Crimson and Bone by Marina Fiorato

It’s January 1853 and seventeen-year-old Annie Stride is standing on Waterloo Bridge looking down at the River Thames, contemplating suicide. Having grown up in the East End of London as part of a large and impoverished family, Annie has drifted into a life of prostitution. Her only friend, Mary Jane, drowned in the Thames the previous year and now, pregnant and homeless, Annie has decided she has no choice but to do the same. Just as she gets ready to jump from the bridge, she is rescued at the last minute by a handsome young man who introduces himself as Francis Maybrick Gill.

Francis is a talented Pre-Raphaelite artist who is planning a new series of paintings on the subject of the ‘Fallen Woman’ – and he wants Annie to be his model. And so Annie, who had been only moments away from death, finds herself living with Francis in his large and luxurious Gower Street home, posing for portraits of Eve, Rahab and Jezebel. As well as using Annie as his muse, Francis also takes steps to improve her mind, to correct her East End speech and to help her with her reading and writing. She has no idea why he is taking so much interest in her, but she is so grateful she doesn’t care – until late one night two visitors come to call and Annie begins to wonder whether Francis Maybrick Gill is really the man she thought he was.

Crimson and Bone, Marina Fiorato’s latest novel, is divided into three parts and everything I have described above happens in the first part alone. The action also moves away from London for a while to Florence and Venice; Fiorato, who is half-Venetian herself, always writes beautifully about Italy and we are given some lovely, vivid descriptions of the country. The author’s love of art also shines through, with lots of information on the Pre-Raphaelite approach to art, exhibitions at the Royal Academy, the symbolism in the paintings for which Annie models, and, through the character of a mysterious ‘rainbow man’, the origins of the paints and pigments Francis uses.

From the beginning, the reader is kept in the dark as to Francis’s motives. What are his true plans for Annie? Does he really just want to paint her or does he have some other reason for his sudden interest in her? And what is the significance of his obsession with white camellias? A series of diary entries written by Annie’s friend Mary Jane appear at the start of each chapter which eventually shed some light on things, while also raising more questions along the way. It’s obvious that something is not quite right with the whole situation, but we don’t know what or why and the tension builds slowly throughout the novel.

However, there are a few inaccuracies and anachronisms which do spoil the book somewhat – for example, Annie tries to improve her speech by listening to gramophone records (several decades before they would have been available) and is taken to the theatre to see performances of Pygmalion (not staged until 1913) and Adelaide Neilson in Measure for Measure (more than twenty years too early). Admittedly, not knowing anything about Adelaide Neilson, I wasn’t aware of the third one until someone else pointed it out in their review, but it makes me wonder what else I might have been too caught up in the story to notice.

And the fact that I became so caught up in the story and the atmosphere – and that I cared about what happened to Annie – meant that I did enjoy this novel overall, despite its flaws.

This is book 15/20 of my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

Kit by Marina Fiorato

Kit Marina Fiorato’s latest novel, Kit, tells the story of Kit Kavanagh, a young woman from Ireland who disguises herself as a man and follows her husband to war. Those of you who have never heard of Kit Kavanagh (and I hadn’t until I read this book) may be surprised to know that she was a real person and that this novel is loosely based on a true story.

Kit’s adventures begin one evening in a Dublin inn when her husband, Richard Walsh, is pressed into the British army and disappears overnight. Having only been married for a few weeks, Kit is devastated and can’t stop thinking of her beloved father who was killed in battle several years earlier. Determined to save Richard from the same fate, she decides to dress as a man and enlist in the army herself. Soon Kit finds herself on a ship heading for Italy where she will serve with the Scots Grey Dragoons under the command of the handsome Captain Ross.

It’s 1702 and the death of the last Habsburg king of Spain has sparked conflict across Europe. The heir to the throne is the grandson of King Louis XIV of France, meaning that both Spain and France could potentially be ruled by the same monarch. In an attempt to prevent one man from gaining so much power, England and Scotland have formed an alliance with the Holy Roman Empire and the Dutch Republic in support of a rival claimant, Leopold I. The two opposing armies are battling for control of the north of Italy as Kit arrives in Genova to begin her search for Richard Walsh.

