Book Review: ‘Heresy’ by S.J. Parris.

Parris’s novels – Tudor murder mysteries – have often been bracketed with those of C.J. Sansom, but although the work of both authors may be united by genre and setting, there the similarities – at least for me – end. I find Parris to be the more engaging writer by far, for her prose is brisker than Sansom’s, and her protagonist more sympathetic.    

Set during the reign of Elizabeth I, this novel introduces us to Parris’s fictionalised Giordano Bruno, a figure who deserves greater remembrance as an early freethinker who fell foul of the Inquisition, being burned at the stake in 1600. A champion of the Copernican system, he was also one of the first individuals to speculate as to the existence of other inhabited worlds orbiting distant stars, and was a proponent of the idea that the Universe was infinite and possessed no centre. Although born in Nola in the Kingdom of Naples in 1548, he resided in England from 1583 to 1585, and it is during this period that he lectured at Oxford, although he was unsuccessful at securing a teaching position there. It is this period of his stay at Oxford in 1583 that Parris chooses to set her mystery. 

The novel is a tale of academic rivalry, murder, paranoia, and religious fanaticism. A series of gruesome murders unfolds at the college playing host to Bruno, who happens to have been entrusted with a mission by Sir Francis Walsingham to seek out papist sympathisers and plotters amidst the world of Oxford fellows and dons. They are executed in a strangely theatrical fashion, taking inspiration, it would seem, from John Foxe’s ‘Actes and Monuments’, more popularly known as ‘Foxe’s Book of Martyrs’. Bruno, meanwhile, possesses a motivation of his own for his visit: to seek out a missing volume of the occult work of Hermes Trismegistus. 

Parris’s Oxford appears to be in perpetual half-light, its streets soaked with rain, its academics content with regurgitating intellectually obsolete orthodoxies approved by Elizabeth’s regime, whilst proving unreceptive to Bruno’s challenging new ideas. Fear of papist sympathies and Jesuitical plots stalk the imagination, and Bruno, being an Italian and former Dominican friar, does not escape suspicion.  

The book succeeds in producing a vivid feel for the period, whilst not seeking to mimic the speech of the time, although the occasional anachronistic turn of phrase creeps in. Such jarring moments, however, prove to be few. Although this book, for me, doesn’t reach the heady heights of Iain Pears’s ‘An Instance of the Finger Post’, I found it to be an enjoyable read, and will, most likely, read further instalments in this series.

Book Review: ‘Music and Silence,’ by Rose Tremain.

Some books are beautifully written, some are skilfully and intriguingly plotted, whilst others still possess a pace that compels the reader to turn the page and devour the book leaving them wanting more; few manage to combine all three elements. Music and Silence is one of those novels that excels in one of these categories – for its prose is undeniably alluring – and yet fails in the other two. It is written prettily enough, but it lacks pace, and the plot meanders hither and thither, the perspectives constantly toing and froing from one character to another, none of whom I found to be particularly sympathetic. 

The lutenist, Peter Claire, his fingers frozen by a Danish winter, pining for a love denied; the Danish Queen Kirsten, despising of her doting husband, scheming and prone to sadomasochistic horseplay with the German Count Otto, or having herself pleasured by black slave boys; the benevolent King Christian IV, touching his elflock for comfort, forever disappointed by all that is ‘shoddy’, including his marriage to his contemptuous and contemptible second wife, his schemes for bringing wealth and happiness to his people seemingly doomed to failure: these are three of the primary protagonists around whom the ‘plot’ revolves. There are many others, but they fail to move me to mention them.  

Before coming to this book, I had read another of Tremain’s novels – Restoration – which I found to be highly engaging and well paced, so when a friend recommended Music and Silence to me as her ‘favourite book’, I had high hopes for it. At the same time, however, I also possessed certain nagging misgivings, for when someone commends a book so highly, the fear creeps in that I will find in it some significant flaw, and so, in this case, it proved to be. Perhaps my failure to find any great satisfaction in the book derives from the fact that it is aimed, predominantly, at a female readership, or then again, perhaps not. It was its lack of pace that made the reading of it so laborious and turgid, for it lay partially read on my bedside table for some five months or so before I compelled myself to complete it, wolfing down the prose with as much pleasure as if it had been unsalted raw cabbage. Thankfully, unlike the cabbage, it did not leave me with wind afterwards, but neither did it leave me with a desire to read anything else by Tremain, which was a pity.  

