The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist is a magical tale of a young shepherd boy who gives up everything he has in order to follow his dream. This happens quite literally, as he is inspired to find answers to his questions by simply dreaming the same dream twice; a dream that he would discover treasure at the Pyramids in Egypt. He is encouraged onto his road of discovery by an encounter with a mysterious man claiming to be a king, who is revealed to be a messenger of God. Along his way the boy loses everything more than once, is disheartened and confused, is happy, satisfied – yet is always spurred on to achieving his destiny, sometimes by reading the omens around him, or by heeding the advice of others. Most crucial to his success is the alchemist he meets in the middle of the Sahara desert, who teaches him to listen to his heart, to speak to the desert, and to connect fully with the soul of the world.

This book is an astonishing work which transports the reader to the enchanting surroundings of rural Spain and Moorish Africa. It is told in a very pleasant style, constantly following the boy’s modest and characterful thoughts, revealing how much he learns by simply observing life. A highlight of the novel is the comparison between the boy and an Englishman he meets travelling with a caravan. The man is determined to understand alchemy and the universal language of the world, to learn how to turn lead into gold and create the elixir of life. The man isn’t evil or greedy as we might expect, rather, blinkered in his expectations and demands of the world. The boy’s quest to learn the universal language of the world instead was inspired by his sheep, and by the innumerable interactions which are possible without using speech.

The Alchemist asks the reader to accept and embrace life’s full potential, without making unreasonable demands, or instilling a feeling of inadequacy. The exoticism of the story gives it a sense of a fable, one we can use to guide us, without being set up as an unachievable example. It is not surprising that The Alchemist has reached dizzying heights of fame.

Death Comes to Pemberley, by P. D. James

In an ambitious project which follows the well-known characters of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, P. D. James attempts to unite the different genres of crime fiction and classic romance. Six years have passed since we last saw the Bennet sisters, and Elizabeth is now mistress of Pemberley, Mr Darcy’s beautiful and wealthy Derbyshire estate. Life is tranquil, with only the running of the house, arranging of balls and visiting of friends to occupy the Darcys. However this tranquillity is soon shattered by the unexpected arrival of Elizabeth’s youngest sister Lydia, who, as we all remember, eloped with the rascal Mr Wickham, and was only saved from ruin by the assistance of Mr Darcy, whose money persuaded Wickham to marry Lydia.

It would serve little purpose here to further explain the events of Pride and Prejudice and how they relate to the opening of Death Comes to Pemberley. P. D. James does it herself in the Prologue of her book, and unfortunately manages to create an extremely slow start to what proves to be an interesting storyline. In fact, a certain slowness is maintained throughout, with the style of writing itself being the chief culprit. James is endeavouring to write in the style of Austen while still maintaining the elements of crime fiction, and it is easy to pass off the slow pace and lengthy passages of speech as being part of the eighteenth century style. However, Austen’s writing is not slow for slowness’ sake, and is far from dull. In Death Comes to Pemberley there are some witty lines which sound very much like Austen’s amused commentary on society, but these are altogether too few for the text to have a ring of authenticity. Perhaps the biggest crime in the novel is not in fact the mysterious death in Pemberley woods, but the fact that two of the best-loved characters in English literature are made to be insipid and unlovable, possibly casualties of the narrative style, which doesn’t quite succeed in engaging the reader. James certainly does take her own slant on the characters, portraying with a little amusement how Elizabeth can easily be seen by society as a gold-digger, an Austen-like move which contributes well to the novel. It is also possible that James deliberately makes Elizabeth and Mr Darcy dull, to add contrast with some of the other characters, and also to contrast Pemberley with the context of the Napoleonic Wars, but it does not please the reader.

Overall, the novel contains a sophisticated plot, and works well as a piece of crime fiction, with enough to keep the reader guessing, neatly tying up all the clues at the end. James also manages to work in a few references to two of Austen’s other novels, and connects them into the plot. It is worth persevering to the end in order to appreciate the idea behind the novel, but it must certainly remain a matter of opinion for every fan of Austen, and indeed every fan of crime fiction, whether it hits the mark for them.