The first half of the novel follows Kit as she fights alongside the men of her regiment, hoping that her luck will hold out and her true identity won’t be revealed before she catches up with her husband. To complicate things further, she finds herself falling in love with Captain Ross – but as he believes her to be a man, she is unsure how he really feels about her. The second half of the novel is where Fiorato moves away from reality and further into the realms of fiction, creating a storyline in which Kit is recruited by the scheming Duke of Ormonde to spy on the French.

Kit is the third book I’ve read by Marina Fiorato (the other two are The Glassblower of Murano and Beatrice and Benedick) and this is my favourite so far. I loved Kit as a character and was completely gripped by her story. This is the first time I’ve ever read about the War of the Spanish Succession, but as Kit also knows nothing about it, we have the opportunity to learn along with her. Battle strategies and political intrigue are clearly explained and we meet important historical figures of the period such as the Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene of Savoy.

I particularly loved the first part of the book – The Sword – which concentrates on Kit’s time in the army, the beginning of her relationship with Captain Ross, her friendships with the other dragoons (whose names Fiorato chose from her local war memorial), and her clashes with the villainous Sergeant Taylor and the sinister army surgeon Atticus Lambe. I was very impressed by the amount of detail Fiorato goes into in showing how thoroughly Kit prepares herself for life as a man, not only by changing the way she dresses, but also by adjusting her speech, her mannerisms and her whole persona. Knowing that the character is based on a woman who really existed just makes Kit’s story even more fascinating!

The second part of the novel – The Fan – in which Kit falls into the hands of the Duke of Ormonde, has a different feel and I didn’t like it as much as the first part, although I did enjoy watching the development of Kit’s friendship with the Italian castrato singer, Lucio Mezzanotte. The various threads of the story came together nicely at the end, and while I didn’t really think the epilogue was necessary it did mean that all the loose ends were tied up.

In Kit I found the combination of history, adventure and romance that I love in historical fiction and I’m now looking forward to reading the rest of Marina Fiorato’s novels. The Madonna of the Almonds, The Botticelli Secret and The Venetian Contract all sound appealing, but I should probably start with Daughter of Siena, which I already have on my shelf.

The Glassblower of Murano by Marina Fiorato

The Glassblowers of Murano Since reading Marina Fiorato’s Beatrice and Benedick last year, I’ve wanted to try another of her books. There were three on the shelf in the library, so I had a choice to make!

Two years ago, I visited Venice for the first time and, like many tourists, took a vaporetto to the island of Murano and went into one of the famous glass factories to watch a demonstration of glass blowing. It’s not surprising, then, that I was drawn to this particular book by the title, The Glassblower of Murano.

The novel follows Nora Manin as she undertakes a journey very similar to my own, visiting Murano and entering a glass workshop. Nora is not just a tourist, though – she is planning to start a new life in Venice and is hoping to get a job blowing glass. As the descendant of one of the most famous glassblowers in Venetian history, Corradino Manin, and a talented glass artist in her own right, Nora easily convinces the factory owner to employ her. However, as Nora begins to settle into her new job she learns something about her ancestor that she would rather not have known.

Alternating with Nora’s story is the story of Corradino, set in 1681. Like all glassblowers, Corradino is closely watched by the sinister Council of Ten and forbidden to leave Venice in case he gives away his glassmaking secrets, but one day he is approached by a Frenchman who makes a very tempting offer. Whether or not Corradino does betray the secrets of the glass is something Nora needs to discover if she is to restore not only her ancestor’s reputation but her own.

