainly has an emotional conclusion, but it is wonderful that it shows the power of happy memories and the kindness of strangers.

Have you read any books that you have found to be a real surprise with how much you loved them?