Friday, November 30, 2012

Matthew Shardlake series by C. J. Sansom

I was introduced to the historical fiction writer C. J. Sansom by my book club.  We started off with the first book in the Matthew Shardlake Mystery series, Dissolution.  I have continued on to the second and third books and I am now waiting for the fourth book, Revelation, through the wonderful Inter-library Loan service at my library. I keep reading because I like the main character and narrator, Matthew Shardlake, a sharp thinking hunchback lawyer. He is not a typical hero physically or otherwise.  He has his character flaws - jealousy, a bit of a superiority complex as befits his status in the "classist" society of the time, and he's even cowardly. Yet, he is a man of integrity with a passion for truth and justice also he wants to help poor people who have no voice.  I love the history lessons wrapped up in murder mysteries in these series by Sansom who has a PhD. in history.  He paints a picture of this sixteenth century Tudor period as brutal and elitist without fairness and justice.

I think that Sovereign had a lot more unexpected twists to the story than the first two books.  The pace of the story was a little slow at times. It picked up again (*spoiler alert) when Matthew is detained and taken to the Tower of London to be tortured. My favorite in the series is still the first one, Dissolution.   I am hoping that the characters Barak and Tamasin continue into the fourth book.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Sovereign, Matthew Shardlake series

Happy Thanksgiving all! Find some time to relax and dream, pick up a book. 

I have put Ken Follett's book down and taken up C.J. Sansom's Sovereign.  The setting is the time of the Great Progress in 1541 when King Henry VIII is showing his power to the rough and rebellious northern sections of England where the people are still papists and are considered barbarians.  People in the north ard different, even their dialect is different. The "Great Progress" historically is after a great northern rebellion against the King, called the Yorkshire Uprising or the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536.  This is a time when Lord Thomas Cromwell has been executed for treason and Henry has moved on to wife number 5, Catherine Howard.  

I am only on page 40 and some of the same enemies of our narrator, Matthew Shardlake, introduced to us in Dark Fire are  mentioned in this third book in the mystery series, Sir Richard Rich, Stephen Bealknap, and the Duke of Norfolk.  Bealknap seems to be a fictional character unlike the other two. There is a new character in this novel, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer.  He was a friend of Cromwell's and an activist reformer who had renounced the Pope and performed the wedding ceremony of the King to Anne Boleyn. Shardlake finds himself once again having to take on a job he does not like for another Thomas, the said Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Cranmer has charged Shardlake, known for his discretion, and his assistant Barak to go to the north of England to ensure that a prisoner and rebel, Broderick, reaches the Tower of London safe and healthy, ironically, so that they can torture him  into revealing certain secrets.  Shardlake, who specializes in property law, is also in the north of England doing arbitration work with a senior lawyer. 

So far there are no dead bodies, no mystery for Shardlake to solve.  I have been captivated by this series since the club selected the first book for the book club discussion this month.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Historical Fiction Fan

I'm all finished with Dark Fire; a very satisfying ending.  I would give this second book in the Matthew Shardlake Mystery series 4 of 5 stars. I got impatient.  I thought the search for the truth about the formula for Dark Fire, also known as Greek Fire, was going on and on.  I was anxious to get to the resolution. I think that Dissolution was the better book though I see some reviewers disagree with me.  The Tudor period has become trendy now so I  have requested the third book from the Inter-library Loan service, Sovereign . This third book is supposed to be as good as or better than the first two books, or so I read on amazon.  I will find out all about  The Great Progress in British history and what new murder mysteries Shardlake and Barak have to solve.   The fourth book in the series is Revelation.   The fifth is Heartstone

While I wait for Sovereign to arrive, I am about to start Ken Follett's 940 page historical fiction,  Winter of the World, Book 2 of The Century Trilogy.  This book starts off in Germany in 1933.  It picks up where it left off in Fall of Giants which I read last July.  I will once again follow five inter-related families in America, Germany, Russia, England, Wales.  It's been a while.  I don't remember the characters.  According to what I wrote last year, the most likeable characters were the Welsh family, Ethel and Billy Williams specifically, and also the Russian Grigori so I look forward to reading this book. I am a fan of historical fiction.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Historical Fiction

If you ever decide to read historical fiction by C. J. Sansom, you need to read this revealing article  about him.    Surprisingly, he does not like the BBC dramatization of The Tudors. Also, I like this Carla Nayland Historical Fiction blog, it has a very good review of Dissolution, our book club pick.  She points out that the narrator and main character,Matthew Shardlake, is flawed.  He not only has a physical deformity, his character is not perfect.  He is a seeker of truth and justice and he is also a man of his time very conscious and accepting of the class distinctions in his society.   In terms of class, we see his reaction to Mark and Alice in the first book and his initial reaction to his assistant/body guard, Barak, in the second book.

