Mini-reviews: Ashes; A Net for Small Fishes; The Lost Diary of Venice

Although I usually devote an entire post on my blog to every book I read, sometimes I find that I have very little to say. That’s not always necessarily a reflection on the quality of the book or how much I enjoyed it, but more an inability to put into words my thoughts about a particular book and an awareness that if I don’t just write something soon I will never get round to reviewing it at all! Three of my recent reads fall into that category, so here are a few paragraphs about each of them:

The first is Ashes by Christopher de Vinck, a novel set in Belgium during World War II. Simone Lyon, the daughter of a major general in the Belgian army, meets Hava Daniels while volunteering with the Red Cross in 1939 and despite their different backgrounds – Hava’s family are Jews from Poland – the two become close friends. In those innocent days at the beginning of the war, the girls believe their country will remain safe and neutral, untouched by the horrors starting to sweep across the rest of Europe. Less than a year later, Brussels is under German occupation and Hava and Simone become caught up in everything they’d hoped to avoid.

I found this a moving portrayal of friendship and loyalty, although I struggled to believe that Simone and Hava were really supposed to be eighteen years old as they felt a lot younger than that to me – in fact, I thought the whole story and the way in which it was written felt more like YA fiction than adult. Not a problem, but not what I’d expected! It was interesting to read about the Holocaust from a Belgian perspective and the quotes from politicians, news articles and Nazi propaganda which begin every chapter help to put everything into historical context, but the story was not quite as harrowing as books on this topic usually are. Maybe that was due to the pacing, as a lot more time is spent on building up Hava and Simone’s friendship than on describing the events that follow the Nazi invasion. Overall, this was a worthwhile read, but just didn’t have the sort of depth I prefer in a novel.

A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago is set much earlier, in Jacobean England, and tells the story of the real life Thomas Overbury Scandal from the perspective of Anne Turner, one of the people involved in the crime. Anne, the wife of a London physician, is also a businesswoman in her own right, holding the patent for yellow starch for collars and ruffs. Early in the novel, she becomes dresser and companion to Frances Howard, the young Countess of Essex – and when Frances falls in love with Robert Carr, the king’s favourite, it is Anne to whom she turns for help. Frances wants to marry Robert, but his friend Sir Thomas Overbury stands in their way; if only she and Anne could somehow get rid of him!

I think I would probably have enjoyed this book more if I hadn’t already read several other versions of the Overbury story, most recently EC Fremantle’s The Poison Bed and Rafael Sabatini’s The Minion. Being familiar with the story in advance took away the suspense and what was left wasn’t really enough to hold my attention. The choice of Anne as narrator, while interesting from the point of view of showing us how an ordinary citizen of the time might have viewed royalty and courtiers, took us further from the action, often leaving a sense that all the excitement was happening elsewhere. I also found Anne’s habit of referring to Frances as ‘Frankie’ very irritating as I didn’t think that name was in common use in the early 17th century. This book just wasn’t for me, but most of the other reviews I’ve seen are much more positive than mine! I do like the title, which is a reference to ‘small fishes’ being caught in the net of justice while the larger fish swim away.

The Lost Diary of Venice by Margaux DeRoux is a dual timeline novel; the present day narrative follows Rose, an expert in book restoration from Connecticut, and the historical one is set in Renaissance Italy. The connection between the two comes when William, an artist, brings a 16th century manuscript into Rose’s bookshop. Rose quickly discovers that the document is a palimpsest, where one set of words has been written over another which has been scraped away. On the surface it is a treatise on art by the great Italian painter Giovanni Lomazzo, but it’s the hidden diary entries and sketches underneath that really intrigue Rose and William.

It’s often the case that when a novel is set in two time periods, I like one much more than the other; with this novel, however, I didn’t find either of them very compelling. The book is well written, with some beautiful descriptions of Venice in the historical sections, but I didn’t feel any emotional connection to any of the characters. Rose’s relationship with the married William didn’t interest me and I was unmoved by Giovanni’s romance with the courtesan Chiara too (although I did have some sympathy for Giovanni as he discovered that he was losing his sight, a terrible thing for an artist to have to come to terms with). I also loved the glimpses we are given of the political situation in Venice at that time, the conflict between the Venetians and the Ottoman Empire, and the events taking place in Cyprus ahead of the Battle of Lepanto. I wished more time had been spent on all of this, as every time I started to become gripped by what was happening, the chapter ended and we switched back to the modern day story. This is not a book I can say I particularly enjoyed, but I’m pleased I was at least able to learn something from it.

Have you read any of these? If so, let me know what you thought.

Book 10, 11 and 12/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

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.

A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay’s newest novel, A Brightness Long Ago, is a prequel to 2016’s Children of Earth and Sky but although they are set in the same world and share one or two characters, each book also works as a standalone. I think this is probably my favourite of the two, although I enjoyed both.

