#BookReview A Hundred Million Years and a Day by Jean-Baptiste Andrea @BelgraviaB

A Hundred Million Years and A DayAbout the Book

When he hears a story about a huge dinosaur fossil locked deep inside an Alpine glacier, university professor Stan finds a childhood dream reignited. Whatever it takes, he is determined to find the buried treasure.

But Stan is no mountaineer and must rely on the help of old friend Umberto, who brings his eccentric young assistant, Peter, and cautious mountain guide Gio. Time is short: they must complete their expedition before winter sets in. As bonds are forged and tested on the mountainside, and the lines between determination and folly are blurred, the hazardous quest for the Earth’s lost creatures becomes a journey into Stan’s own past.

Format: Paperback (176 pages)  Publisher: Gallic Books
Publication date: 7th May 2021 Genre: Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation

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My Review

‘It’s true that a story often begins with a road, but I wish I knew what made mine so tortuous.’

The book opens with Stan’s poignant childhood memory of returning home after school, seeing the closed shutters of a bedroom window and realising, even as a six year old, that he should not disturb his mother. ‘In such moments she needed darkness, and darkness alone.’ The reasons for this will gradually become apparent.

Stan’s discovery near his farmland home of a fossil – a trilobite – awakens an interest in palaeontology. ‘It was three hundred million years old, and I was six.’ It’s an interest that is encouraged by his mother but discouraged by his bully of a father (known as the Commander) who desires Stan to take over the family business.

Moving ahead forty years to 1954 and Stan is now a Professor of Palaeontology in Paris. He has never forgotten the story of an old man’s discovery of a dinosaur fossil in a cave within a glacier in the Alps. Finding the site has become an obsession. Along with Umberto, a friend and colleague of many years, Umberto’s assistant Peter, and local guide Gio, the four men embark on the expedition of a lifetime. (There is another member of the group but I’ll leave you to read the book to find out more about him!)

I loved the way each of the men were fully rounded characters.  Umberto is a giant of a man with a ‘good, big, stone soul’.  When it comes to excavation he has ‘magic in his hands’ able to gently release ‘time’s grip’ on a fossil. His loyalty to Stan means leaving personal commitments back home. Gio’s instinct for changing weather conditions and his knowledge of the mountains is unparalleled.  However, he also knows only too well what dangers they hide. Peter is described as having a ‘genius for the absurd’ which will be demonstrated all too clearly.

I admired the way the author explored the dynamics between the men, especially as summer gives way to autumn and every day seems to present a new obstacle to overcome in order to achieve their objective.  The frustration and anger that festers beneath the surface is vividly brought to life in a memorable paragraph delivered in stream of consciousness style.

Another striking aspect of the book is its use of anthropomorphism so that even the weather seems to exhibit a life of its own.  For example, autumn is described as ‘prowling at the edge of the plateau… a beast of flesh and claws’.  As weeks turn to months it becomes akin to a battle of wits between the men and the glacier, as if the glacier is actively seeking to thwart their efforts.  It certainly feels that way to Stan.

When winter truly arrives, every day, every hour even, becomes a struggle to survive and retain a grip on sanity. I really felt I was there on the mountain alongside Stan but, of course, invisible to him, which makes his feelings of loneliness and attempts to ward off madness all the more poignant. At one point he observes, ‘I am surrounded by millions and millions of cubic metres, acres, tons of nothingness, void, absence’.

Interspersed with the story of the expedition are Stan’s memories of events earlier in his life: memories of rejection, loss, cruelty and violence.  However, Stan’s history of misreading situations or misinterpreting the feelings of others made we wonder how much I could truly trust his viewpoint.  The author challenged me to think about Stan’s real motivation. Is it the professional acclaim that will come from the discovery of possibly a new species of dinosaur, the achievement of a long-held dream, or a belated attempt to prove to his father that he is not the failure and weakling he was accused of being?

Sam Taylor’s translation expertly showcases the author’s wonderful turns of phrase. For example, the description of the valley from which the group start their climb as being an ‘eternal vendetta between stone and water’.  Or when, later in the book, the men awake to a heavy snowfall that finds them in snow up to their chests, the scene is likened to a ‘polar morning in Pompeii: our torsos floating on an ocean of powder, statues lost at sea’.

The low page count of A Hundred Million Years and a Day belies the power of the story it contains. As is often the case, the best things do come in small packages. My thanks to Isabelle Flynn at Gallic Books for my review copy, published today in a new paperback edition.

In three words: Powerful, moving, immersive

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Jean-Baptiste AndreaAbout the Author

Jean-Baptiste Andrea was born in 1971 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye and grew up in Cannes. Formerly a director and screenwriter, he published his first novel, Ma Reine, in 2017. It won twelve literary prizes including the Prix du Premier Roman and the Prix Femina des Lycéens. (Photo credit: Publisher author page)

About the Translator

Sam Taylor is an author and former correspondent for The Observer. His translations include Laurent Binet’s HHhH, Leila Slimani’s Lullaby and Maylis de Kerengal’s The Heart, for which he won the French-American Foundation Translation Prize.

