The Light Ages by Seb Falk

The Dark Ages is a term still used – although maybe not as often as it used to be – for the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, bringing to mind images of people living in an intellectual darkness, a time when little scientific progress and cultural advancement took place. In The Light Ages, historian Seb Falk dispels this idea by showing how this period was actually a time of discovery, invention and learning, and that the word medieval ‘rather than a synonym for backwardness should stand for a rounded university education, for careful and critical reading of all kinds of texts, for openness to ideas from all over the world, for a healthy respect for the mysterious and unknown.’

Instead of concentrating on the work of famous historical figures, Falk has chosen to focus on a man whose name is probably unfamiliar to most of us: Brother John of Westwyk, a monk who lived in the late fourteenth century. Although there’s a lot we still don’t know about John, Falk takes us through the known facts and uses his general knowledge of the period to flesh things out, describing what John’s life may have been like at St Albans Abbey where he was ordained and outlining the type of education he would have received at Oxford University. Later, John continued his mathematical and astronomical studies at Tynemouth Priory and then went on crusade with Henry le Despenser in 1383 before returning to London where he produced his biggest scientific accomplishment:

He had made an equatorium – an equation-solver, a computer – and he was calibrating it to give the precise positions of the planets.

I won’t pretend that I understood the descriptions of John Westwyk’s famous Equatorie of the Planetis (once believed to have been the work of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer) – like a lot of the information in this book, it went completely over my head. However, before we get to the discussion of the Equatorie, Falk explores several of the other scientific, mathematical and astronomical advancements and discoveries that made such an invention possible. The topics covered include the Babylonian base-60 system of numbering, the development of early clocks, mapping and the magnetic compass, and the functions of the device known as the astrolabe. Some of it is fascinating (did you know how to count to 9,999 on your fingers?), but there are also a lot of geometric diagrams, equations and calculations that will probably be of much more interest to people with a background in physics and mathematics than to the general reader.

A line runs from the Middle Ages to modern science. It is not an unbroken line, of course, and certainly not straight. But if you struggled with any of the trigonometry in earlier chapters, you will admit that medieval people – who carried out such painstaking calculations without the help of any electronics – were not stupid.

Although the book often became too technical for me, I did enjoy all the insights we are given into medieval life. I loved the image of John trying to work on his astronomical tables in his room in St Albans while pigs roam the streets outside:

According to local tradition, pigs too small to sell were donated to the hospital. As they trotted through the streets, Londoners fed them up from runts to valuable livestock, in small but frequent gestures of civic charity. The hospital marked its porcine property with bells to prevent their confiscation and deter theft. For John Westwyk, though, the grunting and clanging from the street cannot have aided his attempts to comprehend Ptolemaic planetary theory.

The Light Ages has clearly been thoroughly researched, drawing on medieval documents and texts ranging from Pierre le Pèlerin’s Letter on the Magnet to Bernard of Gordon’s Lily of Medicine and making occasional diversions to other parts of the world to discuss the impact of the Crusades or to highlight the work of the Persian polymath, Tusi, to give a few examples. For readers who want to explore further, there’s a large selection of primary and secondary sources provided at the end of the book. This wasn’t the ideal book for me as I would have preferred something slightly less academic, but for the right reader I’m sure it would be a wonderful read!

Thanks to Penguin Press UK – Allen Lane for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

I’m taking part in Read Christie 2021 this year and the prompt for January is ‘a story set in a grand house’. Christie wrote lots of those and I’ve already read some of them, including The Hollow, which is the one the challenge hosts have chosen as the book of the month. Fortunately, they provided a list of alternative suggestions and I decided on the 1942 Miss Marple mystery, The Body in the Library, as my January book for the challenge.

The ‘grand house’ in this novel is Gossington Hall in St Mary Mead, home to Dolly Bantry and her husband, Colonel Arthur Bantry. When the Bantrys are woken by the maid early one morning to be told that a dead body has been found on their library floor – the body of a blonde young woman in a white satin evening dress and silver shoes – suspicion immediately falls on the Colonel. But the Colonel insists that he has never seen the woman before and there is no evidence to connect him with the murder, so attention then turns to other suspects.

