Origin by Dan Brown

If there’s one thing I really enjoy, it’s a page-turner of a book and, Dan Brown’s latest Robert Langdon mystery, Origin, is certainly that. Park your bottom, pour a coffee, wine or beverage of choice, put on the lamp, and begin…

Once again, the quiet, Mickey-Mouse watch-wearing Professor of Symbology, Robert Langdon (and now I always picture the wonderful Tom Hanks), is in the wrong place at the right time – the right time to thrust him into the middle of a murder investigation with potentially catastrophic, future-of-humanity-is-at-stake, life-changing consequences.

Attending the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, to hear a former student of his, Edmond Kirsch, deliver a speech he claims “will change the face of science forever”, by delivering the answers to two fundamental questions that have perplexed scientists, religious minds and philosophers for centuries, what Langdon doesn’t expect is the murder and mayhem that unfolds. Though, really, on past experiences (I’m thinking Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol and Inferno) maybe he should.

After all, Edmond, a computer and high-tech genius who has made dazzling and accurate predictions for over twenty years that have gained him a global cult following, is no stranger to controversy. Not afraid to poke a religious hornet’s nest, the book opens with Edmond baiting three religious leaders by allowing them a preview of what he intends to release. For such a smart man, this seems like a dumb move as there are those among the faithful who will do anything to ensure his discovery is never revealed.

When the presentation to the world goes horribly wrong, it becomes a race against time as Professor Langdon (and his trusty watch), a beautiful female side-kick (is there any other kind?) and a very sophisticated piece of technology, work to ensure Edmond’s discovery is made public. As much as the good Professor and his helpers seek to do what they believe is right, there are those working against them who believe the same thing and will stop at nothing to ensure they fail, even if it means more bloodshed.

In the meantime, all eyes are turned to Spain – as conspiracy theories and theorists, a growing media pack, denizens of the internet and a digital and real audience simultaneously commentate upon what is happening.

Gaudi’s, Sagrada Familia

There’s no doubt, Brown has perfected the art of making sure his reader is hooked. Fast-paced, filled with didactic speeches (that are nevertheless interesting and entertaining), that reveal religion and science to be both juxtaposed and yet, not as polemically situated as one might think, Langdon’s mission is, indeed, an ideological game-changer… or is it? Tapping into the zeitgeist, Brown ensures that the questions tormenting many in the world at present such as the role of religion and faith in a technologically-savvy, rational world that constantly seeks proof and wonders can these two oppositional ways of thinking ever find common ground, are asked. Required to suspend your disbelief (which is fine), there are some strange plot points that frustrate rather than illuminate, and so impact upon the overall believability, even within this genre, of the sometimes OTT actions and consequences. Mind you, the glorious descriptions of Antoni Gaudi’s works does go someway to compensating.

As is often the case, the journey to uncover answers is often more exciting and revealing than the destination. Still, there is much to enjoy about a book that excites the mind and the mind’s eye, turns an academic into, if not a super-hero, then certainly a hero and, it seems, religious authorities into villains while concurrently overturning a great many expectations. There’s also a satisfying twist that many might see coming, but that doesn’t reduce the impact.

Overall, another fun, well-paced, Robert Langdon adventure, replete with groans, dad-jokes, and some fabulous facts. I hope he takes us on a few more.

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Book Review: The Marriage Game by Alison Weir

Having read many of Alison Weir’s non-fiction books and thoroughly enjoying her fictive spin on the early years of Elizabeth Ist, I was looking forward to reading The Marriage GaThe Marriage Gameme, which covers the years Elizabeth was upon the English throne.

Taking as its main focus Elizabeth’s Privy Council’s and, indeed, the entire Parliament and country’s obsession with her need to get married and produce an heir, and the queen’s attempts to fob them off through procrastination, broken promises, assurances and games as it’s premise, the novel also highlights the steamy and stormy relationship between Elizabeth and her favourite courtier, Robert Dudley.

It’s clear that Weir knows her history. As her wonderful non-fiction books attest (The Life of Elizabeth I and The Princes in the Tower are my favourites), she uses her formidable understanding of Elizabethan politics and times to infuse the novel with veritas, even using direct speech from reports and letters of the times and known events to add grist to her marriage mill. The reader is drawn into Elizabeth’s world, its male-dominated court and the religious and global politics that threaten and sustain its power. A constant balancing act is required (by the author, reader and the characters) which means the queen and her council must be both vigilant and yet warm towards the various international diplomats that populate the court – offering salves to wounded pride, playing various proposals and dignitaries off against each other and trying to second guess intentions.

