Day 948: Sacred Hearts

Cover for Sacred HeartsBest Book of the Week!
Sacred Hearts is another book I read for my Walter Scott Prize project. Although Sarah Dunant is an author I’ve read in the past with moderate enjoyment, I very much enjoyed her novel about the Borgias, Blood & Beauty.

This novel is also set in Renaissance Italy, in 1570 Ferrara. Dunant begins the book by telling us that in the second half of the 16th century, dowries had become so expensive that roughly half the daughters of noble families were consigned to convents, whether willingly or unwillingly.

Suora Zuana is one of that number. When her professor father died years before, she had nowhere to go and her dowry was small. Yes, dowries had to be paid to convents as well, but they were much smaller than those paid with brides.

Her small dowry has not earned Zuana very many comforts in the convent of Santa Caterina, but she has created a valuable role for herself as a healer and dispenser of remedies. She has managed to bring along many of her father’s books, although some of the most valuable were stolen at his death by his students and peers, and she has greatly expanded the convent’s herb garden. Aside from caring for the convent’s ill, she makes medicines for the bishop and others.

At the opening of the novel, she is on her way to drug Serafina, a novice who has been screaming for days, ever since she was forcibly ensconced in the convent by her family. She is a girl from Milan, so no one in the convent is familiar with her family. Suora Zuana is able to calm her, and later they find she has an angelic voice, which delights the convent choir director.

For the sake of everyone’s peace, the abbess, Madonna Chiara, asks Suora Zuana to take Serafina under her wing rather than handing her over to the novice mistress, Suora Umiliana. So, Zuana begins teach Serafina how to prepare medications. None of the sisters know that Serafina has hatched a plot to escape from the convent with her lover, the musician Jacopo.

What Serafina doesn’t understand, although she probably wouldn’t care, is that this is a politically delicate time for Santa Caterina and for all convents in general. Reforms on the heels of the Counter-Reformation have resulted in a cracking down on convents in some cities. Madonna Chiara fears that the convent’s few liberties will be lost, especially if they have a scandal. Their means of making a living will be removed, their orchestras disbanded and performances disallowed, their books will be confiscated, and they will no longer be allowed outside in the garden. Visitors will only be able to see them behind a grating. This is what has been happening throughout Italy.

On the local front, some of the sisters, led by Suora Umiliana, would like the convent to become stricter in its observances, even though it is already strict. Suora Umiliana is a religious zealot who is fascinated by Suora Magdalena, the convent’s “living saint.” Although Suora Magdalena has long been close to death, when she was younger she had fits of ecstasy and suffered from stigmata. Shortly after Serafina arrives at the convent, Magdalena has the first of her fits in years and speaks to Serafina. Later, when Serafina becomes ill, Umiliana thinks she can use her condition to take over control of the convent from Chiara.

Although I was interested in this novel, it took me some time to become really involved in it. I am revealing more about the plot than I usually would, because the description of the book from the blurb about how Suora Zuana comes to care for Serafina does little to convey the depths and power of this novel. For quite a while I had no idea where it was going and wondered how interested I was, but the novel turned out to be very much worth reading. This is one that really sneaks up on you.

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Day 944: Checkmate

Cover for CheckmateBest Book of the Week!
I thought I finished reviewing Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles series ages ago, so it was with some surprise that I discovered I never reviewed the last book. Here it is!

* * *

In this last book of the Lymond Chronicles, Francis Crawford of Lymond has returned from Russia to France. Although I have concentrated in my previous reviews on the swashbuckling and intrigue of the novels, I have not mentioned the shadows that haunt Lymond, particularly the question of his parentage. This question was brought forward in an earlier book by the appearance of the mysterious Marthé, who looks exactly like him. These shadows have put him under tremendous pressure in the last couple of novels, culminating in horrendous migraines and even temporary blindness.

Another problem is his marriage to Philippa Somerville in a previous novel. He married her to save her reputation when they were travelling together, but both of them have since found that they are in love with the other. However, he considers his reputation and lineage to be too besmirched to keep her as his wife, so he has not told her of his feelings, and they have been trying to get an annulment. Their marriage has been in name only.

In any case, Lymond is now fighting the English for France in the Hapsburg-Valois war, a position he has taken on to hurry along his annulment from Philippa. As the wife of a Scottish nobleman, Philippa has been ordered to attend Mary Queen of Scots in France as Mary prepares for her marriage to the French Dauphin.

In trying to help Lymond find out the truth about his past, Philippa places herself in horrible danger and subsequently has a breakdown. Lymond leaves his post to care for her, and they discover their feelings for each other. But the result of her trauma is that Philippa feels unable to be more intimate with him, so Lymond eventually asks leave to go back to battle and preferably his own death.

