Dark Aemilia by Sally O’Reilly

Dark Aemilia Dark Aemilia is a fictional account of the life of Aemilia Lanyer, one of several women whose names have been suggested as possible candidates for the ‘Dark Lady’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets. She was also one of the first women in England to have a book of poetry published.

Born Aemilia Bassano, the illegitimate daughter of a Venetian musician at the court of Elizabeth I, Aemilia becomes the mistress of the much older nobleman Lord Hunsdon. When she discovers that she is pregnant, she is forced to leave court and is married off to another court musician, Alfonso Lanyer. However, the father of her child (according to Sally O’Reilly) is probably not Hunsdon, but a young playwright by the name of William Shakespeare.

Aemilia first meets Shakespeare at a performance of The Taming of the Shrew where she confronts him over his negative portrayal of women in the play. Not the best of starts to their relationship, but a brief affair follows – despite the fact that Shakespeare is already married. Aemilia finds a kindred spirit in William, a man who shares her love of poetry, literature and the theatre, before their affair comes to an end after a misunderstanding. Aemilia resigns herself to life away from court with Alfonso Lanyer and her beloved baby boy, Henry, but she is reunited with Shakespeare during an outbreak of plague in London. And when Henry becomes seriously ill, Aemilia is prepared to do anything to save his life.

My feelings about Dark Aemilia are very mixed. I would like to be able to say that I loved it, but that wouldn’t be true; in fact I came very close to abandoning it several times during the first half of the book. I felt that I was reading about nothing but Aemilia’s love affairs and at the risk of sounding like a prude, I thought the language was unnecessarily vulgar. I don’t always have a problem with that sort of thing, but in this case I didn’t feel that it was adding anything to the story. I kept reading, though, and somewhere in the middle of the book I found that I was finally being drawn in. The language remained bold and lively (and appropriate to the Elizabethan setting) but not as explicit as it was earlier on in the novel and the plot moved away from Aemilia’s love life to focus on other storylines.

As Sally O’Reilly states in her author’s note, the real Aemilia would not have been a feminist in the modern sense of the word, but her surviving poetry (such as the poem Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women) shows that she felt strongly about the roles of men and women. The fictional Aemilia speaks up on behalf of the female sex whenever she can, challenging the views of the men around her. As an intelligent and talented woman, she doesn’t have the opportunities that would have been open to her if she had lived today and she finds it very difficult to gain any recognition for her work. This leads to an interesting interpretation of the question of who actually wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare – there’s no evidence that Aemilia had any involvement in them, but Sally O’Reilly’s theories work in the context of this novel.

Aemilia is a fascinating character and I was left wanting to know more about the real woman. William Shakespeare, though, is not really shown in a very good light and the portrayal of his romance with Aemilia didn’t feel completely convincing to me. They didn’t actually have many scenes together and when they did meet I didn’t sense much love or passion between the two of them – not until very near the end. There were other characters in the book who interested me more than Shakespeare did; I was particularly intrigued by Simon Forman, the astrologer who was said to have cured himself of the plague. And this is where I need to mention another aspect of Dark Aemilia: black magic and the occult. I won’t spoil the story by telling you exactly how this is woven into the plot, but I think this will be something you’ll either love or hate!

While I did have my problems with Dark Aemilia, in the end my lasting impression of the book is of the wonderfully vivid portrayal of Elizabethan England. The writing is very atmospheric and there are some great descriptions of dark, dirty streets, crowded marketplaces, the sights and sounds of the Globe Theatre, the frozen River Thames in winter and a London ravaged by plague. I’m pleased I persevered and followed Aemilia’s story through to the end and I would happily read more books by Sally O’Reilly.

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for review.

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?

A new reading year begins…

Image courtesy of pamsclipart.com Happy New Year!

