Saturday, November 12, 2011

Secretum by Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti. Historical Fiction Novel Review

Polygon, Translation copyright 2009 (First Published in Italian in 2004; English Paperback Edition Published 2010), ISBN 978 1 84597 146 4

Secretum is the sequel to Imprimatur written by wife and husband, Monaldi & Sorti.  Once again, their combined expertise in religions and music enhances the plot of this historical fiction novel.

The young apprentice at the Inn in Imprimatur is now a grown man, with a wife and two young daughters, who works his fields and as a servant for his neighbor, Cardinal Spada.

Curiously, I've read both books and nowhere have I found the name of the former apprentice.  He is the sole narrator of both novels, but other characters never address him by name, calling him "boy", "young man" and other general terms.  Not that this is a detractor, but I just realized this as I type. I have no clue as to the apprentice/servant's name after over 1,200 pages!

After 17 years of silence, Abbot Melani reappears in his former reluctant co-conspirator's bedroom and pays him handsomely to write a memoir of the week. Melani dangles dowries for his daughters to ensnare him.

Like Imprimatur, Secretum is mired in conspiracies that will enormously impact Europe, dependent on the outcomes.  It is July 1700, a year of the Roman Catholic Church's Jubilee and the imminent demise of both the ailing Pope Innocent XII and Charles II of Spain, who has no heir.

Pilgrims invade Rome en masse and corruption among the officials escalates as they take advantage of the hapless pilgrims.

It is also a time of celebration for Cardinal Spada's family; his nephew is to be married and dazzling entertainment and dining is planned for the wedding week.  Abbot Melani is the Cardinal's guest.

Abbot Melani has written a treatise for the eyes of his master, the Sun King of France, which is stolen and the bookbinder who bound the treatise murdered.  Thus begins the story of a bizarre subculture with convoluted rites and language, a madwomen with a prophesy represented by three gifts, a 40 year unrequited love, a musical Dutchman who quotes obscure verses from classic literature, a devious catchpoll, spies, conniving Cardinals angling for the Pope's position and placement of candidates on Spain's throne and a forged signature.

At stake is the future of all of Europe.  Monaldi and Sorti once again utilize their formidable knowledge and writing skills to weave an engrossing, detailed theory of what could have been rather than what is accepted as historical fact.

Secretum is a novel that keeps you on your toes, guessing at clues and producing twists that only make sense in the finale.  I did find I had a harder time tracing the various threads throughout Secretum than I did with Imprimatur.  This fault could lay with me as I had to interrupt the book twice, once for Lionheart (review is on the blog!) on a 2 week library loan and then a book for my book club.  This is  definitely not a historical fiction novel you can pick up and put down.

Rating:  *****(Exceptional)

Friday, November 11, 2011

the Distant Hours by Kate Morton. Historical Fiction Novel Review

Simon & Schuster, Inc. Published 2010.  ISBN 978-1-4391-5278-2; ISBN 978-1-4391-9934-3 (ebook)

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton follows a formula similar to that of her earlier novel, A Forgotten Garden.  Unfortunately, The Distant Hours, did not capture my interest to the same extent.

Edie grows up an avid 19th century Gothic novel reader in a quiet household as an only child after her young brother's death.  Her most treasured novel is "The True History of the Mud Man.

She is not particularly close to her parents, who never recovered from their son's death, but this seems to only bother her in the sense that awkwardness reigns in their relationships.  Edie's long-term relationship with her boyfriend has broken up and she delays telling her parents dreading the "resignation cross Mum's face as she realized the maternal code required her to provide some sort of consolation...".

While at a Sunday dinner at her parents, a "lost" letter arrives for her mother.  It was written 50 years previously by Juniper Blythe, who hosted Edie's mother as a child at her family's home, Milderhurst Castle, during WW II evacuations from London.  Edie's mother is not forthcoming with details about the letter, her evacuation and stay at Milderhurst Castle or, for that matter, pretty much anything regarding her past.

The Gothic novel aficionado has become an editor for a small publishing company.  A prospective client calls and Edie is sent out to meet with him.  As chance has it, she gets lost on the way back to London and happens upon a signpost for Milderhurst. While in the village, she further discovers the author of her beloved "The True History of the Mud Man", Raymond Blythe, was the patriarch of Milderhurst Castle until his death decades earlier.

