Dissolution by C J Sansom

Dissolution Reading C J Sansom’s alternate history novel Dominion a few months ago reminded me that I still hadn’t read any of his Shardlake books, despite meaning to for years. I noticed last week that my library had the whole series available as ebooks, so it seemed as good a time as any to get started with the first one, Dissolution.

Dissolution is set in the winter of 1537, just after the death of Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour. Having broken away from the Catholic church and declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England, the King, with the help of Thomas Cromwell, has begun the process of dissolution of the country’s monasteries. After the closure of some of the smaller religious houses in the north led to rebellion, Cromwell is now taking a different approach and is sending commissioners to the larger monasteries to offer pensions to the monks in the hope that they will voluntarily surrender – or if not, to search for signs of fraud, corruption or other legal reasons to close them down.

At the monastery of Scarnsea, on the coast of Sussex, disaster strikes when one of Cromwell’s commissioners, Robin Singleton, is found brutally murdered in the monastery kitchen. Cromwell sends another of his men, the lawyer Matthew Shardlake, to investigate the mystery of Singleton’s death and discover what has been happening at the monastery. Accompanied by his assistant Mark Poer, Shardlake sets out for Scarnsea but what he learns when he arrives there convinces him that the commissioner had been about to make an important discovery before he was killed.

As a murder mystery, there’s everything here that you would expect: the detective and his sidekick, the isolated house (monastery in this case) cut off from the rest of the world, the small group of suspects each with their own secrets and motives, and the usual string of clues and red herrings. But what made this book stand out for me among other historical mysteries was the fascinating setting and detailed portrayal of monastic life. There are some obvious similarities with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, although this is an easier read – and set in a completely different time period, of course.

I have read other novels that focus on the dissolution of the monasteries (books such as The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau, for example) but usually from the point of view of the monks and nuns whose way of life has been destroyed. This book is narrated by Shardlake himself and it’s interesting to see dissolution from his perspective, as a dedicated reformer. Shardlake gradually becomes disillusioned with Henry and Cromwell, but for a long time he tries to justify what they are doing and it is only towards the end of the book that he allows himself to have doubts. Something I haven’t mentioned yet is that Shardlake is a hunchback and has spent his life trying to overcome prejudice and rejection. The fact that he has had to deal with a disability in a time much more unenlightened than our own adds another dimension to his personality.

Having taken so long to get round to reading this book, I’m pleased that I did enjoy it! I correctly named the murderer quite early in the story, but while I would like to pretend that I had cleverly managed to solve the mystery I have to admit it was really just a guess. This didn’t spoil the rest of the story at all, though – I had to wait until almost the end of the book to find out if I was right and even after Singleton’s killer was eventually revealed, there were still one or two other developments that took me by surprise! I will definitely be continuing the series with the second book, Dark Fire – but probably not immediately.

The Italian Girl by Lucinda Riley

The Italian Girl Rosanna Menici is only eleven years old when she first meets Roberto Rossini, the son of her parents’ best friends. Roberto is an opera singer at La Scala in Milan, a career which to Rosanna seems impossibly glamorous and out of reach. At a family party, Roberto hears her voice and recommends that she have singing lessons, but Rosanna tries not to get her hopes up. Her parents run a restaurant in the Piedigrotta district of Naples and although it is a successful business, they are not rich people and singing lessons are expensive. But when Rosanna’s brother, Luca, comes to the rescue and helps to pay for the lessons, it seems that her dream of becoming an opera star and marrying Roberto could eventually become a reality.

The Italian Girl is a lovely, romantic story spanning three decades and taking us from the streets of Naples and churches of Milan to a peaceful English village and some of the world’s greatest opera houses. It’s not a new novel – it was originally published as Aria in 1996 under the name Lucinda Edmonds – but has been revised and updated so that you wouldn’t guess it had been written so much earlier than the more recent Lucinda Riley books.

One way in which this book is different to the other novels by Lucinda Riley that I’ve read (The Girl on the Cliff, The Light Behind the Window and The Midnight Rose) is that the others have dual narratives, jumping between past and present, but this one, apart from a few letters written by an older Rosanna, follows one linear timeline. I like both types of book, but I do prefer to stay in one time period so I was happy with that aspect of The Italian Girl. Although this book isn’t really what you could call ‘historical’, being set in the fairly recent past, I think I would still have liked more period detail as the 1960s chapters didn’t feel any different from the 1970s or 1980s. On the other hand, this is a story driven more by the characters and their relationships rather than by the setting.

