Dissolution by C.J. Sansom – 20 Books of Summer 2024

Dissolution by C.J. Sansom was first published in 2003 and it’s the first book that I’ve read by the author, in fact it was only when I read his Guardian obituary when he died in April that I realised that I had almost certainly missed out on some really good reads. I think I did borrow one of his Shardlake books from the library before, but realised that it was part of a series, but never did get around to getting the first one, until now. I really enjoyed it.

The setting is England in 1537. It’s the year after Anne Boleyn’s execution and Henry VIII is beginning to dismantle the large network of monasteries that have managed to accumulate huge riches over the years. Henry is determined to strip them of their wealth and Thomas Cromwell has sent a young man to St Donatus Monastery to investigate their finances, but he is found dead there, he has been beheaded in the kitchen, and Cromwell sends Matthew Shardlake and his young apprentice to investigate the murder.

When they start to question the monks they soon realise that they are very far from being holy men, or even good men, the place is awash with sin, but which of them is a murderer?

This is an atmospheric read with a long snowstorm adding to the sense of menace as the monastery turns into a prison for Shardlake and his apprentice, trapped with  a murderer on the loose.

This was another of my 20 Books of Summer.

 

The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory – 20 Books of Summer 2024

The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory is one of my 20 Books of Summer. It was first published in 2008. I had sworn that I wasn’t going to read any more books about Mary, Queen of Scots for quite a long time – if ever – or any more books by Philippa Gregory for that matter as I think she has some unusual theories on historical facts, but heigh-ho. It was the fact that this one features Bess of Hardwick which drew me in, she was surely one of the most fascinating women of the Tudor period.

The date is 1568 and Bess is on her fourth husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury, she has worked her way up from nothing to the aristocracy, with her three previous husbands leaving everything to her, she’s a very wealthy woman, but obviously wanted status too.

Unfortunately Queen Elizabeth I is looking for a place to lodge Mary, Queen of Scots and she decides to use Bess and her husband as suitable jailors. Queen Mary has an enormous retinue which she refuses to whittle down and for her everything must be of the best. Queen Elizabeth is determined not to pay any money over to the Shrewsburys and the whole of the cost of keeping Mary and her many hangers-on and followers in the lap of luxury causes tension within the marriage. Bess sees her fortune diminish by the week and it looks like she’ll even lose her beloved Chatsworth to pay the debts, she has had to put the building of Chatsworth on hold over the years of Mary’s captivity but even worse than that, William Cecil, Elizabeth’s spymaster is trying to link Shrewsbury, and possibly even Bess, with Catholic plots to rescue Mary from captivity. They might end up being executed.

Bess realises that like many men her husband has been the target of one of Mary’s charm offensives, and the fool has completely fallen for Mary.

I enjoyed this one although I was somewhat puzzled when on page 9 Mary describes Elizabeth as ‘that red-haired bastard’.  It’s unlikely that she would ever have done that considering that Mary had red hair too. However, according to Philippa Gregory she had lovely long black hair! That is just plain wrong and I can see no reason why Gregory would do that, particularly as their are numerous paintings of Mary and her red hair, and of course all the contemporary descriptions of Mary and her red or golden red hair.

This is the sort of thing which had put me off from reading more by this author, it seems she just likes to be different for the sake of it.

If you are interested you can click the link to my Hardwick Hall blogposts, it’s quite a few years since we visited, I hope we can go back there sometime in the future though as I loved it. Argh, that post was written in 2012.

Also if you are interested in Bess of Hardwick you might want to read the book by Mary S. Lovell

There are some more photos on that blogpost.

The Redemption of Alexander Seaton by Shona MacLean – 20 Books of Summer

The Redemption of Alexander Seaton by Shona MacLean  (S.G. MacLean) was first published in 2008. It’s one of my 20 Books of Summer.

The setting is the town of Banff, Scotland in 1626. It’s 10 o’clock at night and two whores are searching the pockets of a man that they have found lying in the street, but they find nothing. When they realise that the man is ill, not just drunk, they drag him to the schoolhouse where the teacher lives, hoping that he will be able to help the man, but they didn’t stay to speak to the teacher, they were worried about getting involved. In the morning the man is found dead, and it seems he must have been poisoned.

The teacher – Alexander Seaton – had trained for the ministry, but he had been denounced as a sinner, unfit for the job, when the dead body was found he was obviously going to be under suspicion.

Seaton sets about investigating the death, it’s a time of witch hunts and extreme religious fervour, a dangerous mixture.  I really enjoyed this one, it is very atmospheric. Maps feature in the storyline, apparently at that time maps were rare and most people had never seen one, so anyone in possession of one is suspect. I must admit that it’s something I hadn’t really thought about

The Bookseller of Inverness by S.G. MacLean

The Bookseller of Inverness by S.G. MacLean was published in 2022, I found it to be a cracking read, in fact it would make a great film.

