Archive for the 'Historical Fiction' Category

Review: The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

“After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper.”

Michael Cox pulls no punches with the beginning of The Meaning of Night: A Confession. You are immediately drawn into the story of Edward Glyver, and you have absolutely no reason to like him. After all, the man just committed a cold-blooded murder. In addition to being a killer, he’s a thug, a drug-user, he patronizes prostitutes…and by the end of the book, I was rooting for him. That is quite a deficit to overcome.

This book was a pleasure to read, especially if you’re a fan of Victorian literature. (I’ll admit that it is not my favorite genre; the language is a little stilted and flowery for my taste.) There is an undercurrent of  anger and violence to go with the formal speech and manners. It’s a complicated story with a number of unexpected twists that keep you turning the pages. It’s the kind of story that has you racing for the finish, eager to find out how it all plays out.

As a young man, Edward experiences a tremendous betrayal and he never entirely recovers; it colors his perceptions and his thirst for revenge really decides the course of his life. Years later, a second betrayal is enough to push him over the edge, into obsession. Oddly enough, he is not really what you would expect of the heartless killer you meet in the first pages. He feels remorse for many of the things he’s done. He is capable of inspiring great loyalty and love in his friends. He is a great lover of books (which always scores points with me). Still, he has a vicious streak.

This is a hefty book (680+ pages), but it is well worth the effort to lug it around with you. Even though I am not a huge fan of Victorian literature, I really enjoyed reading this one and I highly recommend it.

My copy of The Meaning of Night: A Confession is an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Guest Post: Susan Higginbotham, Her Highness, the Traitor

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

This is a rescheduled guest post — it was originally scheduled for Friday, June 15th, but the email reached me late Thursday evening. I was traveling all day Friday, so I made a little open space on the schedule for it today. I love the cover of the book, Her Highness, the Traitor, and I loved the guest post topic! Susan Higginbotham has written a bit for us about the source material she uses for her historical novels, including her subject’s last will and testament. It’s a source material that I never really considered before.

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Duchess

When researching my novels, I rely heavily on primary source material—wills, letters, contemporary chronicles, and so forth. To my delight, both of my heroines in Her Highness, the Traitor—Jane Dudley, Duchess of Northumberland, and Frances Grey, Duchess of Suffolk—made wills before their deaths, which I consulted in my research.

Frances Grey made her will on November 9, 1559, a couple of weeks before her death on November 20 or 21, 1559. Her will was short and simple: she left her goods and chattels in the hands of her second husband, the commoner Adrian Stokes, and also made him her sole executor. (It was proved on November 28, 1559, by Adrian Stokes’ proctor, who had the wonderful name of Justinian Kidd.)

The will of Jane Dudley, made within a few weeks of her death in January 1555, is a far more personal document, because Jane, as she explained, drafted it herself, without the aid of legal counsel.  In it she made typical bequests—gifts of clothing, bedding, and plate, for instance—and remembered her children and servants, as was common. One of those remembered in her will was her daughter Mary’s “little son”—the future poet Sir Philip Sidney, who had been born the previous November.

Other bequests, however, were quite different. Following the execution of Jane’s husband, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, Jane had devoted herself to trying to get her sons freed from the Tower. In doing so, she enlisted the help of the Spanish courtiers who accompanied Queen Mary I’s husband, Philip of Spain, to England. In her bequests to these Spaniards, Jane remembered their services to her with deep gratitude, and asked them to continue helping her sons after her death. To one high-ranking Spanish noblewoman, the Duchess of Alva, Jane left her green parrot, adding “I have nothing worthy for her else.”

Jane’s love for her dead husband, heartbreakingly apparent in a letter she had written trying to save his life, is attested in her will as well. She left her daughter Mary a clock “that was my lord her father’s, praying her to keep it as a jewel.” Elsewhere, Jane alludes to “my very own land by my lord my dear husband’s gifts.”

Jane asked for a modest funeral, explaining that she would prefer that her debts be paid and the poor be remembered “than any pomp to be showed upon my wretched carcass.” Whoever trusted to the transitory world as she had, the duchess added, “may happen have an overthrow  as I had.”