Could the culprit be Basil Blake, a newcomer to the village who is involved in the film industry and whose lifestyle has made him the centre of village gossip? What about George Bartlett, a guest at the nearby Majestic Hotel where the murdered woman, Ruby Keene, had worked as a dancer? Or maybe it’s Conway Jefferson, who had been planning to adopt Ruby as his daughter after losing his wife and children in a plane crash several years earlier. As the police begin to investigate, Dolly Bantry enlists the help of her friend Miss Marple because she’s ‘very good at murders’. And Miss Marple once again proves just how good she is at murders by using her usual blend of observation and knowledge of human nature to piece together the clues and solve the crime.

The Body in the Library is a short, quick read and like most of Christie’s novels it is cleverly constructed so that most of the information you need to be able to solve the mystery is there from the beginning, but very easy to overlook. As Miss Marple says once or twice, most people are too trusting and too ready to believe everything they are told; even bearing that in mind, I still didn’t suspect the right person and the murderer had me completely fooled! The murderer also had the police fooled – although we don’t actually see very much of Miss Marple in this novel and the focus is more on the police investigation, she is the one who provides the necessary insights that lead to the identification of the killer.

In the foreword to the novel, Christie states that the ‘body in the library’ story is a cliché of detective fiction and that she wrote this book as a variation on that cliché: ‘The library in question must be a highly orthodox and conventional library. The body, on the other hand, must be a wildly improbable and highly sensational body.’ Well, the library at Gossington Hall certainly sounds conventional and the body caused plenty of sensation in St Mary Mead, so I think Christie achieved what she set out to do! This has not become a favourite Marple novel but I did enjoy it and am looking forward to reading February’s book for the challenge.

Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain

I’ve found this a difficult book to write about because, although it is undoubtedly very well written and has a lot of the elements I would usually find interesting, for some reason I just didn’t like it very much and have struggled to explain why. It was particularly disappointing as I’ve enjoyed the other Rose Tremain books I’ve read – Restoration, Merivel and The Gustav Sonata – so I had high hopes for this one too.

Anyway, Islands of Mercy begins in 1865 in Bath, ‘a place where very many rich people assembled, to take the waters, or simply to take their leisure’. Jane Adeane is the twenty-four-year-old daughter of a renowned Bath surgeon and works with him as a nurse, gaining a reputation for herself as The Angel of the Baths. She has caught the eye of her father’s fellow doctor and business partner, Dr Valentine Ross, but his attentions are unwelcome to her and she decides to go to London for a while to stay with her Aunt Emmeline, an artist. Here she meets one of Emmeline’s friends, the beautiful Julietta Sims, and feels an instant attraction to her. Soon, Jane finds that she is falling in love with Julietta, and when she returns to Bath she must decide whether she wants the security that marriage to Dr Ross could give her or whether she would prefer to be free to pursue her relationship with Julietta.

Jane’s story alternates with that of Sir Ralph Savage, an eccentric Englishman who lives on the island of Borneo with his servant and lover, Leon, and calls himself ‘the Rajah of the South Sadong Territories’. Leon is an ambitious and resourceful young man who is always coming up with new money-making schemes, but he is also a jealous man and is not at all happy when Edmund Ross, a naturalist who has come to Borneo in search of new species, arrives on Sir Ralph’s estate.

Edmund is the younger brother of Valentine Ross and this provides a link between the two storylines – however, it is a very weak link and for most of the novel they seem like two completely different, unconnected stories. Borneo is certainly a fascinating and unusual setting, but I didn’t have any interest in Sir Ralph and Leon and felt that their chapters could probably have been left out entirely as they added very little to the overall plot of the novel. This made the whole experience of reading this book feel disjointed and every time the narrative switched to Borneo I couldn’t wait for it to return to Bath again.

Although I found Jane’s chapters much more compelling, I was disappointed by the character arc Valentine Ross goes through; I did have some sympathy for him at first after Jane’s initial rejection of him, but he quickly becomes so unpleasant and controlling that he feels like a stereotypical villain rather than a believably flawed character. I didn’t doubt Jane’s love for Julietta, so I don’t really think it was necessary to make Valentine so needlessly cruel and selfish – in fact, I think it would have been more interesting if Jane had faced a choice between the woman she loved and a man whom she at least liked.

