Originally published in the Canberra Weekly on 15 August 2019.
Originally published in the Canberra Weekly on 15 August 2019.
Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 11 June 2019)
Series: The Damned Emperors – Book 2
Length: 482 pages
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Acclaimed historical fiction author Simon Turney catalogues another infamous ruler of Rome in the second book of his The Damned Emperors series, Commodus.
Rome, 162 AD. The Roman Empire is in a rare period of peace and stability, with two brothers, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, both ruling as Emperor. The future also looks bright, as for the first time in Rome’s history, two male heirs have been born to a ruling Emperor. However, only one of these children is destined to become Emperor and make his own mark on history. His name is Commodus.
Raised as Rome’s golden child, Commodus eventually succeeds his father as Emperor following a period of war, rebellion and disease. Beloved by the people and loathed by the Senate, Commodus styles himself as Hercules reborn, becoming a great patron and competitor of gladiatorial fights, chariot races and other feats of martial strength. However, behind the scenes, Commodus’s life has been filled with tragedy and despair, and he hides a darker side beneath his golden exterior.
As Commodus succumbs more and more to his inner demons, Rome is rocked by power struggles and plots, as his family and servants attempt to control or usurp the unpredictable Emperor. Only one woman, Marcia, truly understands Commodus and can keep his mind together. Born a simple palace servant, Marcia was the love of Commodus’s life and a skilled player of Roman politics. However, not even Marcia can contain Commodus’s self-destructive urges forever, and eventually she must decide whether she will die at the hands of her great love or make the ultimate betrayal.
Commodus is the second book in Turney’s The Damned Emperors series, which takes a look at some of the most tragic, infamous and self-destructive rulers of ancient Rome. After presenting an exciting tale of insanity and vengeance in Caligula, Turney now takes a look at one of the most intriguing emperors in Roman history, Commodus. The result is a powerful, well-written and captivating piece of historical fiction that I absolutely fell in love with and which easily earns a full five-star rating from me.
Commodus is truly one of the more fascinating figures in Roman history, which is saying a lot. While most would probably know him as the villain in the movie Gladiator, as portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, he actually had a long and controversial reign, with many events that are hard to believe. As a result, a book focusing on his life is bound to be interesting; however, Turney goes above and beyond, presenting a well-researched and deeply compelling novelisation of Commodus’s life. Not only does Turney explore some of the more extraordinary aspects of Commodus’s reign, such as his devotion to becoming the new Hercules, his exploits in the arena or the cult of personality he formed around himself, but Turney also attempts to explain why he may have done them. This results in a clever and thought-provoking look at the entirety of Commodus’s life, including several formative events that are known, or are likely to have happened, and which may have led to some of his more extreme actions later in life. I really enjoyed the potential scenarios that Turney came up with to explain Commodus’s personality, and his justifications featured towards the end of the book are really quite interesting and very compelling. There are also some interesting historical tweaks to some of Commodus’s actions, but I feel that these work in the wider aspect of the story and help to create a more believable narrative. The end result is an outstanding examination of this fascinating historical figure which will allow the reader to see Commodus in a whole new light.
Turney has done an amazing job telling this story, thanks in part to the use of an excellent point-of-view character. The story is told from the perspective of Marcia, the women in love with Commodus, and is set out as a personal chronicle of Marcia’s actions, which run parallel to the life of Commodus. Turney takes more historical liberties with this character and re-imagines Marcia as a close childhood friend of Commodus. The use of Marcia as the story’s narrator and the subsequent re-imagining of parts of her life story are done extremely well, allowing the author to have a single, consistent narrator who is constantly close to the main character. This was the best way to tell the complete story of Commodus’s life, and it was an amazing storytelling device from Turney which completely justifies historical variations in the character.