Interestingly, Jane had one final worry as she approached the end of her life. When she was dead, she insisted, she was not to be disturbed: “nor in no wise to let me be opened after I am dead: I have not loved to be very bold afore women much more I would be loath to come into the hands of any living man be he physician or surgeon.”

About Susan Higginbotham
Susan Higginbotham is the author of four historical novels, including The Stolen Crown, The Queen of Last Hopes, and Hugh and Bess.  The Traitor’s Wife, her first novel, is the winner of ForeWord Magazine’s 2005 Silver Award for historical fiction and is a Gold Medalist, Historical/Military Fiction, 2008 Independent Publisher Book Awards. She writes her own historical fiction blog and is a contributor to the blog Yesterday Revisited. Higginbotham has worked as an editor and an attorney, and lives in North Carolina with her family.

To purchase Susan’s latest release, Her Highness, the Traitor, please visit ganxy.com/p/62835

Review: This Burns My Heart by Samuel Parks

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

Contemplating this review, I started off thinking that This Burns My Heart has all the hallmarks of great historical fiction. It takes place in an exotic location (South Korea) in an interesting time period (1960s). It has an ambitious female protagonist, Soo-Ja Choi, who wants to do great things. There is plenty of conflict for Soo-Ja — with her parents, her culture, her husband. The world outside South Korea is changing rapidly, while her culture seems mired in the past, smothering her. But after three attempts to read the book and 175 pages, I just found myself asking, “so what?”

There is no doubt that Korean culture in this time period was repressive and male-dominated. As a woman, Soo-Ja has some freedom, but she is still ruled by her father and eventually by her husband. Her first attempt to escape her father, by applying for diplomatic school, is thwarted. Her second attempt is more successful, at least at first. She decides to marry a rather shiftless young man that she can control, someone she will be able to manipulate to get her own way. Her father agrees to the union, but things do not turn out the way she planned.

So what? She made a mess of her own life, and while I understand that she was trying to find a way to do something better for herself, she picked a pretty lousy way to do it. It has the potential to hurt a lot of people. That’s not shocking; people have been screwing up their lives for centuries. This book just didn’t seem to have anything new to say about it.

Postwar South Korea should be an interesting place, but the book doesn’t really give me its flavor. There are some small details, tidbits about festivals and bean cakes, a walk through the market, but I never felt like I was there. When I compare it to something like The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, where I felt completely immersed in the sights and sounds and smells of  18th century Japan, this could have been South Korea, or it could have been Chinatown.

I really wanted to like this book, but I never felt swept away to another era, the way you do in great historical fiction. There’s nothing wrong with the book: the writing is fine, the story has potential, but it didn’t grab me. Three attempts was enough for me.

My copy of This Burns My Heart was an Advanced Reader’s Edition, provided free of charge.

Guest Post: M.J. Rose, author of The Hypnotist

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

Okay, we’ve got a special mid-week guest post this time around. M.J. Rose, author of The Hypnotist, is stopping here on her tour and she’s got a guest post about the inspiration for her latest story. This is an amazing guest post! Gave me the chills.

Check out more stops on the tour
Check our her website, mjrose.com
And keep an eye out for more information on Twitter at #TheHypnotistVirtualBookTour

M.J. Rose

Growing up, I didn’t want to be a writer; I wanted to be an artist. We lived a block away from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and I started taking Saturday morning art classes there when I was just seven years old.

I’ve often felt art is my religion and that museums in general, but the Met specifically, are my temples of choice. That’s where I go to be renewed, refreshed and inspired. I don’t think I’ve ever gone longer than a month without visiting there.

So it’s not all that surprising that sooner or later I’d write a novel with a museum as one of my main characters and that I’d pick the museum that was in my backyard when I was a kid.

But how I got idea for The Hypnotist is surprising, at least to me. Sometimes I find it reassuring. Other times frightening. See what you think.