There is a third thread to the novel that I haven’t mentioned yet and this follows the story of Clorinda Morrissey, a woman from Dublin who opens a tea shop in Bath, where she gets to know Jane and her father. Clorinda was the one character in the book I really liked and would have been happy to visit for a cup of tea and a cake! I wished we had spent more time with her rather than some of the other less engaging characters.

I will continue to read Rose Tremain’s books as it’s only this one so far that I haven’t enjoyed. Luckily there are plenty of her earlier novels left for me to explore.

Book 2/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Land Beyond the Sea by Sharon Penman

The first book I have finished in 2021 is actually one that I started last summer, but as with many of the books I tried to read last year I found that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for anything long and complex. And at almost 700 pages, this novel is certainly long – and with a plot dealing with the history and politics of Outremer, or the Kingdom of Jerusalem, it is certainly complex! As I’m finding it a lot easier to concentrate on reading now, I picked the book up again and have enjoyed immersing myself in it over the last week or two.

Jerusalem was captured by the Crusaders in 1099, at the end of the First Crusade, and the kingdom they established there became known as Outremer or ‘the land beyond the sea’. The Crusaders who stayed in Outremer and made it their home were mainly of French origin and Penman refers to them (and their descendants) as Franks or Poulains. The novel covers the period from 1172 to 1187, a period when the kingdom is becoming divided by disputes over the succession to the throne and when the Muslim Arabs (referred to as Saracens in the book), led by their sultan Saladin, are taking advantage of this to try to reclaim their lands.

With Outremer under threat from Saladin’s armies, strong leadership is more important than ever, but the young king of Jerusalem, Baldwin IV, has been forced to confront an unwelcome truth: he is suffering from leprosy and can expect an early and unpleasant end to his life. As rival Poulain lords begin plotting and scheming to become the influence behind the next king or queen, the Saracens advance further into Outremer, with their eye on Jerusalem itself…

The Land Beyond the Sea is a fascinating novel. I have read a lot about Europe in the medieval period, but not so much about other parts of the world. Apart from Elizabeth Chadwick’s Templar Silks, I can’t really think of anything else I’ve read that focuses entirely on the Holy Land and its people. As my knowledge of the subject was so limited, I didn’t always know how or when a character would die, or who they would marry, or what the outcome of a battle would be, which made a nice change from reading about the Tudors or the Wars of the Roses, where I usually have a good idea of what is going to happen next! It also meant that it wasn’t a particularly easy read; the number of characters introduced in the first half of the book was overwhelming, especially as so many of them were used as viewpoint characters, which made it difficult to really settle into the story. By the middle of the novel, though, I felt that I was getting to know some of them much better and they were starting to feel like real people rather than just names on the page and from this point on I really enjoyed the rest of the book.

Most of the novel is written from the perspective of the Franks, with a focus on three of them in particular: Baldwin, the ‘Leper King’, who is depicted as a courageous and intelligent young man determined to take care of his kingdom until his illness makes it impossible; William, Archbishop of Tyre, tutor to Baldwin, whose chronicle History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea is one of our most important sources of information on the Kingdom of Jerusalem; and Balian d’Ibelin, one of the leading Poulain noblemen who, due to the respect he commands amongst the other lords and his marriage to the king’s stepmother Maria Comnena, often finds himself drawn into the kingdom’s military and political affairs. I’ve noticed that a few other readers have said they found Balian too good to be true, or even anachronistic, but I disagree – there are plenty of other characters in the book who are selfish, weak or untrustworthy, so why shouldn’t there also be one who is decent and honourable? Balian was the only character I fully connected with emotionally; I sympathised with him as he struggled with some very difficult decisions and shared his frustration at the behaviour of some of the other Franks whose inability to put the welfare of the kingdom before their own interests led Jerusalem towards disaster.

We do occasionally see things from the Saracen point of view, particularly when Balian crosses paths with Saladin and his brother al-Adil, and I think Penman does give a balanced portrayal of both sides in the conflict. Although for most of the book the Saracens are the ‘enemy’, whenever the perspective switches to their side we see that Saladin and al-Adil are more admirable than many of the Franks, are prepared to be reasonable in negotiations and to show compassion where necessary. My only complaint is that I would have liked to have spent more time with them instead of just a few pages here and there.