The 17th century is a fascinating period in which to set a novel, as it was a time of such intellectual, political and social ferment, but, alas, Music and Silence somehow manages to render it less interesting than it was. In contrast, An Instance of the Fingerpost written by Iain Pears, set in Restoration Oxford and employing four separate perspectives in the narration of the same set of events, is utterly compelling and convincing; it is beautifully written, skilfully and intriguingly plotted, and leaves the reader wanting more at its end.

Review: ‘Poldark: Ross Poldark’, by Winston Graham.

Like many readers of this book and subsequent volumes, I first encountered Poldark on the small screen, initially as a child in the 1970s, and more recently during the BBC’s latest adaptation of the Poldark novels. I therefore came to the book with certain expectations, and found, to my delight, that they were not disappointed. In fact, as is often the case with works which are adapted for either television or the cinema, the book proved to be better still. This is not to say that the recent television series lack anything, for they do not, but out of necessity the full richness of a 450-page novel cannot be condensed into a handful of television episodes without omitting something. 

This first book, originally published in 1945, proves to be a gripping read. Although the covers of the Poldark novels have been aimed squarely at a female readership over the years, this one being no exception, what with Aidan Turner broodily peering from the front cover, this is by no means women’s fiction insofar as there is plenty within to engage readers of both sexes. There is certainly a romantic core to this book, but as to whether it should most appropriately be placed in the category of historical novel, or historical romance, I shall leave that to the reader to decide.  

The novel is well paced and comprised of many intertwining strands, with an engaging cast of characters, a sense of drama, and a liberal dose of humour, with the latter often being focused upon Ross’s idle servants Jud and Prudie Painter. Although Ross is confronted with a succession of challenges and setbacks, he somehow manages to weather the storm, and, at the end of this volume, obtain a certain solace in his marriage to Demelza. The theme of hardship, both material and emotional, runs through the book, and it is plain that the author – Winston Graham – by making Ross a champion of the poor and the powerless of Cornwall, possessed a significant social conscience. It did, perhaps, chime with the times in which it was published, emerging as the war came to an end, with rationing and austerity looming large, enabling his readers to identify readily with the plight of the common folk in this tale. Within this volume, you will find the social tensions and snobbery of late-eighteenth-century Cornwall brought vividly, and arrestingly, to life. I look forward to reading the next in the series.

Watch this blog for news of the author’s forthcoming historical novel set in 17th-century Cornwall – Pendrummel: Gwen Gwinnel’s Return – a tale of superstition, greed, slavery, and religious fanaticism.

Review: ‘Early Modern England: A Social History 1550-1760’, Second Edition, 1997. J.A. Sharpe.

A wide-ranging and commendably balanced piece of historiography spanning the period 1550-1760. It aims to provide an overview of how life was lived by the people of England, from the highest to the lowest, during the period in question, although, alas, the sieve of history has captured far less relating to the lives of the meaner sort when compared to those of the middling and upper orders. This is an unavoidable consequence of differential rates of literacy, and what the literate deemed worthy of recording, or not.

From the middle of the seventeenth century onwards, however, the rapid growth of printed material of varying types accompanied the development of a more literate culture as the population became more educated, with the consequence that we possess a far more rounded picture of everyday life during the latter part of this period.

I particularly enjoyed the sections on popular culture and the world of work, as these helped to flesh out the daily experience of the lower strata of society, which, alas, is a theme frequently neglected or glossed over in histories that concentrate more on politics, economics and religious change. This material would prove particularly useful to any author looking to set a novel, or shorter piece of fiction, in the world of this time.

One theme that came through strongly in the book, was the fact that whereas London had already grown to be a considerable metropolis by the middle of the sixteenth century, England was still a predominantly agrarian society two centuries later, with many of its towns still being no larger than what we would term villages today. The section on the village community is therefore of particular interest.

Overall, Sharpe’s book serves as a useful complement to Keith Thomas’s three major works on early modern England; it makes for a fascinating read.

An Invitation to Readers

Time and money: it can be easy for many to spend too much of one in pursuit of the other, so I thought that I’d do my little bit to ease the pressure on you, at least for a day or two. Don’t get too excited though, as I’m afraid that I am not able to do your housework, or make one of those magical cash transfers into your bank account so oft promised by millionaire gentlemen who contact you via email. No, neither of those. Instead, from today until midnight this Thursday (31st August), you can download a Kindle copy of Anthology: Wry Out West for 99p or 99c, rather than the usual £2.49 or $3.20. Not bad for 211, 273 or 369 pages, however you reckon them (273 in the paperback version). If you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, that may not sound overly appealing, as you’ll be able to download it and read it for free anyway, but if you’re not, there should be something other than the crude offer of a discount to appeal to you.

