Cambridge Book Club – Norwegian Wood

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This has been a very long time coming.

Norwegian Wood was recommended as a book club read about ten months ago, but our group fell into absolutely chaos not long after and we haven’t met since. Such is life in a university city, you can never pin people down. Today (what better day than World Book Day?) I officially give up hope that our book club will ever meet again, or discuss the novel, which, by the way, would have made for an incredible topic of conversation. So I throw the rope to you, fellow book clubbers, go out, buy Norwegian Wood, and get reading.

I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me
She showed me her room, isn’t it good, Norwegian wood?

Music can carry memories, of a time, a place or a feeling. ‘Norwegian Wood’, the melancholy Beatles song, has this effect on Toru Watanabe, who, as he hears the first sad notes, is swept back almost twenty years, to his time spent studying in Tokyo.  A time filled with confusion and rebellion, student life in the late 1960s was rife with protests, social unrest, and nationwide movements against the establishment. For Wanatabe life is just as tumultuous – filled with strange encounters, casual sex, meaningless friendships, and an undying commitment towards a gentle but troubled girl from his childhood. Life is confusing, but monotonous, until an impulsive young woman, with wide-open eyes and an attitude to match, streams into Wanatabe’s life, and he finds himself forced to make a choice, the future, or the past.

I fell completely in love with this book and, I can safely say having explored some more of his work, with Murikami himself. I know one or two members of the club didn’t feel quite the same as I did, but as we foolishly kept our discussions to a minimum, choosing to save our thoughts for the meeting which never occurred, I was unable to discuss it at length with anyone. So, if any of you have read the book and want to discuss it, in the comment sections or via email, I would be more than happy.

In the meantime, here are a few questions to think about, or to discuss with your own book clubs:

What were your feelings towards the main characters, Wanatabe, Naoko and Midori – how do they differ?
What is the relevance of the song ‘Norwegian Wood’? Does this relate to more than just a song?
Wanatabe often draws on his love of the book The Great Gatsby , why do you think this is?
How do you interpret Wantabe’s friendship with Nagasawa?
How, if at all, do you think the sexual encounter between Wanatabe and Naoko influence Naoko’s mental state?
Why do you think Wanatabe makes his final choice? Does he, in fact, make a choice at all?
How do you interpet the novel’s ending? What is happening to Wanatabe during this final exchange?
The book begins looking back, and never returns to the original tense, why do you think this is?
What do you think Wantabes ‘current’ situation is? Where did he end up?
Norwegian Wood is considered to be the most autobiographical of all Murikami’s books – what elements do you think speak of autobiographical moments?

 

 

Millroy the Magician – Paul Theroux

“We do not need magic to transform our world. We carry all of the power we need inside ourselves already.” ― J.K. Rowling

My fiancé (oh yes!) recently finished reading this book and passed it on to me, insisting I read it my first possible opportunity. It didn’t take me quite as long to finish, he seemed to take months and months over it, but I can definitely understand why it might take someone a while to get through. The book is, shall I say, a little bit tricky. This is not a book you would want to attempt in a single sitting; it’s definitely one to take your time over.

Milroy the Magician – Paul Theroux

Our cheering drowned the music, but Milroy did not seem to hear it. He looked dignified, holding the flapping eagle, and he turned to me, and stared as he had before, and leaned over to where I sat in the second row.

Popping my thumb out of my mouth made the sound of a cork being yanked from a bottle.

Even through the cheering crowds his voice was distinct, as he said, ‘I want to eat you.’

So I stayed for his second show.

51WXvY4gl2LJilly Farina was nervous the day she attended the Barnstable County Fair. It was a hot, sticky Saturday in July and she was all by herself. Her Dada was black-out-drunk, so she went on alone, sitting at the back of the bus, quietly sucking her thumb, and thinking about what the fair had in store for her.

She had seen Millroy the Magician once before, he was famous for making an elephant disappear, and had once turned a girl from the audience into a glass of milk and drank her. Jeekers! But when Jilly stepped into the wickerwork coffin during a performance she had no idea that he would transform her life into something magical, and a touch bizarre.

You see, Millroy was no ordinary magician. A magical, eccentric, vegetarian, health fanatic, Millroy was set on changing the eating habits of the whole of America – Millroy could sense the future, and he knew that Jilly had a big role to play.

I was supposed to meet my father at the Barnstaple County Fair, and in a way I did, though he was not Dada.