Like most of Kay’s novels, A Brightness Long Ago takes place in a land which closely resembles a real historical setting – in this case, Renaissance Italy. Our narrator is Guidanio Cerra of Seressa, a city which, with its lagoon and canals, clearly corresponds to Venice. Guidanio is looking back at events from his past, beginning with his time at the court of Uberto of Mylasia, a cruel tyrant who once ‘sealed an enemy in a cask to see if he might observe the soul escaping when his prisoner died’ and who has become known as the Beast due to his treatment of the young girls and boys he summons to his chamber at night. As the son of a humble Seressan tailor, Guidanio knows it is a great honour to have been given a position at Uberto’s court but he quickly discovers what sort of man he is serving and so he is not at all sorry when the Beast is assassinated one night by the latest young woman who has been brought to his rooms.

Her name is Adria Ripoli, the Duke of Macera’s daughter, and she is acting on the orders of her uncle, Folco Cino, a leader of mercenaries. Having witnessed Adria enter Uberto’s chamber to carry out the assassination, Guidanio helps her to escape before she can be captured. He expects never to see her again, but as chance would have it their paths do soon cross again and Guidanio finds himself drawn into the conflict between Folco Cino and his rival mercenary commander, Teobaldo Monticola, two powerful men whose actions could determine the fate of Batiara (Italy).

A Brightness Long Ago explores some of Kay’s favourite themes, such as chance encounters, the spinning of Fortune’s Wheel, and the idea that the small decisions each of us make every day of our lives could have wider repercussions, affecting not only our own future but the future of others too – in other words, that everything we do matters. These are topics that Kay returns to again and again in his novels but they seemed particularly dominant in this one and that was my only slight criticism of the book – not the ideas themselves, but the way the authorial voice is constantly reminding us that ‘things matter’. I would have preferred a more subtle approach, I think! Anyway, the writing was still as beautiful as I’ve come to expect; as some of you will know, I choose a quotation from every book I read for my end-of-month Commonplace Book posts – I will have a difficult choice when I come to put this month’s post together as almost every sentence in this book was worthy of being quoted!

The 15th century Italian (or Batiaran) setting was already familiar to me from Children of Earth and Sky, but even if you haven’t read that book, if you have any knowledge of Renaissance Italy you will probably be able to draw parallels between some of Kay’s characters and members of the Medici, Borgia and Sforza families, among others. There’s a dramatic horse race – one of the most memorable set pieces in the book – inspired by the real life Palio race which has taken place in Siena for centuries, and the fall of Sarantium (Constantinople) is also covered. The different names Kay uses for these people, places and events, along with the two moons in the sky – one blue and one white – mean this book can be classed as ‘historical fantasy’, but there aren’t really any other fantasy elements in the story at all. That’s not a problem for me, but if you’re new to Guy Gavriel Kay and hoping for something with magic and wizards, I would recommend starting with Tigana instead.

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

children-of-earth-and-sky I love Guy Gavriel Kay’s books, so I really don’t know why it is that I’ve read so few of them! I’ve had Under Heaven waiting on my Kindle since finishing The Last Light of the Sun more than a year ago, but for some reason there always seems to be something else that needs to be read first. When I noticed his latest novel, Children of Earth and Sky, in the library I decided to forget Under Heaven for now and read this one first, while I was in the mood for it.

Guy Gavriel Kay’s books are a wonderful and unique blend of fantasy and historical fiction. Children of Earth and Sky is set in the same world as several of his other novels, including The Lions of Al-Rassan – a world with two moons, one blue and one white, in which the three main religious groups are the sun-worshipping Jaddites, the Asharites who pray to the stars and the Kindath who worship the moons (corresponding to Christians, Muslims and Jews respectively). The action in this book takes place mainly in thinly disguised versions of Venice, Dubrovnik and Constantinople – which Kay renames Seressa, Dubrava and Asharias – in what is clearly supposed to be the Renaissance period.

The plot is quite a complex one, with multiple storylines which meet and intersect from time to time, so rather than attempting to describe it in any detail, I’m just going to mention a few of the characters we meet.

First, there’s Pero Villani, a young artist from Seressa, who has been sent on a mission to the Osmanli (Ottoman) court at Asharias with a commission to paint a portrait of the Grand Khalif, Gurçu the Destroyer. However, Seressa’s Council of Twelve have another task in mind for Pero to carry out at Asharias, one which could put his life in danger. The Council are also keen to place a spy in the rival republic of Dubrava and enlist the services of Leonora Valeri, a woman with a troubled past who welcomes the chance to escape from Seressa.

