dinsdag 28 februari 2017

"The Lords of the North" by Bernard Cornwell

"It was the year 878, I was twenty-one years old and believed my swords could win me the whole world. I was Uhtred of Bebbanburg, the man who had killed Ubba Lothbrokson beside the sea and who had spilled Svein of the White Horse from his saddle at Ethandun. I was the man who had given Alfred his kingdom back and I hated him."

Uthred of Bebbanburg played a major part in defeating the Danes and helping King Alfred secure Wessex. But still Alfred looks down on Uthred, because he isn't Christian. While other warriors receive lands and riches for their service to the king, all Uthred gets are some trifles.

Disgusted by the way he has been treated, Uthred decides to leave Wessex and ride north to finally take revenge on the Dane Kjaertan, who killed his adoptive father. In Northumbria, he joins the slave-turned-king Guthred and instantly falls in love with Gisela, Guthred's sister. But then Uthred is betrayed by someone he considered a friend, and forced into slavery. For Uthred, though, this is just a minor setback in his quest for revenge.

This is part three of the "The Last Kingdom" series, which recounts the rule of Alfred the Great, seen through the eyes of the fictional Uthred. Like the first two books, "The Lords of the North" is pacey and the characters are interesting. The flimsy historical records are used to great effect, but as not much is known about the time and place, most of the story is pure fiction. Uthred is an odd character - he's obnoxious, arrogant, cruel and frustratingly over-confident, but the author still manages to make him likeable. There's a striking amount of humour in this book, most of it provided by Uthred's irony and sarcasm. Another excellent read. On to book four...
 
Author: Bernard Cornwell
Title: The Lords of the North
Publisher: Harper, London
Year: 2016 (orig. 2006)
Number of pages: 383 p.
ISBN: 9780007219704

donderdag 23 februari 2017

"Twee maal leven" van Clem Schouwenaars

"Alleen de grootste dwazen voelen zich gelukkig."

Manu Ressel leidt twee levens. In het gezelschap van zijn beroemde broer, de schrijver Ossian, begeeft hij zich voortdurend onder de belangrijke en interessante mensen. Maar dit leven is slechts een droom. De realiteit -dat andere leven- is dat hij overdag een onbetekenend baantje heeft op een kantoor - hij is slechts één van de duizenden werknemers van een fabriek. De mensen met wie hij daar omgaat zijn, 'saai', 'dom' en 'onder zijn niveau'. Manu is van mening dat hij meer verdient dan dat - dat er grootse dingen voor hem in het verschiet liggen. Hij rebelleert tegen zijn oversten en verlaat uiteindelijk de fabriek. Nu is het aan hem om aan te tonen dat hij inderdaad zijn droom kan verwezenlijken.

"Twee maal leven" vertelt een op het eerste zicht banaal verhaaltje over een kantoorbediende die zijn job beu is. Maar het verhaal gaat dieper dan dat. Het gaat over realiteit en dromen en over de grote kloof tussen beide. Over de drang om meer te zijn dan wie je bent en over het leren accepteren van je grenzen. En dat laatste betekent vaak een enorme desillusie. Clem Schouwenaars heeft me nog nooit teleurgesteld en ook "Twee maal leven" heb ik weer graag gelezen.

Auteur: Clem Schouwenaars
Titel: Twee maal leven
Uitgeverij: Hadewijch, Antwerpen/Baarn
Jaar: 1989 (oorspr. 1968)
Aantal pagina's: 145 blz.
ISBN: 9052400342

zaterdag 18 februari 2017

"The Mayor of Casterbridge" by Thomas Hardy

“Life is an oasis which is submerged in the swirling waves of sorrows and agonies.”
 
Young Michael Henchard, a poor hay-trusser, arrives at a country fair with his wife Susan and baby daughter Elisabeth-Jane. In a drunken stupor, he sells his wife and daughter to a sailor, Mr Newson, who takes both to Canada. Some twenty years later, after the drowning of Newson, Susan and her daughter arrive in the town of Casterbridge. There, they find Henchard, who has risen on the social ladder and has become mayor of the town. Henchard, still feeling guilty about what he did all those years ago, vows to make amends and remarries Susan. But his past will come back to haunt him, again and again. As he refuses to learn from the mistakes of the past, Henchard's downfall is inevitable.

"The Mayor of Casterbridge" may not be quite as powerful as Hardy's "Tess of the d'Urbervilles" but it's still a classic which deserves to be read. It has a strong plot (although a bit too reliant on coincidences - not unusual for the author) and I really like the symbolism Hardy uses. The characters -the titular character in particular- are complex and interesting. Hardy's prose is beautiful and not too difficult, but you'll have to be able to stomach quite a bit of pessimism. I happen to like a fair share of gloom in my literature, so Hardy is definitely among my favourite 19th century authors. "The Mayor of Casterbridge" didn't disappoint.

Author: Thomas Hardy
Title: The Mayor of Casterbridge
Publisher: OUP, Oxford
Year: 2008 (orig. 1886)
Number of pages: lxi + 364 p.
ISBN: 9780199537037

zaterdag 11 februari 2017

"Dissolution" by C.J. Sansom

“You untangle a knot with slow teasing, not sharp pulling, and believe me we have here a knot such as I have never seen. But I will unpick it. I will.”

'Dissolution', the title of C.J. Sansom's debut novel, refers to the suppression of the monasteries, a process by which King Henry VIII tried to close down all Catholic monasteries in England. This process was masterminded by the king's chief minister Thomas Cromwell, and this event provides the background for the novel.

Royal Commissioner Robin Singleton was sent to the Scarnsea monastery to investigate reports of illegal land sales, but was brutally murdered during the investigation. Now Cromwell has sent hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake to solve the murder, and at the same time continue Singelton's investigation. Soon, Shardlake discovers that he has arrived in a lair of avarice, corruption and decadence. Many of the monks are hiding something, and it becomes clear that there are a lot of suspects. More deaths follow, and as Shardlake is closing in on the truth, both he and his assistant Mark must also fear for their lives.

A murder in a monastery: it doesn't exactly sound original. And indeed, it is very probable that Sansom was inspired by Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose", though the story takes place a couple of centuries later. It is a very different novel, though. It's a much lighter read (not lighthearted, mind you), but like Eco's novel, it works both as a historical novel and as a murder mystery. The characters are excellently drawn. Matthew Shardlake proves to be an interesting and complex character that is   ideal to carry a series. The actions and motivations of all the characters are convincing. Cromwell, although he only appears very briefly, is a powerful and menacing figure. Apart from a clichéd scene in a clock tower, the ending and the solution to the murders is quite satisfying. An excellent start to a series which I will definitely read more books from.

Author: C.J. Sansom
Title: Dissolution
Publisher: Pan, London
Year: 2015 (orig. 2003)
Number of pages: 463 p.
ISBN: 9781447285830