Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

Here are two reviews of historian and fiction writer, Ian Mortimer’s wonderful book written six years apart. I first read this book in 2013 – not once, but twice, when researching my medieval novel, The Brewer’s Tale. I loved it then and enjoyed it even more now as I commence research for my next fictional foray into medieval England and Europe with my new novel, tentatively entitled The Mostly True Story of the Wife of Bath. So expect a great many works of non-fiction about these times and fiction set in this period as well to be reviewed over the next few months!

Original review written in 2013: Historian Ian Mortimer does something really interesting with this book: he sets out to recreate the period (the Fourteenth Century) as if he were writing a travel book for tourists as opposed to researching and explaining a forgotten time. In other words, he places the reader in the moment, advising you where to go, what to see, how to behave, speak, dress and what to expect should you happen to have the good fortune to be transported back to not-so-merry old England in the 1300s. 

After my second reading of this book in less than a year, I wish I had access to Dr Who’s Tardis because, with Mortimer’s well-thumbed book under my arm, I would head straight for Exeter, where the book opens, prepared for the ordure of the aptly named, Shitbrook, the breath-taking sight of the cathedral, avert my eyes from the remains of criminals clinging to the gallows, and be careful not to stare at the bright and strange clothes the people are wearing, while tripping along the cobbles, one hand firmly on my money so a cut-purse does not take it. 

Like many contemporary historians, Mortimer believes in social history, reconstructing the past in order to understand how it was lived and not simply by kings, queens, monks, lawyers and nobles, those who have left records of their deeds and desires for us to absorb and through which we judge them. Instead, Mortimer turns to all classes and all experiences and takes the reader on a magnificent and fascinating journey back to a character-filled society with its own delights and dangers. It was so good the first time, I did it again and liked it even better. 

Explaining where to stay, how to tell the time, greet people (Eg. “fellow or friend, ye be welcome”), about the sumptuary laws, what certain coins look like and what you might be able to buy and where, what diseases we might succumb to if we’re not careful, what we might be served and how to eat it whether it be in an inn, a peasant’s house or a king’s castle (all of which are thoroughly described as if you’re on a guided tour), Mortimer runs the gamut of class and place in this vivid recreation that is at once hugely informative and always vastly entertaining. 

Even how to avoid running foul of the law and what punishment might be meted out is made clear as well as the significance of religious observances. Medieval humour is also explored as well as, for those so inclined, where you might find the best er hum, sexual services (Southwark, the Stews, or specific areas in London, in case you wanted to know). He also discusses how to entertain ourselves while we’re there (the Stews aside) and who, among the great figures known to us now, we might expect to encounter on our journey – Geoffrey Chaucer anyone? He has rooms above Aldgate. 
Just when you think you’ve stepped back into the present, Mortimer will remind you to take a deep breath and stop. Listen, he advises. What do we hear? Very little. Maybe some bells, the sounds of birds and animals and, above all, the chatter and clutter of people should we be near a town or city. Or, if present at a joust, the thunder of hooves. The medieval world is a very quiet place, something I hadn’t considered, along with many of the other preconceptions and yes, prejudices I had about this period and which Mortimer’s grandest of tours manages to overturn. 

If you’re looking for a book that will literally transport you to another time and place, than I cannot recommend this one highly enough. A fabulous read. 

Review written March 2019: Having just reread this marvellous book, I have to change my rating to five plus stars. This was even better on a third read. Immersive, dark and wondrous, Mortimer really does bring alive aspects of the calamitous Fourteenth century and the people who inhabited this era.

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Tombland: A Shardlake Novel #7 by C.J. Sansom

For anyone who loves a great novel and especially those who love historical fiction and haven’t yet read a C.J. Sansom Shardlake book, stop what you’re doing now and grab a copy of the first, Dissolution. I only suggest that so by the time you get to Sansom’s latest, Tombland, you not only have a full appreciation of the imaginative scope and the character arcs in these novels, but also the historical backdrop in which these wonderful adventures featuring the intrepid and kind hunchback lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, are set.

The latest in the series, Tombland, an epic at over 800 pages, is also an absolute masterpiece. Set two years after the death of Henry VIII, in the Spring of 1549 during the Protectorate and young King Edward’s reign, this novel follows Matthew and his assistant Nicholas, as they’re called to investigate a distant relative of young Princess Elizabeth (recently involved in a shameful incident with the former queen’s husband, Thomas Seymour), who has been accused of murder and is imprisoned in Norwich. Elizabeth has no desire to be openly involved, but is determined to get to the truth of the accusation and help a family member. Left with no choice but to obey the unusual request, Shardlake and Nicholas head north-east, keen to get out of London, if not to become embroiled in royal antics and politics anymore. However, they assure themselves that the case doesn’t appear complicated and they shouldn’t be occupied with it for too long.

Naturally, we know they’ve spoken too soon.

Not only is the case involving John Boleyn far more complicated than Shardlake first hoped, but while they’re preoccupied with proving John Boleyn’s innocence, East Anglia erupts into violence as a peasant rebellion lead by a landowner, Robert Kett, begins.