The ship on which Pero and Leonora embark on the first stage of their journey is owned by the family of Marin Djivo. As the younger son of a Dubrava merchant, Marin has a lot of experience of the world of trade and shipping, but this particular voyage is about to change his life. Sailing from Seressa to Dubrava, his ship is boarded by pirates from the walled town of Senjan, and among them is the archer Danica Gradek, a young woman who is desperate to prove herself as a warrior and avenge her family against the Osmanli. Finally, there’s Damaz, who was captured as a child and trained to fight in the Osmanli army.

The lives of these five characters become closely entwined as their paths cross, then part, then cross again, and the actions of one may have consequences – sometimes unintentional – which affect the lives of one or all of the others. Now that I’ve read several of Kay’s novels, I can see that this seems to be a recurring theme in his work.

I have been to both Venice and Dubrovnik – and would highly recommend visiting them if you haven’t already – and even though Kay’s versions have different names, the descriptions of both locations are still clearly recognisable. If you have a good knowledge of the history of Renaissance Europe, you should be able to draw historical parallels, as well as geographical, between this fantasy world and the real one – but remember that it is a fantasy world (even though the magical elements are small and understated), which gives Kay the freedom to take the story in any way he wishes without sticking rigidly to historical fact.

I found a lot to love about this book; my only disappointments were the ending and the lack of emotional engagement I felt with the characters. When I think of the thought-provoking epilogue that ended Tigana, or the dramatic conclusion of The Lions of Al-Rassan, that’s what was missing from Children of Earth and Sky. The novel’s various storylines were wrapped up too neatly and too completely at the end of the book and didn’t make much of an emotional impact on me, which was a shame after spending so long getting to know this set of characters.

This is not one of my favourite Kay novels so far, but I did enjoy it and am looking forward to reading the rest of his work, probably beginning with Under Heaven!

Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger

Prince of Foxes This was the book chosen for me in the Classics Club Spin a few months ago; I’m a day late posting this review (the deadline was yesterday) but I did actually finish the book in time. It has taken me a while to decide what to say about this wonderful novel and I probably still haven’t done it justice! I had at least three reasons for adding Prince of Foxes to my Classics Club list in the first place: it’s a classic historical fiction/adventure novel published in 1947 and set in Renaissance Italy, a period I love; it sounded very similar to the work of Rafael Sabatini, an author I love; and it came highly recommended by The Idle Woman, whose blog I love. It seemed inevitable, then, that I would love the book itself – and fortunately I did.

In 1500, when Prince of Foxes begins, Italy is divided into a collection of city-states which are constantly at war, leaving them vulnerable to foreign invasion. Our hero, Andrea Orsini, dreams of seeing the country united under one ruler and has entered the service of the ruthless and powerful Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI. We first meet Andrea in Venice, preparing to undertake a mission for the Borgias. He has been given the task of travelling to Ferrara to try to negotiate a marriage between Alfonso d’Este, son of Duke Ercole, and Lucrezia Borgia, Cesare’s sister. When the d’Estes hear about this, however, they decide to have Andrea killed in Venice before he can reach Ferrara – but the murder attempt is foiled and the hired assassin, Mario Belli, ends up switching sides and joining Andrea on his journey.

If he is successful, the Borgias have promised to reward Andrea with the strategically placed hill town of Città del Monte, and the town’s ruling lady, the beautiful Camilla degli Baglione, as his wife. The problem is, Camilla’s husband, the elderly Lord Varano, is still alive and must be disposed of before Andrea will be able to claim his reward. As Andrea gets to know both Varano and Camilla, he finds that he’s not at all sure he’ll be able to betray them into the hands of Cesare when the time comes. Torn between his loyalty to the Borgias (and the personal ambition which goes with it) and his increasing love and respect for Camilla and her husband, Andrea is faced with making a decision which could affect not only his own future but the future of Italy.

As well as navigating his way through this delicate political situation, Andrea and Belli have a number of adventures involving battles, duels, clever disguises, last-minute escapes, sieges, miracles and all sorts of trickery and deception. I was right in thinking that this book would be similar to Sabatini; in particular, I kept being reminded of Bellarion (a previous Classics Spin read) which is also set in Renaissance Italy and includes many of the same elements. But while I remember feeling irritated by the perfection of the main character in Bellarion, I did like Andrea Orsini. He’s another hero who is good at everything, but with just enough flaws and ambiguities to make him interesting. Mario Belli was my favourite, though – and I can’t say too much about him without spoiling the story!

I also loved Camilla, an intelligent and courageous woman with a sense of humour, although other female characters such as Lucrezia and Angela Borgia felt less well developed. Moving away from the novel’s central characters, there’s also a fascinating supporting cast consisting of assorted dukes, lords and ambassadors, soldiers (including the Chevalier de Bayard) and saints (Lucia of Narni). The language used throughout the novel always feel appropriate to the time period and the dialogue is subtle and witty.