Using Marcia as the point-of-view character also allowed Turney to tell an addictive historical tale of love, revenge, ambition and tragedy. Marcia is a tragic character in this book, and her storyline is really quite powerful. The daughter of a servant in the Imperial Palace, Marcia is allowed to grow close to Commodus, becoming his childhood friend and confidant before circumstances conspire to keep them apart. However, Marcia’s determination to be with Commodus results in a series of power plays, plots and other nefarious actions as she tries both to free herself and to deal with other people who wish to influence the Emperor. Despite some of the terrible actions she commits, Marcia comes across as a very sympathetic character in this book, and your heart goes out to her with some of the setbacks she encounters. Her romance with Commodus, while caring and filled with love, is also very dramatic, as Commodus’s moods and the influences of others in his circle often place strains and boundaries on them being together. The final, tragic result of this story is told extremely well, as the reader gets to see the highs of their love, swiftly followed by the swift, one-sided deterioration of their relationship. This results in a devastating conclusion to the book, and the reader is left reeling at how this romance comes to an end.
In addition to the story of Commodus and Marcia, Turney also does an excellent job exploring Roman history and events during the span of Commodus’s life in the second half of the second century. Some truly fascinating events occurred during this period of Roman history, including wars, plagues and the reign of proxy tyrants such as Cleander and Perennis. The author covers these events in some detail, and it is really interesting to see how some of the events unfolded, how long they lasted and what actions led up to them. Commodus is also filled with a number of intriguing depictions of Roman life, and the various ancient Roman settings proved to be an amazing background for this great story.
Commodus is a first-rate novel and easily one of my favourite pieces of historical fiction for 2019. Turney is an incredibly skilled author whose dedication to historical detail pairs well with his amazing ability to tell a dramatic and powerful story. Commodus comes highly recommended, and I cannot wait to see which flawed ruler of Rome Turney focuses on in his next instalment of The Damned Emperors series.
Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy. Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.
For this week’s Waiting on Wednesday, I take a look at one of the biggest upcoming releases of 2019, The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, the sequel to Atwood’s seminal work, The Handmaid’s Tale.
Released back in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale told the story of Offred, a woman trapped in the oppressive military dictatorship, the Republic of Gilead. Due to her status as one of the few fertile women in Gilead, Offred has been forced into the life of a Handmaid, breeding stock for Gilead’s leaders. The Handmaid’s Tale highlighted the creation of this terrible nation and followed Offred’s attempts to survive in this harsh new reality. The Handmaid’s Tale has subsequently been adapted into a highly successful television series, with the third season starting just last week. Now, over 30 years after its original publication, Atwood has written a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale that continues its story and looks to the future of Gilead.
Set for release in September 2019, only a few plot details have been revealed so far, but it sounds like this could be quite an interesting read.
In this brilliant sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, acclaimed author Margaret Atwood answers the questions that have tantalized readers for decades.
When the van door slammed on Offred’s future at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, readers had no way of telling what lay ahead for her—freedom, prison or death.
With The Testaments, the wait is over.
Margaret Atwood’s sequel picks up the story fifteen years after Offred stepped into the unknown, with the explosive testaments of three female narrators from Gilead.
“Dear Readers: Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.” —Margaret Atwood
I think that it is fair to say that The Testaments is going to be a book that a lot of people will be excited to read. The Handmaid’s Tale is massive at the moment. Not only is it a major piece of pop culture currently thanks to the television show but the political and social messages contained within the original book are just as relevant today as they were in 1985, if not more so.
There are quite a few interesting elements in the plot details that have so far been provided. For example, it looks like The Testaments will showcase how the world and Gilead have changed in the 15 years following the events of The Handmaid’s Tale. It also sounds like Atwood is going to explore the inner workings of Gilead, which is quite a fascinating and terrible society, and it will be intriguing to see how such a place could come into existence and remain in place. I imagine that a lot of fans of the book will be extremely interested to see if Atwood will reveal the fate of her original protagonist, Offred. When The Handmaid’s Tale novel ended, Offred had an uncertain future—she was either being rescued by Mayday or being arrested by the Eyes—and the reader is left to guess what actually happens to her. I hope that Atwood will tell the rest of Offred’s story and I wonder if Offred may be one of the female narrators giving testimony.
It is uncertain at this point what role the plot of the television show will have on The Testaments’ story. The events of the original book were all covered within the first season, and the show has since gone off on its own tangent. It will be interesting to see if The Testaments will reflect any of the events that occurred within the show’s second or third season. I am also curious to see whether any future seasons of the show will feature events contained within this sequel book. Either way, fans of the show will no doubt be very curious to check this book out.