Iain MacGillivray had been one of the many Jacobites on Drumossie Moor, Culloden in 1746, and one of the few to get away with his life, although badly wounded, he had feigned death.  It was a terrible time with the Redcoats running amok, pillaging, killing the wounded, and generally causing mayhem and despair within the local communities as they raped and murdered. Six years on and Iain has a bookshop in Inverness where he just wants to put it all behind him, and have nothing to do with the Jacobite cause. But the cause comes to him.

A mystery customer comes to his bookshop, he’s searching for a particular book but refusing to give any information at all, he’s going through all the books one by one. At the end of the day Iain has to practically throw the stranger out so that he can shut the shop, but when he opens it up the next morning he finds the stranger dead, his throat had been cut by a sword with a white cockade on its hilt – a Jacobite symbol.

Iain is surprised to discover that his Jacobite sympathies have resurfaced, and the behaviour of most of the Redcoats in the local barracks only strengthens his feelings.  Someone is settling scores, and it transpires that there’s another Jacobite plot afoot.

This was apparently a Times Audio Book of the Week with the comment that ‘This slice of historical fiction takes you on a wild ride.’

If you do read any books by S.G. (Shona) MacLean you should make sure that you read the Author’s notes at the end of the book. They’re always fascinating, her family background is steeped in the Scottish Highlands, where she still lives, and her uncle was the thriller writer Alistair MacLean. Shona MacLean obviously takes after him.

 

The House of Lamentations by S.G. MacLean

The House of Lamentations by S.G. MacLean is the fifth book in her Captain Damien Seeker series which ranges over the whole of the Cromwellian era.

It’s widely thought that Captain Damien Seeker had died at the end of the previous Seeker book, but in reality he has moved to Bruges where he has returned to his previous work as a carpenter. It’s a great cover for him as he is able to gain access to places he wouldn’t otherwise have reached.

Bruges has always been a popular place for the Royalist supporters to congregate. King Charles Stuart ( he had been crowned in Scotland after his father’s execution) hasn’t been welcomed elsewhere due to the politics of the time. His Royalist supporters have made themselves very unwelcome in the town as they’ve been spending a lot of their time gambling, drinking and causing trouble. A lot of the exploits centre around the House of Lamentations, a brothel.

Seeker is particularly interested in four of the Royalists, he has been sent information from England that one of them is a traitor to their cause, that puts Seeker himself in danger, but which of them is the turncoat?

Seeker, like many people had been becoming disillusioned with Cromwell’s regime which is as corrupt and nepotistic as the Stuarts’ had been, Cromwell’s cause certainly isn’t worth dying for.

The plot involves nuns and a Jesuit priest who even gives the nuns the creeps. The Jesuits always seem to be the bad guys, even nowadays, especially among old boys who had been taught by them!

I must say that at the beginning of the book there’s a description of a man being hanged drawn and quartered which for me was the most graphic that I had read, but maybe I’ve led a sheltered life.

There’s an author’s note at the back of this book, MacLean explains that she has used a lot of locations in Bruges which can be visited now by tourists, I wish I had known that when we visited the town some years ago, we just did a canal boat trip and walked around admiring the buildings.

The Bear Pit by S.G. MacLean

The Bear Pit by S.G. MacLean was published in 2019 and it’s the fourth in the author’s Captain Damian Seeker series. The setting is 1656, Cromwellian London.

The book begins with a botched attempt on Cromwell’s life, he has become so unpopular because it has become obvious that a large part of his reason for ousting the Stuart dynasty and having King Charles I executed was so that he could have the throne for himself. His regime hasn’t led to improvements in the lives of most of the ordinary people. Damian Seeker is kept busy sniffing out the many plots against Cromwell.

While chasing after one of the would-be assassins, Seeker discovers the horribly mutilated body of a man. He had been shackled to a wall by his neck, it looks like it must have been a bear that had attacked him, but all the bears had been shot on Cromwell’s orders, bear baiting has been banned. Who would do such a thing to an old man? Seeker is determined to track the perpetrator down, he’s a busy man.

I’m still enjoying this series. This one won the CWA Sapere Historical Dagger.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Destroying Angel by S.G. MacLean

Destroying Angel by the Scottish author S.G. MacLean was published in 2018 and it’s the third book in the author’s Captain Damian Seeker series.

At the end of the previous book The Black Friar Seeker had been sent to Yorkshire. He’s been banished from London and he isn’t happy about it. When he travels to the village of Faithly on the moors to let the inhabitants know of the most recent anti-Royalist laws, the place is far from its usual quiet backwater. The Trier has been summoned by Abel Sharrock, the gravedigger, but with the advent of the Cromwell era he is also the village Constable and so it was he who had summoned the Trier, to question the local preacher and schoolteacher the Reverend Jenkin. The villagers have no hope that Jenkin will be seen as being innocent of whatever he is supposed to have done.

Bess is a widow and she knows her pub is going to be very busy with people coming to the village for the trial, but she also has to cater for ten dinner guests the night before it, her young ward Gwendolen will help her. Although she’s just young, Gwendolen is the local herbalist and Bess always worries about her being accused of witchcraft, especially with the Trier being so nearby, and the village having more than its fair share of jealous gossips.

