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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All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Why oh why did it take me so long to read the beautifully titled, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr? I bought it not long after it came out, started it about a year later but, for some reason (I think the genres I’d been reading or what was going on in my life meant it didn’t resonate at that moment) I put it aside, promising myself I would get to it later as it was well written and I could tell the story would drag me in. Well, later came and went, it seems. That was, until a friend tweeted me a few days ago asking me if I’d read it and reviewed it and saying how powerful he found the book…

Powerful hey? That was enough of a prompt to send me back to the novel – starting from the beginning again – and basically surrender myself to Doerr’s magnificent prose and war-torn Europe. The central characters Doerr so carefully and delicately constructs (like the miniature houses the locksmith lovingly creates) insinuate themselves from the pages and, little by little, into your heart. There’s blind, clever and sweet Marie-Laure, the ambitious, soul-crushed, orphan Werner and his strong sister, Jutta; gentle dreamer with unshakeable ethics, Frederick; Etienne, and the dangerous giant with a passion for classical music, Volkheimer – all of whom are swept up in the dark forces that tore Europe apart and forever transformed its people.

Beautifully and heart-wrenchingly told, using various communication devices – from radios and sound to art, books and music, as well as science (particularly studies of various fauna) and the works of Jules Verne – as metaphors to tell the painful story of what happens to the central characters as their families, communities, cities and countries fight for dominance and/or freedom from that. The greatest battles are the interior wars the characters fight with themselves. Blindness also functions as both a metaphor and a reality. There’s the actual physical loss of sight, as well as being blind – usually wilfully – to what is happening within and around one. How even good people can be complicit in terrible things. Innocence is both lost and found, people vanish and reappear, have their greatest strengths tested and their weaknesses exposed. Dreams are destroyed and rebuilt and hope shines its effervescent light even in the dimmest of places.

I have read a number of war narratives with mixed responses and found this to be one of the most original and haunting I have found. My friend (John) was right – it is powerful, but it’s also moving, heart-warming, dramatic and painful at the same time. Your heart is masterfully juggled as you read – thrown high in the air, before being held softly in a palm or simply dropped. Gut-wrenching doesn’t begin to describe it.

This book isn’t an easy read, but it is a transformative one that I am so glad I was eventually led back to – thank you, John. I cannot recommend it more highly.

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The Physician, by Noah Gordon

The Physician, by Noah Gordon, was recommended to me by a lovely book shop owner in Launceston when I was there one day doing a book-signing. Without telling me too much about the tale, the owner pressed the very thick book into my hands and said, “I think you will love this.” I always feel a shiver of trepidation come over me when someone I like or even whose reading tastes I share says this to me.  More than anything, I want to like, no, love the books that are recommended with such passion and I fear that if I don’t, I am somehow letting them down.

The good news is with The Physician, I did indeed love this book – so much so, I felt bereft when it ended.

Set mostly during the 10th Century, this is the story of a young Englishman, Robert J Cole who, from a very young age, learns he possesses a gift – the gift, basically, of sensing a person’s life force. The reader follows his life from the discovery of this gift around the age of nine to middle age; from the tragedy of his beginnings to the triumphs of his later years. Rob J has a varied and amazing life and how and why he becomes a physician and the journey he takes to train is, quite simply, sensational. We’re taken around England and given insight into the peripatetic life of a Barber-Surgeon (to whom Rob J apprentices himself), to France, across Europe and to war-riven Turkey and then Persia and its amazing culture and religious Otherness. Determined to train under the man he’s been told is the best physician in the world, Rob J makes incredible sacrifices: physical, emotional and, above all, spiritual. But in making these he gains more than his heart and mind’s desire.

The pace is wonderful, the characters so well drawn you feel emotionally attached to them in ways that are sometimes painful but always deep and meaningful. The settings are magnificently and realistically drawn and the different cuisines, the food and drink are mouth-wateringly described. I adored this book – the detail, the humanness of it and the way the macroscosm of the worlds and religions Rob J encounters are also microcosms of the everyday – of the humanity (or lack thereof) in us all.