I did have a book review scheduled for today (still trying to catch up on a backlog of books read near the end of 2013) but as most other bloggers are posting about their plans and resolutions for 2014 today, I decided to do the same and keep my scheduled post for tomorrow instead. And this will probably be the easiest post I write all year, because I don’t actually have a lot of reading or blogging plans for the year ahead! I have signed up for two reading challenges – the Historical Fiction challenge, which is never a difficult one for me as I read so much historical fiction anyway, and the What’s in a Name? challenge, for which I already have my five choices in mind and will be starting the first one soon. Other than that, I have avoided the temptation to commit myself to any more year-long challenges or projects. One thing I’ve learned during my four years of blogging is that I’m happiest when I can choose to read exactly what I want to read and when I want to read it – and that’s what I would like to do in 2014.

The Classics Club However, one reading event that does fit in with my plans for this month is the first of the Classics Club’s Twelve Months of Classic Literature. Each month, the club will be hosting a month of themed reading based on a different literary period or movement. The theme for January is William Shakespeare and his contemporaries, which is perfect for me as I’m starting a FutureLearn course on Hamlet later this month. I’ll be re-reading Hamlet in January, then, but beyond that I’ll be looking forward to seeing what other Classics Club members are reading for the event.

I do have one other goal for 2014, in terms of blogging: I will be trying to write about every book I read within two or three days of finishing it. I hate being behind with my reviews and would like to avoid any more situations like this, where I’m starting a new month with five books from the previous month still to write about!

Do you have any exciting reading or blogging plans for 2014?

The Master of Verona by David Blixt

The Master of Verona by David Blixt The Master of Verona is set in Northern Italy in the early 14th century. At the beginning of the novel the great poet Dante Alighieri, after years of exile from Florence, has been invited to the city of Verona by its ruler, Francesco della Scala, known as Cangrande. Dante and his two sons, Pietro and Jacopo, arrive in Verona at a turbulent time for the city; not only has war broken out with Padua, but Cangrande’s heir, Cesco, has been the target of an assassination attempt.

When seventeen-year-old Pietro impresses Cangrande with his courage and loyalty, he becomes caught up in Verona’s battles with Padua and is also entrusted with trying to help protect the life of baby Cesco. As if this wasn’t enough, Pietro’s two best friends, Mariotto Montecchio and Antonio Capecelatro have both fallen in love with the same girl and an ancient feud between their two families looks set to be reignited…

This was one of the final books I read in 2012 and I finished it just in time for it to make my list of favourite books of the year. It has taken me a while to actually write this post as there’s so much going on in the novel and so many different aspects to the story, it’s difficult to know where to begin! First, there’s a link with Romeo and Juliet; although this is not a retelling of Shakespeare’s play, Blixt suggests a possible theory to explain how the feud between the Montagues and Capulets may have originated. I noticed allusions to some of Shakespeare’s other plays too, but the story could still be understood and enjoyed even if you have no knowledge of Shakespeare at all as this is just one small element of the novel.

The plot does become quite complicated and some concentration is needed at first to keep all the characters straight, especially as many of them are also referred to by their titles or nicknames (Cangrande, for example, is sometimes referred to as Francesco della Scala, the Scaliger, the Greyhound or the Capitano). However, I never had any problems understanding what was happening and could even manage to follow the battle scenes! This is a great book for those of us who like our historical fiction novels long, detailed and complex but with plenty of action at the same time. There’s always something happening, whether it’s a battle, a chase, a festival or a duel. One of the most memorable episodes of the story describes Pietro’s participation in the Palio, a dramatic horse race through the streets of Verona. It’s all breathtakingly exciting and makes the book a much quicker read than you might expect considering the length of it.

But it’s not all non-stop action; in quieter moments, the characters have lots of discussions on religion and philosophy, mainly with reference to Dante’s work – the concepts of Heaven and Hell, the significance of stars, etc – which made me wish I had actually read Dante so I knew what they were talking about! He is definitely on my list now for future reading. There are also some fascinating passages in which we see the 14th century literary world of booksellers and scribes through the eyes of Dante’s daughter, Antonia Alighieri.

