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.

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.

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!

Death in Venice and Other Stories by Thomas Mann

Death in Venice When I decided to participate in this year’s German Literature Month (hosted by Caroline and Lizzy) I discovered that I already had two books by German authors unread on my shelves: Death in Venice and Other Stories by Thomas Mann and Wolf Among Wolves by Hans Fallada. I chose the Thomas Mann simply because the book was a lot shorter and I could be sure of finishing it before the end of the month, but now that I’ve read it I wish I had gone with my heart and chosen Hans Fallada, whose books I have read before and loved. I did find a lot to like and appreciate in Mann’s writing, but I’m not convinced yet that he’s really an author for me.

As well as the title novella, Death in Venice (1912), this edition includes six other stories by Thomas Mann. I read all of them, but will concentrate here on Death in Venice as it is by far the most famous story in this collection and the one I was most interested in reading.

Death in Venice tells the story of Gustav von Aschenbach, an ageing author suffering from writer’s block. He decides to travel in the hope that it will clear his mind and provide inspiration and the destination he settles on is Venice. Mann’s descriptions of Venice are beautifully written, even though at the time of Gustav von Aschenbach’s arrival the weather is dark, gloomy and oppressive, matching the overall mood of the story. I have been to Venice myself, so I found the descriptions of Aschenbach’s approach over the lagoon, his ride in the gondola and his trip across to the Lido particularly vivid.

While in Venice, von Aschenbach becomes intrigued by Tadzio, a beautiful young Polish boy who is staying with his family in the same hotel. Day by day, his infatuation with Tadzio grows; he finds himself watching out for the boy entering the breakfast room each morning and then tries to secretly follow him around Venice. Even when he learns that it may not be safe to remain in the city any longer, von Aschenbach is unable to tear himself away from Venice and Tadzio…and eventually, as the title suggests, his obsession will lead to a death in Venice.

Reading Death in Venice in 2015, it’s difficult not to feel disturbed by the story of a middle-aged man’s infatuation with a teenage boy – although I should point out that Aschenbach never touches or even speaks to Tadzio. The focus is on Aschenbach’s private feelings for the boy and how he chooses to deal with those feelings. I think at least part of his obsession can be attributed to an appreciation of beauty and the despair of a man who is growing older, knowing that his own youth is lost forever (towards the end of the novella, we see Aschenbach dye his hair and cover his wrinkles with make-up in an attempt to look younger). I found out after finishing the story that it was based on Thomas Mann’s real-life experiences and this made me think again about what he was trying to say and how he may have wanted it to be interpreted.

I found the other six stories in this collection a bit uneven, but they are all worth reading. Little Herr Friedemann (1897) – one of the earliest examples of Mann’s work included in the book – is a sad story of a man who was dropped on the floor as a baby and grew up with physical disabilities. Herr Friedemann has learned to cope with his lot in life and things aren’t going too badly for him…until he falls in love. The Joker (also 1897) has some similar themes, but I have to admit the details of this particular story have faded from my mind just a few days after reading it.

The Road to the Churchyard (1900) is a very short story about a widower who sets out to visit the churchyard and becomes irrationally angry with a boy (referred to only as ‘Life’) who is riding his bicycle along the path. This is followed by Gladius Dei (1902), in which a man called Hieronymus enters an art gallery in Munich and loses his temper when he sees a piece of immoral artwork displayed in the window.

Tristan (1903), one of the longer stories in the book, is a love story set in a sanatorium. It contains allusions to the legend of Tristan and Iseult, as well as some musical references and an exploration of attitudes towards life and death. Finally, Tonio Kröger (1903), another novella, follows the course of a man’s life from childhood to adulthood and, like Death in Venice, has some autobiographical elements.

I’m pleased to have finally read some of Thomas Mann’s work, but I found this an interesting book rather than an enjoyable one. I am not a huge fan of short story collections, though, so now I’m wondering whether I would have a better experience with one of his longer novels.

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.

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

Bitter Greens Since reading Kate Forsyth’s Brothers Grimm-inspired The Wild Girl last year, I have been looking forward to Bitter Greens, another novel with a Grimm connection. I’m sure most of us know, or have at least heard of, the fairy tale Rapunzel. Although this fairy tale was included in the Grimm Brothers’ 1812 collection, Children’s and Household Tales, it was actually based on a much earlier story, Persinette, which was published in 1698 and written by a woman called Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force. In Bitter Greens, Kate Forsyth combines a re-telling of the Rapunzel story with a fascinating account of the life of Charlotte-Rose.

The novel begins in 1697, on the day that Charlotte-Rose is banished from the court of Louis XIV and sent to a convent. With her sharp tongue, sense of humour and spirited personality, it seems that Charlotte-Rose has been the cause of too much scandal for the Sun King’s liking and is now receiving her punishment. After the lively and opulent court of Versailles, Charlotte-Rose finds it very difficult to adapt to life in a strict and austere nunnery. The only thing that makes her days bearable is her friendship with one of the nuns, Soeur Seraphina, who entertains her with a story about a little Italian girl called Margherita…

Accused of stealing a handful of bitter greens from a witch’s garden, Margherita’s parents are forced to make a bargain with the witch: she will not report them for the theft if they agree to hand over their daughter as soon as she reaches the age of seven. And so Margherita finds herself taken from her parents and locked in a high tower by Lake Garda – a tower which can only be accessed when Margherita throws her long red hair from the window to form a ladder.