One day about three and a half years ago, on one of my regular pilgrimages to the Met, I headed straight for one of my favorite spots. The Mastaba Tomb of Perneb is a tiny bit of Fifth Dynasty Egypt transplanted to Manhattan, a gift from Edward S. Harkness to the museum in 1913.

You can enter the limestone tomb from the left or the right. One doorway leads to the main offering chapel. I took the other, which leads to a second ritual chamber. The space is very small and only three or four people can fit at the same time. I was lucky to be in the intimate ritual chamber alone and looking through the slot in the wall at a wooden statue of Perneb in the room beyond known as a serdab. In ancient times this passageway allowed for family and priests to offer up incense and chants to the deceased.

I heard footsteps. A little girl about seven or eight had entered and came up beside me to look through the slot. She had long blonde hair and was wearing a school uniform. I watched her examine the space, giving every section careful attention.

“It hasn’t changed much at all,” she said finally in a wistful voice.

I asked her what she meant.

“Since the last time I was here,” she said.

Something about the way she said it made me curious. “When was that?” I asked.

“When I lived in Egypt.”

“You know this tomb has been on display in this museum since 1916.” I said.

“I lived in Egypt way before that,” she said and smiled. She was about to say something else when from outside the chamber an older woman’s voice called out.

“Veronica, it’s time to go. Now. Please.”

The little girl ran off, quickly, without looking back, without giving me a chance to ask her anything else.

Even though I write about reincarnation, I haven’t had any meaningful reincarnation episodes of my own. I don’t get visitations. I’ve never seen a ghost. But I’m not sure what happened that afternoon.

I can picture Veronica in her navy jumper and white blouse that had a dark smudge on the collar. She had a one-inch scratch on her left hand. Her hair was pulled off her face with a silver barrette. A lot of curls had escaped. She had a child’s voice but it was so charged with adult emotion.

It was that emotion which sparked the idea for my novel, The Hypnotist. And the paintings and sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum that fueled it.

If you go the Met, please go visit Perneb’s tomb. And if you see a little girl there with long blonde hair and a blue school uniform… ask her if her name is Veronica… and if it is, thank her for me.

Review: The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma

Friday, September 2nd, 2011

This is going to be a tough review to write.

I can tell you how The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma begins. I could possibly even tell you what the Map of Time is. But most everything else I would want to tell you, I can’t tell you. It would spoil something. And this is the sort of book where you really don’t want the plot twists spoiled.

First thing I loved about this novel: the Narrator. This is not just any omniscient narrator — this one has a charming voice and a lovely way to tell a story.

“Assuming you stay until the end of this tale, some of you will no doubt think that I chose the wrong thread with which to begin spinning my yarn, and that for accuracy’s sake I should have respected chronological order and begun with Miss Haggerty’s story. It is possible, but there are stories that cannot begin at their beginning, and perhaps this is one of them.”

Andrew Harrington is a troubled young man and he is about to do something profoundly stupid. Fate is going to intervene and push him in an entirely different direction and it is an amazing, complicated and surprising journey. Set in Victorian England, H.G. Wells has just published The Time Machine and a little store-front business called Murray’s Time Travel has opened in London. Andrew and his cousin, Charles, hope to use their services to avert a tragedy.

The story spirals and explodes from there. We go forward in time, back in time, and sometimes we move in a relatively straight line. We’ve got The Time Machine and Dracula. We’ve automatons, amateur assassins, star-crossed lovers, greed and betrayal. There is violence and mayhem and true love — even a little sex. It is full of famous characters — H.G. Wells, Joseph Merrick, Jack the Ripper and Bram Stoker — and they all play a part.

“Yes, I know that when I began this tale I promised there would be a fabulous time machine, and there will be, there will even be intrepid explorers and fierce native tribes — a must in any adventure story.”

I wish I could tell you more about it! Unfortunately, anything I might tell you is bound to spoil some surprise that’s waiting for you in the winding paths of these pages. It’s a story that held my attention for 600+ pages and that is no small feat. I loved the way the story unfolded and I found myself wondering as we meandered along just how Palma would bring the tendrils of this story all together in the end, and I was not disappointed. It’s a terrific read and one I highly recommend.