Many of the characters in the book are real historical figures of the period. Cangrande, the ‘Master of Verona’ who is believed by some to be the legendary ‘Greyhound’ or saviour of Italy, is fascinating and charismatic, a complex character with several different sides to his personality. As all good historical fiction novels should, this book left me wanting to know more about the real life Cangrande. Dante himself is someone I have never read much about, so knowing very little about his life, I have no idea how accurately he was portrayed in this book. The spelling Alaghieri is sometimes used in place of Alighieri but the author explains his reasons for this both in the text of the story and in his notes at the end of the book, and again, I don’t really have enough knowledge of Dante to be able to comment on this. There are some strong and interesting female characters in the book too: I’ve already mentioned Antonia, but there’s also Katerina della Scala, Cangrande’s sister. And even little Cesco, despite being not much more than a baby, has a very strong personality of his own.

The only negative thing I can say about this book is that the dialogue felt a bit too modern at times (I’m sorry for mentioning this yet again – I feel as if I’ve been complaining about the dialogue every time I’ve reviewed historical fiction recently!) but luckily I was enjoying the story so much I could overlook the occasional word that didn’t sound right.

This book is the first in a series and I’m already looking forward to reading the second one, Voice of the Falconer!

Three nurses, a ghost and a computer genius

The Nightingale Girls by Donna Douglas / For One More Tomorrow by Elizabeth Bailey / Goodbye for Now by Laurie Frankel

Happy New Year! With a backlog of books read near the end of 2012 still to write about, I am starting 2013 with reviews of not just one book but three. Apologies in advance for the length of this post…I thought these were going to be mini-reviews but they turned out to be longer than I expected!

The Nightingale Girls The Nightingale Girls by Donna Douglas

The Nightingale Girls is set in the 1930s and follows the stories of three student nurses at one of London’s top teaching hospitals, the Nightingale.

Life is not easy for Dora Doyle, who comes from a poor, working class family from the East End of London. Dora sometimes feels out of place among the other, richer girls at the Nightingale and is struggling to find money to buy the books she needs, but she is determined to succeed, partly because she’s passionate about nursing but also because she’s desperate to get away from her abusive stepfather. The aristocratic Lady Amelia Benedict, known as Millie, is from a very different social background to Dora, with whom she shares a room. Millie wants to build a life for herself away from her luxurious home and glamorous friends, but as she is constantly finding herself in trouble and has already failed her preliminary training exams once, it’s going to be difficult to prove that she’s serious about her nursing. The third girl we meet is Helen Tremayne, a second year student. Her domineering mother is on the hospital’s board of trustees and her brother is a doctor, so expectations are high. Helen works hard, but has trouble making friends, especially as the other girls don’t trust her because of her mother.

At first it seems that Dora, Helen and Millie have nothing in common but as they get to know each other during their long, hard days at the Nightingale, a bond begins to form between the three of them. I didn’t feel I got to know Helen as well as the other two but I loved both Dora and Millie. Dora was completely inspirational and a perfect example of someone managing to fulfil her dreams through sheer determination and hard work. And the rebellious but warm-hearted Millie was so endearing. Through her story we see that money and possessions are not everything and that true happiness can come through doing something that we love. There are some great secondary characters too, including the spiteful and snobby but bitterly unhappy Lucy Lane, and the Doyles’ neighbour, Nick, who is desperately trying to make enough money to take his little brother to America. Dora’s grandmother, Nanna Winnie, was another favourite.

It was so interesting to see what was involved in being a trainee nurse in the 1930s. The book shows us the hardships of nursing, but there are also lots of moments of fun and humour, including one hilarious scene involving false teeth. As a historical novel, the setting of 1930s London is wonderful, whether we’re reading about the streets in the East End where the Doyle family live or an afternoon eating cakes and drinking tea at Lyons’ Corner House! The Nightingale Girls is the first in a series of novels about the Nightingale Hospital and I will look forward to reading the others.