I am still reading the second book in the Matthew Shardlake series, Dark Fire.   I think Sansom has been successful in portraying the 'worldview' at the time for his readers.  He captures Matthew's painful spasms, fears, uncertainties, class prejudices and  his experiences of rejection by women to whom he is attracted and superstition about his hunchback.  I am on page 372 and Elizabeth is sick in prison.  Guy is trying to cure her of her fever.  Elizabeth is speaking a little but in riddles, no one understands what she really means. Matthew is about to deceive Barak and in effect Lord Cromwell by allowing Guy to test a black liquid known as Dark Fire.  Very interesting.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Dark Fire by C. J. Sansom

I am on page 169 of Dark Fire by C. J. Sansom, an historical crime fiction.  The atmosphere in London in 1540, during the reign of King Henry V111, is one of fear, superstition, political and religious intrigue.   For several pages the writer's focus has been on finding the stolen formula for Greek Fire also known as Dark Fire, a flaming weapon of mass destruction that even burns in water, used by the Byzantine Empire.  The part of the story that really fascinates me is the alleged teen aged murderer, Elizabeth.  On page 157, the writer returns the focus to Elizabeth. Matthew Shardlake, Elizabeth's lawyer who is also the narrator of the story, is visiting Elizabeth's family to find out what really happened. One uncle portrays Elizabeth as bookish, a loner with an independent spirit and merry before she moved in with her extended family.  The other uncle portrays Elizabeth as a malapert, disobedient, and violent.  So did Elizabeth commit murder because she was jealous of her cousins or is she crazy? Or is she innocent? 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Dark Fire, Greek Fire

I have started reading Dark Fire, the second book in the Matthew Shardlake series.  You may remember the first book, Dissolution, was our book club selection for November 2012.  I so enjoyed the first book that I had to get this second in the series. In 2005, the author C. J. Sansom, won an award for this novel; the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award.

The setting is London in 1540.  King Henry V111 is on the throne for 31 years.  I am on page 91. There is an atmosphere of fear and intrigue in this period of history. Lord Cromwell is still the right hand man for the King but he fears the King.  Cromwell's fear is based on the anticipation of the fallout from the King's failing marriage. Cromwell had advised the King to marry a Princess from Germany, Anne of Cleves, but she is unattractive and has bad body odor.  Everyone seems to know that the King is flirting with a teenaged Katherine Howard.  Cromwell anticipates that the King may make this girl his fifth wife and the Howard family will become influential.  The family would encourage the King to bring back Catholicism to England and thus wipe out the gains made by the reformists.  Cromwell's deep seated fear is that the Howard family will get rid of him.

Matthew, the narrator, is disillusioned by religion in general and the reformists in particular and he fears Cromwell.  He is a lawyer working on a very strange criminal case involving the murder of a male child by his 18 year old female cousin, Elizabeth Wentworth. Elizabeth refuses to talk and he wants to plead insanity on her behalf but the Judge seems hell bent on torturing the teenager to death. 

Lo and behold, Matthew gets a reprieve that will give him time to investigate this murder. He finds out that the reprieve is thanks to Lord Cromwell.  Cromwell has given Matthew the mission of  finding a stolen formula for a weapon of mass destruction called Greek Fire.  Matthew is to be assisted by Jack Barak who seems to be Cromwell's "muscle".  Matthew suspects that Barak's real mission is to keep an eye on him because Cromwell trusts no one.

Guy Malton, the dark-skinned monk who we met in the first book in the series, Dissolution, is also a character in this book. He is an apothecary, what we now call a pharmacist, and a friend of Matthew.

Yes, this is a fascinating period of history and the mystery is about to get very intriguing as Matthew uses diplomacy and observation to investigate all the characters that may be behind the missing formula for Greek Fire.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Okefenokee Book Club Selections for 2012

These were our book club selections for the year.  My favorites were those books selected for February, June, July, October and November.

February 17

Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

March 16

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

April 20

The Alchemyst: the Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott

May 18

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

June 15

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

July 20

Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

August 17

Education of a Wandering Man by Louis L’Amour


September 21

Below Stairs by Margaret Powell

October 19

The Hangman’s Daughter by Olilver Potzsch

November 16

Dissolution by C. J. Sansom



Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Guest of Honor by Deborah Davis

On page 242 of Guest of Honor, we learn that Lulu Hadley, a white chambermaid, wrote a letter to the editor of Philadelphia North American  saying that the Negro was "a brute, ready to kill you when your back is turned."  She felt that Booker T. Washington was an uppity Negro who should know how to "stay in his place"  and that President Roosevelt should have been impeached.  This is just one example of the backlash as a result of the press reporting that President Roosevelt had dinner with his African American guest, Booker T. Washington, at the White House.