Not being an expert on the Renaissance (although I always enjoy reading about it and am gradually building up my knowledge) I found that I was learning a lot from Prince of Foxes as well as being entertained by it. It really is a great book and if anyone else has read it – or seen the 1949 film version with Tyrone Power and Orson Welles – I’d love to know what you thought.

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

The Birth of Venus I love books set in Renaissance Italy but although Sarah Dunant has written three or four of them, this is the first one I’ve read. I had started to read her novel on the Borgias, Blood and Beauty, a year or two ago and struggled to get into it, so that put me off trying any of her other books for a while. Something keeps drawing me to Dunant’s books on the library shelf, though, so a few weeks ago I decided it was time to give her another try.

The Birth of Venus is not, as I’d originally expected, a novel based on the story behind the Botticelli painting of the same name. What the title does actually refer to could be debated, but it seems to me that it alludes to the ‘birth’ or awakening of the novel’s narrator as she falls in love for the first time. The name of the narrator is Alessandra Cecchi and she is the daughter of a prosperous Florentine cloth merchant.

At the beginning of the novel, Alessandra is not quite fifteen years old. Despite her quick brain and artistic talent, she has had to resign herself to the fact that, due to the conventions of 15th century society, she will have no option but to marry the man her parents have chosen for her. When her father returns from a business trip, bringing with him a young artist whom he has commissioned to paint the walls of the family chapel, Alessandra is fascinated. She is curious to see the painter’s work and to learn more about his methods, but she is even more intrigued by the painter himself. Who is this young man, this ‘orphan brought up in a monastery on the edge of the northern sea’?

As the story of Alessandra and the painter unfolds, so does the story of Florence. Beginning with the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the novel takes us through the subsequent disastrous reign of Piero de’ Medici, the rise to power of the Dominican friar Savonarola, and the growing threat of a French invasion. This is always a fascinating time and place to read about and I think Dunant does a particularly good job of bringing the setting to life, not just in describing the sights and sounds, but also in showing us how the mood of Florence changes as the city is gripped by Savonarola’s religious extremism.

For a thick book, this was quite a quick read, the sort where you become so swept along with the story you don’t realise how fast the pages are turning. My only problem was that I found Dunant’s decision to refer to the painter as ‘the painter’ throughout the entire book slightly annoying. I’m not quite sure why there really needed to be a mystery surrounding his identity. I felt that the lack of a name created a distance between the character and the reader – I expect this was probably intentional (maybe it wasn’t supposed to matter who he was; all that mattered was what he represented to Alessandra), but if so, it didn’t work for me.

While I can’t really say that I loved this book, I did enjoy it and am now happy to try Sarah Dunant’s other Renaissance Italy novels, In the Company of the Courtesan and Sacred Hearts (maybe I should even give Blood and Beauty another chance). When I finished The Birth of Venus I didn’t want to leave Medici Florence behind, so the next book I picked up was Romola by George Eliot, which is set in the same period and which I’m thoroughly enjoying.

The Renaissance: The Best One-Hour History by Robert Freeman

The Renaissance I spotted this book on Netgalley towards the end of last year and as I’ve been trying to read more historical non-fiction recently, I requested it immediately. It has taken until now for me to get round to reading it, which I feel guilty about as it really did only take an hour to read from beginning to end!

This book is part of a series of One Hour History books each dealing with a different historical period or theme. Other titles include The Protestant Reformation, The French Revolution and The Vietnam War, with more to come soon. This particular volume covers the period of history we know as the Renaissance.

Freeman begins by explaining how factors such as the decline of the feudal system following the Black Death, the fall of Constantinople which led to Greek scholars returning to other parts of Europe, and the decline in the influence of the Catholic Church marked the transition from the ‘Dark Ages’ into the Renaissance. Next he looks at Renaissance art (paintings, sculptures and examples of architecture) and developments in other areas including religion, printing, exploration and medicine. Finally, there’s a timeline showing the dates of significant events.

The author suggests googling the names of the paintings and sculptures discussed in the book so that you can look at them as you read. Most of these works of art were already familiar to me (Freeman chooses to focus on famous pieces such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, which is understandable, as this book is only intended to give a concise overview) and may be familiar to you too, but I would still recommend searching for the images to look at while you read what Freeman has to say about perspective, light and shadow and other techniques.

This very short book is obviously not intended for people who already have an in-depth understanding of the Renaissance (and it would probably not be very satisfying for those readers) but for anyone with little or no knowledge this is an ideal introduction. After reading it you may decide that you now know as much as you want to know about the Renaissance, but it could also be used as a good starting point for a deeper study of the period – although it’s disappointing that there is no list of suggestions for further reading.

This was not what I would describe as a particularly fun or entertaining book to read – with so much history to get through in so few pages there’s no time for anything but the basic facts – but it was an interesting and educational way to spend an hour of my time.

Review copy received via Netgalley.