Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett

Pawn in Frankincense cover

Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett was first published in 1969 and it’s the fourth book in her Lymond series.

To begin with I had a look at the chapter headings to see where the story was set because I much preferred the Scottish parts of the last book, so I was slightly down-hearted when I realised that it was almost all set in the near/middle east. But I needn’t have been as this was a great read.

The year is 1552. In the last book Lymond discovered that a woman he had had a brief relationship with had given birth to a son, but they’ve been captured and he’s intent on tracking them down.

An old soothsayer has given him hope that his quest will be succesful. At the same time he plans to seek out Sir Graham Reid Mallett and give him his comeuppance.

As ever with Dunnett there’s plenty of action and intrigue, right up to the very end.

I’m not doing very well with my Scottish reading so far this year, this is only the second book I’ve read by a Scottish author – must do better.

The Disorderly Knights by Dorothy Dunnett

The Disorderly Knights cover

The Disorderly Knights by Dorothy Dunnett is the third book in her Lymond series and was first published in 1966.

I had a look at Goodreads to see what other readers thought of this one because although I loved the second half of the book there were parts of the first half that dragged for me. I really wasn’t too keen on the bits that were set in Malta and Tripoli, but by the time the action switched back to Scotland I found myself sitting up in bed – still reading at 2.30 am.

I don’t even think that this book is really perfect for bedtime reading as you have to concentrate on it, but when it got to 2.30 I had sworn to myself that I would put the light out at the end of the chapter and then I noticed that the next chapter sub-heading was Dumbarton, April/May 1552 – which just happens to be the town that I grew up in! I forced myself to give up for the night though, despite dying to know what was going to be happening at Dumbarton.

As it turned out I was slightly disappointed because Dunnett didn’t describe the town’s surroundings at all, which makes me think that she didn’t go there to do any research as there are lots of lovely hills and crags around Dumbarton to describe, and the castle rock is visible for miles around and would have been even more so in those days. Mind you nowadays you could just get on the internet and look at Google earth if you want to describe a location.

Dunnett wound this tale around actual historical events and a few of the people were real too. As ever I really started to dislike Lymond a lot, for most of the book he seemed like an out and out baddie, but I should have known better by now. When he gets back to Scotland he has the job of training a large amount of men who are going to be used to keep the rule of law in the Scottish Border country where the land has been constantly fought over by the Scots and English, in truth those Border families were only ever interested in their own survival, seeing themselves as being on neither the Scottish or English side, and who could blame them for that. Lymond is also thinking of himself as he is being employed by the English to keep the peace in the Border lands, but that’s easier said than done.

Meanwhile Graham Reid Malett/Gabriel who is a ‘high heid yin’ in the Noble Order of Knights Hospitallers is making a good job of putting Lymond in a bad position, making him look like an absolute swine!

Soot by Andrew Martin

Soot cover

I decided to read Soot by Andrew Martin because Helen at She Reads Novels enjoyed it so much. You can read what she thought of it here. Helen’s review is much more detailed than my usual sketchy thoughts.

The setting is York 1799 and it’s a murder mystery. Matthew Harvey a well known silhouette artist has been found dead, he has been stabbed by the special scissors that he uses to cut the ‘shades’. It’s thought that the culprit must be one of his clients on that last day and the victim’s son employs Fletcher Rigge to investigate the murder. Rigge has been living in the debtors’ prison in York Castle since his father’s death, he had left nothing but debts after losing the family estate in a gambling session. Fletcher Rigge knows that he is likely to end up back in the prison if he can’t get to the bottom of the mystery

The story is told by various characters through diaries, letters and his investigations bring Rigge into contact with the theatre and bookshops in York and it’s all very atmospheric. The only slight gripe I have with the book is that there is no map of York. Although I know the city I don’t know it well enough to be able to follow Fletcher Rigge on his travels around it in my head. This is the first book I’ve read by Andrew Martin and I’ll definitely be trying some others.

Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett

Queens' Play cover

I actually read Queens’ Play a wee while ago, but I have such a backlog of book reviews to catch up with, mainly because of not blogging while we were on holiday. I use this blog to keep track and remind myself of books that I’ve read though, so here goes.

Queens’ Play which was first published in 1964 is the second in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles and as I recall, I enjoyed it even more than the first one. These books aren’t really suitable for bedtime reading – well not for me anyway because they require more concentration than I can usually summon up by then.

In Queens’ Play Francis Crawford – more commonly known as Lymond is in France at the court of the seven year old Mary Queen of Scots. He has been invited there by her mother, Mary of Guise who thinks that her daughter is at risk of assassination, with good reason no doubt. The young Mary was sent from Scotland to France as a five year old, but that might have been a case of jumping from the frying pan to the fire.