Surprisingly, despite the smear campaigns leading up to the elections of 1904 and the racist sentiments expressed, Roosevelt won a second term as President of the United States.  Roosevelt to his credit continued to discreetly consult with Booker T. about issues relating to African Americans in the South.

I am on page 255 on a chapter titled, Blindsided.  Here is some interesting information in light of today, election day.  Although big business had financed Roosevelt's campaign, big business was one of his targets for reform.  I am also learning in this chapter about the hostility between W.E. Dubois and Booker T. and how Dubois challenged Booker T.'s influence in the black community.  I am finding this bit of history as written by Deborah Davis fascinating. 

Monday, November 05, 2012

A Big Stink - Guest of Honor

"A Big Stink" is the Chapter title on page 203 of Guest of Honor by Deborah Davis.  Booker T. Washington was the guest of honor at a White House dinner hosted by Theodore Roosevelt on October 16, 1901.  The following day the Washington Post  had one line mentioning the event.  The Atlanta Constitution mentioned 4 important facts.  Firstly, the President had Booker T. at the White House for dinner.  Secondly, all the Roosevelt family was present at the table. Thirdly, Booker T. was in evening dress.  Finally, Booker T. was the first Negro ever entertained at the White House.

By October 17th, the language of the press in the South had changed for the worse. Concerns about miscegenation and the "Negro Aspiration" dominated in the South.   "....this is white man's country. President Roosevelt has committed a blunder that is worse than a crime." Roosevelt, in the minds of the Southerners, had subjected his womenfolk to the indignity of dining at the same table as a man of color. He had undermined family values in America merely by dining with Booker T.

Booker T.'s work as a respected educator was supposedly undone.  He was ridiculed and the negative language extended to Booker T's eldest daughter and the Roosevelt children.   This bit on the President's children reminded me of the big stink made in 2009 about an 11 year old Malia Obama wearing a simple T-shirt with a peace sign.

Even the black newspapers portrayed the dinner in a negative way.  The Charleston Messenger chastised Booker T. claiming that race relations in the South were wonderful before Booker T. came along and messed things up by accepting the dinner invitation.

The post dinner discussion even spread to Europe.  I am on page 217 and I am enjoying this fascinating period of social history as presented by Deborah Davis.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

My Dear Mr. President (Roosevelt, that is)

"Can a dinner change history?" That's the first sentence in the introduction to the book, Guest of Honor by Deborah Davis. This is about a dinner at the White House that shocked the nation.  It was hosted by President Theodore Roosevelt with Booker T. Washington as guest of honor on October 16, 1901.  Why was it shocking? Well this was because Booker T. was a man of color. Up to this point in history, no black man had ever been invited to have dinner at the White House so even Booker T. was shocked by the invitation.

The parallel lives of these two men is what this book is about. Two different races, two different social backgrounds yet they developed a special relationship.  I am on page 188.  Theodore Roosevelt wanted to combine business and pleasure so he extended the "scandalous" dinner invitation.  Booker T. would normally turn down social invitations of this kind to avoid crossing the color line. However this time, on his Tuskegee stationery, Booker T. accepted the invitation with the salutation, "My Dear Mr. President."

The book covers social history in a very interesting way, showing us life in the 19th to early 20th centuries.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

What are you reading?

I have just finished reading the historical fiction and murder mystery, Dissolution by C.J. Samson.  I would give this 4.5 stars.  I enjoyed the writing and learning about this period in history, the Reformation.  Dissolution is about dissolving the old way of life and making way for the new.  Unfortunately, some of the deceit and cruelty of the old way of life carried over into the new life. Historically, the Dissolution of the Monasteries was a time when King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries initially by forcing the monks to surrender the monasteries and later by encouraging the monks to voluntarily surrender the monasteries to the king .  The monasteries were considered places of deceit, idolatry, and fraud.  Thomas Cromwell, the King's chief secretary and vice general was determined to tear down the buildings, destroy the relics, and seize the land and give it to his cronies.  We will be discussing this book at our book club meeting this month.  This is a reading guide that we use.

I have two books I want to read next. I enjoyed the hunchbacked astute lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, and would like to read the next book in the series, Dark Fire.  However, I also want to read the latest Louise Penny murder mystery, The Beautiful Mystery, and coincidentally the setting for that novel is a monastery in Canada.  The monks in Dissolution were Benedictine monks and in Penny's story they are Gilbertine monks founded by St. Gilbert. My reading list is getting longer and longer.