#BookReview Fortress of Fury by Matthew Harffy @AriesFiction

Aries Blog Tour BannerI’m thrilled to be taking part in the blog tour to celebrate the launch of Aries, the brand new imprint of Head of Zeus dedicated to international thrillers, speculative fiction and tales of adventure. Today’s stop is all about Fortress of Fury by Matthew Harffy, the seventh book in The Bernicia Chronicles series. Already available as an ebook, the hardback edition is due to be published in October and is available to pre-order now.

My thanks to Vicky and Jade at Head of Zeus for inviting me to take part in the tour and for my digital review copy of Fortress of Fury via NetGalley.

9781786696366About the Book

Beobrand is besieged in the action-packed instalment in the Bernicia Chronicles set in AD 647 Anglo-Saxon Britain.

War hangs heavy in the hot summer air as Penda of Mercia and his allies march into the north. Caught unawares, the Bernician forces are besieged within the great fortress of Bebbanburg. It falls to Beobrand to mount the defence of the stronghold, but even while the battle rages, old and powerful enemies have mobilised against him, seeking vengeance for past events.

As the Mercian forces tighten their grip and unknown killers close in, Beobrand finds himself in a struggle with conflicting oaths and the dreadful pull of a forbidden love that threatens to destroy everything he holds dear.

With the future of Northumbria in jeopardy, will Beobrand be able to withstand the powers that beset him and find a path to victory against all the odds?

Format: ebook (374 pages)               Publisher: Aries
Publication date: 6th August 2020 Genre: Historical fiction, action

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My Review

I promise that, at some point, I will read this series from the beginning. So far I’ve only read the previous book in the series, Storm of Steel, which I loved. I also very much enjoyed Wolf of Wessex, Matthew’s standalone historical mystery published in November 2019. Links from the titles will take you to my reviews. You can also read my Q&As with Matthew about two earlier books in the series – Warrior of Woden and Killer of Kings.

Although Fortress of Fury is the seventh book in the series it can definitely be enjoyed as a standalone. The book has brief references to events and characters in previous books but this is done in a such a way that it certainly won’t stop me going back and reading earlier books.

As fans of the series have come to expect, there are thrilling battle scenes with vivid descriptions of blood-splattered, bone-crunching encounters between Beobrand’s loyal Black Shields and their enemies, in this case the marauding Mercians. Beobrand himself is a fearsome warrior. “He was born to this… Now there was nothing but the night, cold steel and the hot blood of his enemies. This was the dance of death, and Beobrand knew every step.” For Beobrand though, each victory comes at a price, as the faces of the men he has killed often haunt his nightmares.

Without in any way intruding on the story or the pace of events, the book has a mass of fascinating detail about domestic life in a noble house of the period, weaponry and the political landscape of 7th century Anglo-Saxon Britain, with its different tribes and factions. I loved the scenes set within the beseiged fortress of Bebbanburg as its inhabitants and those who have sought refuge behind its supposedly impregnable walls prepare to withstand the enemy onslaught. I really felt I was there manning the barricades alongside them.

As well as his prowess with a sword and seax, Beobrand possesses numerous other qualities. I confess the references to the broadness of his chest, his powerful arms and the shape of his muscled legs made me think it might not be such a burden to be stuck in a besieged castle alongside him. However, since I’d have a much more well-connected and alluring rival it would definitely make it a fortress of fury!

I liked how the author explored the responsibilities that come with leadership. As Beobrand confides, “a man’s promise to his lord is both a treasure and a burden“. His gesithas are not just men sworn to serve him, they are his ‘shield-brothers’ whom he has a duty to protect. “He was their leader and must be stronger than any of them. That was his wyrd, the destiny of a lord.

From time to time, the reader gets to see events from the point of view of Cynan, one of Beobrand’s loyal gesithas. Despite proving himself on an important mission and earning the trust of a group of men, Cynan underestimates his own leadership ability. “He knew they were not truly his men, they were but ceorls who had turned to a warrior with a horse, helm and sword in a moment of need.” The inclusion of this different point of view also provides another perspective on Beobrand’s character and the way his brooding silences and sudden changes of mood affect his men.

In the tense final chapters, Beobrand finds himself “trapped between two oaths“. He is faced with a terrible choice: to carry out the command of the king he has sworn to obey which will involve betraying his own code of honour; or to break his oath of allegiance with all the consequences that will follow both for him and those who stand with him. Which course will he choose? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

As the prospect of war looms, Beobrand and the people of Bernicia are entitled to wonder how events will play out “on the great tafl board of kings“. Beobrand has a reputation for being lucky but, as the author confides in his historical note, “The future looks uncertain, with intrigues and danger lurking over every hill and in every shadow”. That seems a pretty enticing prospect to me.

In three words: Action-packed, immersive, thrilling

Try something similarThe Smile of the Wolf by Tim Leach

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Harffy_MatthewAbout the Author

Matthew Harffy grew up in Northumberland where the rugged terrain, ruined castles and rocky coastline had a huge impact on him.

He now lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife and their two daughters.

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