Mercurial and demanding, Elizabeth is the heart and soul of this story, as indeed she was of the times (they’re not recalled as the Elizabethan period for no reason). Yet, it’s hard to like this vain queen or the men who surround her. Self-interest is paramount and weasel words are currency.

We know from history that Elizabeth was a difficult and selfish woman who would readily strike those who displeased her, send people to the tower for marrying without permission (even those without royal blood) and who saw most other women as potential competition and so banned them from court. She struggled with ageing (in that, she was very like many modern women, which reveals struggling with growing older isn’t necessarily a contemporary preoccupation) and was concerned not be redundant. Encouraging flattery, she also doled it out and was a flirt par excellence, even as an older woman – these are all facts.

While the queen’s relationship with Dudley, who she later made the Earl of Leicester, is also well documented, in this novel, Weir delves into the emotional and physical bonds that both connect the pair and drive them apart. From the first days of Elizabeth’s rule to Dudley’s death, she fictively explores their tempestuous and imbalanced relationship.

Yet, for all the veracity of this book and the fine writing, the weaving of fact and fiction, the hardest thing for the reader is the undeniable reality that the lead character, good Queen Bess, is an outright bitch. She is not sympathetic or kind, but narcissistic, wilful, a bully, and manipulative. She uses people for her own ends, is masterful with words and wields them as weapons to wound and control and contrive outcomes she desires. Though this may have been politic and Elizabeth’s only means of asserting authority and influence, it works better in non-fiction than fiction where what’s being told is essentially both a love story and an anti-love story. Likewise, Dudley is a dud who obeys his monarch at the expense of dignity, self-respect and, in the end, his family. History is kinder to these pair than this book, that’s for certes!

So, while I enjoyed Weir’s version – and for me the second half of the book was better than the first – I prefer the way history books recall Elizabeth – as a potent political force, faults and all – than this particular piece of (romantic?) fiction.

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Book Review: The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory

I thoroughly enjoyed this revisioning of the early years of Catalina of Spain who would later be known as Catherine of Aragon, the long-suffering first wife of King Henry VIII. AnThe Constant Princess (The Tudor Court, #1) often silent and very religious presence in many fictive accounts, a woman who stood by Henry for over twenty-seven years before her marriage to him was ended in tumultuous circumstances, resulting in not just the rendering of her only living child to Henry, Mary, a bastard, but the over-turning of the Catholic faith in England, Catherine as a person remains an unknown quantity. She also tends to hover in the margins when it comes to Henry’s reign and his other wives and the fate that befell them, especially Anne Boleyn, the women who took Catherine’s throne and husband and whose daughter went on to become the “Virgin Queen”, Elizabeth 1st.

Well, Gregory sets about to change that, presenting readers with a delightful account of Catherine’s unconventional childhood, as the much-loved younger daughter of Isabelle and Philip of Spain. Possessed of bellicose parents whose ambitions were to conquer and claim lands and people, Catalina’s girlhood was spent in military encampments, always on the move until, finally, her parents settled. Though they tried to destroy the Moors and suborn them to their faith, they end up adopting many of the habits of those they try to oppress. Catalina carries an appreciation for the skills, hygiene, knowledge and artistry of the Moors and Islam her entire life.

Revelling in her privilege as a princess – the Infanta – Catalina is also raised to understand she is destined to be the Princess of Wales and eventually Queen of England and it is to Arthur, eldest son of Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of England that she is betrothed. But this is no love match for, like many young noble women, Catalina is but a pawn in a long political game.

For those of you who don’t know the history of Catherine and Arthur and Henry – please read no further. For those of you who do, the book remains true to events, but offers readers of the period something more.

Arthur tragically dies after only a brief few months of marriage, and Catherine eventually becomes the wife of his younger brother, Henry. What Gregory does, is present the relationship between Catherine and Arthur in an interesting light – very different to other accounts both historical and fictive (though, as I inferred above, in many ways this period of Catherine’s life (let alone the figure of Arthur) is barely addressed by other writers except as a footnote).

After Arthur dies, Catherine loses her position at court and, in many ways, her identity as well and in a ruthless way determines to have both restored. From this point on in the novel, it could have been subtitled: “I Wanna Marry Harry”, so single of purpose was the young Infanta.

The story of Catherine’s patience, of the way she deals with hostile forces at court (mainly Henry’s grandmother and later, father) and how she eventually triumphs is wonderfully done.