Paul Theroux presents Jilly as a girl who is very young for her years. The world which emerges through Jilly’s eyes is that inhabited by a scared, lonely child. As a reader you enter the body of Jilly, and stand, absent mindedly sucking your thumb and stroking your ear, while dreamily drinking in the world around you. As a reader, you grow to know Jilly intimately, to understand her innocence and naivety.

It is really no wonder that Millroy chose her.

Jilly’s relationship with Millroy is an odd combination of love and fear, sometimes one, sometimes both, and often shifting quickly from one to the other. The relationship is, on the whole, slightly awkward. While it is obvious that Jilly dotes on Millroy they remain entirely separate beings, always together, but forever apart. It is obvious that she fears him, or at least she fears his magic, but at the same time loves him, as a father or perhaps something more?

Even odder is Millroy’s relationship with Jilly. If Jilly dotes on Millroy, then Millroy obsesses over Jilly. Linked to this is Millroy’s own obsession with food – he is determined to inform the American public of the evils of the American food industry, but more than this, he is obsessed with feeding Jilly.

Food is an underlying and overlying theme. The whole book is brimming with pottage, homemade bread, green tea, broiled fish and herbage. Try reading the book without in some way succumbing to the desire to be regular – I’m sure it can’t be done. I developed such an appetite for leaves! Millroy is forever chewing, munching or gulping some delectable healthy snack, while preaching the importance of a clean, fresh, healthy, regular lifestyle. At the same time, Millroy obsesses over the dark side of food, the insidious nature of the American food industry, the sweating, drooling, gasping, jiggling American population, stuffed full of fat, chemicals, meat and sugar.

If the American food industry is insidious, what is even more insidious is Millroy’s interest in Jilly. Why is he so obsessed with her? Why does he want to be responsible for ‘everything’ that goes inside of her? And why does he fall to pieces at the idea of losing her? It is almost as though he is in some way dependent on Jilly, not just emotionally, but physically, as though he is feeding off of her.

This is one of the oddest books I have ever read. It left me with so many questions, which I’m not sure have clear cut answers: Who is Millroy? What is the root of his magic? Does the magic pass on? Does it destroy the bearer? So many questions, and so many potential answers.

Millroy the Magician is a strange book – but one that I very much enjoyed reading. It is absorbing, without much action, and tense, without real drama. Each passage speaks volumes, without relaying much in the way of actual events. I feel as though the story is more of a journey in itself than an adventure – sure, Millroy travels across America and achieves amazing things, but in the end has much changed? Are Millroy and Jilly much different? Or have they merely switched roles?

On the whole, would recommend.

And yes, he did propose ❤

Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami

“People think dreams aren’t real just because they aren’t made of matter, of particles. Dreams are real. But they are made of viewpoints, of images, of memories and puns and lost hopes.”
― Neil Gaiman

Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami

Some time ago, after reading After Dark, I said I wanted to explore more of Haruki Murakami’s work, well I finally got around to it, and I’m very happy I did.

Earlier this year I read Norwegian Wood as a book club selection (review to come, our club has yet to meet due to a few members taking their sweet time to read the book!) and I loved it. I loved it almost as much as The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and you know how much I love that book! I don’t know what it is about certain translations (that they are beautiful maybe?) but I just can’t get enough of them. I was so taken by Norwegian Wood that I began to think that Murakami might actually be one of my favourite authors, but I couldn’t make such a decision based on two books, to find out for sure I needed to read more.

So, I set myself the task of actively reading more Murakami (to begin with I decided I’d read one book a month, but what with all my other commitments that is starting to seem like wishful thinking) and first on the list was Kafka on the Shore. Now, Norwegian Wood is said to be somewhat of an anomaly in Murakami’s portfolio, but Kafka on the Shore is quintessentially Murakami-esque – so I thought this could be the decision maker.

Where Norwegian Wood is a unique take on a classic tale of love, Kafka on the Shore is weird, wonderful and unashamedly unique!

It’s as if when you’re in the forest, you become a seamless part of it. When you’re in the rain, you’re a part of the rain. When you’re in the morning, you’re a seamless part of the morning. When you’re with me, you become a part of me.

kotsIn Kafka on the Shore storylines combine to trace the extraordinary journeys of two seemingly unrelated characters. Kafka Tamura runs away from home on the eve of his fifteenth birthday, haunted by the words of his father’s dark prophecy. Ever since the mysterious departure of his mother and elder sister Kafka’s life has been full of questions. Now his aim is simple, to travel to a far off place and live in the corner of a library. The journey, it seems, may hold the answers.

