Review 1532: Tidelands

For years, I read Philippa Gregory’s books faithfully, but at some point I decided that she was just cranking them out, so I stopped. I felt that less attention was going to such things as fully realized setting and well-rounded characters.

Recently, however, I noticed that she was doing something different with Tidelands, so I thought I’d give her another try. This book is set in the 17th century and features a heroine living in poverty.

Alinor is a wise woman—a healer and a midwife who does not deal in magic and charms and is very concerned, as she has to be, about her reputation. It is in jeopardy, because her husband has disappeared, and if he has deserted her, she will be considered a loose woman. So, on Midsummer’s Eve at midnight, she goes to the church believing she will see the ghost of her husband if he is dead.

She does not see her husband but a total stranger. He is a young man, a gentleman in difficulty, who introduces himself as James Summer but is a Catholic priest in a time when Catholicism has been banned in England. He is traveling and was supposed to find refuge with Sir William Peachey, but Sir William is not home. Although she is Protestant, Alinor is not much concerned with religion, so she gives him refuge overnight in her shed and leads him through the marshes in the morning to consult with Sir William’s steward.

As a result of her actions, Sir William gives her son a place as his son’s companion. This is a step up for him, and she is grateful. James Summer masquerades as a tutor for Sir William’s son, but he is really there to help free King Charles, in prison on the Isle of Wight.

Unlikely enough, I thought, James and Alinor fall in love. James begins to lose faith in his religion and his king as events progress. But he is a priest, and Alinor is married, and on the Isle of Wight, he encounter’s Alinor’s husband, who does not intend to return.

For a long time I found the situation unconvincing and considered dropping the book. The ending, however, was surprising and affecting, so I’ve changed my mind. I’m willing to try the second book of this series.

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Review 1484: The Sealwoman’s Gift

With one foot in the world of myth and saga and the other based in a true historic event, The Sealwoman’s Gift should have been a great book. Sadly, it is not quite so good as I expected. It has an interesting beginning and a touching end but tends to drag sometimes in the middle.

One morning in 1627, Oddrún comes to Ásta, saying she’s had a vision of men crossing their island to attack them. However, Oddrún thinks she’s a sealwoman and only one of her visions has been known to come true, so no one pays attention. Shortly thereafter, their small Westman Island, part of Iceland, is attacked by Barbary pirates. Almost everyone is killed or enslaved.

This is Sally Magnusson’s imagining of a true event the remains one of the most significant in Icelandic history. Out of a population of about 40,000, many were killed and 400 taken. Among those taken are Ásta and her husband, the minister Ólafur, and all but one of their children. Ásta, hugely pregnant, begins giving birth on the ship, and one of my complaints is that, with all the flashbacks and background information, it takes from chapter one until the end of chapter five before she actually has the baby. I have to say that this seemed interminable, and Magnusson could have figured out a better way to handle the background information. Finally, they arrive in Algiers.

Ásta and Ólafur and two of their children are bought by a powerful trader named Cilleby, while their oldest son Egill, is purchased by the Pasha and never heard from again. Ólafur is surprised to be given no duties, but after a few months Cilleby dispatches him with a safe passage back to Denmark to try to obtain ransom for Denmark’s Icelandic citizens.

Ásta, who has been a dreamy woman with a love of Icelandic sagas, remains as a seamstress, trying to bring up her remaining two children and listening to the stories told in the evening by members of the harem.

During this period, Magnusson might have tried to more fully imagine life in Algiers, but this world is not fully realized. Or, she could have stuck with Ólafur on his journey back to Denmark and in his years of fund raising to free the captives. But she is more interested in Ásta and has her develop a relationship with Cilleby. I found this the least likely and least interesting part of the book.

Still, I was glad I finished the book, because the story eventually ends in Iceland, which Magnusson depicts more convincingly. The ending was touching and redeemed the novel quite a bit.

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Review 1415: The Poison Bed

In 1615 London, a glittering couple was imprisoned in the Tower for murder. They were Robert Carr, long a favorite of King James, and his wife Frances of the powerful Howard family. The victim was Thomas Overbury, a friend of Robert’s who was poisoned while imprisoned in the Tower.

The narration of this novel is split between Frances in the third person and Robert in the first person. It tells the story of their meeting, when Frances was married to the Earl of Essex, and their subsequent struggles to be married, which resulted, almost as collateral damage, in Overbury’s death. One of these narrators is undoubtedly unreliable, however.

This novel was based on a scandal in Jacobean England, and Freemantle proposes a theory of its solution, although the truth is still not understood. A few reviewers have criticized it as being historically inaccurate. Based on my very little research, I can’t speak to that, but I can say that, considering the subject was interesting to me, the novel dragged curiously at times. Perhaps this was a result of the he said, she said format. It got a little more interesting when the truth about one narrator came out, but then it dragged again.

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Review 1385: The Miniaturist

Best of Ten!
I so enjoyed The Miniaturist that I was only disappointed at knowing all its secrets, since I had first seen it televised on Masterpiece. Jessie Burton’s novel is set in the 17th century, and what a difference from the previous novel I read (Widdershins) also set in the 17th century. Burton’s novel evokes the bustling city of Amsterdam, ruled by commerce but also by a harsh Calvinism, a city where people are constantly watched for misbehavior.