Segueing from third person to first person point of view, we get that omniscient narration of events as well as personal and sometimes heart-breaking accounts. There were points at which the first-person parts grew repetitive and a bit tedious, but more often they offered insights into the emotional and psychological energy and passion of this remarkable woman.

Henry is also presented in a different light – as the selfish, bombastic and indulged king historians have long known he was.  Playing to his strengths and indulging his weaknesses (of which there are so many), pandering to her husband to get her own way, Catherine is presented as a strategist par excellence but one with a heart and a conflicted soul.

Capable, shrewd, loving and forgiving, one of the most affecting things about the novel is those of us familiar with her story know how it will end. Gregory does well to finish the book as she does and leave readers with a sense of satisfaction rather than desperation for the woman at its centre. You cannot help but love Catherine and loathe the forces that dealt her such a cruel blow and the people that ensured where and when it would land.

A fabulous read for lovers of history and a great story about a woman of substance.

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Book Review: Shakespeare’s Rebel by C.C. Humphreys

I wasn’t at all sure I was going to like this book though I immediately loved the setting, the language and way the two worked together to draw the reader into the intoxicating, dirty, dashing and dangerous world of late Elizabethan England. Part of the reason for my uncertainty was the lead character, John Lawley. In some ways meant to encapsulate the “renaissance man”, albeit, not a noble or an aristocratic one, Lawley is a drunkard who, above all, periodically indulges in month-long benders and consequently lets down anyone17315211 and everyone in his life. He is also an expert swordsman and brave soldier who in the past accompanied Robert Devereux, the Earl Of Essex and the Queen’s young favourite, to Spain and was by his side during other skirmishes, thus earning praise and a reputation as loyal and courageous.

Despite all this, there is something not quite loveable about Lawley. He is neither rake nor rogue, ethical or ideologically driven. In fact, for a man who has done so much and has so many strings to his bow, as well as important and influential people on his radar, he is remarkably bland and, though you don’t dislike him, I found I couldn’t really like him either and that was disappointing as I desperately wanted to.

Lawley stumbles from one bad choice to another. Wanting nothing more than to work with his beloved Will Shakespeare and the players at the globe, prevent the love of his life and mother of his son from making a disastrous marriage, Lawley tries to pick up the pieces of his life and start again. His first effort is to get sober. However, with war in Ireland looming, and the Queen and her sidekick, Robert Cecil determined to use his connections to the Earl of Essex (Devereux) for their own ends, Lawley is just a pawn in a game he has no choice but to play – and it seems lose.

As events spiral out of control, it looks as though Lawley is destined to lose everything he cares about – his love, son, and reputation – even Shakespeare, his most loyal friend, is growing tired of his inconstancy, of his disappearances without explanation or apparent motive (the reader can get annoyed with these too). But we soon learn not to underestimate this man, even when in his cups, as Lawley has resources and skills that no-one (save his closest friend) know about and if he can just suppress his desire for whiskey long enough, evade those who seek him, and rescue those who need him, he might even get the chance to prove himself and, as the blurb on the book promises, save England as well.

This is a good book that has some really exciting parts and some, for me, frankly dull ones as well. C.C. Humphreys manages to capture the period so well. His use of language, the rich dialogue and manner of the characters simply flows and captivates. The streets of London, of Southbank, the wilds of Ireland and the darkened offices of Cecil and other grisly locations are all beautifully realised. The life of the actors and theatre associates as well as the inner workings of the theatre are also fabulously woven (not surprising when you read about the author’s background which also explain his wonderful use of language and why sword fights dominate the book). What dragged a bit for me were the sword fighting scenes which I’ve no doubt someone who understands fencing would greatly appreciate, but for an ingénue, they went on far too long and were hard to imagine. They interrupted the flow of the narrative. Likewise, the descriptions of Lawley on benders or the constant refrain of his desire for alcohol were overdone to my taste (pardon the pun). Likewise, the love story resolved itself far too quickly in relation to the tensions that were set up, but I am being very picky.

Overall, I enjoyed this action-driven book and really appreciated the way a period I am growing to love very much was brought to life.

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Book Review: The Elizabethans by A.N Wilson

After some quite shaky moments where I wanted to hurl this book from my sight, I ended up thoroughly enjoying and learning from A.N. Wilson’s, The Elizabethans, a rigorous and highly entertaining study of England and its people throughout the long reign of Elizabeth the First.