Elsewhere in Nakano ward, the dim-witted but amiable Nakata tracks lost cats and enjoys the simple things in life, like eels, and pickled vegetables with rice. But this is all set to change with the arrival of a tall man in a top hat and boots, whose interest in the neighbourhood cats is far from innocent. With his simple life turned upside down Nakata is forced to leave Nakano ward, and embarks on journey unlike anything he has ever experienced before, or his simple mind can even comprehend.

As Nakata and Kafka’s stories unwind and intertwine the remarkable interlaces with the ordinary and the world takes on a wholly unusual shape – fish and leeches fall from the sky, and cats converse with people, while WWII soldiers live, unageing, in the depths of unnavigable forest, and living ghosts lurk in the perimeters of consciousness.

Kafka on the Shore is a classic tale of quest and enlightenment, with a wholly unusual twist, which goes beyond the boundaries of classic literature. Murakami’s characters embark on a journey of stunning proportions, a voyage of self-discovery through inexperience. Neither Kafka nor Nakata know what it is they are looking for, but the answer is out there, and the journey introduces them to many strange and wonderful characters, with whom brief encounters prove to be life-affirming.

Anyone who falls in love is searching for missing pieces of themselves. So anyone who’s in love gets sad when they think of their lover. It’s like stepping back inside a room you have fond memories of, one you haven’t seen in a long time. It’s just a natural feeling. You’re not the person who discovered that feeling, so don’t go trying to patent it, okay?

Kafka on the Shore is strange – there is no getting around it. Weird and wonderful things occur and the reasons behind these occurrences are not immediately, if at all, clear. Each chapter harbours events which, however deep and profound an impact they may have, lack any logical explanation. Try and apply a logical filter to Murakami’s and you will no doubt find yourself disappointed and frustrated.

I found it useful, in having read Kafka on the Shore to try and get some insight into  Murakami’s own thoughts on his writing. Murakami has explained his writing process as similar to dreaming, rather than delving into the fantastical: “Writing a novel lets me intentionally dream while I’m still awake. I can continue yesterday’s dream today, something you can’t normally do in everyday life. It’s also a way of descending deep into my own consciousness. So while I see it as dreamlike, it’s not fantasy. For me the dreamlike is very real.”

Kafka on the Shore, then, can be seen as the amalgamation of two different worlds, the combination of the conscious and the unconscious. Think of the book as you would a dream, and suddenly things become much clearer. I was reminded, in reading this, of the talk I went to by Nigerian author Ben Okri last summer in which he spoke of exploring a new way of thinking in his writing, to show that text does not have to follow strict criteria. The world that you create, he said, can be sequential and logical, or circular and dancing. Kafka on the Shore falls firmly into the latter category.

Despite everything, it’s not a difficult book to read. The obscure and the philosophical, which may at times feel somewhat overwhelming, for me were lightened by Murakami’s abstract humour. Here I could give examples of the pimp dressed like Colonel Sanders, or Nakata’s continued reference to going for a ‘dump’ – but for me, the most hilarious part of the book, was Oshima’s fantastic shutting down of two women who refer to him as a ‘typical sexist, patriarchal male’.

My verdict – I liked it. But nowhere near as much as Norwegian Wood. I definitely need to read some more before I make a decision on just how much of a Murakami fangirl I am. The book won’t be for everyone – fans of the logical and sequential and those of you unsettled by violence against animals should steer clear of this one – but I’m certainly not done with my Murakami journey just yet.

Go Set a Watchman – Book review and giveaway!

To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.

imagesSet during the height of the Great Depression of the 1930s, To Kill a Mockingbird, is the tale of an innocent childhood in a sleepy southern town rocked by scandal. When Lawyer Atticus Finch chooses to defend a black man charged with the rape of a white girl he exposes his children to the reality of racism and stereotyping. The story, which is told through the eyes of Atticus’ six-year-old daughter, Jean-Louise ‘Scout’ Finch, sheds an amusing unfettered light on the irrationality of deep-south traditions surrounding race and class in the mid-1930s. At its heart, To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic coming-of-age tale, which went on to become one of the most famed anti-racist novels of the 20th century. Today the book is widely regarded as a one of the masterpieces of American Literature.

