Day 1113: On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service

Cover for On Her Majesty's Frightfully Secret ServiceI had never read anything by Rhys Bowen, but recently I noticed reviews of her books popping up here and there. When Netgalley offered On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service, I was intrigued. What I found was a frothy story of intrigue. This novel is the 11th in her “Her Royal Spyness” historical mystery series.

Bowen’s heroine is Georgie Rannock, the sister of a duke and 34th in line for the throne. She is on the impoverished side of the family, though. It is 1935, and Georgie is staying at the ancestral home of her fiancé, Darcy, at Kilkenny Castle in Ireland while they plan their wedding. Since Darcy is Catholic, Georgie may not marry him unless she renounces all claim to the throne, and to do so, she must have permission from the throne.

Darcy is employed by the government in some secret capacity, and he is called away. In his absence, Georgie decides to pop over to London after receiving a belated summons by Queen Mary. In her late mail, she also finds a plea from her friend, Belinda, who is in Italy. Belinda has gotten pregnant and is hiding out in Italy until she goes across the lake to Switzerland to have her baby. She wants Georgie to stay with her.

Summoned to tea at Buckingham Palace, Georgie goes to discuss her wedding difficulties with Queen Mary. When the Queen learns her immediate destination in Italy, she proposes getting Georgie invited to a swank house party there. The Prince of Wales and Mrs. Simpson will be attending, and the Queen wants to know if Mrs. Simpson has her divorce.

link to NetgalleyAt the house party, Georgie finds herself enmeshed in more than one drama. Her mother, the famous actress, is there, and she is being blackmailed. Some of the party are German generals, and something seems to be going on with them. And soon there is a murder.

I mildly enjoyed this little romp, although I knew who the murderer was even before the murder (if that makes sense). That is, I noticed something immediately and once there was a murder, knew who it was as a result. Perhaps I would have enjoyed the novel more if I had started with the beginning of the series. Georgie gets herself into some ridiculous situations, the murder is worked by a bone-headed Italian policeman, and the novel is just silly fun.

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Day 1059: In the Name of the Family

Cover for In the Name of the FamilyJust a short note about my Walter Scott Prize project. The committee has announced its short list for 2017, and I have updated my page accordingly, along with the links to Helen’s reviews at She Reads Novels. (I have read one of them but haven’t yet posted my review.) Do check it out if you are interested in historical fiction. So far, I have found most of the books on the short list to be excellent reading.

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In the Name of the Family is the follow-up to Sarah Dunant’s Blood & Beauty, about the Borgia family. It picks up in 1502, with Lucrezia’s marriage to Alfonso d’Este, the son of the Duke of Urbino. This marriage is political. Her beloved second husband was murdered by her brother Cesare, because an alliance with his family was no longer expedient.

Like the previous novel, In the Name of the Family is mainly concerned with Lucrezia and Cesare. This novel also brings in Niccolò Machiavelli as a secondary character in his role as envoy from Florence. This role for Machiavelli is familiar to me from Michael Ennis’s The Malice of Fortune, although that novel was a mystery. Machiavelli was famously inspired to write The Prince by his fascination with Cesare Borgia.

One of Dunant’s aims in writing these novels was to redeem the characters of the Borgias, particularly Lucrezia. Of course, the Borgia men were ruthless and greedy, but it seems that all the other powerful families in Italy at the time were the same. Lucrezia apparently was an intelligent and charming young woman who won over most of the people she met, even the hostile court of Urbino.

Cesare begins as a brilliant strategist but begins to deteriorate mentally from syphilis.

link to NetgalleyI gave high marks to Blood & Beauty, but In the Name of the Family seemed to drag a little for me. I am not sure why. It could be because I read it in ebook form, and I have a much more difficult time concentrating on electronic books. However, that has not stopped me enjoying other novels in ebook form. Certainly, Lucrezia’s part of the story was not as important, and that was what I was most interested in. Also, I’m not sure how effective it was to occasionally introduce Machiavelli’s viewpoint.

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Day 952: My Brilliant Friend

Cover for My Brilliant FriendI think my reaction to My Brilliant Friend must be affected by all the hype it has received. That is, I put off reading it because I am often disappointed by novels that are wildly popular. Nothing can live up to the hype, and this novel doesn’t either, but it almost does. It is merciless in its clear-eyed look at the relationship between two frenemies.

The novel begins in the present, where Elena Greco looks back at her relationship with Lila Cerullo. Elena and Lila know each other from childhood. They are neighbors in a rough, poor neighborhood on the outskirts of post-war Naples. From the beginning they are wary, competitive friends. Elena admires Lila’s courage and in school grows to admire her fearless intelligence. But, as the second best in class, Elena finds herself competing with Lila and disliking her secondary position.

Both Lila and Elena are encouraged by their teacher, Maestra Oliviero, but when Lila’s parents won’t allow her to take the exam to enter the equivalent of middle school (I guess) because she has to work, Maestra Oliviero spurns Lila. She continues to study on her own for a while, even helping Elena with her Latin, but eventually, as she gets older, she avoids discussing Elena’s studies as it is too painful. Elena for her part finds herself increasingly isolated from most of her community, because there is no one with whom she can discuss the ideas she is interested in. Only Lila is capable of understanding them, and she begins avoiding these subjects.