Unable to resist, she takes a tour of the castle and meets Raymond Blythe's three eccentric spinster daughters who have lived all their lives at Milderhurst.  When she is assigned to interview the Blythe sisters for a commemoration edition of "The True Story of the Mud Man" celebrating its 75th anniversary, Edie has legitimate cause to probe into the Blythe (and her mother's) history.

The Distant Hours is told from different viewpoints throughout the book.  Edie and the three Blythe sisters are the focal character point of views, although other minor characters have cameos.

At 560 pages, I often felt the novel lagged and bogged down.  A condensed version might have presented the same key points without leaving the reader impatient for the novel to move on with the story.

Another aspect lacking in this novel was Edie's emotions.  What emotions she did display and develop almost seemed contrived in order to "qualify" her character as a changed woman.  The golden rule of novels is the hero or heroine must always show that he or she has transformed in some positive way by the finale.

An easy read for those seeking a lengthy novel that doesn't demand a huge investment of recall.

Rating:  *** (Good)

Friday, November 4, 2011

Lionheart by Sharon Kay Penman. Historical Fiction Review

G.P. Putnam's Sons (Penguin Group), Published 2011, ISBN 978-0-399-15785-1

Sharon Kay Penman originally said Devil's Brood would be the last in her series of the Angevins.  However, research she compiled compelled her to tell the story of Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionheart, in her lastest historical fiction novel, Lionheart.

General historical consensus concludes Richard I was a warrior King with superior battle skills, possessed an uncanny skill at surviving combats where he put himself personally at risk and was cold-blooded.

Lionheart is the story of the Third Crusade.  Saladin holds Jerusalem and Richard, now crowned King of England, takes up the Cross and swears an oath to retake Jerusalem for Christian pilgrims.  For three years, he gathers money and supplies and, finally, in July, 1190, after reaching an accord with King Philippe of France to share the spoils equally, the journey towards the Holy Land commences.

Richard trusts Philippe not at all, but even he is not prepared for the betrayals and intrigues that will decimate the army that set out with a holy cause and a willingness to die to achieve their goal.

Lionheart is chock-full of battle scenes with the Scarcens with gains and losses on both sides.  Saladin and his forces are on equal footing with Richard I and his battle strategies.  In spite of their opposing objectives, a mutual respect is born.

Lionheart reveals Richard I in a different light; Although he is shown as fearless, reckless, an exceptional strategizer and, in one incident, as heartless and bloody - for which history has never forgiven him - he is also portrayed as compassionate, has several friends, values family bonds (an amazing aspect considering the terrible actions of his immediate family towards each other), enjoys teasing and is capable of love.

These attributes are displayed by his love for his sister, Joanna, who accompanies him on the Crusade and his tender, if not loving, attitude towards Beregaria, his Queen.  His fiercest attachments seem to be for his cousins and nephew who fight alongside him, encourage him, support his decisions, agonize with him over losses, through necessity support a deed which forever mars his memory and nurse him through bouts of quatrain fever.

Lionheart is not just about Richard I. Penman has an immense cast of characters, of which only two are fictionalized.  I must admit I had trouble at times keeping track of who was who, especially the crusaders.  Allegiances were fickle and it was sometimes difficult to remember to whom a man had sworn his fidelity.

Penman includes sub-plots which involving Joanna, Beregaria, the wife and daughter of the Cyprus king Richard deposed and the fictional Mariam.  The fears and deprivations these women suffered along the road to the Holy Land are given prominence.

Sharon Kay Penman is in my Top 5 of Most Favorite Authors.  She most certainly did not disappoint with Lionheart.  Lionheart took me on a crusade as no other historical fiction novel has.  The novel flows seamlessly with minute details almost as if Penman was actually present on the Third Crusade.  After reading Lionheart you will have a different outlook on whether the Third Crusade was a dismal failure and Richard a barbarian. This is a mark of an excellent researcher and novelist.

In her Author's Notes, Penman acknowledges her general view of Richard I was unfavorable until she dug deeper into both Christian and Saracen chronicles and realized there was more to the man than blood and ruthlessness.

Penman is currently working on her second novel regarding Richard I, A King's Ransom.  I can hardly wait!

Rating:   5 starts ***** (exceptional)