It’s no wonder then, that the release of Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, fifty-five years after To Kill a Mockingbird, was met with such excitement.

Go Set a Watchman – Harper Lee

You deny them hope. Any man in this world, Atticus, any man who has a head and arms and legs, was born with hope in his heart. You won’t find that in the Constitution, I picked that up in church somewhere. They are simple people, most of them, but that doesn’t make them subhuman.

81SX8d6vpzLGo Set a Watchman takes up with twenty-six-year-old Jean-Louise, as she returns to Maycomb to visit her now ageing father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, Go Set a Watchman delves into the raw truth of the political turmoil which marred the Southern United States of the 1950s. Jean-Louise’s homecoming, far from being an idyllic break in the country, takes an unsettling turn, as racial tensions rippling through the town come to her attention and she learns some troubling truths about the friends and family close to her heart. As she struggles to comprehend the changes occurring around her, Jean-Louise embarks on a life-changing journey guided by her own conscience.

By now, you will have no doubt read your fair share of reviews and criticism of Go Set a Watchman. Before I get into the controversy surrounding the book’s release, and subsequent criticisms of the book itself, I first want to tell you why I loved the book.

The structure of Go Set a Watchman is so completely different to To Kill a Mockingbird; I’ve heard it called jarring, and awkward, but I found it refreshing. The novel is told in the third person, but still awards an amazing insight into the minds of the central characters, with large sections of text given over to Jean-Louise’s hilarious internal monologue, particularly when she finds herself at odds with her insufferable aunt (‘Jehovah!’). As a reader you are able to witness Jean-Louise without being restricted by seeing everything through her eyes. I loved the effect that this had and I feel it allowed for a deeper understanding of her character.  The quick fisted child from To Kill a Mockingbird may have aged some, but her personality and morals remain as rigid as ever. Even as an adult she is far happier in slacks than a skirt, and more than willing to speak her mind to anyone who disapproves. Twenty years on, and the adult Jean-Louise is still a force to be reckoned with.

I also loved the amount of time Lee gave to looking into Jean-Louise’s life in the years in between To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman. I loved Jean-Louise’s internal anecdotes about her childhood, in particular the nine month’s spent thinking she was pregnant after being wrongly advised about the birds and the bees by an older girl. Watching the whole debacle unfold is hilarious, but none so much as the exchange between Jean-Louise and Calpurnia when she finally confesses her horrible secret:

“I’m going to have a baby!” she sobbed.
“When?
“Tomorrow!

Calpurnia said, “As sure as the sweet Jesus was born, baby. Get this in your head right now, you ain’t pregnant and you never were. That ain’t the way it is.
“Well if I ain’t, then what am I?
“With all your book learnin’, you are the most ignorant child I ever did see…” Her voice trailed off. “… but I don’t reckon you really ever had a chance.

Little gems like this give Go Set a Watchman a really human feel, which I absolutely loved. It is one thing to witness a character’s story as it unfolds, but another to observe a character revisiting their past. The Jean-Louise of To Kill a Mockingbird exists only in the present moment, whereas the adult Jean-Louise transcends time periods to enable a fuller understanding of the complexities of her character.

Now, on to the controversy.

I know a lot of people are of the opinion that Lee was manipulated into granting permission for the release of Go Set a Watchman, and I’m sure nothing I say will change this, but I, personally, do not believe that this is the case. Firstly, friends and family close to Lee have outright denied that this claim – but this is not the only reason I choose to believe that Lee wanted the book to be published. I think that the presence of anomalies within the text, specifically with regards to the outcome of the Tom Robinson case in To Kill a Mockingbird, suggest that Lee had the definitive choice when it came to publishing the book. For me, the presence of such anomalies show that Lee wanted the book to be seen and to be viewed as it was; true to the time it was written, and not as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. If the release of Go Set a Watchman was nothing more than a money-making plan at the expense of a fragile old lady I do not think this would be the case.

The circumstances surrounding the publication of Go Set a Watchman are not the only thing awarding the book negative media attention. I have read so many opinion pieces that suggest that the book ruins To Kill a Mockingbird and taints the Atticus Finch that we all knew and loved. One US bookstore even offered refunds to anyone who purchased the novel from them, on the ground that their advertising it as ‘nice summer read’ was unquestionably false. This, again, I do not agree with.