Margherita’s story unfolds slowly, a few chapters at a time, and alternates with the story of Charlotte-Rose who is looking back on her life, her love affairs and her time at court. There is also a third strand to the novel and in this we learn the history of Selena Leonelli, the witch of the fairy tale, who was once a Venetian courtesan known as ‘La Strega Bella’ and a model for the artist Titian. These three women lead lives which are in some ways very different but in others quite similar. Each has been touched by sadness and tragedy, but each woman proves herself to be strong and resilient in the end.

There’s just so much packed into this novel: the scandals and intrigues of the 17th century French court, a version of Rapunzel much darker and more compelling than the one I remember from my childhood, a vivid depiction of Renaissance Italy, magic and witchcraft, religious persecution, stories within stories, and much more. I was never bored, no matter which of the three women I was reading about. Charlotte-Rose is a wonderful character and I’m surprised that more authors of historical fiction haven’t used her as a subject for their novels. This is the first time I’ve had the pleasure of reading about her and I think it’s sad that she seems to have been largely forgotten by history.

Much as I loved Charlotte-Rose, though, I always found myself looking forward to returning to Margherita in her tower. She and Selena never felt quite as real to me as Charlotte-Rose did (which is maybe not surprising as they are supposed to be fairy tale characters, after all!) but I really enjoyed revisiting the Rapunzel story, which I hadn’t read or even thought about for such a long time. There were elements of fantasy and magical realism within Margherita’s tale that worked well alongside the more realistic narrative of Charlotte-Rose and I thought the balance was perfect. I loved Bitter Greens and would highly recommend both this book and The Wild Girl.

Bitter Greens_Blog Tour Banner_FINALv2 I read Bitter Greens as part of the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour. For more reviews, interviews and guest posts please see the tour schedule.

The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters by Michelle Lovric

Harristown Sisters Manticory Swiney and her six sisters are born into poverty in rural 19th century Ireland and brought up by their mother, a laundress. They have never known their father (he visits once a year in the middle of the night) but from him they have inherited some very special gifts: their wonderful names and the abundance of long, thick hair which proves to be their route to fame and fortune. Bullied by the eldest sister, Darcy, into performing on the stage, the girls entertain their audiences by singing, dancing and, as a finale, unleashing their luxuriant cascades of ankle-length hair.

Approached by Augustus Rainfleury and Tristan Stoker, both of whom can see the money-making potential of seven long-haired sisters, the ‘Swiney Godivas’ leave their impoverished Harristown lives behind to find success in first Dublin then Venice. But for black-haired, sharp-tongued Darcy, the rival twins Berenice and Enda, quiet Pertilly, gentle, blonde Oona, wild Idolatry and our narrator, red-haired Manticory, fame doesn’t necessarily bring happiness.

I loved this book, the first I’ve read by Michelle Lovric, and I would agree that it really is a ‘splendid history’. It’s not quite a true one – Manticory and her sisters are fictional – but it was inspired by the story of the real-life Sutherland Sisters, an American family who really did become celebrities due to their long hair. If you have trouble imagining what seven sisters all with floor-length hair would look like, lots of pictures of the Seven Sutherland Sisters can be found online.

With so many Swineys to get to know, I was pleased to find that each sister is given a strong and distinctive personality of her own. I liked some of the girls and disliked others, but they were all great to read about, particularly the fierce, devilish Darcy who takes control of every scene in which she appears. One of my favourite characters, though, was not a Swiney sister at all, but their childhood enemy, Eileen O’Reilly (or the Eileen O’Reilly as she is always described) who enjoys exchanging very imaginative insults with Darcy – and who claims to hate the Swineys yet can’t seem to stay away from them.

Manticory herself has a wonderful narrative voice: strong, poetic and unmistakably ‘Irish’. She manages to bring a lot of humour into her ‘true and splendid history’ but it’s really a very dark story. There’s a vulnerability about the sisters, even Darcy, in that they are manipulated and taken advantage of by ruthless businessmen and men who are…well, attracted to girls with long hair. The Swineys are betrayed and exploited by the very people they have placed their trust in and what makes this even more tragic is that the reader can see this from the beginning while the sisters can’t.

Finally, I want to mention the excellent descriptive writing in this book. Every time Manticory thinks of her childhood in Harristown, County Kildare, she remembers the ‘turf stoves, thin geese and slow crows’ until Harristown becomes almost a character in itself. Later in the book, the descriptions of Venice are particularly beautiful…

The palazzi and churches let their fretted stones hang down into our faces like beautiful, insitent ghosts. Beckoning lanterns hung at arched water-gates. Inside their houses, equisitely dressed Venetians displayed themselves in glowing tableaux so that each palace seemed to host a puppet theatre performing just for us. The city was mystical and barbaric all at once, a floating fortress so delicate that the fairies would hesitate to place the weight of their wings on it.

I also loved the images of the girls hanging their hair from the windows of the bell tower of San Vidal like seven Rapunzels and each of them standing in the bow of a gondola with her hair trailing into the boat behind. I could tell this book was written by someone who knows and loves Venice!

The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters is one of my favourite books of the year so far and I’m now looking forward to investigating Michelle Lovric’s previous novels.

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