As with Sharon Penman’s other books, this one has clearly been very well researched and her afterword and author’s note are almost as interesting as the story itself. Apart from maybe two or three words and phrases out of a 700 page book, I didn’t have any problems with inappropriately modern language (and I’m usually the first to complain about that sort of thing). However, I didn’t love this one as much as some of her others such as The Sunne in Splendour or Falls the Shadow, which I think is down to finding the writing slightly dry in places and the lack of emotional impact until nearer the end. Still, I really enjoyed The Land Beyond the Sea and am determined to find time soon to read the final book in Penman’s Welsh Princes trilogy, The Reckoning, which has been waiting on my shelf for years!

Book 1/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Running Wolf by Helen Steadman

I enjoyed Helen Steadman’s Widdershins, a novel about the Newcastle Witch Trials of 1650, but her new book The Running Wolf sounded even more intriguing as it’s set partly in Shotley Bridge, which is just a few miles away from where I live. The novel begins, however, in Solingen, Germany in 1687, where master swordmaker Hermann Mohll is about to make a life-changing decision. Along with several other Solingen swordmakers, Hermann is planning to leave Germany and settle with his family in the North East of England in search of more work and better opportunities.

Arriving in Shotley Bridge, Hermann is kept busy making swords to sell to the English, while his wife Katrin, daughter Liesl and mother Anna – accompanied by Griselda, the one-eared dog – try to adjust to their new lives. The story of the Mohll family alternates with another storyline, set a few years later in the winter of 1703-4 and narrated by Robert Tipstaff, the unpleasant and corrupt keeper of Morpeth Gaol. December is usually a quiet month for Tipstaff, but this year is different; a German smuggler has been captured and brought to Morpeth, but who is he and why is the powerful Earl of Nottingham taking such an interest in him? Could he be a threat to the reign of Queen Anne?

Although Hermann Mohll and some of the other characters are loosely based on real people and the novel is inspired by real historical events, the story Helen Steadman weaves around Hermann and his family is fictional. The book may be set hundreds of years ago, but with themes including immigration, identity and trade, it all feels very relevant. I enjoyed watching the Mohll family and the rest of the group from Solingen settling into their new home and trying to find the right balance between holding on to their German customs and traditions and adopting the way of life of their new English neighbours. While Liesl is keen to learn to speak English and to make friends with the local children, Katrin finds it much more difficult to adjust, having been forced to leave her own mother behind in Solingen. As for Hermann himself, he has moments of doubt and times when he wonders whether he has made the right decision.

The Morpeth chapters, being set several years later, confused me slightly at first, but I soon started to see how the two threads of the novel were linked, although I was still kept in suspense wondering exactly how they would come together and what had led to the situation Tipstaff was describing. These chapters are shorter than the others and add some variety, not just with the change of narrator but also with the difference in writing style and the use of dialect.

The Running Wolf is a fascinating book. When you read a lot of historical fiction, as I do, it’s always nice to come across a subject you’ve never read about before and to be left feeling that you’ve learned something new. I could tell that Helen Steadman had thoroughly researched the lives of the Shotley Bridge swordmakers and I wasn’t surprised to read in the acknowledgments that she had carried out swordmaking training as part of her research, which explains the detailed and believable descriptions of Hermann’s work. As well as being an entertaining story, this was also an educational one for me!

Thanks to the author and Impress Books for providing a copy of this book for review.

The Man in the Moonlight by Helen McCloy

I loved Dance of Death, the first book in Helen McCloy’s Dr Basil Willing mystery series which I read last month, so I was pleased to see that Agora Books have now reissued the second in the series, The Man in the Moonlight. I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as the first, but it was still a good read and it was nice to meet Dr Willing and Assistant Chief Inspector Foyle again.

Helen McCloy (a pseudonym of Helen Clarkson) was an American crime author whose career spanned five decades and included several standalone books as well as the Basil Willing series. The Man in the Moonlight, first published in 1940, is set during World War II and the war has a part to play in the plot.