For more information on Felix J. Palma, check out his website. My copy of The Map of Time was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Review: Corrag by Susan Fletcher

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

Susan Fletcher’s new book, Corrag, is historical fiction that does something I love: it takes an historical event and looks at it from a new angle, through the eyes of a new character. The story is based on the 1692 Massacre of Glencoe, where supporters of King William were responsible for the deaths of 78 members of the MacDonald clan, killed because of their delay in pledging allegiance to the new king. Corrag is an English witch who had lived among them, imprisoned in the aftermath of the massacre, and sentenced to be burned alive at the stake.

There are a number of things I loved about this book. Corrag herself is a fascinating character. She has lived in a way that modern people cannot even imagine. As a girl, she is forced to flee her home and she lives, quite literally, off the land. She eats roots and berries, she sleeps under trees, her only companion a stolen horse. She eventually takes up residence in a remote valley in a lean-to she built herself from branches and cow dung. She drinks warm milk right from the cow’s teat. Corrag accepts her lot and never acts as though she expected anything more. It was a constant surprise to me that someone could live so simply, in a way that most of us would find horribly deprived, and yet be so content.

The other main character is Charles Leslie, a Jacobite minister, traveling incognito and looking for dirt on King William. He learns of Corrag’s imprisonment and hopes she will be able to provide him with the evidence he needs. He visits her in the tollbooth where she is being held, ostensibly to bring her comfort, but mostly to pump her for information.

I love the way the story is told. Corrag’s tale makes up the main narrative (and she warns you up front that she tends to talk a lot). At the end of each chapter, Charles writes a letter to his wife back in Ireland. The contrast between Corrag’s stories and the way Charles views her in the beginning is so dramatic! He goes in expecting a wild, godless, savage and to some extent, that’s what he gets. She is completely outside his experience. He takes her dirty appearance as an indication of the condition of her soul. Did he not notice that she is being held in a dungeon, with little food and no access to soap and a bathtub?

Corrag’s stories about her life, the wilderness she lives in, her connection to the world around her — they are almost poetic. I loved reading them and found myself completely caught up. I was angry — really angry — with Charles Leslie for seeing her through his narrow, pious eyes. But as the stories continue, and he gets a little scolding from his wife, he, too, begins to fall under her spell.

The MacDonalds were good people and they did not deserve the fate that befell them. They took in their murderers, offered them their hospitality, and in return they were slaughtered, their wives and children left to die of exposure in the February frost, watching as their homes burned. But Highlanders are hearty people and enough of them survived to tell the tale, not that it made any difference to King William. There is an interesting history that surrounds their story and I thoroughly enjoyed this fresh look at it.

My copy of Corrag was provided free of charge by LibraryThing’s Early Review Program.

Review: Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow is a fictionalized telling of the story of the Collyer brothers — two eccentric New York brothers from a wealthy family, living in a spacious brownstone on 5th Avenue.  They became famous, not for their wealth or their looks or their philanthropy, but for their compulsive hoarding.  It’s a tragic story and Doctorow’s fictionalized account is compelling reading, trying to give some background and insight into the lives of these famous recluses.

Homer and Langley Collyer were born in the early 1880′s.  Their father, Herman, was a well-known doctor; their mother, Susie, a former opera singer.  They lived privileged lives in a splendid three-story brownstone on 5th Avenue in New York City, across from Central Park.  Homer was a gifted pianist and played all his life, even though he lost his sight as a teenager.  Langley was a soldier in World War I, discharged after he was wounded, exposed to mustard gas.  He came home to find that both of his parents had died of the Spanish Flu and his blind younger brother was running the household.

Over the years, Langley’s eccentricities began to worsen.  He collected newspapers, buying every edition sold in the city every day, morning and evening, and then clipping and sorting the articles as part of his plan to create a singular newspaper edition that covered all the stories every likely to be told.  He could not buy one of anything: when Homer needed a typewriter, Langley bought a dozen different brands for him to try. He scavenged the city, looking for bits and pieces that he could incorporate into his grand designs.  With each setback — the loss of a girlfriend, the death of their longtime housekeeper, a run-in with city employees — his paranoia becomes deeper and his compulsions more dangerous.