Gioconda, by Lucille Turner

‘La Gioconda’ is the Italian title for arguably the most famous painting in the world, the Mona Lisa. Leonardo da Vinci’s renowned portrait of Lisa Gherardini is the hook upon which Lucille Turner hangs his story, a story which is elegantly told through Leonardo’s own eyes, in the manner of a long string of recollections. It is a journey of discovery, above anything else. From boyhood Leonardo da Vinci seeks answers to his questions, and finds a question in everything. He seeks knowledge, and aims to save men from themselves. His genius is underappreciated by those around him, his discoveries misunderstood, ignored, or declared abnormal and heretical.

Gioconda is a journey of discovery for the reader as well. As it rambles through Leonardo’s life like a waking dream, there is a sense of being given illumination into his world, his memories, his thoughts and cares. Turner touches upon several themes of contention among scholars of da Vinci – the question of his lost manuscript, the identity of the woman in the Mona Lisa and what it meant to him, for Leonardo da Vinci kept the portrait in his possession until he died. Gioconda begins with Leonardo and the Mona Lisa, feeling exhilaration at the fact that he has stolen his own painting. A similar scene occurs at the close of the novel, in such a way that the end can loop back round to the beginning. As Leonardo identified the omnipresence of curves in nature, so this novel has a sort of circular nature.

Leonardo’s relationship with Lisa Gherardini is as ambiguous as the expression on her face in the portrait. They first meet as children, Lisa seeming to understand Leonardo more than the adults do. It is perhaps this which welds them together for the rest of the novel, despite the fact that they meet only on a handful of occasions. When he finally paints Lisa, long after her marriage to the Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo, she sits in a red dress in front of an ochre sweep of silk. Leonardo’s painting instead shows a deep landscape, and her colours turn to green – the colour of the dress she wore as a child.

The novel’s chief success is the skill in which Turner utilises the present tense throughout, and tells her story through Leonardo’s eyes alone, not using long descriptive passages to colour in the context of the Italian Renaissance, but paring the story down to its bones, and down to what really matters. Even brief appearances by other famous figures such as Lorenzo de Medici and Niccolo Machiavelli are treated solely in terms of how they affected Leonardo. The result is a vibrancy which could not be achieved by any amount of vibrant description and detailed explanation.

Azincourt, by Bernard Cornwell

As the author of the famous Sharpe series, Bernard Cornwell is assuredly one of the kings of historical fiction, and Azincourt is sure to satisfy both fans of his other books and newcomers too. The novel is a vivid and visceral telling of the remarkable battle of 1415, when a small English army faced a vastly superior French force while they marched from Harfleur to Calais. Cornwell shows us the horrors of the Hundred Years War through the eyes of an English longbowmen, Nicholas Hook, an outlaw forced to join the army or forfeit his life. Guided by the voices of St Crispin and St Crispinian since the horrific siege of Soissons, of which Hook was one miserable English survivor, we follow his path through both war and the deadly feud which led to his being ruled an outlaw in the first place – his bitter rivalry with the Perrill family.

Although Hook at first seems an unlikely and unsympathetic hero, because we first meet him during his attempt to commit murder, the reader soon warms to the archer. His desire to do God’s will is his driving force, along with the desire to survive, in the face of his own fear. He is undeniably a strong character both physically and mentally, but Cornwell manages to avoid making him one dimensional, and without slowing the narration to dwell particularly on the character’s thoughts and musings, he tells the reader enough about Hook. A greater strength of the novel is its small host of minor characters, especially the fiercely authoritative and loyal Sir John Cornewaille, who leads Hook’s company of archers, and Father Christopher, the surprisingly witty priest who dons armour like a soldier, sees to the needs of the troops yet makes no pretensions to having any knowledge about God’s will. Even the chivalrous, conscientious yet down-to-earth Henry V plays his part as a minor character.