Shaman is the sequel and I will read that with joy – only, for now, I want to savour the affects of this magnificent book – rightly hailed as a triumph. I cannot recommend it highly enough, so much so, I dare to say, read it, “I think you will love this…”

 

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Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil by Melina Marchetta

23566896 Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil by Melina Marchetta is quite simple a brilliant, moving and thought-provoking book that deals with so many familiar, contemporary and ideologically thorny and relevant issues in a sensitive and meaningful way.

The title is a quote from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, a king who was greatly misunderstood and is often cast by history and, indeed, his contemporaries, as a murderer of the worst kind. For his entire reign, he dealt with suspicion, distrust, gossip and attempts to assassinate his character and his actual person. It’s not surprising then that the novel also deals with someone, actually, a family, accused of murder most foul: terrorism and the brutal slaying of 23 people when a home-made bomb is detonated in a local supermarket, destroying lives, families and cultural relations. Just like Henry IV, the family and the community deal with the fallout, gossip, and everything and anything else the media and suspicious, racist minds can generate.

Fast forward 13 years, and the scene is set for another bomb to explode – this time in France on a bus containing British kids on tour. The novel then follows the inevitable fallout that occurs when it’s discovered that the daughter of one of the original terrorists, a young women named Violette, was a passenger on the destroyed bus. Worse, she’s disappeared and taken a young boy with her. Suspended DI, Bish Ortley, whose daughter, Bee, survives the carnage, commences an investigation into the tragedy. Crossing continents, counties, encountering co-operative parents, scared and hostile ones, cultural and racial conflict, as well as his own personal demons, Bish is determined to find Violette and the boy and protect them. But there are others, including a rapacious and unforgiving media who have other ideas.

Set across mainly two countries, England and France, it nevertheless draws other countries (including Australia), cultures and faiths and the people that represent these into its narrative. Avoiding stereotypes, Marchetta constructs real people who you engage with, believe in and champion with every breath, every word. The demonisation of Otherness, the way misunderstandings are formed, and cultural appropriation manipulated, is charted and exposed in all its callus cruelty as is the ease at which we’re prepared to accept the worst of people before the best; the way in which we allow fear to govern our responses even when our hearts and heads tell us differently. It’s also a story about families, about young people, trust, loyalty and the bonds that both tie and divide us.

A timely, superb book and beautifully and powerfully written, that will have you thinking well beyond the last page.

 

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Extraordinary People by Peter May

18867320I read Extraordinary People by Peter May, the first in what’s called the “Enzo series” during a May reading binge. Whether it was because I simply adored his Lewis books, Entry Island and Coffin Road and expected more of the same and therefore wasn’t thrilled with the change of direction and tone or whether it was because this book featuring the forensic expert, the Scotsman Enzo was a bit Dan Brown-lite, I’m not sure. Needlesstosay, I didn’t find it extraordinary, but nor was it ordinary either. It was somewhere in the middle. Good without being great, which is fine.

The novel introduces readers to middle-aged Enzo who gave up his life and first wife and daughter in Scotland to follow his lover and heart to France many years earlier. Reduced to teaching biology in Toulouse and dealing with the anger of the daughter from which he’s alienated and basking in the love of his second and younger daughter with his now dead lover, Enzo is very affable and clearly clever.

When an old journalist acquaintance basically dares him to crack a cold case involving the disappearance of a famous person, Enzo is up for the challenge. What he doesn’t anticipate is a treasure hunt replete with clues, sometimes a map, and grisly body parts which all point to the man they’re searching for being dead, but nothing to reveal the murderer.

It’s only when Enzo (and the group he’s gathered around him), using brawn and brains starts to get close to the killer’s identity, that his own life and that of those he loves is placed in danger. The dare is no longer a game, but deadly serious…

Well written, well paced, I am not sure why this novel didn’t resonate like the others. I think the hunt drags a bit, some of the characters are two-dimensional and some of the secondary characters and their motives detract from the prime narrative.

I did find I was turning pages and wanting to know what happened and can easily rate the book 3.5 stars, but I am not sure I care enough about Enzo or his adventures to embark on another one. But I still really rate Peter May and I know other people have simply relished this book and the series.

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