When I read To Kill a Mockingbird I fell completely in love with Atticus, and there is no doubt in my mind that the Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman is fundamentally different. But did this new portrayal of his character ruin the former impression I had? No, of course not. The Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird still exists, and nothing will ever change that. Go Set A Watchman may be set 20 years after To Kill a Mockingbird, but it was never intended to serve as a sequel.

The time portrayed in Go Set a Watchman can’t be viewed in a vacuum, but neither should it be completely judged based on To Kill a Mockingbird. The two books are fundamentally different. One gave birth to the other. Go Set a Watchman in itself is an incredible look at the time in which it was written, allowing for amazing insight into the Southern United States of the 1950s.

Would Go Set a Watchman have been accepted by a publisher now were it not for To Kill a Mockingbird? I don’t know. Maybe not. The novel is certainly not as ground-breaking as To Kill a Mockingbird – but is that really surprising? It is the history of the book that is really fascinating. As readers we have been given the chance to read the first draft of one of the most famous books ever written. In reading Go Set a Watchman you are given an incredible insight into Harper Lee’s writing process. Needless to say, as a booklover, and a fan of To Kill a Mockingbird, I found Go Set a Watchman to be an incredibly interesting and exciting book to read.

If you haven’t yet read Go Set a Watchman, and haven’t been put off by all the negative media coverage than I have good news for you. I have an extra copy of the book up for grabs for one lucky reader.

Simply comment on this blog post by Friday 4th September, to be in with a chance of winning.

Happy commenting!

Prudence and the Crow – A vintage book subscription box

Is there anything more wonderful than treating yourself to a new book?

I think I may have found something.

Last month a friend introduced me to Prudence and the Crow, a little london-based company which offers monthly subscriptions of vintage paperbacks.

She pretty much had me at the Crow.

…I’m sorry, that was terrible.

Anyway, after visiting their elegantly designed website and learning a little more I wasted no time in signing up. A vintage paperback and extra SURPRISES for only £12 a month, seriously, you’d have to be an idiot, or some kind of book-hating weirdo, not to get in on this.

Today my first package arrived and I am fairly sure I have never been so excited in my entire life. The envelope alone was enough to get me to screaming like an excited school girl. A mystery book, selected especially for me!

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Check out my haul!

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The box was filled to bursting with all kinds of treats including a handmade book bag and bookmark, Prudence and the Crow library card, motivational mini postcard and a collectible tea card featuring an English spindle tree. I also got some interesting tea samples and a few sweets adorably packaged in a striped bag and sealed with a triceratops sticker.

I love every, single thing.

But of course the star of the show is my very own, handpicked vintage paperback – The Crystal Gryphon by Andre Norton

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I’ve never heard of Andre Norton, but I am super stoked to try this one out.

Kerovan of Ulmsdale is born different from other children: he has small hoofs instead of feet, and his strange eyes are the colour of amber. Fearful tales spread about Kerovan – but is he really a monster, or has he inherited some of the power of the mysterious Old Ones who inhabited his country long ago? And what about the potent magic of the crystal globe he sends to the bride he has never seen?

The blurb-cover combo on this book has me well and truly intrigued. I’m moving this straight to the top of my ‘to read’ list, so I’ll let you know what I think really soon!

In the mean time, get on over to Prudence and the Crow and treat yourself!

Spring has sprung – Byron’s pool

The last week or so has felt like a new beginning after a very long and dreary winter. The other morning I was overjoyed to wake up with the sun on my face and more or less leapt out of bed. A sunny day off is not to be wasted. So my beloved and I headed down to one of my favourite local walking spots – Byron’s pool.

Byron’s Pool is a small nature reserve on the outskirts of Cambridge in the village of Grantchester, named after the poet Lord Byron, who it is said, would swim at the weir pool on warm summer’s days. It’s a picturesque location, and perfect for a leisurely walk along the River Cam.

If you have never been to Grantchester you could do worse than to plan a day trip, the village is a truly beautiful location.

Banks_of_the_Cam_at_Grantchester If you need more convincing, this should do the trick:

…………………. would I were
In Grantchester, in Grantchester! –
Some, it may be, can get in touch
With Nature there, Or Earth, or such.
And clever modern men have seen
A Faun a-peeping through the green,
And felt the Classics were not dead,
To glimpse a Naiad’s reedy head,
Or hear the Goat-foot piping low:…
But these are things I do not know.
I only know that you may lie
Day-long and watch the Cambridge sky,
And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,
Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,
Until the centuries blend and blur
In Grantchester, in Grantchester ….