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood is set to be an amazing book for later in the year and I am very excited about reading it. It will very cool to check out a sequel this long in the making and I will be interested to dive into the world of Gilead and the dark stories no doubt contained within.
Publisher: HQ (Trade Paperback format – 18 March 2019)
Length: 416 pages
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Historical drama author Mary-Anne O’Connor once again presents the readers with a powerful and moving journey through a number of iconic moments in Australian history with her fourth book, In a Great Southern Land, which focuses on Australia’s colonial history and the chaos surrounding the infamous Eureka Stockade.
In 1851, the colonised but still mythical continent of Australia represents many things for many different people. For the Clancy family living in Ireland it represents freedom, as they seek their own land away from the British aristocracy that controls their country. For young Eve Richards it represents a harsh prison; she is unfairly transported as a convict after losing everything that she cares about.
Once in New South Wales, Eve briefly encounters the wild but kind Clancy brother, Kieran, who manages to save her from a harsh life in the Tasmanian colonies. Following a bad experience as he left Ireland, Kieran is wondering around Australia in search of a new purpose, while his family, including his brother, Liam, and his sister, Eileen, settle in Orange. Despite the love of his family, Kieran’s temper and thirst for adventure leads him down to the goldfields at Ballarat, close to where Eve is employed as a convict servant.
It does not take long for Kieran and Eve to find each other again, and the two are soon drawn together romantically. However, their plans for their future and a life together are imperilled by events occurring around the goldfields. The corrupt colonial regime is imposing harsh taxes on the miners attempting to scratch a living at the fields, and resentment and hostility is growing. When several shocking events become a catalyst for revolt among the miners, Kieran finds himself being forced to choose between supporting his friends or marrying Eve. Can Kieran and Eve’s relationship survive the chaos of the Eureka Stockade, or will tragedy once again strike them both?
This is the fourth book from Australian author Mary-Anne O’Connor, who specialises in historical dramas set in the backdrop of significant events in Australia’s history. Her 2015 debut, Gallipoli Street, features aspects of World Wars I and II as well as the Great Depression. Her second book, Worth Fighting For, is set in World War II, while her third book, War Flower, focuses on Australia in the 1960s, including the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War. In a Great Southern Land is the author’s first foray into a 19th century setting, and her love and dedication to recounting parts of Australia’s complex and chaotic history once again shines through.
At its heart, In a Great Southern Land is a dramatic story of several individuals who are searching for a new beginning, and find love, loss and upheaval in their new home. I have to admit that dramatic novels are not usually the sort of book that I am naturally drawn to, but something about this book really appealed to me and I had a great time reading it. The main characters are extremely sympathetic and realistic, and the reader can not help but get drawn into their story. A lot of bad stuff affects all of them, especially Kieran and Eve, and you are left hoping that they can hang on and find the happiness that they deserve. I quite enjoyed the romance angle between Kieran and Eve; it came about quite naturally and had quite a satisfying conclusion. I really got into this fantastic story and I was impressed by how this fantastic dramatic tale was woven so effectively into the book’s amazing historical elements.
One of the things I quite liked about this book was O’Connor’s ability to examine and bring several aspects of Australia’s colonial history to life. Several iconic parts of the mid-19th century Australian experience are explored by the author, including the transportation of convicted criminals from England to Australia, the often terrible convict lifestyle, the resettlement of Irish settlers to various parts of Australia and the trials and tribulations of those seeking their fortunes in the goldfields. On top of that, O’Connor also explores various Australian locations, including historical Sydney, Melbourne, Orange and Ballarat. All of these examinations of history are deeply fascinating, and I really enjoyed reading about them. The author has obvious skill at portraying all the historical aspects, and the reader gets a real sense of what it would have been like to experience these historical events, ordeals and locations.