Having purchased this anthology you may devote your attention to enjoying five twisted tales of the uncanny, four of which possess a pronounced vein of dark humour:

Old Crotchet
Old Crotchet – her manor, her rules. Cross her at your peril. There’s little that will rile a woman more than 300 years of age than the arrival of some flighty young upstart intent upon displacing her. A humorous period mystery with a supernatural twist.

Gwydion’s Dawn
Lust, mushrooms and the quest for immortality: meet Gwydion Turner, an inept, portentous, psychedelic demon raiser; a wannabe Crowley in crushed velvet. A satirical journey into Glastonbury’s occult counterculture.

Agnes of Grimstone Peverell
A pious minster guide encounters a crusty, atheistical theatre critic and his wife. She seems keen not to let them go, but return to London they must – Lionel has a play to review. That, at least, is his intention.

3:05 am
Never has a portable television set been so unsettling, nor Mike Pearce so irritating.

The Cleft Owl
A tale of occult deception in seventeenth-century Devon, featuring the roguish Dr Robert Tooley, the Worshipful Sir William Bastard, and the Reverend Tickle. The names are one of the few things about this piece not invented by the author.

Reviews for the above can be found attached to the freestanding versions of these tales on Amazon. Further reviews welcome. All of these publications, and The Rude Woman of Cerne, are available free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

 

Strewth Mate! Old Crotchet at No.1 Down Under?

Strewth mate! Old Crotchet at number one down under? She’s been having a bonzer time. I tell ya, it’s been a real boil-over that’s had me grinning like a shot fox, or it would have done if she’d been romping up the charts for paid rather than free downloads. Still, it’s better than staring at a brown-eyed mullet, although the sight of her in a cozzie would be about as welcome as a bunyip in your grundies. Crikey, I’m as gobsmacked as you are that she’s doing so well against all those better looking and younger Sheilas, nabbing the top slot in occult horror. Well, I’d better stop yabbering on. You can find her here, whether you’re in Australia, or, well . . . myBook.to/Oldcrotchet

Old Crotchet goes to Number One in Oz, Canada and the UK.

Meet your truculent Hostess

Looking grumpier and more sinister than ever, Old Crotchet is back. Emerging from a seventeenth-century dresser near you, soon. Whatever you do, don’t forget to invite her to dinner.

Dissatisfied with her former unflattering portrayal, the harridan compelled me to devise this new depiction of her squat and portly frame against an appropriate period backdrop. She does seem to have something of a glow about her, doesn’t she? That said, it doesn’t appear to be a very healthy one. Would I have been able to fool Sir Arthur Conan Doyle into believing that this was the picture of a ghost? Perhaps if I had used a few hatpins and some cardboard cutouts he would have been more likely to believe in its veracity.

The Year ahead in Writing

The past year has been a busy one in terms of writing and publications, with two novelettes and four novellas having seen the light of day, as well as an anthology of near 80,000 words containing five of these tales. That said, I’ve not published anything ‘new’ since February. ‘What has this slugabed been up to since then?’ you may justifiably ask yourself, taking note of this creative hiatus. Well, quite a bit, as it turns out, although nothing which has allowed me to issue anything new thus far.

Two further tales have been planned and plotted in some depth, and a third has been outlined. One of these, a mystery with occult elements, this time set in Yorkshire, is progressing well, with several thousand words already having been written. Its action plays out over three years – 1949, 1906 and 1537 – and incorporates an unexplained and unpleasant discovery made in the vicinity of Barden Tower. Another, a mystery set on Dartmoor in the early 1920s, draws upon a famously peculiar piece of period folklore that attracted the attention of the national press at the time. I take the raw bones of this legend, clothe them in a little fictional flesh, and add a suitable twist or two. The third, which is currently in a rather more embryonic state, is a contemporary tale of the supernatural and psychological horror that focuses upon the unforeseen consequences attendant upon the restoration of a church monument.

Which of the three tales outlined in the above paragraph sees the light of day first remains to be seen, for most of my time is being consumed by my other long-term project – the completion of my novel, ‘Pendrummel: Gwen Gwinnel’s Return’. It may therefore be the case that either this longer piece is published later this year, or I once again put it on the backburner to release one of the novellas/novelettes in the interim. Hopefully, you’ll find each of these tales to your taste.

If you should be curious as to what is already available, click here to begin unravelling the mystery.