30 April, 2015

Sovereign, by CJ Sansom. Book review

Pan, 2007. ISBN 978-0-330-43608-3. 653 pages

This historical mystery is the third in the Shardlake series, following on from Dissolution (review) and Dark Fire (review). Sovereign is set in York and London in September-November 1541, with an epilogue in February 1542. King Henry VIII, Queen Catherine Howard, Lady Jane Rochford and Archbishop Cranmer are important secondary characters. All the main characters are fictional.

After the horrors recounted in Dark Fire, lawyer Matthew Shardlake has built up a modestly prosperous property law practice in London, with Jack Barak (formerly one of Thomas Cromwell’s henchmen) employed as his clerk. When Shardlake accepts a seemingly straightforward task from Archbishop Cranmer, he finds out too late that it also involves a political mission, escorting an important prisoner from York to London. Arriving in York, Shardlake and Barak find the city and region seething with resentment and hostility to the King. The destruction of the monasteries and the sale of their vast land holdings to absentee landlords, mainly in London, has not only wrecked the regional economy as the new landlords siphon the rents south, but also removed the safety net for those left destitute. Only a few months earlier a conspiracy against the King was discovered, throwing the London government into a panic and provoking King Henry to undertake a huge armed progress through the north of England. Shardlake’s prisoner was part of this conspiracy, and is to face torture in the Tower of London to force him to betray his associates. Shardlake, a humane man, is distressed by his mission and by the obvious injustice of the treatment of the North. And then a murder and a chance encounter bring Shardlake and Barak into possession of not one but two secrets perilously close to the throne. As events unfold, Shardlake uncovers a secret that threatens to plunge England into chaos and civil war – and he has powerful enemies at court who have a terrifying fate in store for him...

This third instalment in the Shardlake series is even darker than the first two. Corruption and cruelty are pervasive, and Shardlake finds out – personally, in one of the most harrowing sequences in the book – that honesty and justice do not necessarily provide any protection. His disillusion with both religion and royalty, developing through the first two novels as he witnessed abuses of power, is now complete. Shardlake is a decent man living in evil times, when integrity and a strong moral sense can carry a very high price. Several years ago when I reviewed Dissolution, I said ‘I will be interested to see how (if?) Shardlake and his principles manage to navigate the rest of Henry’s increasingly tyrannical reign’. In Sovereign, this is thrown into sharp relief.

The plot is suitably complex, with multiple strands that cut across one another. Some are connected and some are purely coincidental, providing ample scope for red herrings and false leads to keep the reader guessing. Whether the ancient rumours on which the main plot turns would really have been enough to threaten Henry VIII is hard to say. On the one hand, the dearth of alternative candidates – the nearest direct heir was a Cardinal in Rome – would surely have given pragmatists pause. On the other, Henry had made a great many enemies as a result of his marital antics, religious power-grab and increasingly tyrannical rule, and at least two serious rebellions had already been attempted (the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 and the conspiracy in 1541). Given Henry’s caprice and paranoia, it is entirely plausible that such rumours could have been extremely dangerous to those who happened upon them (regardless of whether there was actually a credible threat to Henry himself).

I was pleased to see Jack Barak back again, after his introduction in Dark Fire. This time he has a challenge of his own, a sparky young woman who works as a confectioner and seamstress for one of Queen Catherine’s ladies. It will be interesting to see if Barak is luckier in love than Shardlake has been so far – though I have to say I can’t really imagine Barak as a steady family man.

Like the previous two, the novel is very long and the pace is stately, even slow. This partly reflects Shardlake’s methodical nature; he seems to observe even attempts on his life in meticulous detail. The slow pace and the length allows plenty of space for historical detail about life at various levels of society under Henry’s rule.

A helpful historical note at the end outlines the background to the Progress, the northern rebellions and the rumours about the Tudor family tree, and there is a bibliography of selected further reading. A map at the front showing the layout of York in 1541 is helpful to follow the scenes in the city, and another map outlines the route of the Progress and Shardlake’s voyage from York to London for readers unfamiliar with English geography.

Dark historical mystery set against the cruelty and corruption of England during the later years of Henry VIII’s reign.

31 March, 2015

A Murder of Crows, by PF Chisholm. Book review

Poisoned Pen Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-59058-737-9. 253 pages.

This historical mystery is set in London in 1592. Sir Robert Carey, his father Lord Hunsdon (cousin of Queen Elizabeth I through his mother Mary Boleyn), his father Lady Hunsdon, Robert Cecil, Vice Chamberlain Heneage, Will Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe are all historical figures and major characters. The central character, Land-Sergeant Henry Dodd of Gilsland on the Anglo-Scottish border, is fictional.