The more Shardlake tries to stay remote from the peasant rebellion, the more he and his friends are drawn into it, including Barak (who is in the area for the assizes). Witnessing great cruelty, corruption, bravery and kindness, Shardlake is tested in so many ways. Not only is his loyalty to king and country put on the line but that to his closest and dearest of friends as well. Shardlake quickly learns that being a lawyer and gentleman can be more dangerous than he ever would have believed.

Set against the backdrop of a genuine and little-known rebellion, and at a time when the English currency was debased, inflation on the rise and the English people suffering the catastrophic effects of an ongoing war with Scotland and France as well as poor harvests, by injecting Shardlake into a relatively obscure part of English history, Sansom has brought it to life in such a majestic and yet devastating way. Through Shardlake’s eyes, we see the desperation, suffering of the English poor as well as their blind faith in their king to do the right thing by them. The way in which they felt they’d no choice but to rebel and even so, did all in their power to adhere to a code of conduct that would impress their sovereign, is heart-wrenching. So are the consequences of their actions.

Whether it’s intimate scenes between friends, or an interrogation that Sansom writes or sweeping battles, the reader is in the heart of the story and it’s an aching one that leaves you wanting both more and less.

Having said that, I couldn’t put this book down and I didn’t want it to end either. Shardlake’s world, while cruel, contrary and riddled with injustices, is also rich and fascinating. Moreso, because we are guided through it by one of the best characters in historical fiction today – the ethical and compassionate, wise and good-humoured, self-reflective Shardlake.

Sansom’s PhD in history really comes to the fore here as he uses – not just history, but a sense of its continuity and relevance to today, inviting us to immerse ourselves in the moments, all of which propels his story along. As a bonus, readers are treated to an essay on the actual events from Sansom at the back of the book and it so worth reading. There is also a recommended book list and sources. I loved discovering how and where he used actual events and people in his tale and where he inserted Shardlake – who, despite being fictional, appears seamlessly.

I cannot recommend this book or series highly enough. I can’t even say these books get better and better because they’ve always been of such an impossibly high standard – and in Tombland, this has been more than maintained.

My only disappointment is I now have to wait (im)patiently for the next one.  A tremendous read – inspirational, unforgettable, entertaining and educational. You can’t ask for much more.

 

 

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A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley

Before I review this wonderful book, I have to explain why I’ve not been reviewing lately and why there are periods where I go “quiet” even though I still read up to four books a week (not all of which I review). The reason is simple – it’s usually because I am busy with my own work. Last month and for a great part of July too, I was caught up doing the copy edit of my next novel, The Chocolate Maker’s Wife (out March 2019) and I also put my head down and made a decent start to the one after that, a novel that has a working title of The Sea Witch of Caledonia (though that will change as it’s felt it has too much a fantasy feel when it’s very much entrenched in history – it’s actually loosely based on a terrible true story). It’s set in Scotland in the early 1700s, so I immersed myself for a over a year in Scottish history *sigh* and was fortunate enough to travel there too though, sadly perhaps, not back in time. So, that is why my reviews have fallen away. I feel terrible about that. Hopefully, I can make up for it this month, though that will depend on how much I write of my own work! Anyhow, thank you for reading my reviews. There are so many marvellous writers and books out there and it’s such a privilege to be able to read and review them and pay tribute to the power of authors’ words and hearts. They nourish my imagination in so many ways and I am very grateful. Now, to Susanna Kearsley’s latest:

One of Scotland’s magnificent lochs with me and my friends being awe-struck by its beauty and mystery.

This is a beautiful, unctuous book that follows two storylines – that of an amateur cryptographer, Sara Thomas in the present and the life of Mary Dundas, an English/French woman living in France in the early 1700s.

Tasked with deciphering the journals left my Mary, Sara is employed by a famous historian and travels to France, staying in a delightful cottage with two women, one of whom, Denise, has a young son and her very handsome and distracting ex-husband as a neighbour.

As Sara starts to decipher Mary’s journals, the narrative shifts to the past and the reader is introduced to a young woman not only embroiled in Jacobite plots, but a lonely soul keen to find a sense of belonging. Asked to accompany a Scotsman escaping English justice to Paris, Mary is thrown onto the company of one Hugh MacPherson, a gruff, mysterious man who avoids company and conversation and appears to have no time for women.

Mary is a story-teller par excellence and in her notes, she weaves a series of wonderful fairy tales that in themselves are rich with analogies to her present and the politics and dangers of the day, including those she increasingly faces.

But as Sara uncovers more of Mary’s journey, observing the changes in the young woman and the company she keeps and avoids, she finds she’s undertaking a personal journey of her own, one that poses its own dangers to her peace of mind and to her heart.

