2014 has been a great year for books, and especially for historical fiction, so I hardly know where to start. Those that I have enjoyed the most I have already reviewed, either here on my own blog, or elsewhere, so I thought that I would provide links to those reviews, rather than repeating the content here, and instead reproduce the opening paragraphs as an enticement to other readers.
My favourite book of the year is Ali Smith's How to be Both. There are two intertwined stories, which can be read in either order. The story that I read first brings a 15th Century character, invisibly, into the modern world. I won't attempt to reproduce the extraordinary prose poem with which it opens (a tribute, I suspect, to the late, great Edwin Morgan), but here is what follows:
"A boy in front of a painting. Good: I like a good back: the best thing about a turned back is the face you can't see stays a secret: hey: you: can't hear me? Can't hear? No: My chin on your shoulder right next to your ear and you still can't hear, ha well, old argument about eye or ear being mightier all goes to show it's neither here nor there when you're neither here nor there so call me Cosmo call me Lorenzo call me Ercole call me unknown painter of the school of whatever you like I forgive you I don't care - don't have to care - good - somebody else can care ... "
Hannah Kent's Burial Rites was actually published in 2013, but it was published late in the year, and I, like many other readers, did not get to read it until the New Year had begun. It is a stunning evocation of a time and place (19th Century Iceland).
"They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine. I imagine, then, that we are all candle flames, greasy-bright, fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind, and in the stillness of the room I hear footsteps, awful coming footsteps, coming to blow me out and send my life up away from me in a grey wreath of smoke. I will vanish into the air and the night. they will blow us all out, one by one, until it is only their own light by which they see themselves. Where will I be then?"
Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake takes the reader into an England devastated and laid waste in the months following the Norman invasion of 1066. It is a book that has divided my friends, much as it seems to have divided the judging panel of the Man Booker Prize (it made it onto the long-list, but not the short-list), some finding it unreadable, but others (including myself) dazzled by the author's use of the English language.
"the night was clere though i slept i seen it. though i slept i seen the calm hierde naht only the still. when i gan down to sleep all was clere in the land and my dreams was full of stillness but my dreams did not cepe me still
when i woc in the mergen all was blaec though the night had gan and all wolde be blaec after after and for all time. a great wind had come in the night and all was blown then and broc. none had thought a wind lic this colde come for all was blithe lifan as they always had and who will hiere the gleeman when the tales he tells is blaec who locs at the heofon if it brings him regn who locs in the mere when there seems no end to its deopness."
Lucy Pick's Pilgrimage intrigued me from the outset because she was writing about the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela at the same time as I was (my 12th Century story in Omphalos is set just a generation or so after hers, and, by coincidence, one of my characters is actually descended from one of hers).
"'It doesn't seem natural how that girl can make her way around so well when she can't see.'
Gebirga strained her ears to hear the group of nuns, taking a break from their tasks to mutter outside in the July sunshine. Sweat plastered the thin wool of her dress to her back, though the day was barely warm. She imagined the nuns standing there, casting sidelong glances as she entered the monastery gate. She held her head high as she made her way through the courtyard toward them, a strong grip on the lead of her dog, Liisa, and a bundle under her other arm. Liisa would make sure she avoided the worst of the mud puddles from last night's rain, not yet baked dry by the weak northern sun."
Judith Starkston's Hand of Fire takes us onto the familiar ground of the Trojan War, but shows it from the unfamiliar perspective of an Asiatic (Luwian/Hittite) woman.
"Antiope's breath rasped like a distant wave scouring a rocky shore. Too faint to sustain life. Briseis squeezed her mother's hand, then balanced her mother's limp hand on her own, shifting each finger until the two matched up. When had her fingers grown as long as her mother's? It didn't mean she was ready to take on her mother's work alone. She rubbed gently, but Antiope's hand remained slack. Briseis shifted closer to her mother on the bed and adjusted the fleeces cushioning her mother's shoulders from the leather straps pulled across the bed's wooden frame. No response. What should I do, Mama? Tell me how to save you. You've taught me to be a healer from birth, but I don't know this, the one thing I have to know. Tell me."
Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.