Seeker is kept even busier than usual as he’s also supposed to be looking for a man from a local family who hasn’t been seen for four years, but when the Trier and his wife arrive he’s astonished, they’re from his past and he has been looking for them for years.

The blurb on the front of the book says: ‘One of the best writers of historical crime … a fascinatingly flawed hero.’

I don’t know if it was because the action moved out of London and into rural Yorkshire, but I enjoyed this one even more than the previous two in this series which I’m binge reading now because the local lovely librarian ordered them all in for me and I noticed that this one now has two reserves on it.

However, one detail did strike me as being unlikely.

‘Grenade in there, is there? asked Seeker.

‘Of sorts, Captain. And once the pin is out I’d rather be in Mr Thurloe’s camp than the other.’

Some research online came up with this about the history of grenades. Pins on grenades are a very modern invention, they didn’t even exist in World War 1.

 

 

 

 

The Black Friar by S.G. MacLean

The Black Friar by S.G. MacLean was published in 2016 and it’s the second book in the author’s Damian Seeker series which begins with The Seeker.

The date is January 1655, the seventh year of Oliver Cromwell’s ‘reign’ and the people are discontented because for ordinary folks things are no better than they had been under the rule of the Stuarts. Seeker is having to deal with rebellious Royalist plots from abroad and disgruntled one time supporters of Cromwell.

Fanatical religious sects are springing up, most of them are based on the book of Daniel and they’re all more than a bit strange. It seems like desperation to me, but it is all very authentic and historically correct.

When a perfectly preserved body in the clothing of a Dominican friar is found to have been bricked up in the crumbling Blackfriars Monastery some people think it’s some kind of miracle, but Damian Seeker knows better. He recognises the body as  a man who had been working for him, and the reason the victim’s body is still fairly fresh is because he hasn’t been dead long, so it’s no miracle.

Some children have been disappearing from the streets of London, is it something to do with the murdered man? As Captain of Cromwell’s Guard Damian Seeker is kept very busy in this one, he’s well able to see that most of the ordinary people are actually worse off under Cromwell, or certainly no better off.

Shona (S.G.) MacLean has a PhD in 16th and 17th century history so presumably she gets the details correct. It’s interesting to see that women could have a prominent/ leading position as preachers in religious sects, something that seems to have gone backwards in more recent times.  If I’m nit-picking I find it unlikely that so many poorer women in these books are able to read and write, but often it’s necessary for the plot so I’m willing to suspend my disbelief.  I’m really enjoying this series and I think I’m learning quite a lot about the era.

 

 

 

 

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore was first published in 2017. It says on the cover ‘The finest novel Dunmore has written.’ Sadly it was also the last one she wrote as she discovered as she was editing the book that she was seriously ill.

The setting is Bristol around the time of the French Revolution. Lizzie Fawkes is a young married woman, her husband John Diner Tredevant is a property developer, he had been married before, to a French woman who had died while visiting France. Lizzie’s mother Julia hadn’t ever really warmed to her son-in-law, but Lizzie had never much liked her step-father Augustus, and she likes him even less when she discovers that her mother is pregnant, at her age it seems far too dangerous.

Julia is well known in Radical circles as she’s a writer of speeches and pamphlets, it’s a dangerous occupation though as the British government is naturally worried about revolutionary acts spreading from France.

There had been a housing boom in Bristol, until the trouble in France makes everybody jittery, they know that war with France is likely, and nobody is interested in buying new houses. Lizzie’s husband is going to be in deep financial trouble, but he’s already causing trouble for Lizzie as he becomes more and more controlling.

This was a great read.

The Guardian review said: ‘A blend of beauty and horror evoked with such breathtaking poetry that it haunts me still.’

The Winter List by S.G. MacLean

The Winter List by S.G. MacLean is a sequel to The Seeker which is set in London in 1654, a time when Oliver Cromwell has taken over and had King Charles I executed.

The Winter List begins in London 1660, the Cromwell era is over and King Charles II is on the throne. Many of those who had supported Cromwell are being hunted down and executed without a trial, there’s a list of regicides who it’s believed had been instrumental in the execution of the king, and Lady Anne Winter, a Royalist spy has been tasked with discovering the innocence or guilt of the suspects.

She travels to York with her Scottish assistant Grizel, she doubles as Lady Anne’s servant but in reality Grizel is good at codebreaking, it’s a very handy talent to have. Manon is the daughter of Damian Seeker and is now married and settled in York with her husband and children. They’re terrified of being accused of being Republicans. Seeker is on the list, he terrified people in Cromwell’s times and the Royalists want to get their own back. Manon’s husband is under suspicion, Lady Anne arranges for Grizel to get work within the heavily pregnant Manon’s household, but that is the least of their problems.

I really liked this one, but I have jumped ahead in the series and will really have to go back and read the others.