Recent reads – Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain

After I finished reading Merivel: A Man of his Time by Rose Tremain, I read a review on The Guardian website. A commenter described Merivel perfectly. He/she described Merivel as “an arse.” And that’s exactly what he is. A bumbling, pompous, foppish buffoon of a man. But also completely hilarious.

I can’t remember the last time I chuckled so much throughout a book. I was not expecting such a funny book. I laughed along with Merivel with his complete lack of self awareness and self-obsession. I’ve not read Tremain’s first Merivel novel, Restoration, I just picked up this book at a sale and thoroughly enjoyed the ride.

Merivel is a 17th century doctor and friend to the King (or perhaps more like the King’s fall guy/idiot friend). Merivel is filled with melancholy and middle aged angst, spending his time moping around his manor house, until he decides to try his luck in Versailles with the French King. By happenstance, he meets a wealthy Swiss aristocratic botanist and follows her back to her mansion in Paris to become her plaything until the husband comes home. Then Merivel’s daughter becomes ill and he rushes home to tend to her. On the way, he saves a bear from death and transports it back to Norwich.

This sounds like a romp and it is but the book is wholly more literary than I’m giving it credit for. And there’s quite a bit of sex.

I was impressed and awed by Tremain’s characterisation of Merivel, a big well-rounded character, raw and embarrassing, yet poignant. A character I will not forget.

If you like literary historical fiction with fools, sex and bears. This is a book for you.

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Recent Reads – The Dark Monk by Oliver Potzsch

It’s historical mystery time. The Dark Monk by Oliver Potzsch is a cracking fun read, filled with action and fight scenes. Plus I learned some stuff about 17th century hangmen.

The Dark Monk is set during a particularly grim winter in Bavaria. The local foppish medic, Simon, is assisting his father to cure an outbreak of influenza, while the local hangman Jacob is dealing with highwaymen. His feisty daughter, Magdalena, is having a tryst with Simon, although relations with the hangman’s daughter are frowned upon by the local community.

The local church is under renovations and the opening scene finds the death of the parish priest. Did he overindulge on honey cakes or was he poisoned? Prior to his death, he sent a mysterious letter to his sister. He had made a discovery in the renovations. What has he found? Why are there three monks in dark habits roaming around?

The pace of this novel is fast, the characters interesting and rounded with great strong females in Magdalena and the dead priest’s sister, Benedikta. But what I found most compelling was the detail of the background of 17th century rural Germany and the role of the local hangman in the community, as both the executioner and local healer. This was all new fascinating information to me.

All in all, I can recommend The Dark Monk for people who like fast paced mysteries with some education on the side.

Recent Reads – The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman

I’m on a real historical fiction jaunt and my most recently finished novel is The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman. Originally published in 1982, this was re-released in 2013 with additional author notes.

This is the re-telling of the story of Richard III, a large monstrous figure, who Penman feels was wrongly treated by history and this is her version of the events. I’m no history buff (which makes my sudden penchant for historical event even stranger, more on that later) and had little more than a passing knowledge of Richard III and his story – his caricature as a deformed Machiavellian king. I came to this story with an open mind and went along for the ride. And it was a rollicking ride over 1,200 pages, keeping my interest along the whole way. Others with pre-conceived ideas about the “real” Richard III may not have as much fun as I did. With her excellent storytelling, I could suspend my disbelief and go along with Penman’s tale of a man betrayed by his friends and history.

The novel starts in 1459 and is split into four books; Edward, Anne, Lord of the North, Richard by the Grace of God.

I was surprised how two-thirds of the novel was devoted to the reign of his brother, Edward. Perhaps this build-up was what kept my interest, I was waiting to find out what happened when Richard actually became King. The battle scenes are lively and colourful, providing great insight into the battle strategy and the bloodiness of medieval wars. The politics and alliances are wild and tempestuous, outstripping any of the political shenanigans in modern day.

I struggled occasionally with the names of the characters but this is where the facts constrain the author. There were far too many Edwards, Georges, Johns and Richards. Then titles were awarded, then stripped. Who is Earl of Warwick now? Those medieval people needed more variety in their names.

The female characters were strong, from the equally evil Marguerite d’Anjou to Elizabeth Woodville and Richard’s own mother, Cecily Neville. The book highlighting the influence of strong women in the shadows and mainly left out of history. My interest waned a little with the love stories, but I do have a heart of stone.