Inspector Foyle is visiting Yorkville University, where he is planning to send his son, when he finds a discarded piece of paper with the message: ‘I take pleasure in informing you that you have been chosen as murderer for Group No 1. Please follow these instructions with as great exactness as possible.’ At first Foyle doesn’t take this too seriously – he assumes it’s part of a game of some sort and doesn’t believe that real killers refer to each other as ‘murderers’ anyway – but he is forced to change his mind when Professor Konradi, an Austrian biochemist who escaped from a concentration camp, is found dead in his laboratory.

Konradi’s death appears to be suicide but Foyle isn’t convinced and enlists the help of Dr Basil Willing, psychiatric consultant to the New York District Attorney’s office. As Foyle and Willing begin to investigate, they uncover some intriguing and unexpected aspects of the case, ranging from a psychological experiment being carried out by another of the university professors to the potential involvement of a group of Nazi spies. As in Dance of Death, it’s Willing’s understanding of how the human mind works that leads to the eventual solution.

This is quite a complex mystery novel and incorporates lots of interesting psychological and scientific ideas. The sort of methods Basil Willing uses to obtain the information he needs include lie detector tests and word association tests and I found it fascinating to see him explain his analysis of these tests to the other characters. The focus on the personalities of the suspects, their possible motives and their reasons for behaving the way they do, is much more appealing to me than reading long discussions of alibis and timelines which often dominate other mystery novels and this is one of the reasons why I’m enjoying Helen McCloy’s novels so much. Most of her books are still currently out of print but I’m hoping more of them will be made available by Agora Books soon.

The Woman in the Painting by Kerry Postle

Of the major Renaissance artists, I think Raphael is probably slightly less well known than Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. In Kerry Postle’s novel The Woman in the Painting she explores not only the life and work of the man himself but the story of his mistress and model, Margarita Luti. It is thought that Margarita, known as La Fornarina, may have been the subject of Raphael’s painting of the same name and although we don’t know this for certain, Postle takes this theory as the basis for the novel.

We see the relationship between Raphael and Margarita develop through the eyes of Pietro, a young man who, at the beginning of the novel, has just become an apprentice to the artist Sebastiano Luciani (later known as Sebastiano del Piombo). Although Pietro’s duties are limited to cleaning brushes and grinding pigments, he works hard and learns from his master and the more experienced apprentices, but despite knowing that he has been given a wonderful opportunity, he can’t help feeling that Sebastiano’s paintings lack true greatness. Following an accident in the workshop, Pietro is dismissed from his position and thrown out into the street, where he is rescued by Margarita, one of Sebastiano’s models. It is when Pietro is offered a new apprenticeship with Raphael, who is newly arrived in Rome, that Margarita is introduced to Raphael for the first time.

It’s not long before Margarita is sitting for Raphael’s paintings and beginning to fall in love with the artist, but as a woman from a humble background – she’s the daughter of a baker – she is not seen as a suitable wife for Raphael. Meanwhile Pietro is also finding himself attracted to Raphael and the affection he had first felt for Margarita soon turns to jealousy.

I enjoyed The Woman in the Painting, although I think I might have preferred it to have been narrated by Margarita. I felt that the choice of Pietro as narrator held me at a distance from Raphael and Margarita and stopped me from fully understanding their relationship and the emotions involved. The focus instead was more on Pietro’s feelings of envy and resentment and the ways in which he acted on these feelings to try to cause trouble for Margarita and get closer to Raphael himself. Still, Pietro was a complex and very human character and although I didn’t feel a lot of sympathy for him, I couldn’t actually dislike him either.

I didn’t really know a lot about Raphael before I started to read this book, so I found that I was learning a lot from it. The descriptions of the day to day work of the artist and his apprentices in the studio particularly interested me. As recently as 2001, X-ray analysis showed that the woman depicted in La Fornarina had originally worn a ruby ring on her finger which was painted over at some point. There is no historical proof for the explanation Postle gives for this in the novel, but it works in the context of the story. We also see, from Pietro’s perspective, the political situation in Rome at that time and get to know some of the historical figures of the period, including not only Raphael, Michelangelo and Sebastiano, but also Agostino Chigi, Raphael’s patron, and Cardinal Bibbiena, to whose niece Raphael was engaged.

This is the first Kerry Postle novel I’ve read, but I see she has written a few others including The Artist’s Muse, about Gustav Klimt and his model Wally Neuzil. Has anyone read that one and what did you think?

Thanks to HQ Digital for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.