I initially found the young Rosanna a very endearing character. Things did seem to fall into place for her too easily, but I didn’t mind because I liked her and wanted her to succeed. Later in the book, though, I began to find her frustrating. I disagreed with a lot of her decisions, but I was hopeful that she would do the right thing in the end. As for Roberto, I had thought at first that he was going to be the sort of romantic hero I could fall in love with along with Rosanna…suffice it to say that this certainly didn’t happen, but I won’t spoil the story by explaining why not!

While the relationship between Rosanna and Roberto forms the main plot, there’s also a secondary romance between Luca and Rosanna’s friend, Abi. I liked both of these characters and found their story as interesting to follow as Rosanna’s and Roberto’s. I also enjoyed learning about the lifestyle of a professional opera singer and the amount of hard work and training it takes to reach the top. I’m not an opera fan and probably never will be, but this book made me want to listen to some of the arias Rosanna sings in the story.

The Italian Girl is a long book – almost 600 pages, which makes it quite a thick paperback – but after a slow start I was swept away by the story and it didn’t feel as long as it looked. It was the perfect book to read sitting outside in the summer sunshine we’ve had here this week!

I received a copy of The Italian Girl for review.

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Cranford “In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women. If a married couple come to settle in the town, somehow the gentleman disappears; he is either fairly frightened to death by being the only man in the Cranford evening parties, or he is accounted for by being with his regiment, his ship, or closely engaged in business all the week in the great neighbouring commercial town of Drumble, distant only twenty miles on a railroad. In short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not at Cranford.”

Cranford is the fourth Elizabeth Gaskell book I’ve read, following North and South, The Moorland Cottage and Sylvia’s Lovers. I had been hesitant to read this one, despite it being highly recommended by other bloggers, because I wasn’t sure it sounded like the sort of book I would enjoy. A few weeks ago, though, Hesperus Press sent me a review copy of Gaskell’s novella, Mr Harrison’s Confessions, which is described as a prequel to Cranford, so I thought it would make sense to actually read Cranford first.

Originally serialised in Charles Dickens’ journal Household Words in 1851, Cranford is set in a small English town populated mainly by women, most of whom have either never married or are widows. Our narrator is a young woman called Mary Smith who lives in nearby Drumble but who spends a lot of time staying with her friends in Cranford. Through Mary we meet the ladies of Cranford, listen to their gossip, join them at their tea parties, and watch as they go about their everyday lives. The book has a very episodic feel and feels almost like a collection of short stories, particularly throughout the first half of the book. Later in the novel, we focus more on one storyline – the collapse of the Town and County Bank and its impact on the people of Cranford – as well as returning to some of the earlier storylines and developing them further.

At first it seems that the narrator doesn’t have an active role in the novel and that her main purpose is to act as an observer, reporting on the daily lives and routines of her Cranford friends. Unless I missed something we don’t even learn that her name is Mary Smith until the fourteenth chapter, yet she is obviously an integral part of Cranford society, a loyal friend to several of the ladies and regularly invited to their parties and gatherings. Towards the end of the book we finally get to know a little bit more about Mary and she does eventually play an important part in resolving some of the novel’s storylines.

If the novel has a main character, though, it is not Mary but her friend, Miss Matty Jenkyns. Matty’s story is quite sad: her brother Peter left for India years ago and has never been heard from again, and now that her parents and older sister are dead, Matty is the only member of her family left in Cranford. She’d also been romantically linked with a Mr Holbrook decades earlier but their relationship ended as Matty’s sister, Deborah, disapproved. As the narrator observes: “She had probably met with so little sympathy in her early love, that she had shut it up close in her heart; and it was only by a sort of watching…that I saw how faithful her poor heart had been in its sorrow and its silence.” Despite her troubles, Matty remains a loving, kind-hearted person, liked and respected by everyone in the town and also by the reader – this reader at least!

The story of Matty and Mr Holbrook is an indication that although many of the Cranford women are happy with the absence of men in their lives, not all of them are single by choice. I also thought it was interesting that it’s mainly the more genteel ladies who are unmarried, while their servants do have ‘followers’, as they call them. Matty’s early heartbreak makes her more sympathetic to her twenty-two-year-old maid, Martha, and she allows her to have a follower and consider marrying him, whereas some of the other women would never have agreed to such a thing.