The most significant historical event that occurs within this book is the Eureka Stockade, which plays a huge role in the overall story. O’Connor does an amazing job examining this interesting and often venerated piece of Australia’s colonial history and explores so many of the key elements surrounding the event. As such, the reader gets an excellent idea of what events led up to the Eureka Stockade, and why the participants thought it was necessary to organise as they did. The actual battle at the Eureka Stockade is pretty brutal and tragic for the reader and becomes one of the major parts within the book. I quite liked the examination of the aftermath of the event, especially the rather entertaining, but apparently accurate, courtroom sequence, which I was not as familiar with. O’Connor does a fantastic job brining the Eureka Stockade to life, and I was quite impressed with how it was utilised in the telling of the book’s dramatic storylines.
I really enjoyed the author’s underlying examination of freedom and control that seemed to permeate a large amount of In a Great Southern Land’s plot. Throughout the story, the main characters experience high amounts of oppression or prejudice, often from upper-class English characters, due to a wide range of social factors. For example, before the Clancy family leave for Australia, they are oppressed by the rich, English family who controls their land and whose greed takes something precious from Kieran. Eve is taken advantage of by the son of the household she works for and is then cast out when the affair is discovered without the son standing up for her. Even when they reach the promised land of Australia, the characters are still oppressed. The Clancy family still face discrimination for being Irish, with the police targeting Kieran, and one particularly dislikeable doctor refusing to leave a party to treat someone from Ireland. Eve, on the other hand, is treated poorly as a convict, and even after she finds work with a nice, wealthy family, she and Kieran are forced to act a certain way with Eve’s employers in order to gain permission to marry. This underlying oppression and the resentment and anger that these characters felt plays wonderfully into the events that led up to the Eureka Stockade, and it was intriguing to see how these events affected the characters’ decisions in relation to these events.
In this book, Mary-Anne O’Connor has produced another outstanding historical drama that the reader really gets drawn into. The main story is deep and emotive and ties in well with O’Connor’s rich and detailed depictions of historical events that represent key points in Australia’s colonial history. In a Great Southern Land is an amazing and powerful read that I was quite happy to find myself really enjoying. I ranked this book 4.5 stars, and I will be quite interested to see what period of Australian history O’Connor decides to explore next.
Debuting Australian author Kirsten Alexander presents a dramatic, captivating and hard-hitting novel of desperation and loss loosely based around a real and shocking historical event.
In the summer of 1913, a young boy, Sonny Davenport, walks into the woods around his family’s summer home at Half Moon Lake, Louisiana, and never returns. Despite a widespread search of the surrounding area by an army of volunteers, no trace of the boy can be found. As the search grows in volume, the disappearance becomes headline news across the country, especially as Sonny’s parents, John Henry and Mary Davenport, are wealthy and influential members of their home town of Opelousas. For the next two years, the Davenports engage in a desperate hunt for Sonny across the south, offering a massive reward for information on their missing son. But with no substantiated leads, the Davenports slowly lose hope and Mary sinks more and more into her despair.
However, just when everything seems lost, a boy matching Sonny’s description is found wandering around several southern towns in the company of a tramp. As the world watches, Mary meets the child and claims that he is Sonny. But is he truly her missing son? There are a number of differences between the two boys and many are convinced that the Davenports have taken in the wrong child and the real Sonny is still out there.
As the people of Opelousas, including many of the Davenport’s friends and servants, debate the true identity of this young boy, a kidnapping trial for the tramp begins. However, the proceedings are thrown into chaos when Grace Mills, an unwed farm worker, arrives in town, claiming that the boy is her son.
This is an outstanding first book from Alexander, who has created a powerful and memorable story based partially around real-life events. Half Moon Lake is a fantastic and dramatic story that dives deep into the hearts and psyche of its characters and the historical elements of the time to create a lasting impact on the reader. I was very surprised about how addictive I found this book to be, as the intense character emotions and the dramatic actions that they take to alleviate their grief and the grief of their loved ones was just incredible. I am still reeling from several of the revelations and developments that occurred towards the end of the book, many of which will stick with me for a long time.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this book is that is partially based on a real-life historical event, the disappearance of Bobby Dunbar, which took place in America’s south in the early 20th century. Bobby Dunbar disappeared when he was four. After months of searching, a young boy was found some distance away who appeared similar to Bobby and was claimed by Bobby’s parents, despite many people voicing their doubts about the boy’s true identity. In addition, a second woman attempted to claim the child as her own son, and a legal case was initiated to determine the identity of the child. I was unfamiliar with the Bobby Dunbar case before I read Half Moon Lake and did not look up the details of it until after I finished the book. As a result, I was amazed that the intense story was so closely based on a real story. This case and its eventual results are absolutely fascinating, and I felt that Alexander did a fantastic job of capturing the essence of this event and installing it within her story.
