The Butcher’s Daughter by Victoria Glendinning

Today I am taking part in a blog tour for The Butcher’s Daughter, a novel set in Tudor England during and after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It’s a time period and subject that interests me, so I had high hopes for this book, my first by Victoria Glendinning.

It’s 1535 and Agnes Peppin is the ‘butcher’s daughter’ of the title – a young woman from Bruton in Somerset who, after giving birth to an illegitimate child, has been sent to live with the nuns at Shaftesbury Abbey as a novice. Agnes can read and write, having been taught by the canons at her local church, and these skills make her useful to the abbess, Elizabeth Zouche. Before she has time to take her vows and become a nun herself, however, Shaftesbury Abbey, like other great religious houses across the country, becomes a target of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell’s campaign to dissolve the abbeys and monasteries, seizing their assets for the crown and then demolishing the buildings.

The Butcher’s Daughter is narrated by Agnes herself in the form of a memoir as she first describes her life at the abbey and then tells us what happens afterwards as she and her fellow nuns and novices find themselves facing uncertain futures. It’s a slow-paced novel and definitely one which is driven more by character than by plot, but I still found it quite gripping because Agnes pulled me so thoroughly into her world. The chapters set within the abbey are informative and detailed; as a novice, Agnes has a lot to learn, from how to dress herself correctly to studying the Lives of the Saints, as well as getting to know the other women with whom she will be living within the confines of the cloister.

The second half of the book was even more interesting. While the inhabitants of Shaftesbury Abbey have been watching the downfall of other smaller, less profitable houses, telling themselves that ‘in our case, of course, surrender is unthinkable and indeed unthought of’, it eventually becomes evident that they will not be spared and must prepare to suffer the same fate. We see the final days of the abbey through our heroine’s eyes, before following her through a series of adventures as she rejoins the secular world and attempts to find a place for herself in society again. Although Agnes has spent a relatively short time at Shaftesbury, there are others who have known no other sort of life and who find it much more difficult to cope with the changes enforced on them.

Although Agnes is a fictional character and her personal story is invented, Shaftesbury Abbey was real and characters such as Elizabeth Zouche really existed too. Towards the end of the novel, Agnes crosses paths with Sir Thomas Wyatt (son of the poet of the same name), bringing more real historical events and political intrigue into the story, but the focus is always on Agnes herself and the things she experiences during this traumatic and eventful period of religious history. And yet, despite the upheaval Agnes goes through and the challenges she faces, there is still a sense of optimism…a comforting knowledge that, whatever happens, life must go on, “Beans will sprout. Children will be born. There will be butterflies”.

Thanks to Duckworth Books for providing a copy of this novel for review.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

I can’t remember when I first read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose; it was possibly in the early 2000s – long enough ago to have forgotten most of the story, but recently enough that certain scenes have stayed quite clearly in my mind. I knew I hadn’t understood everything the first time, so when I saw that Annabel of Annabookbel was hosting a readalong in January I thought it would be interesting to read it again. Unfortunately, it was a busier month than I expected and I fell too far behind to be able to participate in the readalong, but I have been re-reading the book anyway and finished a few days ago.

The Name of the Rose is set in 1327 and is narrated by Adso of Melk, a Benedictine novice from Austria. I think the best way I can describe the book is to quote directly from the back cover of my old Picador edition: “Whether you’re into Sherlock Holmes, Montaillou, Borges, the nouvelle critique, the Rule of St. Benedict, metaphysics, library design, or The Thing from the Crypt, you’ll love it. Who can that miss out?” It probably misses out quite a lot of people, actually, but at least that gives you a good idea of the range and number of different topics and influences found in the novel.

The story begins with Adso accompanying a Franciscan friar, William of Baskerville, to a remote Benedictine monastery in the Italian mountains. In a few days’ time, this monastery will host a meeting between an embassy from Pope John XXII and a group of Minorites, but preparations are not going according to plan…Adelmo, a young illustrator known for his beautiful illuminated manuscripts, has been found dead, having supposedly fallen from a window of the Aedificium, the large building which houses the abbey’s renowned library. Was it suicide or was it murder? William, who has already impressed the abbot by successfully locating a lost horse, is asked to investigate.

There’s a reason why Eco has given William the name ‘Baskerville’ – as he moves around the abbey asking questions and uncovering the circumstances behind Adelmo’s death, he uses his powers of deduction just like Sherlock Holmes. Adso, of course, fills the position of Dr Watson, needing William to explain things to him as he goes along (which benefits the reader as well). But when a second death occurs, this one more gruesome than the first, William knows that if he is to have any chance of solving the mystery, he will need to gain access to the library – the secret, forbidden library which only the librarian and his assistant are allowed to enter.