As France and Scotland shared an enemy in England it was hoped that the young Mary and the young French Dauphin would eventually strengthen the alliance through a marriage. But those in power in England were obviously against that alliance. It was Lymond’s job to seek out intrigues and to protect Mary from them.

The New York Time Book Review said:

“(Her) hero is as polished and perceptive as Lord Peter Wimsey and as resourceful as James Bond.”

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge.

Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant

Blood and Beauty cover

Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant was a random choice by me from the library. I enjoyed watching/listening to Sarah Dunant when she used to be on TV some years ago when she presented the culture programme The Late Show, so I thought I’d give her writing a whirl.

The setting of Blood and Beauty is mainly Rome, the Vatican and when the book begins it’s 1492 and a new Pope has just been elected. Rodrigo Borgia has got the top job of God’s representative on earth, he’s a politician and worked hard to get what he wanted. Although he has lived in Italy for years he’s still seen as a foreigner, a Spaniard looked down on by many but he has bribed his way to the top job, the other cardinals couldn’t resist his gold. It seems not to have been a problem that he had six children and never had any intention of sticking to his vows of celibacy, but that seems to have been normal for those days. He became Pope Alexander VI.

In essence he used his children as pawns and married them all off to the various important and powerful families in the neighbouring countries. He was a similar type to Henry VIII but of course the pope could just decree any marriage to be dissolved if he became unhappy with his choice of in-laws. So he didn’t have the same problems as King Hal. In fact it might be fairer to say that Rodrigo Borgia resembled Henry VIII’s politicians and advisors as they were the ones keenest to form alliances with other countries.

Anyway Pope Alexander’s son Juan was very much his favourite and he made that obvious to everyone which caused a huge amount of jealousy and resentment especially within the family, particularly where his son Cesare was concerned. But as Juan was spoiled rotten his behaviour was always going to make him plenty of enemies. It isn’t going to end well!

I decided to read this book because I thought it would be a painless way of learning about the history of that era, and so it turned out to be. The only thing that I knew about his daughter Lucrezia Borgia was that she had a reputation as a poisoner, but so far she is a much used and abused daughter, sister and devastated widow. This book has a sequel (I think it’s out in 2017) and I’ll definitely be reading it but I must say that if Lucrezia does resort to poison eventually, I won’t really blame her too much. I don’t think this is a brilliant book, it isn’t in the same sphere as Wolf Hall but it is very readable.

Mind you, I was watching something on TV quite recently and the historian mentioned that although at the time someone was thought to have been poisoned (I can’t remember who) it’s now thought more likely that they died of a burst appendix!

What a thought – there must have been loads of people over the years who were accused of poisoning people who had just died of what we now know as being unfortunate health problems such as appendicitis, peritonitis, perforated stomach ulcers, food poisoning and such.

At the end of the book there is quite a long bibliography and I might read one or two of those books too. Well, I would like to but you know what it’s like – too many books!

Fair Helen by Andrew Greig

 Fair Helen cover

Fair Helen by Andrew Greig was published in 2013 and the setting is the Scottish Borders. Elizabeth the First of England is coming to the end of her life and James VI of Scotland is waiting impatiently to inherit the English crown.

The story is written around the Border Ballad Fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea which is a Scottish version of Romeo and Juliet and the tale is told by Harry Langton who is Helen’s cousin and a friend of Adam, the young man Helen is in love with. But it’s a time of political turmoil, with Border reiving (raiding) still common practice amongst the families living on each side of the Border. They are all controlled by a ‘heidsman’ really just a gang leader.

Helen’s parents intend to marry her off to Robert Bell, he’s ambitious and very violent, and Harry Langton has to act as a look-out when Adam and Helen have their secret meetings. Harry isn’t exactly a hardman though and he ends up getting duffed up by Bell’s minions, but we know that he has survived to old age as he is narrating the story as an old man. Although not a natural fighter he is taught to fight and does take part in a hot-trod which is what they called legitimate hot pursuit, but of course each family regarded every raid as being legitimate. It was a means of surviving in a harsh environment.

This book reminded me of Dorothy Dunnett’s The Game of King’s although that one is set earlier in Henry VIII time. Greig’s language is earthier but I’m sure that it is more authentic. There is a lot of dialogue in Scots dialect but there is a glossary at the back of the book for those who don’t know the Scots words, it wasn’t a problem for me of course. I read Fair Helen as part of the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge.

Jack recommended that I read this book, he rates Andrew Greig’s writing very highly, I think I’ve read three or four of his books now and they have all been very different but his writing is very good, very Scottish and very literary but not in a dry way. Harry Langton is a devotee of Michel de Montaigne and other philosophers, so I was really pleased that I had recently read a book about Montaigne. You can read Jack’s much more thorough review here.

Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

Kate Saunders of The Times says on the front of Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir ‘If you don’t cry at the end, you have a heart of stone’ So there you go, I have a heart of stone, in fact I’m as hard as nails – did I tell you I come from Glasgow?

Anyway, I knew the story of Lady Jane Grey so nothing was a surprise and for me that was the problem with this book, I think if you don’t know much about the subject then this is the book for you. I knew most of the history involved, if not all and I found the massive info dumps annoying.

The tale is told from several different characters’ perspectives and I don’t think that that was well done as they all had much the same voice as far as I was concerned’ which is definitely not something that happens with real people.

It is about one of the most tragic occurrences in English history, a young girl used and abused by the very people who should have nurtured and loved her most. That they only saw Jane as an object for their own advancement was shameful but probably not that surprising to the people around them at the time. In fact if you have a look at the news reports there are plenty of abusive parents around now.

That’s probably me being a right grumpy besom but I think for some reason I have a problem with Alison Weir as a fiction writer, I intend to have a go at one of her straight history books as I think I might prefer those. I see that her history books veer mainly towards the Tudor period, I fancy trying her Eleanor of Aquitane, but the question is – will she be as good a historian as Antonia Fraser? No doubt I’ll find out. Have you read any of her non-fiction books?

After Flodden by Rosemary Goring

After Flodden cover

I read After Flodden by Rosemary Goring for the Read Scotland 2015 Challenge but mainly because Margaret at BooksPlease loved it so much, you can read her review here.

It’s a bit of Scottish history which isn’t written about often, mainly because it was such a disastrous and painful time I suppose. Rosemary Goring managed to weave a believable and exciting storyline, I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, which is due out next month – Dacre’s War.

If you’re interested you can see my photos of the actual Flodden battlefield here. I took them a few years ago.

Green Darkness by Anya Seton

Anya Seton‘s note at the beginning of this book states that The theme of this book is reincarnation, an attempt to show the interplay – the law of cause and effect, good and evil – for certain individual souls in two English periods.

The two periods are 1968 when the book begins but after 80 odd pages the story turns back to Tudor times. Celia Marsden is a young, rich American who has been married for her money really, her husband Richard’s family has lived in a Sussex manor house, Medfield Place since the Tudor times, and before that they had built a stone keep there in the 1200s.

In 1968 Celia ends up in a catatonic state and it’s then that the story switches to Tudor times with many of the same characters from 1968. It isn’t exactly successful although I can imagine that if I had read this book when it was first published in 1972 when I was 13 then I would have probably loved it. Of course it could just be that I was put off by yet another Tudor period setting which I hadn’t expected. Back in 1972 this book was wildly popular and I almost never read books at the same time as everybody else is reading them. I don’t know why – it’s probably me being a wee bit snobbish book-wise. Has anyone read Anya Seton’s Katherine and if so should I read it do you think?

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

I got an e-mail on Thursday from the library asking me to come and pick up this book, I requested it from them months ago so there was obviously a long queue of people in front of me. Anyway, I picked it up on Thursday night and as there’s a note on the inside of the book asking people to read it as quickly as possible as it’s in demand I did just that and finished it this afternoon.

Thankfully at 410 pages this one isn’t as huge as Wolf Hall which I found to be an unwieldy beast to read even although I enjoyed the contents.

I think I actually liked this book even more than Wolf Hall, possibly because I did read it over such a short period of time and I didn’t have any problems with the writing, either I’ve got used to her style or she has improved it because Wolf Hall was a wee bit confusing at times with so many he saids and it not always being obvious who the he was.

I’m sure everyone knows what Bring Up the Bodies is about. It’s the continuation of Thomas Cromwell’s career at Henry VIII’s court. Cromwell hasn’t allowed the disadvantages of being the son of a blacksmith to hold him back, in fact the survival skills he learned as a youngster have been a help to him in his post of Henry’s Chief Minister. As a commoner he’s looked down on by the aristocrats at court but they’re also afraid of his power. Cromwell has plenty of enemies, it’s a dangerous combination.

Cromwell had done everything he could to please Henry by making it possible for Anne to become his wife and Queen but Henry is less than pleased with Anne and is keen to get on to the next wife, Jane Seymour. It’s Cromwell’s job to find a way out for the king. This book ends in 1536 with Anne Boleyn getting the chop – or should I say the swish!

Hilary Mantel is apparently writing the next book in this series. I’m really looking forward to it. There are only four more years to go for Thomas Cromwell so it shouldn’t be a massive tome.

Bring Up The Bodies won the 2012 Man Booker Prize.