Rupert Brooke, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, 1912

Byron’s pool itself is just outside of Grantchester. A public footpath through the reserve takes you in a loop alongside the River Cam, and around a small patch of quiet woodland. The river is calm and quiet, brimming with water lilies, with small shallow streams of crystal clear water and darting sticklebacks running through the woodland. The woods, though just beginning to bud in the early spring, comes to life in the summer with hundreds of sweet smelling wildflowers, daisies, willowherb, hogweed, ragwort, dovesfoot, meadowsweet, elder, ivy and cows parsley to name but a few.

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I think the main thing which draws me towards Byron’s Pool is the knowledge that Byron spent time there, and, if you listen to Brookes, perhaps still does:

Still in the dawnlit waters cool
His ghostly Lordship swims his pool,
And tries the strokes, essays the tricks,
Long learnt on Hellespont, or Styx.

I like to think that the playful spirit of Byron still roams the area.


George_Gordon_Byron,_6th_Baron_Byron_by_Richard_Westall_(2)Fun Byron fact – Lord Byron was a great lover of animals, and while he was a student at Trinity College installed a tame bear in his quarters. He was compelled to do so after becoming upset that the university forbade the keeping of dogs – they neglected to mention that bears were also forbidden. The college authorities had no had no legal basis to complain, although it is said that they tried to tell him that domesticated animals were not allowed, to which he replied: ‘I assure you that the bear is wild.’


I love the idea of wandering around with the spirits of poets past, and always feel compelled to slip beneath the water as to become even closer to the celestial body of Byron – Alas!IMG_0039

As always I had to settle for a quiet walk, pausing every now and then to try and capture the scene through the lens of my camera.

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Walking with the boy on this warm spring day we spoke casually about the location and came upon a bit of difference of opinion. Sebastian thinks the location is ruined by its close proximity to the M11, and while I will concede that this doesn’t add to the experience it does not ruin it for me. I would be lying if I said I can’t hear the road, it is there, in the background, but the sounds of the river, the birds, and the breeze through the trees disguise this for me. Focus on the road and you will hear it, lose yourself in the location and it can pass you by.

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“Great empires are not maintained by timidity.” ― Tacitus

When in Rome

Inceptio and Perfiditas – Alison Morton

Having shown a keen interest in all things Roman since the age of 11, Alison Morton is a self-proclaimed ‘Roman nut’. She recounts how walking on the mosaic floors of the old Roman City in Ampurias started her wondering what a Matriarchal Roman society would have been like. This set the background for her alternative Roman history trilogy, the Roma Nova series. The first book in the trilogy, Inceptio, was published in 2013, with Perfeditas and Successio following soon after.


Inceptio

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In the first book of the trilogy Morton introduces the reader to Karen Brown; a seemingly ordinary marketing assistant who lives for her weekends spent volunteering at a New York country park. Her life is turned upside down when, following an altercation with a disruptive park visitor, she finds herself dismissed from her position. This is just the beginning, as Karen’s position as sole heir to her father multi-million dollar company leaves her as the target of government enforcer Jeffery Renschman. Her choice: stay in New York and risk being eliminated by Eastern United States Government, or flee to the mysterious Roma Nova, the European homeland of her late mother. Karen makes the not-so-difficult decision to see what Roma Nova has in store for her, only to find that her troubles have crossed the Atlantic.

The opening few pages of a book are often the most important, from a reader’s perspective at least. As soon as I started reading Inceptio I knew I was going to like it. There was no slow introduction to the story, with Morton instead opting to get straight in with the action. We are introduced to Morton’s main character, initially known as Karen, right after she bloodied the nose of a delinquent adolescent in the county park where she voluntarily spends her weekends. Despite this somewhat lively introduction to Karen, we are made aware straight away that that this is out of character for her: ‘I hadn’t knocked anybody down since junior high, when Albie Jolak had tried to put his hand up my sobbing cousins skirt’.

