What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Tudormania is alive and well in a bookstore near you!

I confess, I have a crush on Matthew Shardlake. Yes, I know he's a fictional character, and a hunchback, and a lawyer. But, whatever. As created by C.J. Sansom, he's an incredibly powerful and convincing character. He's human: wary, fearful, lonely. After all, it's the summer of 1546 in the opening pages of this, the latest episode of the series of mysteries featuring Shardlake, and Lincoln's Inn has just dispatched him to witness the appalling death by burning at the stake of Anne Askew. The king, Henry VIII, has determined that she and others are heretics and must die for their beliefs. Of course, Henry's views of what makes someone a heretic are somewhat erratic -- devout monks have died as traitors for denying his claim to be head of the English church, while Anabaptists die for denying the rites of baptism and mass. It's enough to make anyone's head spin, and Shardlake is determined to keep his firmly attached to his (hunched) shoulders, thank you very much.

But Shardlake is also a man of principles, and a few very strong loyalties -- one to his closest friend and ally, Jack Barak, who now works alongside him in his legal practice, and another to Catherine Parr, the king's sixth wife. Queen Catherine, a reformer, has left Shardlake alone for a year since last turning to him to help her with legal matters, aware that their association led both of them into peril. But now she has no choice. Someone has stolen the text of a manuscript of religious devotions that she herself had written -- that no one else knew existed, but that can be made to look as if she, too, is a heretic. In the wrong hands, it could condemn her to a fate like that suffered by some of her predecessors. And as his life approaches its end, Henry's ill health makes his temper more dangerously volatile than ever before. The power struggle for who will control the young heir, Prince Edward, is already beginning, and many would like to see Catherine sidelined. Will Matthew help?

And so begins Shardlake's latest adventure, and it's a doozy. Frankly, I think it's one of the best books in this series so far, and removes any doubts raised by the not-quite-up-to-snuff Heartstone, its immediate predecessor. Shardlake encounters printers and Anabaptists, as well as devout Catholics eager to bring down anyone they see as being affiliated with the reformers. Some of his own clients may be his worst enemies; old adversaries may become temporary allies. He leads his friends into immense peril -- and the novel ends on a note that is going to make it very, very, very hard for me to wait for the next installment of the series. Sansom is simply going to have to write more rapidly. Or I'm going to have to find a time travel machine and go back and find out what happened next.

This book won't be out in the United States until February, so if you're reading this here and gnashing your teeth in fury and irritation, you have a couple of options. Firstly, be aware that this is the sixth book in an excellent series of historical mysteries that begins with Dissolution; you've got lots of time to go back and read your way through 'em before Lamentation arrives. Or, if you've already encountered Master Shardlake, well, either Amazon.co.uk or BookDepository.com would be happy to ship a copy of this to you toute de suite, the former for a not-too-small fee. The latter has just resumed shipping UK titles to the US and generally does so without the shipping, but I've found them slightly less reliable.

Then, since Tudor mania is once again running rampant in historical fiction publishing circles, you'll find some alternatives on the bookstore shelves to consider while you're waiting for your package to show up. Two I can recommend heartily; two, I can only suggest that you steer clear of.

C.W. Gortner may have made his name writing biographical historical novels focusing on medieval ladies such as Isabella of Castile and her daughter, Juana la Loca (his breakthrough novel, The Last Queen) but the first novel of his that I read was actually originally a self-published book, The Tudor Secret, that became a trilogy of historical mysteries, of which The Tudor Vendetta is the final volume. They feature the intrepid Brendan Prescott, an ally of the princess who has, at last, ascended to the throne as Queen Elizabeth. Brendan, raised in the household of the Dudleys, is now firmly in the camp of William Cecil and the "intelligencers" of Walsingham, etc., so the enmity with which he views Dudley make sense, even if it is exaggerated for dramatic effect here. And as in Sansom's book, it is his loyalty to a queen that counts: Elizabeth, even without knowing the true story of his own parentage, entrusts him with a secret mission. Without telling either Dudley or Cecil, she says, he  must find her beloved lady in waiting, Blanche Parry, who has vanished after visiting Catholic kinsmen. But the secret turns out to be greater than Brendan could ever have imagined, and it will seal the two young people together more tightly than ever before -- if, that is, the monarch and her subject can both survive the immediate perils. One warning here: you need to have an above-average tolerance for a rewriting of historical characters and what they may or may not have done in their lives. I confess that this did end up stretching my credulity to breaking point, but ultimately, it was the adventure that mattered.

