#BookReview Conrad Monk and the Great Heathen Army by Edoardo Albert

Conrad Monk and the Great Heathen ArmyAbout the Book

Conrad is a monk, but he has become a monk through trickery and against his will. So, it is fair to say that his heart isn’t really in it. Conrad is also clever, charming, entirely self-serving, self-absorbed and almost completely without scruple – but in Anglo-Saxon England, when the Danish invaders come calling, those are very helpful attributes to have.

And so it comes to pass that Conrad finds himself constantly dodging death by various means, some reasonable, some… less so. His tricks include selling his brother monks into slavery, witnessing the death of a king, juggling his loyalties between his own people and the Danes, robbing corpses and impersonating a bishop.

By his side throughout is the gentle and honourable Brother Odo, a man so naturally and completely good that even animals sense it. He is no match of wits for the cunning Conrad but can he, perhaps, at least encourage the wayward monk to behave a little better?

Format: ebook (219 pages) Publisher: Lume Books
Publication date: 31 July 2018 Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

I’m embarrassed to say it’s three years since Abby at Endeavour (now Lume Books) sent me a review copy of this book but it’s only now that it has been plucked from my TBR pile. I was looking for something more light-hearted to read as a change from my recent diet of rather intense books and Conrad Monk and the Great Heathen Army certainly fitted the bill.

Conrad is a true picaresque hero with a shameless awareness that at heart he is a rogue and a chancer. In fact, he rather revels in it freely admitting at one point that where others see the ‘open and honest face of a man of worth and truth’ in actual fact they’re looking at the ‘shifting mien of the vain dissimulator and crafty poltroon’. He is prepared to lie, cheat or bluff to extricate himself from any situation and the book sees him make repeated (and I do mean repeated) escapes from seemingly impossible situations. At times, for me, Conrad’s actions pushed the boundary between appealing rogue and objectionable cad – and I could have done with a little less information about the state of his bowels!

His companion on his adventures, poor Brother Odo, finds himself taking the role of anything from beast of burden, to oarsman, to unwitting accomplice, his spirits maintained by Conrad’s constant reassurance that ‘It’s all part of the plan’. Plus his unwavering belief that, as a fellow monk, Conrad is a man of faith. Big mistake, Odo.

I have a feeling the author had great fun writing this book and there are some comical moments. Confronted by a marauding Dane, Conrad attempts to pass himself off as a fellow countryman thanks to his knowledge of the language. “Hey, Erik,” I yelled to him – if you don’t know the name of a Dane, just call him Erik, they all answer to it.” Later Conrad learns his real name is – you guessed it – Erik.

Amid the humour there’s some authentic detail about Anglo-Saxon England and many of the characters who feature in the book existed in real life, as the author explains in his historical note. Personally, I wouldn’t trust Conrad for a moment or believe a word he said but it was fun spending a few hours in his company.

In three words: Lively, humorous, entertaining

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Edoardo AlbertAbout the Author

Edoardo Albert is a British writer of Italian and Sri Lankan descent. He writes about Britain in the early medieval period (between the Romans leaving and the Normans arriving), the 40th millennium in the Warhammer universe, and lots of other things besides. He enjoys hearing from his readers via social media or directly through this website. (Photo/bio credit: Author website)

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#BookReview The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett @ProfileBooks

The Uncommon ReaderAbout the Book

Had the dogs not taken exception to the strange van parked in the royal grounds, the Queen might never have learnt of the Westminster travelling library’s weekly visits to the palace. But finding herself at its steps, she goes up to apologise for all the yapping and ends up taking out a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett, last borrowed in 1989. Duff read though it proves to be, upbringing demands she finish it and, so as not to appear rude, she withdraws another.

This second, more fortunate choice of book awakens in Her Majesty a passion for reading so great that her public duties begin to suffer. And so, as she devours works by everyone from Hardy to Brookner to Proust to Samuel Beckett, her equerries conspire to bring the Queen’s literary odyssey to a close.

Format: Hardcover (128 pages)             Publisher: Profile Books
Publication date: 6th September 2007 Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Humour

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My Review

The Uncommon ReaderI spotted this lovely little copy in my local Oxfam bookshop and couldn’t resist bringing it home with me. The Uncommon Reader was republished in a new paperback edition in March 2021 to mark the Queen’s 95th birthday.

Sprinkled with humour, as well as recounting the Queen’s newfound love of reading, the book provides a behind-the-scenes look at life in a royal residence. I especially enjoyed the role reversal that ensues when the Queen’s ‘amanuensis’ Norman Seakins, a lowly palace employee whom she initally meets in the travelling library, organises a literary soirée. Unexpectedly, the Queen finds herself tongue-tied in the presence of authors whose books she’s read, in the same way members of the public often do when meeting her during royal visits.

Not only is The Uncommon Reader a delightful story, it’s also a love letter to reading. Here are just a few of Her Majesty’s thoughts on the subject, as imagined by the author.

“Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting.”
“Books are not about passing the time. They’re about other lives. Other words.”
“A book is a device to ignite the imagination.”

As someone who finds it hard not to finish a book, I was in sympathy with the Queen’s view, “Once I start a book I finish it. That was the way one was brought up. Books, bread and butter, mashed potato – one finishes what’s on one’s plate”. I could also identify with her observation that one book can lead to another or, as she puts it, “doors kept opening wherever she turned”. However, what I couldn’t share was her experience of having met literary luminaries such as E.M. Forster, T.S. Eliot or Ted Hughes.

The Uncommon Reader is a gem of a book well worth finding a few hours of spare time to read between visiting a cheese factory or attending a tree-planting ceremony. And, like all good reads, it has a great ending.

In three words: Charming, funny, tender

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Alan BennettAbout the Author

Alan Bennett has been one of our leading dramatists since the success of Beyond the Fringe in the 1960s. His television series Talking Heads has become a modern-day classic, as have many of his works for the stage, including Forty Years OnThe Lady in the VanA Question of AttributionThe Madness of King George Ill (together with the Oscar-nominated screenplay The Madness of King George) and an adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. At the National Theatre, The History Boys won Evening Standard, Critics’ Circle and Olivier awards, and the South Bank Award. On Broadway, The History Boys won five New York Drama Desk Awards, four Outer Critics’ Circle Awards, a New York Drama Critics’ Award for Best Play, a New York Drama League Award and six Tonys including Best Play. The film of The History Boys was released in 2006. Alan Bennett’s collection of prose, Untold Stories, won the PEN/Ackerley Prize for Autobiography, 2006. He was named Reader’s Digest Author of the Year, 2005. (Photo credit: Goodreads)