For example, the author does an excellent job of portraying the probable emotions, feelings and opinions of people who would have been involved in the real-life disappearance, as she utilises a number of different character perspectives throughout her book. Readers of Half Moon Lake get a great idea of the despair all of the parents in this story would have experienced, the fear and confusion of the children, and the bewilderment and conflicted emotion of everyone else involved in the case. I felt that Alexander’s portrayal of the missing child’s mother was done particularly well, as the readers gets to see her so filled with realistic fear, grief and despair that it drives her to try and claim a child that might not even be hers. I also quite enjoyed the way that the author explored the highly publicised nature of the child’s disappearance and how the media at the time covered the case, dividing those following the case as they try to determine the true fate of the missing child and the real identity of the discovered child. I also loved the way that the author looked at how the media scrutiny of the time might have affected the individuals involved in the case, and how this could have potentially influenced their actions and decisions.
I also really liked the way that the period’s ideas of class came into effect during this book. There are some key examinations of the different ways that the rich and the poor were treated during this time, and how this would have impacted the investigation, the search for the missing child, the media scrutiny and overall results of the big trial that served as an important scene at the end of the book. Also significant and intriguing was the way in which Alexander looked at how concerns for personal and familial reputations might have come into these events, resulting in several characters undertaking various actions that they knew to be wrong, all in the name of protecting someone’s social standing and reputation. The story is set in America’s south during the early 20th century, and as such there are a number of African American characters who are involved with the case. Race and the perception of certain ethnicities came into this book a lot more than I thought it would, and I thought that Alexander did a fantastic job capturing how these characters might have been ignored or disciplined for trying to get involved in proceedings. All of these elements result in an amazing historical tapestry which forms an excellent setting for this story.
Overall, this is an amazing debut from Australian author Kirsten Alexander, who uses the inspiration of a fascinating real-life case to craft an epic and powerful story. There are so many great story elements spread throughout Half Moon Lake, as the character’s emotions and despair drive them to desperate and immoral acts. It features a narrative that is at times sad and at other times darn right appalling, and several reveals and character decisions at the end of the book will leave you shocked and will stick in your mind long after you finish reading it. I loved this spectacular first book from Alexander and I am looking forward to seeing where she goes next.
From world-renowned, best-selling author Danielle Steel comes this powerful dramatic novel that examines the highs and lows of being a top surgeon in the modern world.
Bill Browning, Stephanie Lawrence, Wendy Jones and Tom Wylie are four of the world’s leading trauma surgeons, all living in San Francisco. Each of these surgeons’ professional lives is near perfect, however their personal lives are a mess. Bill is all by himself, since his ex-wife and daughters are living in London, and he immerses himself in his work while desperately missing his children. Stephanie constantly puts her work above her family, barely seeing her young children and frustrating her stay-at-home husband. Wendy’s life outside work is defined by her relationship with her married colleague, and is constantly frustrated by his indifference to their relationship and his reluctance to end his marriage. Tom, an over-the-top womaniser, is the only one satisfied with his life, but deep down he knows his life lacks connections as he refuses to let anyone to get close to him.
Tragic circumstances in two separate cities will have unexpected impacts on the lives of all four of these surgeons. Following a terrorist attack in Paris and a devastating fire in San Francisco, both cities’ respective governments organise a multi-week exchange of trauma surgeons in order to help both cities learn from each other’s experiences. Bill, Stephanie, Wendy and Tom are each chosen by their respective hospitals to represent the San Francisco delegation and travel to Paris, leaving their lives at home behind.