Tough Borderer Henry Dodd wants vengeance on Vice Chamberlain Heneage for the injuries he sustained in an earlier adventure. He has reluctantly been persuaded that the way such matters are handled in the strange foreign world of London is by suing Heneage in the law courts, rather than by the traditional Border method of burning Heneage’s property and stealing his livestock. Dodd has little faith in this peculiar southern system but is prepared to give it a try. However, no lawyer in London is willing to accept the commission, even for the handsome fee offered by Lord Hunsdon – until a young Cornish lawyer offers to take the case with suspicious eagerness. Meanwhile, Lord Hunsdon wants Carey and Dodd to solve the mystery of an  unknown corpse with no feet that has washed up on the Palace steps. And to complicate matters further, Carey’s formidable mother Lady Hunsdon arrives unexpectedly in London with business of her own that will get Dodd and Carey into still more trouble.

PF Chisholm is a pen name of Patricia Finney, who has written several novels set in Elizabethan England. A Murder of Crows is the fifth in a series of historical mysteries starring Sir Robert Carey and Henry Dodd. I didn’t know that when I picked this up, and haven’t read any of the others. This one seemed to work perfectly well as a stand-alone, although there were probably references to the previous books that I missed.

The vigorous, chaotic and ruthless world of Elizabethan London is brilliantly realised in this entertaining mystery. The glittering snake-pit of the court sits cheek-by-jowl with the criminal underworld, and which has the more cheats, liars, thieves and murderers is anyone’s guess.

The plot is complicated, with several intertwining sub-plots involving political rivalry, financial scams, secret codes, murder, torture and mistaken identity. Both playwrights, Shakespeare and Marlowe, are engaged in various degrees of shady espionage work for patrons unknown, the young Cornish lawyer James Enys is not what he seems, and both Lord and Lady Hunsdon have something to hide. I soon gave up trying to work out who was double-crossing whom, and just went along for the highly enjoyable ride as the dour and very practical Sergeant Dodd works out the solution and brings matters to a satisfactory conclusion.

Although it is billed as ‘A Sir Robert Carey Mystery’, Robert Carey himself is rather a secondary character, and events are almost all seen through the eyes of Henry Dodd. This adds a wonderfully surreal note of comedy to the mayhem, as Dodd views London, with its commerce and courtly shenanigans, through the prism of Border reiver ways – which prove more applicable than one might imagine. Dodd’s speculations about the practicalities of staging a reiving raid on London form a running joke throughout the novel. He has a healthy lack of respect for some of the fripperies of London life, such as the uncomfortable clothes and self-important courtiers, but is developing a reluctant taste for some of its luxuries, like tobacco and a ready supply of apples (which are rare on the Borders, owing to the reivers’ habit of destroying orchards along with everything else). Dodd’s wry humour and down-to-earth attitude make him a splendid guide to Elizabethan London. Other than Dodd, the most memorable character is Lady Hunsdon, here imagined in the entertaining if somewhat unlikely guise of a lady privateer – a sort of Cornish Grace O’Malley commanding a tough crew of pirates. I have to say I didn’t find this terribly convincing, but it was great fun.

A Murder of Crows is full of historical detail, usually either worked into the plot (e.g. paper is extremely expensive, which leads Dodd to an important clue) or to develop character, such as Dodd’s musings on the contrasts between life in London and life on the Borders. Period terminology and slang adds atmosphere. There is a glossary of period terms at the back for readers who are unfamiliar with them. I worked most of them out from context, which is just as well as I didn’t find the glossary until I finished the book. Regional accents indicate the various characters’ origins and social position, with Cockney, Cumbrian and Cornish alongside formal court English.

Entertaining murder mystery set in Elizabethan London against the murky backdrop of court factions and dubious financial dealings.

28 March, 2015

March recipe: Bakewell tart

Bakewell tart
Bakewell tart is a jam- or fruit-filled almond tart. It may be derived from the Bakewell pudding, a sort of almond custard pudding traditionally considered to have been invented by mistake in the early nineteenth century at a hotel in Bakewell*, Derbyshire.

There are many variations of Bakewell tart. Some recipes use puff pastry for the base, some insist on a specific type of jam for the filling, some use fruit instead of jam, some use breadcrumbs instead of flour in the almond sponge. The version I make uses shortcrust pastry and whatever jam I have to hand, which in turn usually depends on what soft fruit was most abundant the previous summer. The tart in the photograph is filled with blackcurrant jam. Here’s the recipe.