Thanks to Random House for sending me a review copy of The Nightingale Girls

For One More Tomorrow For One More Tomorrow by Elizabeth Bailey

For One More Tomorrow, currently available as an ebook, tells the story of Sadie Grey, who is directing a production of Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth. Growing frustrated and disillusioned with some of the actors in the play and their inability to inject real passion into their roles, Sadie is stunned when she meets the ghost of Macbeth himself. Soon Mac, as Sadie calls him, seems to be invading her thoughts and taking over her life, and as her relationship with the ghost develops there are some surprises in store for both Sadie and the reader!

At first Sadie wonders whether Macbeth’s ghost has been produced from her own imagination – he looks and sounds exactly as she had pictured him in her mind, even wearing tartan like the characters in Sadie’s play despite the fact that she knows the real Macbeth would not have done so. And yet it seems that Mac does have an existence of his own outside of her imagination, and some sections of the story are seen from his point of view, as he roams the streets alone or watches rehearsals from the shadows at the side of the stage. Through his own thoughts and his conversations with Sadie, we see that he is not very pleased at the way the story of his life has been distorted by Shakespeare; he’s angry and hurt that his reputation has been damaged and history has been altered in the name of entertainment.

I haven’t read all of Shakespeare’s plays but I have read Macbeth more than once and it’s probably the play I’m most familiar with. I could sympathise with Sadie, who clearly has a real understanding and love of the play; she knows how she wants the actors and actresses to play their roles and it annoys her when they do not portray their characters as she wants to see them portrayed…especially Curtis, the man who is playing Macbeth. I did enjoy the parts of the book that deal with the rehearsals for the play and the problems Sadie encounters as director, but my favourite scenes were those in which Sadie is interacting with the ghost. For One More Tomorrow was an unusual and imaginative story and I’m sure the next time I read Macbeth I’ll remember Mac and how he felt about Shakespeare’s words.

Thanks to the author for sending me a review copy of this book

Goodbye for Now Goodbye for Now by Laurie Frankel

Sam Elling is a computer software engineer who works for an online dating company based in Seattle. Sam has created a new computer algorithm to help people find their perfect partner, but it proves to be too successful as people are meeting their soulmates too quickly and don’t need to use the dating agency anymore. As a result he loses his job but it’s not long before he comes up with another invention.

When Sam’s girlfriend Meredith loses her beloved grandmother, Livvie, she tells him she wishes she could speak to Livvie one more time. Wanting to help in any way he can, Sam creates a computer program based on the online presence Livvie has left behind, including emails, texts and videos. Meredith is shocked but overjoyed to discover that she can now continue to chat to Livvie and exchange emails just as she used to when her grandmother was alive. Soon Sam and Meredith decide to give other bereaved people the same opportunity to communicate with loved ones who are no longer with them, but they are not prepared for the number of moral issues they will have to face.

Different people have different ways of dealing with grief and what works for one person will not necessarily work for everyone. I can’t imagine ever wanting to use this type of technology myself and I tend to agree with the characters in the story who found the whole idea creepy and disturbing. However, I still thought it was fascinating to read about. There’s nothing paranormal involved and the software Sam invents sounds completely believable from a scientific point of view.

With death and grief forming such a big part of this book I had expected something very sad and emotional, but the story was actually not as moving as I had thought it might be. That could be because the main characters – Sam, Meredith, her cousin Dashiell and their clients – are all so ‘nice’ that I had difficulty believing in them as real people and didn’t manage to fully connect with them. What I did love about this novel was the number of thought-provoking questions it raises by showing us how the world reacts to Sam’s controversial new technology and telling the stories of the people who decide to use it.

Is chatting to a computer generated image of a friend or relative who has died really a good idea or is it better to let the grieving process take its natural course? Can social media actually be isolating rather than social? Are there things that our loved ones may have said or done online that we would be better off not knowing about? What about privacy? Nobody seemed to have any problems with allowing Sam to access their family member’s emails, blog, internet browsing history or Facebook and Twitter accounts, but I know I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that. Goodbye for Now may not have been a perfect novel but has left me musing on all of these questions and more.