Homer is a hostage to his brother’s lunacy, although he seems content.  Their world, always rather insulated, begins to shrink until they are all alone in their boarded up house.  They have no phone, no electricity, no water — once a week, they wheel 2 baby carriages to an old horse pump at the end of the block.  Everyone eventually leaves them.  Their long-time housekeeper, Siobahn, dies.  Their cook brings her son to live with them and for a while, Homer is immersed in the world of Harlem jazz clubs, but that also comes to a tragic end.  The replacement housekeepers, the troupe of hippies who moves in for a time, a reporter that Homer meets in the park – everyone, eventually, falls away.  Leaving the brothers to be buried under mountains of newspapers, books, car parts, folding chairs, typewriters, pianos, baby carriages and broken furniture.

Homer and Langley is a very fictionalized account and I am not sure I understand all the liberties Doctorow took.  He reversed the brothers’ birth order (Homer was actually the elder).  According to Wikipedia, Langley was the pianist in the family.  The brothers actually died in 1947, although in the novel, they live into the 1970′s.  Those changes aside, the book is a fascinating look at their descent into madness.   Doctorow does an excellent job of filling in the gaps, painting a mural of what their lives might have been like, the justifications, the crazy theories, the way that Homer is slowly drawn in by his brother’s mental disorder.

When police finally cleaned out the Collyer mansion, they pulled 130 tons of trash out onto 5th Avenue.  Although the brothers had substantial savings and investments, they lived in squalor, without basic utilities.  The salvageable items brought only $2,000 at auction.

I admit that I am obsessed with shows like Hoarders.  I am a terrible packrat (inherited that from my father), and I find that I have difficulty letting go of things.  I’ve read several books on organizing and decluttering your house, but the easy organization tips never address the root of the problem, why you gather things and why you find it hard to let them go.  I think I’ll be putting these pictures on my refrigerator as a reminder.

My copy of Homer & Langley was a Christmas gift from my sister.

Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Back in the late 1700′s-early 1800′s, Japan was closed to the world around them.  It was illegal for a Japanese citizen to leave Japan.  It was illegal for foreign citizens to enter Japan, except under the most strictly monitored conditions.  But countries around the world understood that Japan would be a lucrative market and trading partner, if only they could break through those barriers.  The Dutch East Indies Company (the VOC in Dutch) maintained a trading post in Deijma and fought hard to keep lines of communication open with Japan — and to keep their greedy European enemies away.  In The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a young Dutch clerk hopes to make his fortune — and return home to marry his beloved Anna — but his scruples get in the way.  It is a lovely, poetic book full of tragedy and hardship and great honor.

Jacob de Zoet is too honest to make a fortune trading in Japan.  All around him he finds graft and corruption, and even the men sent in to ferret out the corruption eventually succumb; life would be much easier for him if he were not so honorable.  To make matters more complicated, Jacob falls in love.  This love has even less chance of success than his engagement to the lovely Anna back in the Netherlands.  Miss Abigawa is a Japaneses midwife.  She is disfigured by a terrible burn, making her virtually unmarriageable, but her father is a wealthy Samurai and he has arranged for her to study medicine, inasmuch as a Japanese woman can in those days, and to continue her work as a midwife.  Jacob is captivated by her, but she also has more ominous suitors.

As with David Mitchell’s earlier work, Cloud Atlas, Thousand Autumns is subject to shifting storylines.  The first third of the book is Jacob’s story – how he came to Nagasaki, how he fell in love, and his rise and fall in the small circle of Dutchmen there.  The second third is Miss Abigawa’s story.  Her life changes drastically after the death of her father, and those changes are a reminder of how little autonomy women had in those days.  Her life was not her own; decisions were made by others for their own profit that left her bereft and there was little she could do about them.  Miss Abigawa also finds herself a prisoner of her scruples.  A bell ringing in the night forces her to make an agonizing choice.