Elizabeth Fremantle is clearly a historical novelist to watch. After penning an impressive debut novel about Katherine Parr, she has gone on to write something even stronger here, focusing on the younger sisters of Lady Jane Grey. Left in a perilous position after their sister's execution, Katherine -- the frivolous beauty -- and Mary -- the intelligent and quick-witted hunchback -- must navigate and survive two very different courts, that of Catholic Mary, who had signed their sister's death warrant, and that of Elizabeth. Both see the sisters as rivals, but ironically it under Elizabeth that they may end up faring worse. What I relished most about this was that part of the tale is told through the eyes of a relative outsider, the painter Lavinia Teerlinc, who knows and cares for both young women and tries to help both navigate the great power politics of their day. But Katherine has too little judgment -- first allowing herself to be wooed by the Spanish faction at court in Elizabeth's early days as Queen and later to marry without the Queen's permission. For her part, Mary, craving love and affection, is in search of a measure of freedom and independence. It's beautifully written, impeccably researched and absolutely fascinating -- something that I hadn't expected, given that the stories of both young women were already reasonably well known to me. Anyone to whom they are new likely will find it even more compelling. Run and get it now!

And now for Elizabeth Tudor herself... For some reason, with very few exceptions (Susan Kay's Legacy being one), books about Elizabeth on the throne seem to be much less compelling than those about her struggle to reach it. Once she's there, the drama seems to shift elsewhere -- in particular, to the struggles by Cecil and Walsingham to keep her there and to fight the espionage wars. (And there are some great non-fiction books on this topic, like The Watchers, by Stephen Alford.) In a nutshell, that's the problem with this novel by Alison Weir. Her previous novel, The Lady Elizabeth, was suspenseful, even though the reader knows that she didn't end up losing her head like her mother before her but survived to become the greatest of the Tudor monarchs. This volume, as Elizabeth plays the marriage game with her foreign suitors and alternately indulges in some hot and heavy romantic interludes with Robert Dudley, while delivering verbatim set piece speeches about not making windows into her subjects souls, etc., simply isn't all that interesting. It plods along, from one year and one episode in Elizabeth's life, to the next. One suitor fades from the scene to be replaced by the next. Elizabeth ages; her vanity grows, as does the novel's tedium. You'd be better off reading a well-written biography, quite frankly. This is really a biography that takes liberties with some of the facts and throws in some dialog.

For the record, I'm not a Philippa Gregory hater. I do think that she loves to overstate her qualifications, referring to her doctorate on every possible occasion (when it's in English literature, rather than history), and I think her writing talent, as opposed to her ability to spin a yarn, is negligible. Her penchant for saying the same thing three times in essentially the same way within five sentences is inexplicable and bizarre. What I have enjoyed about some of her novels is her ability to take a different perspective on issues. For instance, her novel about Mary Queen of Scots is a great example of the late Tudor clash of the old aristocracy -- Mary Stuart, the captive queen, and her jailor, the earl of Shrewsbury -- and the upstart new merchant class, as represented by Bess of Hardwick the brisk business-minded countess of Shrewsbury. We see the beginnings of that conflict in this novel, as Henry VII and Henry VIII deliberately -- in Gregory's telling -- push away the nobles upon whom they traditionally would have relied for advice, and instead turn to parvenus to help them rule. The narrator here is Henry VIII's cousin, Margaret Pole, countess of Salisbury, born Margaret Plantagenet, who would become his oldest victim and the oldest woman ever executed when a headsman famously had to chase her around the block to behead her. But for a period of decades, she was at the center of the Tudor court, governess to the young princess, Mary, and in high favor. This is the tale of overweening ambition and pride and an inability to recognize changing realities. Normally, having an unlikable narrator doesn't spoil a book for me, but this was an exception: Margaret was an irritatingly blind and silly woman whom I wanted to shake, rather than a subtle and complex character and the writer didn't compensate for any of this. The themes, as I noted, were interesting to ponder, but once developed, I could ponder them on my own without having to read Gregory's novel. I think there's a ratio here: for every interesting novel Gregory writes, there are four mediocre to unreadable ones. This wasn't nearly as bad as The White Queen or The Kingmaker's Daughter, but you can do a lot better.

Still suffering from Tudormania? Keep an eye open for a golden oldie, Margaret George's The Autobiography of Henry VIII (her debut novel and still her best); the series of historical mysteries by Rory Clements featuring John Shakespeare (brother of the more famous you-know-who); and Fiona Buckley's earlier historical mysteries set in Elizabethan England, featuring Ursula Blanchard, starting with To Shield the Queen. They are being re-released and made available on Kindle now.

Full disclosure: I received copies of "The Tudor Vendetta" and "Sisters of Treason" from their publishers via NetGalley in exchange for a review containing my honest opinions.


  1. Thank you for the reviews! I appreciate your honesty and your insights. I need to get started on the Shardlake series, and pick up Freemantle's book as well.

  2. I also have a crush on Shardlake, and I really need to keep up with this wonderful series

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