I found I sympathised with Karen, but not with the Karen in the book as such, but with the Karen she had been, before the book began. In the first chapter and a half, you get a sense of the woman Karen had been before made the mistake of punching the son of the second most powerful man in the country. The old Karen, the Karen before her life was turned upside down, seemed placid, and a little unfazed by life, working for money, without really caring about the job itself, like a shadow in the back of the office. Of course, given the colourful opening of the book, it’s obvious that Karen’s life is about to take a turn, but hard to tell if it will be for better or worse.

I don’t want to go too much into the plot with this review, for fear of revealing any spoilers, of which there are many. Needless to say the storyline that follows is certainly a gripping one. Morton feeds the reader small titbits of information, allowing them to come to the same realisations as the characters, while leaving the final aspects of the plot hidden until the very end, making for a satisfying read. While I liked the story that Morton created for her readers, I do feel that Inceptio serves first a foremost as a settling in novel of sorts, where the reader is introduced to the main characters, and the Roma Novan way of life, paving the way for the other books in the series. I think this is often inevitable for the first book in a series, however, and do not begrudge this fact.

There are several aspects of Morton’s work within this book that I really enjoyed. The first and possibly most important of which is Karen’s character. I think Karen is fantastic, but I also find her horribly frustrating. As Karen makes the journey to Europe she sheds her old identity, and seems to slip effortlessly into her new role as Carina Mitela, granddaughter of one of the most important women in Roma Nova. She is undoubtedly pleased with this turn of events, but finds herself craving freedom. She has gone from having an admittedly fairly mediocre but laissez faire life to being watched over constantly – anyone is bound to be a little overwhelmed by this. Now, the thing I find frustrating about Carina is her choice to sneak around and attempt to escape the eyes of those watching out for her security; it’s just asking for trouble. Of course she is frustrated, but she is also needs security, there are, after all, people trying to kill her – it just seems a little selfish and immature to me.  I am torn though, as it is also Carina’s independence, which makes her such a fantastic character. If it wasn’t for her perseverance and drive she wouldn’t have left the EUS, or become the, let’s be honest, kick ass character she develops into. Morton transforms her character from the ordinary marketing assistant who was Karen Brown, to a sassy, character changing, ninja in the form of Carina Mitela, a woman able to rub shoulders with some of the most dangerous characters in Roma Nova, while continuing to serve her family and country. Exactly the kind of woman you would hope to find in a matriarchal society.

Another thing I enjoyed about the book, which I am a real sucker for at times, was the relationship between Carina and Conrad. A blossoming romance I found myself hanging onto throughout the book. My image of Conrad, developed through Karen’s descriptions of this mysterious man, portrayed a Scandinavian Alexander Skarsgård figure, wholly divine.

‘His colleague was more than striking blonde hair long enough to slick back behind his ears. And tall. Several inches taller than me, even. Above a smiling mouth and straight nose marred by a scar, his eyes were tilted slightly upwards, red brown near the iris, green at the edges’.

While I loved the romance between the couple, I also enjoyed the fact that they’re relationship did not follow a traditional path, and although there is a definite love story within Inceptio, it is by no means central to the plot.

On the whole I found Inceptio to be an entertaining read and a great introduction to the world of Roma Nova.  I can really appreciate the work that must have gone into creating a book such as this. Morton has left no stone unturned in her creation of the alternate historical timeline, which bore Roma Nova. The book starts with ‘The boring stuff’, for those not familiar with the history of Rome, a category of which I am a member and so found very useful. Morton has also laid out every aspect of the country for the reader to discover in plain sight, the government structure, military, family values, traditions and even holidays, Saturnalia instead of Christmas, the importance of family day, the presence of the family courts and importance of the female figure head of the family. Nothing is left out, which helps to give the reader a very clear picture of this new and exotic place.


Perfiditas

Perfiditas - Front Cover_med

In the second book of the trilogy Perfiditas, the reader once again meets with Karen Brown, in her new and transformed state as Captain Carina Mitela of the Praetorian Guard Special Forces. Carina finds herself once more at the receiving end of an attempt on her life, which throws her full force into the depths of an extensive underground conspiracy to topple the government of Roma Nova. Taking matters into her own hands, as usual, Carina calls on some old acquaintances known for operating outside of the law to aid her in her quest to uncover the perpetrators and save her beloved homeland, a move which threatens to ruin both her credibility, and her marriage. The plot thickens, as Carina finds herself at risk, not only from the conspirators who seem determined to ruin her, but also from the very government she strives to protect.