Once in Paris the American surgeons find a deep friendship and camaraderie with each other and the French team, as they have the chance to socialise with those rare people who understand the personal challenges their medical careers can cause. As the San Francisco teams learn about the French medical and emergency response system, another terrible act of violence hits the people of Paris. As both the American and French teams deal with the consequences of these horrific actions, these surgeons find their lives impacted in unexpected ways. How will these events change them, and how will they impact those around them?
Danielle Steel is one of those authors that really does not need an introduction. With over 150 books to her name since her 1973 debut, Steel is the undisputed master of the romance and drama novel. Interesting fact for the day: Steel is actually the fourth best-selling fiction author of all time, coming in only behind William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie and Barbara Cartland, making her the top best-selling author alive today. Turning Point is Steel’s first release of 2019, and she has an additional five books planned for the rest of the year.
I have to admit that this is not the usual sort of book I would check out, and Danielle Steel is not an author I would usually go for. I much prefer novels with a lot more action, violence or comedy than romance or intense drama. However, I have always had a bit of a soft spot for medical fiction, and I thought that the summary of Turning Point sounded fairly compelling. I also thought that looking into Turning Point would be an interesting change of pace for me, so in the name of broadening my horizons and mixing up my reviews, I decided to check it out. I have to say I did get into this amazing story, and enjoyed the dramatic narrative that unfolded within it.
There was a little less medical stuff in this book than I would have liked, but there was more than enough to get me into Turning Point’s story. There are no in-depth surgical scenes, but the author does a fantastic job of describing the aftermath of catastrophic events and how hospitals and medical professionals deal with triaging patients. What I enjoyed most about the medical parts of this book are the author’s examination of the personal difficulties that surgeons experience as a result of their work. All of the characters have stunted or damaged social and family lives because of the huge strain their chosen profession takes and the long hours they have to work. This is particularly true for the characters of Bill and Stephanie, who have children and families, and are forced to deal with having to choose between their dream careers that they have spent their entire life working towards and their families. Steel mainly focuses on Stephanie for this, as Bill’s wife left him years before the events of Turning Point. Throughout the book, Stephanie’s husband is constantly making her feel guilty for working while he is left at home with the children, and this puts significant strain on their relationship. The sexism angle of this was also explored, as Stephanie’s husband, parents and mother-in-law are all very unsupportive of her role and seemed to think she should be with her children, despite Stephanie providing a very reasonable argument that her mother never complained about her father’s similar medical career. While the examination of the familiar strains of these characters’ surgical careers is a particular focus, the other social impacts of their work is also explored, and I found it fascinating how most of them could only open up to people in a similar line of work and who could understand what they were going through.
The plot of this book is split between San Francisco and Paris, and Steel fills the book with fantastic descriptions of both cities. Her characters explore and tour through both locations, and the book comes across as a love letter to both cities from the author, who has spent significant periods of time there. While I enjoyed both of these descriptions, I found the comparison of both cities’ emergency response protocols and the roles of their doctors and emergency services to be the most interesting parts of these settings. The differences between how these two major cities deal with devastating events is extremely fascinating, and I liked the time that Steel spent exploring them. During the course of the book, Paris is hit with both a terrorist attack and a school shooting, both of which are emblematic of the main catastrophes hitting America and France. It was quite shocking to see the aftermath of one of these events in some detail, but it I appreciated why Steel included them.
While filled with other great elements, at its heart Turning Point is a dramatic story with a number of romances. A large amount of the drama is generated by the elements discussed above, such as the stresses associated with a medical career or the destructive events the characters witness. Relationships break down, people are in conflict with each other and personal revelations lead to life changing decision for all the characters featured in the book. Each of the main characters also gets their own romantic subplots, and I liked how each of them turned out. I was a bit surprised about how much I began to care about each character, but as the reader dives deeper into the book they become more and more involved in their lives. While I did think the all-round happy endings for everyone was a bit predictable, I liked how the drama and romance elements of these books tied into the other parts of the story to create an amazing overall narrative.
While this was not a book I was expecting to get into, I did find myself enjoying Turning Point and the intriguing story contained within it. With some excellent medical inclusions and a deep examination of the high pressure lives of surgeons, this is a fantastic read and one that exceeded my genre expectations.