Bakewell tart

4 oz (approx 100 g) plain flour
1 oz (approx 25 g) lard
1 oz (approx 25 g) butter

Approximately 3 generous Tablespoons (3 x 15 ml spoons) jam of your choice
2 oz (approx 50 g) butter
2 oz (approx 50 g) light brown soft sugar
2 eggs
2 oz (approx 50 g) plain flour
2 oz (approx 50 g) ground almonds

First make the pastry. Rub the butter and lard into the flour until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.

Mix with a little cold water to a soft dough. If it is flaky, add a little more water; if it is sticky add a little more flour.

Or you could use ready-made shortcrust pastry if you prefer.

Roll out the pastry on a floured work surface and use it to line a shallow tart dish about 7” (approx 18 cm) diameter.

Spread the jam over the pastry in an even layer.

Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.

Beat in the egg.

Stir in the flour and ground almonds.

Spread the mixture evenly over the jam and level the surface.

Bake the tart in a hot oven at approximately 200 C for about 25 - 30 minutes, until the filling is set and pale golden.

Serve warm or cold, with pouring cream, whipped cream or ice cream.

I expect to get about 6 slices out of a tart this size, but that depends on how large a slice you like.

The tart will keep in an airtight tin for several days, or can be frozen.

*Bakewell is a pretty small town in the beautiful Peak District National Park, and probably makes an appearance as Lambton in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

28 February, 2015

The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman. Book review

Doubleday 2012. ISBN 978-0-857-52100-2. 362 pages

The Light Between Oceans is set in Western Australia in 1918–1930 with an epilogue in 1950. All the characters and events are fictional.

Tom Sherbourne, veteran of the First World War, is now keeper of the lighthouse on lonely Janus Rock, situated a hundred miles off the south-western coast of Australia where the Indian Ocean and Southern Ocean meet. The steady rhythm of tending to the light begins to heal the scars of war, and when Tom falls in love with the beautiful and lively Isabel and brings her to the island as his wife, their happiness seems complete. But Isabel, who longs for a child, suffers a series of miscarriages, and the repeated tragedies take a heavy psychological toll on her. So when a rowing boat containing a dead man and a healthy baby washes up on Janus, to Isabel it seems like a miraculous answer to her prayers. Tom knows he should report it – somewhere there may be a mother grieving for the lost baby in the boat – but can he bring himself to deprive his beloved Isabel of the child she yearns for?

This book was described to me as ‘a real tear-jerker’ and there are certainly some emotional scenes. I can’t describe the central emotional dilemma without spoilers so I won’t say what happens – only that good people, all acting with good intentions, manage to create a situation that is bound to be heartbreaking for somebody and might well be a tragedy for everybody. At the heart of the novel is the question: given that this impossible situation has arisen, what to do for the best? Readers may not necessarily agree with the various characters’ answers to that question – and indeed some will probably find some of them incomprehensible or even reprehensible. But the novel does an excellent job of making the people and their conflicts feel very real.

All the main characters are fully developed as individuals with their own personalities, their own vulnerabilities, hopes and fears, and a mix of appealing and not-so-appealing characteristics. For example, Isabel’s liveliness, irreverence and youthful enthusiasm make her attractive – I can see why the older and more reserved Tom falls head-over-heels for her – but she also has a childish egotism that leads her to some distinctly unpleasant actions. Tom’s sense of right and duty, and his desire to protect Isabel and make her happy, are appealing, but his half-baked attempts to do the right thing without hurting Isabel seem ill-thought-out at best – it’s clear that he did not intend to be cruel, and yet it’s hard to see what other effect it could have had.

The other characters are equally distinctive, from the captain and crew of the store boat that is the only link between Janus Rock and the mainland to the humane local police sergeant.

Landscapes are also vividly described, from the isolation of Janus Rock surrounded only by ocean and stars to the mainland forests with their populations of exotic birds and animals. Western Australia was totally unknown to me before I started reading this book, so I had only the descriptions on the page to create a picture in the imagination. Readers who know the area will be able to assess whether the descriptions are accurate; all I can say is that they successfully created a ‘virtual world’ to step into. I have no idea whether Janus Rock really exists or not, but it certainly exists within the pages of the novel.

There’s a useful map at the front of the book for readers who, like me, are unfamiliar with the geography of Western Australia. As almost all the events take place either on Janus or in the small mainland town of Partageuse the map isn’t really needed to follow most of the book, though it was useful for me to be able to look up the location of the epilogue.

Compelling tale of people caught in an emotional and moral dilemma of their own making, where there are no easy solutions and no right answers.