 

While this novel is a bit slow to start, the writing is wonderful and the characters really well-drawn. Sara has Aspergers and the way in which this is depicted is accurate, insightful and thoughtful – just like Sara. Likewise, when we first meet Mary, we are carefully introduced to her and her fractured family life, and so able to understand the decisions she makes and the personal growth she undergoes and which matches the stages in her grand adventure. She is a brave and bold soul with a rich imagination, but also possesses an integrity that shines. In fact, both the leading female characters are strong, interesting women with big hearts and a deep capacity for empathy.

Their stories are parallel in many ways and yet also very different. It’s testimony to Kearsley that though she draws on real characters and events to paint such a vivid picture of history – both time and place – we also invest heavily in the folk both real and imagined. The romances that underpin this book are heart-aching and quite lovely.

I also loved that characters from her earlier books made cameos – that was cleverly done. This is a really lovely story that while it isn’t a rollicking adventure or a time-slip romance, it is a slow-burning narrative with wonderful peaks and troughs that takes the reader on their own voyage. The author’s note at the end is fascinating as well and reveals the level of research Kearsley puts into her books but which never interfere with her ability to tell a damn fine story.

 

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Sweet Adversity by Sheryl Gwyther

Before I review this wonderful, heart-warming novel for Middle-School kids, Sweet Adversity, by Sheryl Gwyther, I need to declare that not only is Sheryl a very good friend of mine, but I have followed this novel’s progress from its inception a few years ago to its terrific conclusion and now reception. It has been such a labour of, not only love for Sheryl (though it is that), but passion as well. Determined to pay tribute to not just Shakespeare, but Australian history and the trials and tribulations of kids and families who fell prey to the vicissitudes of the Great War and the Depression, as well as those hardened souls who exploit hardship and suffering, Sheryl has managed to accomplish this with Sweet Adversity (pun intended there too)

The novel tells the tale of young, smart and feisty Addie McAllister who, when times become hard for her actor parents, they leave her at the Emu Swamp Children’s Home so she can be fed, educated and safe until their fortunes turn for the better. What they don’t know is that the Children’s Home is run by a greedy, soulless woman who sees in the children not so much orphans or young ones needing her care, but talents she can exploit to their full potential. Enter, Stage Left, the villainous Scrimshaw who, in league with the matron, sees in Adversity a chance to make the money they feel they deserve.

Through their avarice, a chain of events is set in motion which sees Adversity leaving Emu Swamp and encountering a series of characters who will work both for and against her. Able to inspire loyalty, Addie is also someone who gives it in spades and there’s no-one who receives it from her more than her pet Cockatiel, Macbeth, the Shakespeare-quoting bird with more character and gumption in his wing feathers than a Harbour-Bridge worker.

A relatively unknown period of Australian history provides a stark but fascinating backdrop as Addie roams the countryside and heads to Sydney, searching for what she thought she might never have again: family. But there are those with other ideas who will stop at nothing to prevent Addie achieving her heart’s desire, including threatening those she most cares about.

Evoking time and place, this is a terrific novel that once you start you’ll find hard to put down. It’s not only young people who will love this, but anyone who enjoys a tale well told, with a good dose of history, Shakespearean and other theatrics, populated with some wonderful, rich characters.

I don’t think it’s too much to say that with Sweet Adversity, Sheryl has “a hit, a very palpable hit.”

 

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The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

When searching for historical fiction set in Scotland, I came across The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley. Having read and enjoyed The Firebird, I looked forward to this time-jumping narrative as well.

I was not disappointed.

Moving between contemporary times and the early 1700s, the book opens when famous author, Carrie McClelland relocates to the coast of Scotland, Slains, to finish a novel she’s writing on the early rising of the Jacobites and their fight to restore a young King James to the throne. Drawn to a particular area, Carrie can’t explain the strong urges she gets to not just write about the place she now finds herself in, but completely rethink not only the subject of her story, but the plot as well.

Renting a lovely little cottage close to the area she finds impossible to tear herself away from, what Carrie doesn’t count on is the attention of two handsome brothers – dashing, affable Stuart and the quieter, more bookish, Graeme. Nor does she imagine when she begins to write that the voices of the past, in particular of a woman named Sophia, will not only fill her head and heart, but dictate how her narrative unfolds.

As the days go by, Carrie finds that the ghosts of the past are very much in the present and that reality begins to mirror fiction. Unable to control what she writes, will Carrie be able to control her heart?

Moving between the past and present, this lovely book is not only a wonderful romance, it’s a serious and poignant examination of the early period of Jacobite rebellion and the risks and sacrifices those Scots who believed in an independent Scotland and who wanted to cast of the shackles of the newly-formed English Union, were prepared to make. Weaving fact through her fiction, Kearsley tells a story of high-drama, politics, loyalty, danger and love. Stirring in its passion (mostly for the rights and restoration of the Scots and their king), the book also evokes time and place so beautifully. It also explores the agony and ecstasy of being a writer and the relationship those who make living with words have with their agents, imagination, readers and the business that sustains them, if they’re fortunate, in so many more ways than simply financial.

A terrific read that offers so much.

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