Azincourt is not for the faint-hearted, as its descriptions of violent combat and the horrors of war do not shirk from any details. The account of the battle of Agincourt is particularly relentless and really gives an impression of the full four-hour hellish confrontation, also leaving the reader wondering whether a medieval battlefield was any less dangerous than the no-man’s land of the Western Front centuries later. The medieval armies’ floundering in siege-works at Harfleur also reads like an account of trench-warfare, a parallel which is strengthened by the  fact that the scene is once again Northern France, and the English army’s stand at Agincourt came after they were forced some way down the Somme valley.

Overall, Azincourt’s main achievement is the vivid picture it paints of the Hundred Years War, although the plot and characterisation do not suffer. Without giving anything away, at the close of the novel the reader’s perseverance through the gruesome battle is rewarded by being neatly brought full-circle.

Armadale, by Wilkie Collins

One of the more well-known novels by the nineteenth-century writer Wilkie Collins, published after The Woman in White and before The Moonstone, Armadale is, like them, a story of intrigue and deception. The plot rests on the connection between four men who have all shared the name Allan Armadale: two cousins and their respective sons. The book begins in a prologue which sets up the entire matter of the novel – the confession of a murder, which is written in a letter to be given to one of the Allan Armadales upon his majority. The letter warns him to avoid all contact with the other Allan Armadale of his generation, and with a certain woman who connects all four of the same name. The murderous letter-writer is afraid that fate will drive his son to disaster if any such meeting should take place. However, when the letter is read, it so happens that his son, living under an assumed name for other reasons, has already met his namesake and has become his closest friend. The rest of the novel traces the lives of the two Armadales, one troubled with the knowledge of the truth and one hopelessly ignorant and naive, as they try to avoid the terrible fate of which they are warned.

If the above sounds complicated, then it should accurately give a sense of the novel itself! The plot is truly absurd but if the reader gives allowance for the melodramatic tendencies and the improbability which drives the plot through all its twists and turns, Armadale proves to be a gripping read.

An interesting observation is that arguably the main character in the book, the woman connecting the Armadales, the enigmatic and seductive Miss Lydia Gwilt, does not appear until a large part of the novel has passed by, and as the above synopsis reveals, is not key to the initial explanation. However, she is the driving force behind the fate which binds them all, she is the danger to be avoided, and the most fascinating personality the reader contends with. Contemporaries of Wilkie Collins heaped criticism on the character of Miss Gwilt because she was too beautiful to be a villain, and the readership of the time did not expect such a cruel character to have such a charming outward appearance. While condemning certain aspects of his malicious female character, Collins is also in the position of raising awareness of the inability for her to have turned out much different. He has Miss Gwilt observing a carefree and happy young woman, and commenting to herself that if that woman had had such trials as hers, she would be wholly different.

Armadale does have its limitations, and despite tying up the plot successfully at the end, the reader may not feel wholly satisfied. There are places in the novel where a reader might be distraught at the actions of a character, or exasperated by their melodramatic tendencies. We might criticise the ridiculous coincidences which provide the plot. We might wish that the interesting characters be granted an ending as satisfying as the dull ones. Nevertheless, Armadale is more to be praised than criticised. Collins uses expressive language and a variety of narrative forms, he comments on the state of society in his day, and provides us with a handful of intriguing characters.

About L Silverlock

I’m an aspiring author, bookworm and reviewer – this site contains book reviews I’ve written in recent years and also contains information about the novel I am currently writing, the first book of a trilogy provisionally titled ‘Roads to Rome’. If you’re a publisher, author, fellow-reviewer, bookseller, or just like my reviews then please don’t hesitate to contact me, and if you’d like me to review your book I’m happy to read new releases or proofs of upcoming publications.

If you’re interested in Roads to Rome’ please get in touch. I am looking for an agent.