I enjoyed The Glassblower of Murano. It wasn’t perfect and it did feel like a first book (this was Marina Fiorato’s debut novel and having also read her newest one, Beatrice and Benedick, I think her writing has improved a lot over the years) but it was still an interesting, entertaining read and just what I was in the mood for. I loved the setting, of course, and could feel the author’s own love for Venice shining through on every page. The descriptions of glassblowing techniques are fascinating as well; I’ve never really given any thought as to how mirrors were made, so it was interesting to read about Corradino’s methods. I did wonder whether Corradino was based on a real person, but it seems that he’s an entirely fictional character – although the author’s portrayal of the 17th century world in which he lives feels real and convincing.

Usually when a book has dual time periods, I find that I have a preference for one over the other and this was no exception – the historical storyline was my favourite – but I did find the contemporary strand quite compelling too. I was so caught up in the stories of Nora and Corradino that I was almost (but not quite) able to overlook the flaws with the book, such as the implausible coincidences, the subplots that were started but never developed, and the fact that all of the characters apart from the two main protagonists lacked depth.

I had some problems with The Glassblower of Murano, then, but I thought it was an enjoyable book overall and I’m looking forward to reading her others. Her other novel set in Venice, The Venetian Contract, sounds appealing so maybe I’ll try that one next.

Beatrice and Benedick by Marina Fiorato

Beatrice and Benedick “I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.” These words are spoken by Beatrice near the beginning of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, when she is reunited with Benedick, a man whom it is hinted she had been romantically involved with in the past. Shakespeare never gives us any details of Beatrice and Benedick’s history together and in this new novel, Marina Fiorato imagines how they may have met, what could have led to their separation and what brought them together again.

As the novel begins in the summer of 1588, Beatrice, the daughter of Prince Escalus of Verona, is visiting Messina in Sicily, staying at the home of her uncle Leonato, the Governor of Messina. Sicily is under Spanish rule and Leonato is preparing to welcome a party of Spaniards to the island, including the Prince of Aragon, Don Pedro, who is accompanied by his two young Italian friends, Claudio and Benedick. Claudio instantly falls in love with Leonato’s beautiful daughter, Hero, while Beatrice and Benedick are also attracted to each other – but are unable to admit it, preferring to trade insults instead. Just as they begin to acknowledge their love for each other, the two are torn apart with Beatrice heading home to Verona and Benedick joining Don Pedro and Claudio at sea as the Spanish Armada sets out to invade England. Eventually they will all meet again in Messina, setting the scene for the events of Much Ado About Nothing

Well, this book was a surprise! I had expected a light, gentle romantic comedy, but what I got was an entertaining and often quite dark historical adventure novel filled with duels, pageants and puppet shows, sea voyages, mutinies and treasure troves. Like a play, the novel is divided into Acts and Scenes, each Scene narrated by either Beatrice or Benedick. The voices of the two narrators were very similar and I thought more effort could have been made to make them more distinctive, but otherwise I liked the way the novel was structured. I wondered whether Fiorato would be able to pull off the wars of words between Beatrice and Benedick, but I think she did this very well – although Benedick doesn’t seem as quick-witted as Beatrice and usually comes off worst in their encounters.

I know there are some readers who are not interested in prequels, sequels or rewritings of any kind (and actually, I usually am one of those readers) but I enjoyed this one and thought it was very cleverly done, with Shakespeare’s characters and storylines woven perfectly into the history of the period. There are also some elements and characters from other plays, most notably Othello and Romeo and Juliet. Fiorato even manages to incorporate Shakespeare himself into the novel – if you’re not already aware of the theories connecting Shakespeare with Sicily I’ll leave you to find out for yourself!

You don’t really need to be familiar with Much Ado About Nothing as this book does work as a straightforward historical fiction novel, but you will get more out of it if you do read (or watch) the play either before you start or after you finish. As for the historical aspects of the novel, it was interesting to learn about Spanish-ruled Sicily and the fate of the Moors who lived there. I also loved all the beautiful descriptions of both Messina and Verona.

Having enjoyed Beatrice and Benedick so much more than I’d expected to, are there any other Shakespeare-inspired novels you would recommend?