As a murder mystery, The Name of the Rose is quite a good one. Reading it for the second time, I remembered the solution and the culprit, but not every detail of the plot, so I enjoyed watching it all unfold again. There are clues – physical and spoken – there are secrets to uncover, complex relationships to untangle and red herrings which point us in the wrong direction for a while. There are also some wonderful descriptions of the library, a genuinely eerie and sinister place; the scenes in which William and Adso explore its labyrinthine passages and chambers are some of the highlights of the book.

But The Name of the Rose is much more than just a medieval mystery novel. It is also a very detailed and erudite study of the religious history of Europe in the early 14th century, which I think is why some people love the book while others struggle with it. At the time of our story, the papacy has moved from its usual home in Rome to Avignon during a period of conflict between the church and the kings of France. From the very beginning of the novel, we are given page after page of information on the divisions within the church and the various orders and sects, such as the controversial movement led by Fra Dolcino, as well as lots of theological discussions on subjects ranging from poverty to whether Jesus ever laughed. The first time I read the book I found myself skimming over most of this to get to the murder mystery parts; this time, I tried to concentrate and understand the religious detail, but Eco’s style does not make it easy to absorb the facts and I admit there was still a lot that went over my head.

I enjoyed my re-read of this book, although I’m not sure whether I really got much more out of it than I did on my first read. I did love revisiting the library scenes, the descriptions of monastery life, and the characters of William and Adso. I have never tried reading any of Umberto Eco’s other books, but maybe I should. Does anyone have a recommendation?

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner My sister gave me a copy of this book saying it was one of the weirdest books she’d ever read and she thought I would love it. I’m not sure what that says about my reading tastes, but she was right anyway because I did love it!

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, published in 1824, was written by the Scottish poet and novelist James Hogg. I had never come across Hogg and his work until now and was interested to learn that he was a shepherd who taught himself to read and write and became a friend of Sir Walter Scott. This, his most famous novel, is part horror story, part murder mystery and part gothic fiction, but it also incorporates elements of religion, Scottish folklore, the supernatural and even some humour and satire.

Robert Wringhim, the ‘justified sinner’ of the title, is a young man who has been raised by his adoptive father, a Calvinist, to believe he is one of the chosen few, destined for a place in Heaven regardless of the sins he commits in life. One day he meets a mysterious stranger who calls himself Gil-Martin and who seems able to change his appearance at will. Wringhim allows the stranger to convince him that it’s his duty to “cut sinners off with the sword” and that he doesn’t need to worry about committing murder as in this case it’s the right thing to do and he is sure to be saved by God anyway. In his Private Memoirs and Confessions, he describes how he falls under the spell of the sinister Gil-Martin and how, when he begins to have doubts about his new friend, he starts to descend into madness and desperation.

Robert Wringhim’s Confession is presented as an authentic document that has been discovered under unusual circumstances a century later. It is introduced by a Narrative written by a fictitious editor which gives a supposedly factual account of Wringhim’s life and the crimes he is involved in. The Editor’s Narrative also forms the third and final section of the novel and attempts to explain how the Confession was found and what it might mean. But instead of helping to clarify the story, the Editor actually makes things more confusing and sometimes even contradicts what Wringhim has said. Neither narrative seems to be very reliable and at the end of the novel, we have to decide for ourselves what really happened. For example, it’s not clear whether Gil-Martin is a product of Wringhim’s imagination or whether he is a real person or even the Devil.

This book kept me gripped from the first page, but it was quite a challenging story to read. There was a lot of Scottish dialect and while that’s not something I usually have a problem with, many of the words used here were unfamiliar to me and I was constantly turning to the glossary at the back of the book. There were also a large number of Biblical references on almost every page and again, I found that I kept needing to refer to the notes. It wasn’t completely essential to recognise or understand all of these references, but it was important to know how the various characters were interpreting them. Finally, there are no chapter breaks – the middle section, the Confession, forms one continuous chunk of over 100 pages, making it hard to find a place to stop reading.

However, it was definitely worth having to make a bit of extra effort; this is one of the most fascinating and original classics I’ve read and I can’t believe it isn’t better known. I thought it was much better than Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which is the book it reminded me of most. I’m also surprised that, as far as I’m aware, it has never been adapted for film or television. Some parts of the novel are very visual – the atmosphere of the dark wynds and closes of Edinburgh; the description of the rainbow seen by Robert Wringhim’s brother, George; and some of the scenes where Wringhim finds himself hounded and tormented by fiends and demons. I loved this book and am very grateful to my sister for recommending it!