Cranford is also a very witty book filled with lots of funny little anecdotes about the women of Cranford. I won’t go into too many details here, but I particularly enjoyed the stories of Miss Betty Barker’s cow who fell into a lime-pit, Miss Matty’s habit of rolling a ball under her bed to check that there’s nobody hiding under it, and the time Mrs Forrester’s cat swallowed her favourite piece of lace. But while there’s a lot of humour in Cranford, there’s also a good balance between funny scenes and moments of sadness and even tragedy.

It seems I was wrong about Cranford not being my sort of book, because I did enjoy it much more than I thought I would. If I’d known it was such a short book (only about 200 pages) I’m sure I would have read it before now. When I reached the end I was sorry to have to leave the world of Cranford behind, but at least I can still look forward to reading Mr Harrison’s Confessions!

Classics Club July Meme: Biographies

The Classics Club

This month’s Classics Club Meme question is:

Have you ever read a biography on a classic author? If so, tell us about it. If you had already read works by this author, did reading a biography of his/her life change your perspective on the author’s writing? Why or why not? // Or, if you’ve never read a biography of a classic author, would you? Why or why not?

Looking through my list of books reviewed here on my blog, I can only see three or four biographies of classic authors that I’ve read in the last five years. I’ve also read some fictional biographies (such as The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan) but they’re not quite the same thing! When I read a book, classic or otherwise, I do like to know some basic information about the author (whether they are male or female, which country they are from, how old they are, etc) but I can usually get that information from the book cover or ‘about the author’ page. Beyond that, I don’t usually feel any need to know every detail of the author’s life and prefer just to concentrate on enjoying their work.

One biography that I did enjoy was Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life. It didn’t leave me with a very good opinion of Dickens as a person, but it was interesting to see how people and events from his personal life inspired his fictional plots and characters. Having also read Tomalin’s Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, which is another excellent book, I would like to read more of her work at some point, despite my usual lack of interest in reading biographies. Her book on Thomas Hardy sounds the most appealing to me, but I’ve been waiting until I’ve finished reading all of Hardy’s novels first.

Earlier this year I read The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins by William M. Clarke but although Collins is one of my favourite classic authors, I was a bit disappointed with this particular biography. There’s a lot of information on Collins’ private life (though to be fair, you would expect that from the title) but Clarke doesn’t spend much time discussing his writing. He does occasionally show how aspects of Wilkie’s personal life may have related to his work, but there’s not enough of this and when I reached the end of the book I didn’t feel I’d gained any real insights.

While I did learn a lot about Collins’ and Dickens’ lives from these two biographies, I can’t really say that they changed how I feel about their writing. For the purposes of this meme, a better book for me to mention here is probably the biography of Daphne, Angela and Jeanne du Maurier which I read last year – Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters by Jane Dunn. Although I had a few problems with this biography too (which I’ve explained in my review) I do think Jane Dunn did a good job of explaining how the girls’ childhood experiences and influences shaped their future careers. I’ve never read anything by Angela du Maurier, but I know that Daphne put a lot of herself into her writing and many of her novels include autobiographical elements – reading Dunn’s biography gave me a better appreciation of this.

Well, it seems I’ve found more to say on the subject of biographies than I’d expected! Do you enjoy reading biographies of classic authors? Which ones have you read?

Secrecy by Rupert Thomson

Secrecy Secrecy is set in 17th century Florence and tells the story of Gaetano Zumbo, a sculptor famous for creating gruesome wax models depicting the human body in various stages of decay. Zumbo (or Zummo, as he is usually referred to in the novel) arrives in Florence in 1691, having fled from his home in Sicily for reasons which are revealed later in the book. The Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de’ Medici, is an admirer of Zummo’s work and commissions a very special sculpture from him – one which must be kept a secret between the two men.

After settling into his new home, the House of Shells, and getting to know his landlady, her young daughter, and another lodger, a French acrobat, Zummo concentrates on creating the Grand Duke’s special wax model. But when he falls in love with the apothecary’s niece, Faustina, and makes an enemy of Stufa, a monk and advisor to the Grand Duke’s mother, Zummo’s life suddenly becomes a lot more complicated.

Gaetano Zumbo was a real person, although I didn’t know anything about him or his work before reading this book. If you’re curious and not too squeamish, you can find plenty of images online showing his various plague scenes, dismembered bodies and rotting corpses. Apparently some examples of his work are displayed in Florence’s Museum of Zoology and Natural History, but I have to admit I don’t have any desire to go and look at them as they sound a bit too grotesque for my liking!