It is much more difficult to review this final book without giving away spoilers. Suffice it to say that Lymond’s questions about the Dame of Doubtance prophecies and his own heritage are answered, there is plenty of action, and a satisfying conclusion. All the tangled knots that appeared in the previous books are untied. In any case, if you’ve been reading the series, you are already hooked, and will be unhappy, like me, to see the series end.

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Day 931: Horses of the Night

Cover for Horses of the NightHorses of the Night seemed like a good choice for me, because it’s about Christopher Marlowe, and I do enjoy novels about literary figures. I just never developed much interest in this novel, however, and gave it up after 100 pages or so.

The novel concentrates on Marlowe’s spying career, involving him right away in the Babington Plot. Although Marlowe is alleged to have been a spy, nothing is known of his activities. At least as Aggeler depicts it, Marlowe seems to have little role in the case, sent in at the end of the plot with only a few lessons in how to be a Catholic. He is involved long enough, however, to become sympathetic with one of the alleged plotters, Margaret Copley.

link to NetgalleyAggeler appears to be previously an academic writer. For this novel, he has adopted a pseudo-Elizabethan writing style throughout, even for descriptive passages. This is an interesting approach, and it is not inherently irritating, but I found the writing overblown at times.

I also felt as if I was seeing a Marlowe who was not the actual person I would expect from my admittedly limited reading, a man more conventionally likable than Marlowe probably was.

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Day 897: That Lady

Cover for That LadyThat Lady is another book I’ve read for my Classics Club list, and a good one it is, too. In the Preface to the novel, Kate O’Brien states that it is not a historical novel because, although all of the events are real, the scenes between characters are wholly imagined. But I would argue that this is the very definition of a historical novel, with the proviso that the author attempt to preserve the true nature of the peoples’ characters, if they are known. That Lady is based on a curious interaction between Philip II of Spain and Ana de Mendoza, Princess of Eboli, that historians are still struggling to understand.

The novel begins in 1576, when Ana is a 36-year-old widow. Her husband was Ruy Gomez de Silva, Philip’s secretary of state. But Ruy has been dead for several years, and Ana has been living a retired life with her children on her country estate of Pastrana.

Philip comes to visit, however, and tells her he wishes her to return to Madrid. He and Ana have enjoyed friendship and a mild flirtation, and he misses her company.

Ana does not return to Madrid immediately, but she eventually does in the fall of 1577. There, she becomes reacquainted with Don Antonio Perez, her husband’s former protégé and friend, who is Philip’s current secretary of state.

Although Ana has heretofore been a virtuous woman, she begins an affair with Perez, partially because she realizes she has done nothing of her own volition for years. This relationship eventually becomes a complication in a political battle.

This novel is primarily a character study of a fascinating woman and to a lesser extent of Philip II, whose poor government of Spain has stricken with poverty the inhabitants of what was at the time the wealthiest country in the world. It is also a very interesting study of the politics of the region of Castille.

At first, I found it difficult to grasp Ana’s character, but the novel centers on her strong sense of principle and protection of her privacy. It is also about the tension between her religious beliefs and her principles. That is, having committed herself, she refuses to abandon her lover when he is in trouble, even to save her soul or her life.

That Lady is a powerful novel about an unusual, strong woman who struggles against the restrictions of her life based on sex and station. I highly recommend it. By the way, the picture on the cover above is of a painting of the actual lady.

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Day 887: Fair Helen

Cover for Fair HelenBest Book of the Week!
I was completely entranced by Fair Helen from the first moments of reading it. It’s based on a 16th century ballad, “Fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea.” Since one of my interests (although sadly not pursued for years) is early ballads of Great Britain, Ireland, and Appalachia, this is a good fit for me.

Harry Langdon is a city man, a scrivener from Edinburgh, the son of a craftsman, so the Borderlands seem wild to him when he answers the summons of his good friend Adam Fleming. Adam feels he needs his friend’s support. He fears his stepfather, his father’s brother, might be trying to kill him. And Harry is surprised to find Adam’s stepfather in the role of Heidsman instead of Adam after the recent death of Adam’s father. (If this sounds familiar, it’s supposed to.)

But Adam is more concerned about the disposition of his love affair. He has fallen madly in love with Helen Irvine, a beautiful and vivacious girl. But the Irvines and the Flemings have been feuding for years. (If this sounds familiar in a different way, it’s supposed to.) Helen’s parents want her to marry Robert Bell, a man with more prospects than a member of an unmade family.

We know from the beginning of the novel that none of this will end well, for we have the text of the ballad before us. And Harry in his old age is telling this story of the most important event in his life and the two people he loved most. For Helen is his cousin, and the two of them were very close as children.

The situation is complicated by the politics of the Borderlands. Harry finds himself summoned by Walter Scott of Buccleuch, a lord who frankly terrifies him (a very different Wat Scott of Buccleuch than the one depicted by Dorothy Dunnet), and is forced to spy on his friends. It becomes clear to him that there have been attempts at murder, if not of Adam, but who is behind them and why?