The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau

Nancy Bilyeau’s first novel, The Crown, is a historical mystery set during the Tudor period, beginning just before the death of Henry VIII’s third wife Jane Seymour. The story revolves around the search for a legendary crown which is said to possess special powers. Our heroine and narrator is Joanna Stafford, niece of the third Duke of Buckingham, and a novice nun at Dartford Priory.

When Sister Joanna escapes from the priory and travels to London to witness the execution of her cousin for treason she is unfortunate enough to be captured and taken to the Tower of London. Here she is visited by Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester, who sends her back to Dartford on a mission to find the mysterious Athelstan crown which he believes could be hidden somewhere within the priory. As Joanna learns more about the crown she starts to wonder why the Bishop wants it so desperately, but with her beloved father also imprisoned in the Tower and threatened with torture, it seems she has no choice but to obey Gardiner’s orders…

This was one of the most entertaining Tudor novels I’ve read and a real page turner from beginning to end. When the search for the Athelstan crown began I was concerned it might become too much like The Da Vinci Code but that didn’t happen. The mystery of the hidden relic was an important part of the story, but not at the expense of the character development or the wonderful sense of time and place that the author creates.

I really liked Joanna Stafford. One of the things that makes her such an interesting narrator is the constant conflict between her commitment to the vows she’s required to take as a nun and her desire to do whatever is necessary to help her father, even if it means breaking some of these vows. The fact that she sometimes struggles with her conscience and doesn’t always make the right decisions helped me to believe in her as a character.

As a member of one of England’s most powerful families, Joanna meets a lot of famous names from the period including Katherine of Aragon, Anne and George Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Princess Mary, but unlike a lot of Tudor novels this one doesn’t really focus on the court. Instead we are given lots of details on life in a priory and what it was like to be a nun during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when on the orders of Henry VIII the religious houses of England, Wales and Ireland were closed down, destroyed or sold. This is not something I knew much about before starting this book and I had no idea what happened to the monks and nuns after the monasteries were dissolved, so it was good to learn more about the process and what it involved. But although there’s plenty of history here, it really serves as a background to the plot and never slows the story down at all, so I think this book could be enjoyed by people who like thrillers and mystery novels as well as by fans of historical fiction.

The Crown is a complete story in itself, but the way it ended left me feeling that there were more adventures ahead for Joanna. Apparently Nancy Bilyeau has written a sequel and I’m already looking forward to reading it and entering Joanna’s world again.

I received a copy of The Crown through Netgalley

The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen

The Land of Decoration is narrated by ten-year-old Judith McPherson. Judith’s mother is dead and she lives with her father, who is very religious. The religion to which they both belong is not named but they appear to be Jehovah’s Witnesses or something very similar. They read the Bible together, attend weekly meetings, knock on doors to spread their message and believe that the end of the world is coming soon.

Judith is lonely, friendless and has convinced herself that her father doesn’t love her. She spends most of her time playing in her bedroom, where she has created a ‘Land of Decoration’ from scraps of paper, pipe cleaners, felt, boxes, buttons and any other bits and pieces she can find. One day Judith adds some snow to the Land of Decoration– and when it suddenly starts snowing in the real world too she believes she’s performed a miracle. And when Judith begins to hear the voice of God, she decides to use her new powers to deal with the school bullies and some of the other problems in her life.

The Land of Decoration was not quite what I was expecting and if I had known more about it, it probably wouldn’t have been a book I would have chosen to read. It quickly became obvious that it was going to be a much darker story than I had thought it would be.

I did like Judith – she’s bright and intelligent but also quite innocent and naïve (although there were times when her voice seemed too ‘old’ and I thought she stopped feeling like a believable ten-year-old). The bullying scenes felt sadly realistic and so did her father’s experiences (he is breaking a strike at the factory where he works and he’s also starting to have some doubts about his religion).

I really cared about both Judith and her father and I actually thought the story of their relationship, his problems at work and her problems at school would have been strong enough on its own to form quite a compelling novel. I was less interested in the parts of the book that dealt with the miracles and the conversations with God, and I admit I found some of it very confusing. A lot of my questions were left unanswered at the end and I’m not sure I really understood everything that had happened.