Nella arrives from the country to take up residence with her new husband, Johannes Brandt, a wealthy merchant. Although she brings a good family name to the marriage, she brings nothing else, for her father was a poor businessman.

Nella isn’t warmly received. Johannes’s sister Marin is cold, and Johannes hasn’t bothered to be home. When, after a few days, Johannes hasn’t consummated the marriage and Marin continues with the housekeeping, Nella fears that she has no role in her new life.

Johannes’s marriage gift to her is a miniature copy of their house that she can furnish. Although Nella thinks he is treating her like a child, she eventually sends a note to a miniaturist asking for three items: a lute, because Marin will not allow her to play the ones in the house; a block of marzipan, because Marin disapproves of sugar; and a marriage cup, which Nella should have received from Johannes but did not. When the items arrive, they are exquisite, but she also receives things she did not order. And more arrive. They so closely match what is going on in the house that Nella first thinks the family is being spied upon, later that the items foretell the future.

This novel is really good. The story and characters are compelling. Life both within the claustrophobic household and the city is evocatively evoked. It has a delicate touch that reminds me very much of Tracy Chevalier’s The Girl with a Pearl Earring. And there is that tantalizing touch of the supernatural.

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Review 1378: Widdershins

Widdershins presumably takes place in the 17th century, when Puritan elements began to go after the local wise women and midwives and accuse them of witchcraft. The novel follows two characters, John, who was raised by his mother’s midwife after her death, and Jane, whose mother is a midwife.

When John is a boy, he is sent to live with his uncle, a woman-hating Puritan. He casts off his affection for his foster mother and begins to imbibe his uncle’s beliefs. As Jane approaches womanhood, she is being taught midwifery and the use of herbs by her midwife mother and Mag, a wandering wise woman. She also falls in love with her best friend, Tom.

It’s clear from the beginning that these two characters are on a collision course. However, for me, it was taking too long to get there. I’m not a reader who requires a lot of action from a novel, but I do require something. I didn’t find these characters particularly compelling, and when I reached the halfway point, I decided to stop.

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Review 1373: The Queen of the Caribbean

I was intrigued enough when I wrote my Classic Author Focus article on Emilio Salgari for The Classics Club that I ordered one of his books. Salgari was an early 20th century adventure novelist whose work inspired other writers and film makers.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really do my homework and ended up picking a book with an appealing cover and title. The problem was that it is the second in Salgari’s Black Corsair series. Unlike many old adventure series—I’m thinking of, for example, Tom Swift—The Queen of the Caribbean depends heavily on its predecessor, The Black Corsair, which I had of course never read.

I was a bit taken aback when I opened the book to find a modern map of Southern Mexico and Central America labeled “West Indies, 1600.” The only concession to the 1600’s was a hasty label “New Spain.” Panama, which wasn’t even a country until a couple of years before the book was published in 1905, was delineated. Apparently, Salgari or his publishers (assuming this was a map that appeared in the original publication and not a creation for the republished copy) chose to use modern place names, some of them even in English.

Other than that, Salgari appears to have some knowledge of pirates, sea-going, and the flora and fauna of Mexico and Florida. Unfortunately, he sometimes stops the action dead in its tracks to tell us about some plant or animal. In a way, this book reminds me of those of W. H. G. Kingston, which I had a small collection of that never reappeared after our move. However, Kingston was better at working his facts into the story.

The Black Corsair is pursuing his enemy, Van Guld, who betrayed his followers in battle. Later, after the Black Corsair and his brothers turned pirate in pursuit of their enemy, Van Guld was responsible for the deaths of the corsair’s brothers. All this apparently happened in the first book. In The Queen of the Caribbean, this pursuit leads them to attack Vera Cruz, an event that actually happened. During the search in Vera Cruz for Van Guld, the Black Corsair hears rumors that his lady love, who he thought was dead, may be alive.

Although the Black Corsair behaves nobly, he doesn’t seem at all disturbed by the mayhem wrought upon innocent people by his pirate friends. Perhaps Salgari was attempting to portray pirates more realistically than is usual in adventure fiction. He seems, however, to have an admiration for what are essentially bloodthirsty cutthroats. I don’t think I’m applying my 21st century standards here, because I’ve managed to enjoy many other adventure novels, including ones about pirates. The characters in this one are cardboard figures being put through their paces.

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Review 1327: Brief Lives

Cover for Brief LivesAlthough John Aubrey has been criticized as a historian, he was actually a collector, of documents, stories, and little bits of information. For a project in the late 17th century undertaken by Anthony Wood, he began collecting short biographies of Oxford scholars of his time but then expanded his collection to include other notables of the 16th and 17th centuries. From 426 lives, this book has collected the most significant 134, some as short as a few sentences while others are several pages long.

These lives do not necessarily list their subjects’ accomplishments, although most of them begin with a short biography included by the editors. Aubrey’s talent was for telling something about each person that defines him or her, makes the person seem more knowable, whether it be a physical description or a story about the person.