The novel is written in a mix of Scots and English, with a glossary provided. It is a strong style that goes well with its subject matter. At first, I was thrown off by the footnotes, which are all in the wrong places. I didn’t realize what was going on and thought they were simply non sequiturs. When I figured it out, I spent a lot of time flipping pages, trying to match them up. I honestly wasn’t sure if it was a printing error until I ran across the following passage:

I had aimed to set down plainly only what I witnessed concerning the events at Kirkconnel, to correct the folk haivers and bring some understanding. Yet already I find footnotes, asides and addenda have begun to run wild down the margins and among the lines. I like to think of them as bright wildflowers that border and run through the acres of turnip and kale by which we feed ourselves.

So, Greig is having some fun with us and in more ways than one, although this is in general not a light-hearted novel. It is lovely, though, full of yearning and regret, with a backbone of history for those who are interested.

In my recurring theme of quality printing, I have to say that this is the first modern book with properly bound signatures that I’ve seen in a long while, as opposed to the signatures being hacked off and glued. That’s great, and it means my book will stay together longer. However, the end papers were pasted down carelessly. They have creases, and some of the pages of the book stick out beyond the cover. So, Quercus Books, one big step forward and a few small ones back.

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Day 857: Dark Fire

Cover for Dark FireAt the start of this second Matthew Shardlake mystery, Matthew’s disillusionment with his master Thomas Cromwell has caused him to break free from Cromwell. He has had his own law practice for the past three years. The rumor now is that Cromwell may be failing in his influence over Henry VIII after he backed the marriage of Henry with Anne of Cleves. The political maneuverings around Cromwell overshadow the entire novel.

But first Matthew takes on a case for a friend, Joseph Wentworth, whose niece Elizabeth has been accused of murdering her 12-year-old cousin Ralph by pushing him into a dry well. Although no one actually witnessed the crime, both his sisters were on the scene shortly afterwards and say that Elizabeth was the only one there. Elizabeth herself isn’t talking.

Matthew goes to see her in prison and is struck by her expression of fury. In court, he tries to argue lack of competency, but according to the laws of the time, if she won’t speak, she must be pressed until she will, a cruel death by crushing. Matthew is unable to prevent her from being sentenced to be pressed.

Next, he is summoned to see Cromwell by a rude young man named Jack Barak. Matthew learns that Cromwell was offered the secret of a powerful weapon called Dark Fire, or Greek Fire. This secret was brought back from the East years before by a monk. A container of it was found by Michael Cristwood in a deconsecrated abbey, along with the formula, and he and his alchemist brother worked on the formula and a dispenser before demonstrating the weapon to Cromwell. Now Cromwell has promised a demonstration to the king in 10 days, but the Cristwoods have disappeared.

Cromwell wants Matthew and Barak to find the Dark Fire and the formula within ten days. He is counting on this discovery to save his position. Matthew makes a deal with Cromwell—if he will save Elizabeth from pressing, Matthew will look for the Dark Fire.

Matthew and Barak soon find Michael Cristwood dead but no sign of the apparatus or formula. Two thugs seem to be just ahead of them, murdering anyone who knows about Dark Fire and attempting to murder Matthew and Barak. Soon it becomes clear to Matthew that some powerful patron is behind the thugs, but who is it?

Although this Matthew Shardlake novel also has a powerful sense of place, London during a sultry 1540 summer, his investigation seems bogged down in this novel. He just seems to be questioning the same people over and over to little result. In any case, I was far more interested in the mystery of Elizabeth and her cousin, which was only incidental to the story. Some of the truth of that case seemed apparent almost at once, although not to our protagonist.

Still, I will continue with the series. I have as a goal to read all the Walter Scott Prize winners and nominees, and Samson’s Heartstone, the fifth in this series, is on the list. But I want to read the books in order. So, I’m committed to the series at least until book five.

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Day 811: Linnet

Cover for LinnetLinnet is another sprightly Sally Watson novel for tweens and younger teens set in the Elizabethan era. We first meet Linnet Seymour on the road to London. She has run away from her aunt’s house because she never has any adventure, planning to visit some cousins in London whom she doesn’t really know.

Unfortunately, she meets a rascal on the road, calling himself Sir Colin Collyngewood. He offers her a ride to her cousin’s house. A naive girl, she accepts. Instead of taking her to the Seymours, though, he delivers her to a filthy thieving ken to live with a bunch of child pickpockets and cutpurses.

Linnet has a tendency not to learn from experience, so when Colley tells her he wants to use her to trap some Papists in a plot against the Queen, she believes him. In the meantime, Linnet’s cousin Giles is the only person who believes she is missing. His parents think she returned home. Giles goes to London to look for her.

Like some other of Watson’s books, this one is a bit far-fetched and also has some lessons for Linnet about treatment of the poor. Still, it is an enjoyable romp.

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