Desert Island Books goes Gallic…and Roman…

As any who like hist.fict know, Alison Morton is something of an icon. As well as being a vociferous supporter of both indie and mainstream writers, she has rather succinctly re-written the genre with her Roma Nova series.  I managed to pin her down (and that’s no easy task, I can tell you) as she flies around marketing her latest release in the above series, Retalio, to ask her what books she would take with her from her home in France, if she were a castaway! 

A desert island? Oh, let it be warm, a white sand beach and transparent turquoise sea, but no people-eating crabs, please. I grew up with Desert Island Discs; the melodic music with seagulls calling was, possibly still is, one of my favourite signature tunes. Now, restricting the choice to ten books was trying and I’ve slightly cheated on one choice, but it’s technically within the rules.

At least one Falco mystery by Lindsey Davis; I suggest The Silver Pigs which starts the series. Marcus Didius Falco is a first century Roman detective, a tough-boy exterior over a completely soft centre and with a laconic sense of humour. When I met Lindsey Davis, I saw where it all came from! She revived Roman fiction, if not historic fiction, combining impeccable research with cracking good stories. And I should mention Falco’s partner, Helena Justina, who has him completely sussed, and his mother who terrifies and exasperates him in turn, but who he knows loves him to bits.

Restless by William Boyd is an intelligent espionage thriller written in such clever prose you wince with pleasure.  Eva starts her spy career in the 1940s, but her assignment carries on into the present where she is aided by her daughter. Two strong women against two strong countries in a story exploring identity and betrayal at the highest level.

A Georgette Heyer for those moments when I need cheering up. We all know how romantic stories end, but it’s the way of getting there that intrigues us. Arabella is a strong and principled heroine who learns a bitter lesson but toughs it out despite her deep embarrassment. (The Grand Sophy would be an excellent second choice.) Alex Martin nabbed two of my favourites, These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen in this area in March!

Talking of romantic, The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope is an old-fashioned high adventure set in Central Europe. The noble hero falls for an impossible love, but still defeats the charming but dastardly villain and his grumpy and murderous master. A ripping yarn, that makes you go ‘Aaah!’ but with a tear in your eye.

In contrast, Robert Harris’s Fatherland is set in 1964 Nazi Germany and features a criminal detective investigating a murder that leads to a discovery of a appalling secret. I was fascinated reading this alternative history thriller (as I learned later such a story was called) and not just for Harris’s clever and succinct style and ability to build tension. Moment of revelation: you could change the historical timeline at a point you chose and build an alternative world that has followed a different timeline. It would be familiar, yet strangely different. Roma Nova became possible…

Back in the ‘Real Time Line’, but unfortunately still with Nazis, I’d like Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks. It’s a story of love and war set in1942-3. Charlotte falls passionately in love with an airman emotionally scarred by his many close brushes with death. When he disappears on a mission to France, she follows him ostensibly as a British secret courier. She fails to find him, but decides to stay on to do what she can for the France she has loved since childhood. She is drawn into the lives of the Levades, assimilated French Jews. Though powerless when the inevitable round-up happens, Charlotte gains a far deeper understanding of herself and her own family through her experiences. I like Charlotte; she may seem cold to some, but she’s struggling with her own intelligence, her craving for insight and the daily stress of living under occupation. But her determination gives her the courage to win through and take control of her life.

I have to have that shocking gossip, Pliny with me!  Yes, it’s the view of a privileged male public official, senator, Roman governor, a friend of Suetonius and Tacitus but, goodness, what a range of topics he writes on. Pliny the Younger’s Letters (trans.P G Walsh) gives us politics, domestic affairs, details of the education system, Roman religious practice, court routines, leisure activities, how to treat slaves and every kind of natural phenomenon. The most famous of the latter is his coverage of the eruption of Vesuvius when his uncle Pliny the Elder.

After all this, I’ll need some calming thoughtfulness, so I’d take A C Grayling’s The Meaning of Things: Applying Philosophy to Life Although it’s simply and clearly written it’s not philosophy-lite. He doesn’t give you easy solutions or tell you how to live your life, but provokes you to think about things yourself. If I was marooned alone, re-reading this would be a great way to restore logic and calm when I really want to scream at the creepy crawlies in my despair at not seeing that rescue boat.

Then when I’m calm again, I’ll re-read Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. This will stir inner dread like no horror story ever could. I’d just hope the world hadn’t turned into a dystopian wasteland like this while I’d been sunning myself at the other end of the world. Or perhaps it had. I’d need Nevill Shute’s On the Beach to reconcile me.

Now, like all castaways, I’d like to think I’d be able to sneak in the Complete Works of Shakespeare. I could strut around my island as Prospera à la Helen Mirren, weep over Juliet and gnash my teeth at Iago. For any writer, it would be bliss; every story you need is in there.

Thank you so much, Prue, for inviting me to tell you about a few of my favourite books. I hope some may appeal to your readers. I’m going to indulge in a big re-read session now. Now, where do I buy a ticket to this island of yours?

What a spectacular list, Alison. I’ve just caught up with Restless myself (loved it) and of course watched the old black and white movie Prisoner of Zenda as a child, with my parents. As this Desert Island Books feature continues, it’s interesting noting the cross-overs in authors’ tastes. I think if we are all ever castaway together, it will be a fortuitous meeting of like minds.

But as I read all that my guests are taking with them as castaways, I bet they’re all wishing they could just carry one little perennially solar-charging e-reader to save the weight!

If you would like to learn more about Alison and to find her books:

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Twitter: @alison_morton

And be with me, Prue Batten, in June when Matthew Harffy and Gordon Doherty continue this Robinson Crusoe journey.

And don’t forget to go to  for some excellent book sale opportunities!