Aubrey was apparently a rather disorganized person, so sometimes we are amused by a story or comment that seems to have nothing to do with the subject. Although well written and entertaining, his lives sometimes use pronouns confusingly, so that you’re not always sure who he’s talking about.

Just as entertaining as the original subject matter is the 100-page introduction about Aubrey’s life and milieu. I have to say that he seldom says anything really negative about anyone, even if you can tell he didn’t like that person. He was plainly a good-natured man who also sometimes likes to tell bawdy stories. Centuries after his lives were written, they make a living document, bringing exceptional people back to life. I was interested to see that one of them was Venetia Digby, the main character of Hermione Eyre’s Viper Wine.

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Review 1326: The Coffin Path

Cover for The Coffin PathIt’s 1674, and Mercy Booth helps her aging father work a sheep farm in remote northern England. She feels that at 28, she is beyond marriage, but she really only cares about the farm.

In early spring, she is out on the moor when she feels that someone is watching her with enmity. After that, strange things begin happening in the house. Three old coins disappear from her father’s drawer. She hears noises upstairs when no one seems to be there. She catches glimpses of a pale face. The home is believed to be cursed after the three prior inhabitants were all murdered, their mouths covered with those missing coins.

Early in spring the head shepherd hired Ellis Ferreby, a wandering shepherd. The novel is narrated by him in alternate chapters as he observes what is going on. He, too, has seen and heard strange things.

Also key to the story is Sam, the young son of Ambrose, the head shepherd, who lately lost his twin brother after a fall. He is a favorite of the house but begins to behave strangely.

This novel is truly atmospheric, and although I had glimpses of its secrets, I could not figure everything out. I found myself interested in the characters and involved in what was happening to them. This is a real page-turner.

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Review 1321: Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self

Cover for Samuel PepysYears ago, I attempted to read Samuel Pepys’s diary, but I didn’t make much headway. However, I was reading it without any context. Now that I’ve read Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography of Pepys, I am interested in trying it again.

For one thing, I was not aware that Pepys worked his way up, by his great energy and organizational skills, from a poor beginning to an eminent position in the British admiralty. He was responsible for setting up many of the procedures used today. In the diary’s beginning, he is just a lowly clerk who seems to go out drinking a lot.

But Tomalin’s admiration is for Pepys’s unstinting truthfulness, even when it makes him look bad, as well as the literary and historical value of the diary. In short, he was a marvelous writer who documented significant events in a tumultuous period of British history.

Tomalin’s talent as a biographer is in giving her readers a true feeling for the personality of her subject. Pepys was a pleasure seeker, a womanizer, and not always an honest man, but he was curious, cultured, highly intelligent, dedicated, and faithful to his patrons. Although he had a poor opinion of both Charles II and James II, he served them faithfully, even when it was against his best interests. Pepys turns out to be a very interesting person.

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Day 1297: The Weight of Ink

Cover for The Weight of InkThe Weight of Ink is a dual time-frame novel set in the current time and the 17th century. At first, I wasn’t as captured by the present-day sections as I was by the past, but eventually the entire novel absorbed me. There is a big revelation at the end that I anticipated, but that did not lessen the power of the novel.

In the present day, Helen Watt is an English university professor of Jewish history who is elderly and ill. Requested by a previous student to examine a cache of papers he found in a wall of his 17th century house, Helen does not expect any great finds. What she discovers is a genutza, the hidden papers of a 17th century rabbi, and on one page, a mention of Spinoza. Understanding that this could be a major discovery, she requests help and gets that of Aaron Levy, an American graduate student.

One of their first, startling discoveries is that Rabbi HaCoen Mendes’s scribe, identified only by the Hebrew letter aleph, is a woman. Having reported her initial findings to Jonathan Martin, the head of the History Department, so that he could buy the papers from the owners, Helen is dismayed to find her place on the investigation usurped. She can continue working with the papers, but Martin has also given Brian Wilton access. He arrives with four graduate students to beat Helen and Aaron to any discoveries and immediately publishes an article about one of the topics in the letters.

In 1657, Ester Velasquez is a young Jewish woman who has been allowed an unusual education. In these dangerous days of the Inquisition, her family fled Portugal for Amsterdam, where her parents were killed in a fire. She and her brother Isaac are part of the household of Rabbi HaCoen Mendes, who travels to England to educate the British Jews in their heritage, these people having been hiding there pretending to be Protestants during hundreds of years when Jews were not allowed in England. Rabbi Mendes’s difficult job is made harder when Isaac, his scribe, leaves. But the rabbi lets Ester take his place.

Offered an opportunity of knowledge, Ester comes to know that she does not want to return to a woman’s life. So, she sets about a daring deception.

Aside from covering some key events of its time—the Inquisition, the return of Jews to England, the plague, and the Great Fire—The Weight of Ink offers us an intrepid, determined heroine in Ester as well as an interesting modern story. I was really touched by this novel. It’s terrific—the kind of novel I look for in historical fiction.

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