The Land of Decoration is a very imaginative and original book, but not one that I personally enjoyed very much. I’m sure it’s going to be a success though, and it will be interesting to see what Grace McCleen writes next.

The Obscure Logic of the Heart by Priya Basil

The Obscure Logic of the Heart is the story of Anil Mayur and Lina Merali who meet as students and fall in love. The problem is, Anil’s family are Sikhs and Lina’s are Muslims. It seems that almost everyone disapproves of their relationship: Anil’s parents are prepared to support their son but make it clear they’re not happy, Lina’s parents refuse to even consider allowing her to marry a non-Muslim, and Anil’s best friend Merc also has his own reasons for trying to split them up. And when Lina, who is beginning a career in the UN, starts to suspect that Anil’s father may be involved in illegal arms trading, she faces a battle not just with her parents but with her conscience too.

Interspersed with the main storyline are letters written by a woman to a man during the 1960s. At first this was confusing and I had no idea who or what I was reading about. Eventually, though, everything became clear and when I went back to re-read the letters again they made much more sense.

It took me a while to really get into this book, but as the author threw more and more obstacles into the way of Lina and Anil’s love, I became desperate to see how things would work out for them and whether they could overcome all their differences. Lina’s indecisiveness irritated me at times, but I could understand the difficulties and conflicting emotions she faced in trying to please both Anil and her parents. I thought Priya Basil did an excellent job of showing us the situation from a number of different perspectives so that at various points of the book we could sympathise in turn with Lina, Anil and both sets of parents. I particularly liked the parts told from the viewpoint of Shareef and Iman Merali, which helped me see why they were so reluctant to approve of their daughter’s relationship with Anil.

The variety of settings in which Priya Basil sets her story is another interesting aspect of the book. Anil’s family live in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, Lina’s family are from Birmingham in England, and there are other chapters set in London, New York and various parts of Sudan. I also found Lina’s work for the UN fascinating to read about. It gave the author a chance to incorporate lots of different political and human rights issues into the novel, including the illegal arms trade, the corruption of governments, guns and violence, poverty in Africa, and how people viewed Islam following the 9/11 attacks. There’s such a lot going on in this book; it’s much more than just a simple love story.

This is my second book for the Transworld Book Group reading challenge. It’s also the first book I’ve read by Priya Basil and I’m pleased to be able to say that I enjoyed my first experience of her work.

By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan

By Fire, By Water tells the story of an important period in the history of Spain. A time of progress and discovery, as Christopher Columbus prepares to set out on his legendary voyage to the Indies and seeks funding from the Spanish court. But also a time of fear and suffering with Tomas de Torquemada’s New Inquisition designed to root out heresy.

Luis de Santángel, the King’s chancellor, is a converso – his family has recently converted from Judaism to Christianity – and his Jewish heritage means that even he, in his position of great wealth and power, is under suspicion. Santángel wants to understand the differences between the Jewish and Christian faiths but attempting to gain this knowledge could put his life in danger.

Intertwined with Santángel’s story is the story of Judith Migdal, who lives with her nephew and his grandfather in a Jewish community in Muslim-ruled Granada. Following the deaths of her brother and his wife, Judith decides to become a silversmith so that she can take over her brother’s silver workshop and support her family. Eventually Luis and Judith’s paths meet, but can there be any happiness for them?

By Fire, By Water was not a light or easy read and I found I had to really concentrate to follow everything that was going on. However, it was worth the effort because I felt that I really learned a lot from this book. I thought it was an excellent portrayal of what it must have felt like to live during the Inquisition, not being sure who could and couldn’t be trusted, knowing that even your own friends and family could betray you at any moment. This book really opened my eyes to the suffering and persecution the Jews faced in Spain. The images of thousands of Jews being driven from their homes and forced to leave the country are unforgettable.

I was also interested in the inclusion of Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus) in the plot. Most people are aware of his quest to find the Indies and his subsequent arrival in America, but this book looks at the struggles he faced to obtain the funding he needed for the voyage and to get people to take his ideas seriously.

The author’s attention to detail is incredible, from the colours and fabrics of the clothes people wore, to the sights and sounds of the marketplace. You could never forget that you were in 15th century Spain and I was very impressed with the amount of research that must have gone into this book. Everything felt very realistic and believable.

I read most of this book in one day because I was so desperate to find out what would happen to Santángel, Judith and the other characters. The ending was not what I expected at all, but again, it was probably a realistic outcome. By Fire, By Water should be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates well-written historical fiction or is interested in learning more about 15th century Spain.

I received a review copy of this book from the author.