Thanks to Headline for the review copy of Goodbye for Now

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble!

Earlier this year I re-read Macbeth as part of a Shakespeare reading challenge, but never got round to actually posting about it. And so, in honour of Halloween I decided to share ten of my favourite quotes from the play. Enjoy!

***

“Tis safer to be that which we destroy, Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy”

***


“I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on the other.”

***

“Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires.”

***

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

***

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart, and bids it break.”

***


“Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts! Unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top full
Of direst cruelty; make thick my blood,
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it!”

***

“By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes.”

***

“Away, and mock the time with fairest show:
False face must hide what the false heart doth know.”

***

“Come what come may, time and the hour run through the roughest day.”

***

“Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble!”

The Secret Life of William Shakespeare by Jude Morgan

I loved Jude Morgan’s books about the Brontës (The Taste of Sorrow) and the Romantic poets (Passion) so was very excited about reading this new novel on the life of William Shakespeare – and I’m pleased to say that it did live up to my expectations. Before I go any further I should point out that this book and the other two I’ve mentioned are fiction, although they do stick quite closely to the known facts about the lives of their subjects (as far as I can tell, not being an expert on any of them!)

The Secret Life of William Shakespeare opens in 1582 when we first meet Shakespeare as a glovemaker’s son from Stratford. At the age of eighteen he marries Anne Hathaway and they have three children together, but we soon learn that Will wants more out of life. He dreams of going to London and becoming an actor – and despite his father’s disapproval he sets out to turn his dream into reality.

It’s really not necessary to know anything about Shakespeare before beginning this novel and you could easily enjoy it without being familiar with any of his work. Some of his plays are mentioned, of course, but the plays are not the focus of this book. As the title suggests, the book is not just about Shakespeare the playwright but also about Shakespeare the man – his emotions, his hopes and fears, his relationships with the people around him, the things he might have said and done. Obviously we don’t know exactly what the real Shakespeare was like, but the way Jude Morgan portrays him here is believable and realistic.

Shakespeare’s relationship with his wife Anne Hathaway forms a very big part of this novel – in fact, a large proportion of the story is told from Anne’s perspective and a lot of what we learn about Shakespeare is seen through her eyes. For much of the novel Anne’s life is very separate from her husband’s – while he is in London, she stays behind in Stratford with their children. Although she understands that Will’s career is important to him, there is a sense that she has been left behind, that the ties between them are not as strong as they once were – and so there’s a sadness surrounding Anne and I did have sympathy for her. Anne’s character is very well-developed and I was interested in reading her story because I was interested in Anne herself, not just because she was William Shakespeare’s wife.

Other important characters include Shakespeare’s fellow playwrights, Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe, and we see the ways in which they affect and influence each other’s lives. But there’s also a large cast of other characters who appear in the novel: Will and Anne’s children, Susanna, Judith and Hamnet; the men Will meets in the theatre world; family members such as Anne’s brother Bartholomew, Shakespeare’s parents and siblings; and their friends in Stratford. By fleshing out the characters surrounding Will, we are given a better idea of the type of person Will might have been – and some of these characters also have fascinating stories of their own.

Something that is often a problem in historical fiction is dialogue – but I think the author gets the balance right in this book; the language is modern enough to be easily understandable without feeling too modern. Jude Morgan does have quite an unusual, distinctive writing style though, so if you’re new to his work it might take a few chapters to get used to it – having read a couple of Morgan’s other books in the past, I already knew that I like the way he writes. Overall I preferred the novels on the Brontës and the Romantic poets, but that’s purely because they interest me personally more than Shakespeare does. The Secret Life of William Shakespeare is a fascinating historical fiction novel with all the depth and attention to detail I’ve come to expect from Jude Morgan. I finished this book feeling that I had learned something, as well as being entertained by an interesting and compelling story.

I received a copy of this book from Headline for review