There’s no doubt, though, that Zumbo is an unusual and intriguing subject for historical fiction. The setting is fascinating too. I don’t think I’ve ever read about this particular period of Italian history before and I enjoyed reading about Florence under the rule of Cosimo III – portrayed here as a corrupt and dangerous place. The novel has a dark, unsettling atmosphere and the theme of secrecy is woven into the complex plot in several different ways.

But the interesting protagonist and atmospheric setting were not quite enough to make me love Secrecy. I found the characters, even Zummo himself, difficult to fully connect with and never really managed to engage with any of them on an emotional level. I also thought the narrative style was slightly confusing as it was sometimes not immediately obvious when Zummo was dreaming or remembering something that had happened in his past.

Still, if you enjoy historical fiction set in Italy and are in the mood for something a little bit different, this book could be just what you’re looking for.

I received a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

Plague by C.C. Humphreys

Plague I’ve always been fascinated by the Great Plague of 1665. I know that probably makes me sound morbid, but it’s true – with my interest in the history of medicine, I love reading about the theories suggested by 17th century people to explain what was happening to them, the weird and wonderful ‘cures’ they came up with and the impact of the epidemic on English society. So when I saw a novel called Plague in my library’s ebook catalogue, I was immediately intrigued, especially as it’s by C.C. Humphreys, an author I’ve been wanting to try since I saw Audra’s review of one of his other books, Jack Absolute.

Plague, I quickly discovered, is not simply a novel about the plague (although it’s always there in the background affecting the lives of all our characters in one way or another) but it’s also an action-packed historical mystery set in Restoration London.

In 1665, England is still recovering from the aftermath of the recent Civil War which had resulted in the execution of King Charles I. Although his son, Charles II, has now been restored to the throne, lots of former royalists are still struggling after losing everything in the war. One of these is Captain William Coke, who has had to resort to highway robbery to survive.

One night, Coke is surprised to find that his shouts of “stand and deliver” have no effect on the approaching carriage. The reason: the driver and the passengers have all already been brutally murdered. Coke takes an expensive necklace from the neck of one of the bodies before running away, but leaves one of his pistols behind in his hurry to escape. This is found by the thief-taker, Pitman, who becomes determined to capture Coke and receive the reward for bringing him to justice. We, the readers, know that Coke is innocent – but who is the real killer?

Two women also become embroiled in the mystery. One of them, Lucy Absolute, is the sister of a wartime comrade of Captain Coke’s. She is now an actress at a London theatre – and the mistress of the notorious Earl of Rochester. The other woman is Lucy’s friend, Sarah Chalker, another actress. When Sarah’s husband goes missing, the unlikely pairing of Coke and Pitman must work together to investigate his disappearance…and meanwhile, plague is continuing to spread through London. As the novel’s subtitle tells us, ‘murder has a new friend’.

Although the story deals with serious subjects such as murder, illness, robbery and treachery, and can be quite graphic at times, Plague is an entertaining novel that I found fun to read. Humphreys’ writing style is clear and engaging and I knew from the first page that this was a book I was going to enjoy. It’s always a relief when that happens! It’s a very atmospheric novel too, taking us from the dark, dirty cells of Newgate Prison and the squalid, claustrophobic homes of the plague victims to the splendour of the royal court and the drama of the theatrical world. Each location is brought to life vividly and realistically and the author doesn’t shy away from describing some of the less pleasant sights, sounds and smells of the period!

We meet lots of interesting characters in Plague, including some real historical figures such as Charles II and the fascinating Earl of Rochester. But my favourite was Captain Coke. He’s a complex, flawed character and I liked him from the beginning, even though we first see him as a highwayman and a thief. I enjoyed watching his relationship with Pitman develop from hunter and prey to unlikely partners. One aspect of the book I was less happy with, though, was the inclusion of a conspiracy plot involving a religious sect called the Fifth Monarchists. I think this sort of thing is overused in historical crime and I’m starting to get a bit bored with it. Other than that, I really enjoyed this book. The ending sets things up nicely for a sequel; I don’t know if there will be one, but I would like to have the chance to meet some of these characters again.

