Book Review: Sacrilege by S.J. Parris

The third book in Parris’ Giordano Bruno heretic and spy series, Sacrilege finds our philosopher hero, Bruno, at his most vulnerable yet. Still living in the French embassy it’s not until Bruno discovers the identity of the person following him through the streets of London that he’s reconnected with someone from his recent past, someone for whom he has strong feelings. When asked to Sacrilegehelp this person clear their name of a crime they didn’t commit, Bruno is unable to refuse. Seeking the permission of his employer, the spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham to go to Canterbury, he’s also tasked with uncovering any Catholic plotters in the heart of a city once famed as a site of pilgrimage and the place where Thomas Beckett’s bones were once buried.

Travelling under a non-de plume, Bruno arrives in Canterbury and discovers plots and plans aplenty. But when the body count rises and he’s accused of terrible crimes, it’s not just his friend’s name he has to clear or Sir Francis’ suspicions he has to lay to rest. Bruno finds himself fighting for his life and the only way he can save himself and his friend is to uncover a conspiracy so dark and tightly controlled that has the potential to bring down the greatest men in Canterbury – men who will stop at nothing to protect their own hides, even if it means killing innocents.

Once again, this is a terrifically written and paced novel that allows fans of the series even more insights into the central character and the strengths and, indeed, weaknesses that make him so appealing. Whereas other books have focussed a great deal on the ideologies and philosophies that shaped the era, the laws of the cosmos, the role of magic and mathematics, divine intervention and Bruno’s opinions and studies in these areas, lending the books a historical authenticity and the demonstrating the author’s research and understanding, this novel relies more on character and plot and I think is better for that. Any references to beliefs or famous treatises and how they influence Elizabethan thought is seamlessly woven into the narrative rather than sitting apart as a dinner conversation or dialogue/debate between two learned men. It’s as if Parris is more comfortable with her material now and the reader can appreciate her considerable knowledge and she can just get on with the story. And what a story it is – treachery, sacrilege, betrayal, love, death and faith all feature as does the book for which Bruno will sacrifice anything… or will he?

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Comments: No Comments

Book Review: Beer in The Middle Ages and Renaissance

If you’re at all interested in the history of ale, beer and brewing, specifically as it developed in Europe and England from roughly the 1200s through the 1600s, then this book is for you. The author, Richard Unger, delivers a well-researched but very easy to read book full of facts and some suppositions about the changing nature of one of the most important drinks in human history and how it altered from being a domestic product, replete with all sorts of medicinal wonders, to a heavily commercialised one that was governed and taxed and, for a long period, thrived, to being ubiquitous across parts of the Northern hemisphere.

The introduction is broad and does establish the fact that the book is very focussed on beer production in Europe during this period – England is really only an adjunct if you’re seriously wanting to learn more about brewing there. Explaining the various process of brewing, from malting to mashing to worting, Unger really describes what occurs, the equipment used and the variations between regions very well. Distinguishing between beer and ale as well, Unger sets the pace and tone for the rest of this fascinating book.

Providing a brief history of beer making beyond his main focus, the reader is, in the first chapter, taken back to 7000 BC, to Sumeria, Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, being brought forward to the Roman period before arriving in the Middle Ages.

The different additives put in brews, their names (gruit for example) and the importance of hops to the growing beer industry, the way it utterly transformed it, are explored very well. As is the resistance to hopped beer in England and other parts of Europe by ale-makers. Legislation increases as brewing metamorphoses into a commercial venture and governments recognise a profit to be made. Unger analyses this in detail and with accompanying tables which reveal consumption, exports and imports and other facts. The rise of guilds is touched on and the rapidly decreasing role of women in an industry they once dominated is, disappointingly, only given a few pages (though Judith Bennett dedicates an entire and excellent book to this). Price-fixing is also discussed as is, in the final pages of the book, the slow decline of beer and brewing as the consumption of spirits, wine, coffee and tea began to challenge beer’s dominance.

While it brushes on the social history of beer, it doesn’t really examine this in detail – that is left to other books, such as A Lynne Martin’s Alcohol, Sex and Gender in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. I wish Unger had spent more time on this, however, as I feel he would have been able to offer some insights. At times, I admit, I found footnotes missing where I felt they should have been and some of the “facts” conflicted with other studies I have read. But overall, this is an excellent account of a cultural beverage that has both united and divided the world for centuries.

Tags: , , , , ,

Comments: No Comments

Book Review: Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens

Recuperating from pretty awful surgery has given me the chance to indulge in my absolute favourite past-time: reading. I read a great deal anyhow, particularly when researching my novels and for my newspaper columns, but for sheer joy doesn’t happen often enough. One of the upsides of being unwell is that it’s given me an excuse. Over the next few days, I will try and post reviews of some of the wonderful novels I have immersed myself in, starting with Kate Forsyth’s magnificent work, Bitter Greens.

I confess I’m a long time fan of Kate Forsyth’s work ever since I read the The Witches of Eileanan and sent my first email ever to an author to express my appreciation. I know the high standards Kate sets and that which her readers have come to expect and what a marvellous storyteller she is, even so, this did not prepare me for the experience of reading Bitter Greens. Quite simply, this is an outstanding, mesmerizing book that is one of the finest works of historical fiction I have read.

Weaving the tale of the infamous French writer, Charlotte-Rose de la Force with the tale of Rapunzel, Forsyth delivers a luscious, sensual and incredibly moving tale of love, betrayal, politics, religion, female friendship, desire and gender against the backdrop of Renaissance France and the court of the Sun-King Loius XIV and the heady life of a courtesan in Sixteenth Century Venice.

Moving from Charlotte-Rose’s story to the apparently fictitious one of Rapunzel, known in this book by two different names, and yet again to another major female character (in at least Rapunzel or Margherita’s tale), the bella strega (beautiful witch) and courtesan, Selena Leonelli, the reader is admitted into three what seem at first very different female lives, cultures and times. Only, as their stories develop and unfold, the similarities far outweigh the differences. From imprisonment created by sex and gender roles, to that enforced by faith and parental rules, to the laws laid down by king and country, it becomes evident that Rapunzel’s tower is not worst kind of entrapment a women can endure. Cleverly using the tower as a metaphor for the different ties that cruelly and gently bind, as well as the redemptive power of story-telling, Forsyth has crafted a beautiful and powerful story of three strong women that lingers in the imagination long after you put it down.

Written as the creative part of a current Doctorate, it’s clear that Forsyth has done her research. Anyone who has plunged into the history of fairytales understands that it was the Brothers’ Grimm whom we have to thank and curse for many of the current and highly sanitized versions of centuries old and told folk tales that frequent contemporary culture – Grimm and Disney. Forsyth has eschewed these and returned to earlier and darker source material and in doing so, given the novel a veracity and depth that is simply breathtaking. The detail of French court life, of the nunnery, and the way she brings Venice of that time to life is deftly done, never detracting from the plot of character development. In the acknowledgments you read about the translations Forsyth commissioned and the trips she took as research for her novel. They were well worth it and as someone who has both researched and taught the history and signifance of fairytales and myths at university, I would love to read her thesis when it’s complete.

Overall, I thought this a simply amazing book that once again left me in awe of this woman’s formidable talent and grateful that she (and I!) live in times where women can write their tabulations and share them. A tour de force indeed!

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments: One Comment