Perfiditas picks up several years after the end of Inceptio, allowing for a more intense storyline, and less settling in. Morton is able to build up more of a storyline, and focus less on background and character development. This gives way to a really gripping plotline. Several times throughout the book things are completely turned upside down, adding a whole new dimension to story and prying a surprised gasp from the mouth of the reader at the end of each chapter.

One of the things I think I liked most about Morton’s second book, though, was the group she created to overthrow the government of Roma Nova. The PFPP – Paterfamilias Patria Potestas are most simply described as ‘a fundamentalist group, believing literally in the original Roman tribal values’. The group want to overthrow the matriarchal system that Roma Nova is founded upon, and are dismissed as living in the past, with one character describing their values as ‘only two and a half thousand years out of date’. The realistic nature of this group really spoke to me; in any society there are those who are anti-establishment, so such groups are bound to arise in some form or another. In a society founded on gender, this seems even more inevitable, as modern times bring forward the desire for equality or, the call for an overhaul of traditional gender roles.

Love once again comes into play in Perfiditas, but in a very different way to Inceptio. When Carina is forced to go undercover after having been framed as a conspirator she is initially devastated at having to distance herself from her family:

‘Normally, I relished the buzz of going undercover on an operation. But no adrenaline raced through my body now. I had no doubt I’d been on the brink of being arrested as a conspirator; I’d been trapped into deserting my post so would be pursued; I was cut off from my family, my children and my love. A cold wave washed through me. Deep down, I had never felt so alone.’

This image of Carina mourning her lost family is not a regular occurrence, however, and she does slip into her undercover role, a little too comfortably, and quickly falls back into allegiance with a group of old, less than legal, acquaintances. As she spends more and more time undercover, Carina becomes increasingly aware that she is developing feelings towards one of her criminal friends, feelings which, when resigned to, threaten to completely overwhelm her.

This aspect of the novel came as quite a surprise. Given the intensity of the relationship between Carina and Conrad in Inceptio, I did not expect her to ever look at anyone else. However, the fact that she does makes her all the more real in my mind. Carina is a person like everyone else; despite the things she achieves, she is not infallible. When this aspect of Carina comes out in the book, it seems almost inevitable that something will slip out of place. In admitting to herself her feelings, Carina lets her guard down, allowing herself to become blind to that which is right in front of her. When the reality of the situation comes to light, Carina is left not only knowing that she missed something, but with a feeling of betrayal so deep it is hard to shake, even as a reader.

Overall, I found that Perfiditas followed nicely in the footsteps on Inceptio, while succeeding in standing on its own two feet. The book has a fast paced and exciting storyline, in which it is easy to become absorbed. Morton grants the reader access to Carina’s inner thoughts, allowing the reader and Carina to puzzle though the mysteries and come to the same conclusions at exactly the same time. I felt breath catch in my throat when I read the lines ‘”I’ll never forget those black eyes.” She caught her breath, “They bored into me. I don’t think I’ve ever been so frightened in the whole of my life”’. Morton ensures that the reader known exactly to whom the black eyes belong, and that you are just as surprised, and heartbroken, as Carina.

Looking at the Roma Nova series as whole so far, there were a few things I found slightly problematic. Firstly, I was slightly irritated by Morton’s reference to non-Roma Novan reality. I picked up on references to Gladiator, James Bond, and Madame Butterfly. While I can’t say these references are incorrect, or shouldn’t be there, as the books are first and foremost fiction, and so Morton has poetic license to do as she pleases, I personally I feel these references were slightly out of place. I don’t feel they added much to the story itself – they were fleeting remarks more than anything, or comparisons in passages, which were already well described – and so I feel would have been better left out.

My other slight gripe, is that I found the books to be slightly too fast paced given the complicated nature of some of the names. Even with the glossary I found it difficult at times to keep up with who was who, and what exactly was happening, I occasionally found myself needing to reread whole chapters.  It took me quite a while to read both Inceptio, and Perfiditas I am normally quite a fast reader.

Despite a couple of minor irritations I did find both books to be entertaining and most impeccably written, both from a grammatical and literal viewpoint. I continue to be astonished the level of detail in which each book is written, Roma Nova really is a very thoroughly laid out alternate history series, and for this I applaud Morton. I would recommend any mystery or thriller fans wanting to try something new to look up the Roma Nova series.

Many thanks to Alison Morton for providing me with free review copies of Inception and Perfiditas.