Something else Lila and Elena would like to avoid are the Solara brothers, whose father is part of the Camorra crime syndicate. When Elena is a young teenager, the boys attempt to drag her into their car, but Lila stops them by pulling a knife. This action apparently endears her to Marcello Solara, who begins hanging around Lila’s house with the cooperation of her parents.

I can only guess that the effect of this series builds as the reader continues on with it. Certainly, the novel has a climactic ending that makes me wonder what’s coming next.

I felt that the emotions Elena expressed during the novel were immature, but then I had to keep reminding myself that the girls are only 16 at the end of the novel. Elena seems to be totally oblivious of how painful it must be for Lila to hear about her intellectual achievements, and Elena still continues to try to compete with her. Although Lila seems abrupt and dismissive at times, at other times she lets Elena know how she appreciates her.

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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 942: Siracusa

Cover for SiracusaNews flash! The Man Booker long list was announced today, and I have actually reviewed one of the books!

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Siracusa is a sometimes shocking story about a disastrous vacation in Italy. Two couples, linked by a friendship between the husband of one and the wife of the other, vacation together with one couple’s pre-teen daughter. The trip this year has been planned by Taylor except for a detour to Siracusa, Sicily, planned by Lizzie. The story alternates among the points of view of the four adults.

Lizzie’s voice seems the most reliable, but all of the adults are unreliable narrators for one reason or another. Lizzie, a writer, is deluded. She is in love with her husband Michael and does not know he is unfaithful. Michael, a formerly famous playwright who has been working on the same novel for years, is a liar who likes power games. He has been cheating on Lizzie with a waitress named Kathy.

Finn is a restaurant owner who smokes too much and is serially unfaithful. His wife Taylor is snobbish and shallow, and she is so overprotective of their 10-year-old daughter Snow that she talks for her. At some point, Taylor begins making a play for Michael, whom both she and Snow adore.

At Siracusa, a tragic chain of events begin when Kathy appears as a surprise for Michael and begins trying to maneuver him out of his marriage. It isn’t until then that Michael realizes he wants to stay with Lizzie.

link to NetgalleyThis novel is complex and interesting, with a shocking conclusion. I was rather freaked out by one of the characters from early in the novel, and my impressions turned out to be right. From starting out to be a fairly mundane story of relationships, this novel works up quite a bit of suspense.

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Day 753: Blood & Beauty

Cover for Blood & BeautyBest Book of the Week!
Blood & Beauty is a historical novel about the Borgia family that shows meticulous research, examining in light of modern findings the legends that have surrounded the family for centuries. It also powerfully evokes the period.

The novel begins with the election of Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI. He is clever and ruthless but sentimental about his four illegitimate children. Although historically there is some debate about the birth order of the oldest two sons, Dunant firmly places Cesare as the oldest, followed by Juan, Lucrezia, and Jofrè.

Although the pope loves his children, especially Juan and Lucrezia, their value is largely in the alliances he can make through their marriages. Cesare’s value, on the other hand, is to back up his father on the religious front. He begins as a cardinal, although he is unsuited to his religious profession and eventually throws it off to become a commander of armies.

Juan’s marriage is first, but the novel is mostly concerned with the relationship among Pope Alexander, Cesare, and Lucrezia. It is much more complex than and different from what you may have heard. It is Lucrezia’s misfortune to be married into families that become enemies of the Borgias because of shifting alliances. This is particularly true of her second marriage to Alfonso of Aragon, whom she loves.

Dunant remarks in the afterward that the Borgias have not deserved their evil reputation. Certainly they were rapacious and ruthless—and more interested in the good of the Borgias than anything else—but so too were most of the great families of Italy at that time. In this novel, alliances are made and discarded at will by most of the great families.

This novel is historical fiction at its best. None of the characters are invented or romanticized, and we become immersed in the world of Renaissance Italy.

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Day 670: The Jewels of Paradise

Cover for The Jewels of ParadiseI have read a few of Donna Leon’s Commisario Brunetti mysteries and liked them well enough. I was intrigued, though, to find The Jewels of Paradise, a recent one-off or perhaps the start of a new series by Leon.

Caterina Pelligrini is an Italian musicologist who has been working as an assistant professor for a university in Manchester. With a doctorate specializing in Baroque opera, she has found employment opportunities hard to come by. She also has not foreseen how much she would miss her home. So, when she hears of an opportunity for a research position in Venice that is to last a few months with the possibility of being extended, she jumps at it.

The position is an unusual one, though, for she knows only that she has been hired to go through some trunks containing recently discovered papers belonging to an unnamed composer. Hired by an impeccable lawyer, Dottor Andrea Moretti, Caterina is employed by two thugs, Scapinella and Stievani. They hope she will find papers showing that one of them has a better claim to the trunks than the other, for they have family legends that this man, a supposedly  rich relative, died with a fortune of jewels.

Caterina is to conduct her research at a foundation that is almost bare of resources. There she finds that the papers belong to Agostino Steffani, a once famous Baroque composer of operas who gave up his career to become a church diplomat. As Caterina investigates, she finds he may have been implicated in the Königsmarck Affair, in which the lover of the wife of the future King George I of England disappeared and was believed to have been murdered.

A faint air of menace haunts the entire project, as Caterina is followed and finds someone has been reading her email. Soon she learns that the position, for which she has moved from England, is only to last a month.

I really enjoyed this tale of mystery in the realm of academic research, although I thought that the physical setting of Venice got short shrift. Still, I find I am drawn to this kind of novel and hope to see more of them from Leon.

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