The final third of the book tells the stories that come after — after Miss Abigawa and Jacob are separated, after an enemy assault on the VOC, after Jacob’s time in Nagasaki is finished.  There is both honor and sadness in these stories, and the honor will have to suffice, because happiness is in short supply.

I fell in love with David Mitchell‘s writing in Cloud Atlas.  I had never read anything quite like it and I resolved to find all of his books and read them immediately.  That didn’t quite happen, but they are still high on my To Be Read list.  There is a poetry to his writing – his descriptions are lovely, even when he describes very ugly things, and the picture he paints of Nagasaki is clear in my mind: buildings, gardens, beggars, courtesans and the smell of the sea and the sewage.

“Gulls fly through clouds of steam from laundries’ vats; over kites unthreading corpses of cats; over scholars glimpsing truth in fragile patterns; over bathhouse adulterers; heartbroken slatterns; fishwives dismembering lobsters and crabs; their husbands gutting mackerel on slabs; woodcutters’ sons sharpening axes; candlemakers rolling waxes; flint-eyed officials milking taxes; etiolated lacquerers; mottled-skinned dyers; imprecise soothsayers; unblinking liars; weavers of mats; cutters of rushes; ink-lipped calligraphers dipping brushes; booksellers ruined by unsold books; ladies-in-waiting; tasters; dressers; filching page-boys; runny-nosed cooks; sunless attic nooks where seamstresses prick calloused fingers; limping malingerers; swineherds; swindlers…”

This is not a thriller or a mystery, but I found it very suspenseful.  There are multiple storylines and I was intrigued to see how they would come together and where they would end.  It’s also part of the mysterious “Dutch Connection” that has developed in my reading: as I have been spending a lot of time in Amsterdam for work, I have found that several of my recent books have had some connection to the Netherlands (or to brothels, as does this book). I found it a quick read, devouring the nearly 500 pages in three short sittings.  I will be recommending this to friends and readers at my website, and a few lucky family members may find it, bedecked in ribbons, under their Christmas trees.  This was truly a remarkable read.

Review: The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno by Ellen Bryson

Monday, May 31st, 2010

What makes someone a freak?

It’s the question at the heart of The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno by Ellen Bryson.  The story revolves around P.T. Barnum’s American Museum and the “freaks” who entertained the masses there.  There were midgets and fat ladies, savages from exotic lands, musclemen and other oddities.  But what made them freaks, and what would they choose, if they could choose another fate?

Bartholomew Fortuno is the Thinnest Man in the World.  After a very unpleasant stretch in the tent circuses and traveling shows, he has found a home for himself at the American Museum.  He spends his day on-stage, showing his ribs and ankles to the paying customers, or sitting in tableau with his lady friend Matina, the museum’s fat lady.  His meals in the museum’s dining hall explain how he maintains his “gift”:

As usual, I counted out a dozen green beans, no more, no less, and placed them horizontally on my plate, along with a bit of horseradish to add zing.  After cutting each bean into thirds, I dipped a piece into the horseradish and popped it into my mouth, chewed twenty-five times before swallowing it, then started on the next piece.

Fortuno has his theories about his profession — he truly believes that his thinness is a gift, that it educates and enlightens the people who come to see him. He explains the difference between the True Prodigies, the regular Prodigies, the Exotics and the Gaffs.  He treats his performances as a higher calling, no matter what his fellow performers believe.

Their lives at the museum are less exciting than one might think.  They have their daily schedules, they have the little dramas of any group living in close quarters, they measure their worth in special performances and new costumes, with plenty of jealousy and gossip to go around.  All this intensifies with the arrival of a new act — an act so secret that she arrives under cover of darkness and is not housed with the rest of the performers.  Fortuno is fascinated, and when Mr. Barnum asks him to perform a small favor for him, he is sucked into the whirlwind surrounding their newest prodigy.

The novel explores Fortuno’s relationships with his fellow freaks as well as his past.  Is he naturally a Prodigy, or did he choose this?  I mean, a person can be naturally thin without subsisting on a dozen green beans a day.  And if it is a choice, conscious or unconscious, what would prompt a man to choose to be a skeleton?  Fortuno has to work out the answers to these questions while walking through the minefield of Mr. Barnum, Mrs. Barnum and the mysterious new exhibit.