The book concludes with Penman’s author notes and a 2013 update following the discovery of Richard’s remains under a carpark in Leicester.

I highly recommend this book for great storytelling, pace and character. But I will leave the believability of Penman’s version of events up to you.

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Now, why am I obsessed with historical fiction at the moment? My current theory is I enjoy exploring how well formed and believable characters respond to great moments in history. Seeing from a personal perspective makes the bigger historical events more real. As a reader, I have the benefit of dramatic irony and knowledge of what’s to come, I am better informed than the characters and I’m curious to see the effect on their lives and how they’ll react. In some part relating back to my own life and wondering how would I have responded if my husband was killed in battle and I had to seek sanctuary in a church, or if the Russians came into my town after WW2. I also learn a bit of history along the way.

Do you like historical fiction? Why does it resonate with you?

Recent reads – Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett

It’s historical fiction time! I first picked up a Ken Follett book in a secondhand bookshop when travelling through Nicaragua. I was looking for a big thick saga to read by the pool and Pillars of the Earth ticked all the boxes. Follett has been a guilty pleasure ever since.

Edge of Eternity is the latest Ken Follett novel, the third in his Century series, continuing to follow families in Russia, Germany, the UK and the US from 1961 to 1989. This is another doorstopper of a book, running over 1,000 pages (yay Christmas holidays, otherwise this would have taken me months to read) but there’s an awful lot of history crammed inside.

I was entertained right to the end, keen to see how the characters reacted to the events of 1989, considering a significant amount of the book was set in Eastern Europe. These sections were particularly interesting to me. However Edge of Eternity is weaker than Follett’s previous novels. Many characters were thin with the focus more on the historical details. Tania, the Russian journalist, was one of the exceptions and Maria Summers, the African-American bureaucrat. Although at the end, Maria’s regrets had my feminist alarm bell ringing. I was also surprised there was no mention of Chernobyl, although I guess Follett could not have included everything, otherwise it would be a 2,000 page book.

All in all, not as good as Pillars of the Earth or Falls of Giants, but still entertaining enough to keep me gripped for 1,000 plus pages.

edge of eternity

Recent reads – Csardas by Diane Pearson

When I’m writing my speculative fiction, I try to read from another contrasting genre to cut down on the influence. So during Nanowrimo 2014, I read historical fiction instead and the novel “Csardas” by Diane Pearson.

Csardas, a family saga set in Hungary, traces the lives of three privileged families from the simple days prior to WW1 right through the establishment of the Communist regime post WW2. The novel begins following the “enchanting Ferenc sisters” Eva and Malie as they enter society and as the world collapses into WW1. It follows the losses and uncertainty of war and the impact on their suitors and their families as everyone tries to make sense of the new world. This story continues following their brothers and eventually their children.

With a large number of character, only three really captured my interest. The two sisters, the sensible and strong Malie, the frivolous and silly Eva and later in the novel, the son of a peasant on the neighbouring Kaldy estate, Janos. We follow Janos from his abject poverty to his blossoming career in the new communist world, a man who cannot connect with his own feelings.

This book had a little too much romance for my liking (yes, I am a bitter old prune), however the struggle for the old guard to come to terms with the new world captured my interest, especially shown through Eva who bitterly complains about not receiving roses, when they barely have enough bread to eat.

Interesting, yet saggy in the middle.

csardas

Recent reads – My Notorious Life by Kate Manning

My Notorious Life by Kate Manning is the tale of Axie/Ann Muldoon, an Irish immigrant child from the slums of New York.

Opening in 1880 with Ann using a tragedy as an opportunity, we follow Axie back to her humble beginnings , starving and cold, begging with her younger brother, Joe and sister, Dutchie as her mum lies ill in bed.

The story follows Axie/Ann throughout her life as she taken to an orphanage, is moved out West to find new families and eventually finding her own occupation.

Ann begins to help women with their fertility, in a time when men had begun to usurp the role of midwifes. She eventually becomes the Notorious Madame DeBeausacq, controversial and wildly successful purveyor of remedies for women’s health.

Axie is lively and spirited, inspirational and tragic, a successful woman never forgetting the streets where she came from with a dogged devotion to her family.

I found this novel compelling and heart breaking, particularly the backdrop of the world of women’s health during this period. The men who sought to demonise the ancient craft of midwifery and the women who helped others, assisting with births and providing remedies to prevent/promote pregnancy.

An interesting historical read about a controversial business woman. Recommended.

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