Master And God, by Lindsey Davis

This novel is an opportunity for Lindsey Davis to escape the world of Falco (the star of her bestselling detective series), and write more extensively and broadly about a subject which she clearly loves – Rome in the time of Domitian. The Emperor who insisted upon being addressed as ‘dominus et deus’ starts out in this novel as a surprisingly sympathetic character. Davis has a real flair for understanding what certain situations could have been like for various individuals, and she manages Domitian very well, especially when he views his traumatic past during his father Vespasian’s bid for power.

Domitian is a constant presence behind the novel, which is set over the entire span of his reign, but the author’s main characters are much more ordinary people: a Praetorian guard, and a hairdresser who gains employment with one of the imperial family. Both are well placed to be influences upon the emperor, and both suffer as a result. However it is their relationship which is the real story of Master And God, and which is continually played out due to the master stroke of Davis placing them in the same tenement block. Essentially they are flatmates. Davis is therefore able to portray her characters in an accurate Roman setting, but showing them to be very modern people. This is unusual in historical fiction but actually works here, and makes the story more accessible with a greater identification with the characters. As a result their escalating problems throughout the novel become more important to the reader. We want to know what will happen to them as they get increasingly embroiled in schemes revolving around the emperor.

I cannot recommend this highly enough to fans of Davis’s detective series, as her style here is similar, but the subject matter gives her more scope to write something serious. Having said that, this novel is not wholly serious – but then can Davis ever be wholly serious? As for newcomers, I would say that this book would appeal mostly to readers of historical romance, but is difficult to locate within that genre. For example it is very different to the kind of novels written by Philippa Gregory, but it is neither more nor less literary. Overall, an enjoyable book which doesn’t ask too much of its readers.

10 Billion, by Stephen Emmett

This book by research scientist Stephen Emmett has sprung from a theatre production (not really a play, Emmett himself has called it a ‘thing’) produced in 2012, in which he highlighted the problem of global overpopulation and its implications for the future. While reading 10 Billion the first thing that springs to mind is that it would be more suited to a series of lecture slides – or indeed, a script. All the information is in bite-sized chunks, with barely one paragraph to a page. It doesn’t feel like a book. But it does feel like a message, and I would not criticize Emmett for expanding the audience of 10 Billion from just whoever happened to be in the theatre, to an infinite number of readers (well, not infinite – there are currently 7 billion people on this planet).

His argument, if it can be called an argument, is that overpopulation is at the root of the world’s problems. These problems range from climate change to food crises. He explains how the impact of overpopulation can be traced to all these various problems, and does it clearly and succinctly. However, he supplies no solution, and this is actually the biggest point of his message. While other scientists have written treatises about each of these problems, they have supplied ways of avoiding total doom. Emmett boldly declares that we will implement no solution, that we will just carry on as before, and sign a death warrant for the planet.

It is difficult to discern whether Emmett has taken this tone to shock the reader into paying more attention, to shock governments into actually properly doing something about the crisis, or perhaps to encourage more funding for his own research projects. Or does he simply take a kind of sadistic pleasure in being the only one to notice that things are not changing fast enough to avert a future cataclysm?

Whatever his motives, this book should be read by as many people as possible as it is an unbelievably important subject. The author’s choice of presentation may be a matter of personal taste, but if it is what propels this book to popularity and gets the word spread, then so be it! Now read it.

Rubicon, by Tom Holland

Rubicon is an excellent piece of narrative history. It tells the story of the fall of the Roman Republic and how the dictatorship of Caesar and the eventual formation of the Principate came to pass. Although this subject lends itself well to drama and popular interest, it is without doubt a very complicated historical matter, and Holland provides his reader with the right balance of explanation and background information to make his narrative both lively and scholarly. While Rubicon is essentially a piece of popular history, its role as a narrative should not be criticised compared to more academic tomes, as it is good at contextualising scenarios, events and historical figures.

This book is written in an engaging style which convinces the reader that the events and places being described were very real, and that the people involved were as real and human as you and I. This seems obvious but is a failing of many history books which leave the reader thinking ‘so what?’ Rubicon plunges right into the depths of the Roman Republic and tells you why it all mattered.

On the other hand, it doesn’t supply a great deal of information about what this world would have been like for an ordinary citizen, but it must be remembered that it doesn’t set out to describe Roman daily life. It is narrating the fall of the Roman Republic, which, although having many factors, was inherently a political event. Thus, while the narrated events strongly affected the entire population, they chiefly concerned those with political power – the aristocrats, military commanders, and upstart lawyers such as Cicero. Cicero’s books and letters provide us with the most source material for this period and must heavily influence any history of it.

Overall, I would safely say that this is one of the first books I would recommend to a person who wishes either to learn about this fascinating time in history, or simply wants a good general narrative to provide background to further study. It is accessible yet packed with information.

Casino Royale, by Ian Fleming

casino royale

The first of the Bond novels, Casino Royale is a must-read for fans of the franchise who haven’t yet read any of the original books. Published in 1953, it is clearly a very different story to the film released in 2006, which is thoroughly modernised with extra action scenes and plot elements to boot. Bearing this in mind, I was surprised at how similar the book is to the modern film. The entire plot structure is there. The film producers haven’t meddled with it at all – they’ve merely expanded it and fitted it into a more modern era.

It is easy to see whcasino royaley Casino Royale started one of the most famous series in British culture. Fleming is said to have set out to write the ultimate spy thriller, and he certainly accomplished that with this book and his creation of James Bond. Fleming is a master of cliff-hanger chapter endings, of conjuring up vivid scenes almost effortlessly, utilising his knowledge without peppering the pages with dull detail. His language is frequently poetic, and his way of describing people, places and emotions is incredibly sophisticated and not at all what you might expect from a James Bond novel. In some ways, the modern franchise (up until Daniel Craig’s Bond) has much to answer for in this respect with its over-use of gadgetry and jokes. Unlike most of the films, Casino Royale is mysterious and atmospheric. Action scenes zip past faster than they would do on screen, but the unfurling of Bond’s character and his relationship with Vesper Lynd is a gradual and delicate thing, and one which has a fitting conclusion.

There are of course slight differences between the film and the novel, and the ending is one of those parts which differ. Without going into the details as I do not wish to spoil the reading, I will briefly mention changes in characterisation. The character of Mathis in the novel feels more human and has an interesting personality which contrasts with Bond’s. While I appreciated the slightly larger role given to Vesper in the events at the casino, her  character felt slightly less convincing than the role acted by Eva Green – but this may be doing her a slight disservice.

Overall one of the most striking things about the novel was the development of Bond’s own thoughts and opinions about his job. His desire for revenge upon Le Chiffre is purely personal, and his complaint about ‘the good’ versus ‘the evil’ being unhelpful labels in an ever-changing world signals a fundamental change in his attitude. “‘My dear boy’, Le Chiffre spoke like a father, ‘the game of Red Indians is over, quite over. You have stumbled by mischance into a game for grown-ups…’” After his encounter with Le Chiffre, Bond most certainly ceases to play at games: “‘History is moving pretty quickly  these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.’”