The book commences with a statement that rapidly needed explication: that is, that we are only now, in the Twenty-First Century, seeing the end of the Elizabethan world. Startled by this observation at first, I then understood what was meant, as in the first two chapters Wilson quickly covers Elizabeth’s disastrous campaigns in Ireland and attempt to oppress and subjugate its peoples before examining the beginnings of English expansion and colonialism in the New World. Shocking the reader with some cold, hard facts about E11733162nglish geographical growth and plans for domination (I think one of the terms used was “Seeding” – but that may have been another book) it soon becomes clear that Wilson is being deliberately provocative in order to insist the reader suspend contemporary judgement and the sins of “isms” (racism, sexism, classism etc.): that we view the Elizabethan world through Elizabethan eyes, politics, religious upheavals and belief systems and that we, as far as possible, withhold judgement (and for the sake of better words, “politically correct” assumptions and thus criticisms about actions and decisions – though this is very, very hard) and instead seek to immerse ourselves in this rich, brutal, decadent, paranoid, artistic and amazing time.

While I initially struggled with some of Wilson’s assumptions (and though he is an historian, he makes many, liberally sprinkling the text with terms like “possibly” and “maybe” and words that, as one chapter is titled (borrowing a quote from Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queen), lie “twixt earnest and twixt game”, sitting somewhere between fact and writerly elaboration) – let me give you an example of one of the worst.

It happens on page 207. This is where I almost put the book down never to pick it up again. In chapter 17, when writing about Sir Philip Sidney and Ireland, Wilson discusses William of Orange and the Protestant upheavals in the Netherlands:

“English involvement in the Low Counties was something about which Queen Elizabeth nursed ambivalent feelings. In the years 1585-6 the English soldiers serving there, and the people of the Netherlands, suffered acutely from an excess display of all her worst character traits – vacillation, tight-fistedness, hysterical rages. Presumably [another one of those twixt words] the ill-fated campaigns in which thousands of Englishman, including Sir Philip Sidney, perished coincide with her menopause (my emphasis).”

Yes, you read it right. I was astounded. Elizabeth’s menopause was the reason so many men died and suffered needlessly? Good God.

After my initial shock at this blatant, frankly offensive and bold postulation, I found myself reconsidering how to read and respond to the book. The information is wonderful, the scope wide and fascinating and the characters that people this landscape so interesting. Sure, Wilson peppers the history with his observations and witticisms and, frankly, obvious adoration for as well as somewhat misogynistic attitude towards Queen Elizabeth, but it was like being in the presence of a really, really knowledgeable professor at university who discourses freely around a subject about which he knows a great deal and isn’t afraid to offer his own opinion and interpretation of people and events. I imagined him pausing or raising an eyebrow, daring a response with a twinkle in his eye (yeah, I know, I am now twixting). In other words, I felt he was challenging us to think, pushing us to move outside known historical squares and ruminate on what might have been… even menopause, I guess…

Instead of continuing to be offended or concerned, I chose to sit back and go along for the ride, enjoying the gossip, his asides, the facts, the summations and learning more about Elizabeth, Dudley, Dee, Essex, Burghley, Hawkins, Walsingham, Marlowe, Jonson, Sidney, Harrington, Lyly, Campion, Raleigh, Burbage and so many more than I might have from a more, shall we say, circumspect book or author (and I have read and enjoyed many).

The times are beautifully evoked – from the narrow dirty streets of London, the sermons at St Paul’s, the lawlessness of Bankside and the Stews, the piracy and profligacy – and not just of Drake, Raleigh et. al., to the dreadful conditions of the poor who suffered more than any others through plagues and failed harvests and the ravages of constant threat of invasion and wars offshore. The religious schism of the times, the ideological fracturing that occurred and the people that both fell into and profited from the cracks that followed are beautifully and imaginatively rendered.

By the time I finished, I found I really, really liked this book. Furthermore, I liked Wilson and his historical chutzpah – comments about women and menopause and the attribution of blame (as well as other problematic and taxing statements) aside. That he concludes the book by referring to Elizabeth as a distinguished monarch (even with all her flaws and faults) who the British can thank for the country (or, I guess, curse) they live in now reveals the esteem in which he holds this woman of history, but it’s not an esteem that is without qualification or, as I said, awareness of her very real failings. Wilson wears his little British heart on his leather-padded elbow sleeve and I admire him for it.

Wilson is the sort of bloke I wish I’d had as my history lecturer – and I had some marvellous ones. If you want to take a confronting, rollicking and always interesting ride through Elizabethan times, then this is the book for you.

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