Written in My Own Heart’s Blood by Diana Gabaldon

Written in my Own Heart's Blood Diana Gabaldon seems to polarise readers like no other author. It’s rare to find anyone who has read one of her novels and didn’t feel strongly about it one way or the other! I do completely understand the reasons why people would dislike her writing, but I admit that I’ve always loved her Outlander series, at least until the last couple of books. I think I was about eighteen when I read Gabaldon’s first novel – Cross Stitch as it was called here in the UK, and I immediately went on to read the next three books (there were only four in the series then). Since then I’ve read each new book as it was published. The seventh volume, An Echo in the Bone (which happens to be the very first book I reviewed on this blog in 2009), left me feeling a bit disappointed, but sadly this new one has disappointed me even more, especially after a five year wait.

In some respects I think Gabaldon has improved as a writer over the course of the series, but the later books just don’t compare to the earlier ones in any of the other ways that matter to me – in plot, structure, characterisation or emotional impact. I’m not sure whether it’s just that my tastes have changed over the years, but I think the shift in narrative structure from being mainly narrated by one character in the first person to being told from multiple perspectives might also have something to do with it. And then there’s the fact that while the earlier novels are set mostly in Scotland during the 1745 Jacobite Rising and its aftermath, the later ones are set during the American Revolution, a period I’m not as interested in. Whatever the reason, these books are starting to lose their appeal for me. I’ll still be following the series to its end, though – I’ve invested far too much time in it to stop now!

Anyway, on with my thoughts on Written in My Own Heart’s Blood. This review is as spoiler-free as I could make it but as it refers to the eighth book in a series you may prefer not to read any further until you’ve caught up with the first seven books. At this point I should say that if you’re not already familiar with this series, then you really need to start at the beginning or you’ll get hopelessly confused!

If you remember, the previous book, An Echo in the Bone, ended on more than one cliffhanger and thankfully Written in My Own Heart’s Blood picks up immediately where Echo left off. There are two main threads to the novel. First, we follow Jamie, Claire and their assorted friends and family members who are all now based in Philadelphia. The year is 1778 and we are in the middle of the Revolution, with all the dangers and complications that brings. In the novel’s other strand, we return to Lallybroch in Scotland to catch up with Brianna and Roger who are having some exciting adventures of their own.

I really wanted to love this book but unfortunately I experienced a lot of the same problems with this one that I had with Echo. Both books seem to be dominated by characters and storylines from Gabaldon’s spin-off Lord John series – and I gave up on that series after two books. Ideally, I would have preferred the Lord John characters to stay in the Lord John books and the main Outlander series to concentrate on Jamie, Claire and the other characters we already know and love, such as Fergus and Marsali and their children or Ian Murray and Jenny. It seemed strange to me, for example, that we see so little in this book of Jenny interacting with Ian, the son she hasn’t seen for years, yet so much time is devoted to a search for Lord John’s nephew, Ben, a character who I can’t even remember being mentioned in previous books.

I don’t want to sound completely negative, because the good parts of Written in My Own Heart’s Blood are very good, but overall I thought the book lacked focus and because there are so many different storylines all running parallel with each other, it was inevitable that I would struggle to care about them all, particularly the ones dealing with characters I don’t really like. Many of the things that happen in the book feel superfluous and seem to have no real purpose other than to make a very long book even longer: a storyline involving two young girls William takes under his protection, an operation Claire performs on a slave with an unpleasant medical condition, and the death of a character which I found totally unnecessary.

The military aspect of the book was another problem for me, but I’ll admit that my lack of knowledge of this period of American history is probably to blame. I couldn’t keep track of the various Generals and Colonels and which side they were on, and whenever Claire met a presumably famous historical figure of the period I didn’t feel the excitement I was obviously intended to feel. My fault, though, not the author’s.

On the other hand, I thought Roger and Brianna’s parts of the book were fantastic! It was great to meet characters I’d never expected to meet again. These sections were much more compelling than the rest of the book, something I never thought I would say! While I’ve always liked Roger I could never quite warm to Bree and have often been impatient with the amount of time devoted to them in some of the previous books – but not this time. I was disappointed that only two out of the novel’s nine parts follow Roger and Bree and their children…I didn’t want their story to come to an end.

So, I’ve been left with very mixed feelings about this book and am sorry I’ve had to post a less than glowing review of a book by an author I used to consider one of my favourites. I did love the final few pages, though, because what I had been desperately hoping would happen did happen! If I didn’t already know that there’s going to be a book nine I think I would have been happy for this to have been the end of the series, even though there are still some storylines left unresolved. Based on past experience, I suspect we’ll have to wait four or five years to read the ninth, and probably final, book. I’m sure I’ll be reading it, despite my problems with this one, and am hoping for a satisfying conclusion to the series.