I enjoyed the backstage look at life in a very high-end freakshow.  The were so normal and yet so unusual, the way they argued and envied each other, the way they had adapted to — and even grown proud of — a life on the fringe of society.  The mystery unravels slowly (sometimes too slowly), as Iell reveals her secrets and Fortuno deals with his past and his future.  He clearly did not see what he was getting himself into, even if the reader can sense his impending disaster.  He is a marvelous narrator, a man of such dignity, even in his odd circumstances.  I found myself rooting for him, hoping he could find a clear path.

Ellen Bryson‘s novel was inspired by a dream; Iell was a character in that dream and Bryson’s investigations led her to the story of Isaac Sprague, the living skeleton:

She knew immediately that he would be her narrator.  You can find more photos of Sprague’s cohorts here.

This is Bryson’s first novel, and is scheduled for release June 22nd.  My copy of The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortunowas an Advance Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Review: Heresy by S. J. Parris

Saturday, May 8th, 2010

These days, we talk about Banned Book Week and we talk about censorship in school libraries, but in the 1500′s, they were serious about censorship. Get caught reading something on the Vatican’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books) and your prize was an appointment with the local Inquisitor. Based on the true story of Giordano Bruno — an Italian monk, excommunicated and on the run from the Inquisition — Heresy, by S. J. Parris, casts Bruno in the role of investigator, helping to solve a series of grisly murders while spying for Queen Elizabeth.

Giordano Bruno did, in fact, lecture at Oxford University in 1583, and many of the characters in the book are known to history as well. Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Francis Walsingham, John Underhill, John Dee — they all played a part in history, as well as in Heresy. Bruno accepts the invitation to a debate at Oxford to expound on his theories of an infinite universe of independently moving heavenly bodies (ahead of his time). He is also approached by Sir Francis Walsingham, Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth, and asked to do a little undercover work. The Queen is concerned about the possibility of renegade Catholics at Oxford. This was shortly after the publication of Regnans in Excelsis, the papal bull issued by Pope Pius V declaring Queen Elizabeth a heretic. There was good reason to believe that Catholic forces might make an attempt on the Queen’s life and strong measures were taken to discover and arrest them.

I was very much caught up in the history of the novel. I could add dozens of links, telling more of the story of Bruno’s life, the Pope’s declarations against the Church of England, the Inquisition and more. It is hard to imagine living in the political climate of those times — Bruno had actually been condemned for reading the work of Erasmus in the privy — when people could be tortured and condemned to death, simply for reading works the church had deemed dangerous. One of the great successes of this story is that characters on all sides of the debate seem sympathetic. While Bruno has every reason to consider himself an enemy of the Pope and the Catholic Church, he has serious reservations about arresting people because of their manner of worship, or declaring anyone who is Catholic a mortal threat to the monarchy. He is troubled by these issues throughout the book.

The mystery is an interesting one: a man is savaged by a wild dog in a locked garden. Who let the dog in? Who was the man meeting and why was he carrying a substantial sum of money? And why does the method of the murder seem so familiar to Bruno? The Rector, John Underhill, is primarily interested in saving the reputation of the college, and if it means a murderer goes free, so be it. But bodies begin to pile up and soon no one can discount Bruno’s theories. There are a number of interesting subplots, a little romance, and plenty of history to keep a reader entertained.

In life, Bruno was eventually turned over to the Inquisition and died a tragic death. On the 400th anniversary of his execution (he was burned at the stake), the Vatican declared it a “sad episode”, all the while defending his torturers as good Catholics who wanted to “promote the common good.”

S. J. Parris is the pseudonym of journalist Stephanie Merritt. This is her first novel — and I will be adding her to my must-read list. Good historical fiction is a special pleasure — educational as well as entertaining — and this was an excellent example. You can find more about S. J. Parris and Heresy at the publisher’s website, Doubleday.com.

My copy of Heresy was an Advance Reader Copy, provided free of charge.


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