Dissolution (Matthew Shardlake 1) by CJ Sansom

Monastic murder…

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It is the time of the Reformation, when Henry VIII has ordered his henchman Thomas Cromwell to strip the monasteries of everything valuable and then destroy them. Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer and one of the commissioners who are tasked with inspecting the monasteries prior to their dissolution. But now Cromwell has a different task for him. While acting as commissioner at the monastery of Scarnsea on the Sussex coast, Robert Singleton has been brutally murdered and an act of sacrilege has been carried out in the church. Cromwell sends Shardlake to investigate…

This is the first of the Shardlake books, a series which has been a firm favourite of mine for many years. Sansom seemed to spring fully formed onto the stage of historical fiction, setting exceptionally high standards with this first novel. As a historian, he clearly knows the period inside out, and Shardlake – a decent man trying to navigate his way through the murky manoeuvrings of the Tudor monarchs and their ever-shifting cast of right-hand men – is an excellent guide.

In this first book, Shardlake is a convinced Reformer. Cromwell may be rough and ready, a rare commoner in the corridors of power, but Shardlake believes that Cromwell too is working for the cause of reform, although he understands that Cromwell has to compromise occasionally to keep his Royal master’s favour. However, during his time in Scarnsea, Shardlake will learn many things that make him question Cromwell’s integrity and the morality of his own role in doing Cromwell’s bidding. He will also see the human cost of the dissolution of the monasteries – elderly monks and monastery servants thrown out onto the streets to fend for themselves in a world with no place for them. While intellectually he feels that the Catholic church has long abused its power and should be brought down, he finds himself sympathising with those of the monks who refuse to recant from the form of religion to which they have devoted their lives, even in the face of the King’s wrath.

But Sansom also shows us the corruption within the monasteries, both financial and moral, which Henry used as an excuse for his campaign against them. And in turn, we see how Henry used the fabulous wealth he looted from the Church to consolidate his own power by lavishing his cronies with the land and great houses that had belonged to the abbeys and monasteries. While Shardlake remains true to the new religion, we see the first signs of the doubts that will eventually lead him to take a more cynical view of the process of Reformation.

All this history is mainly why I love the Shardlake books, I’ve learned more from them than from all the weighty history books I’ve read over the years because Sansom has a true gift for humanising the history. His characters are of their time – he never allows anachronisms to creep in, either in language or in his characters’ thoughts. In this one, homosexuality features, since it was one of the accusations regularly used against the monasteries. Sansom avoids giving Shardlake 21st century opinions on the subject, but also allows him to have a level of sympathy with what he sees as a moral weakness rather than an unforgivable sin. It’s done very well, so that it feels true to the time but doesn’t make for uncomfortable reading for a modern audience.

CJ Sansom

However Sansom also realises the importance of strong plots and this one is excellent. He rarely takes us directly into court circles, but the plots usually have something to do with the main events of the Tudor period. I won’t go into this one too deeply for fear of spoilers, but one of the monks is related to the recently deceased Jane Seymour, giving a certain sensitivity to the investigation, while later it appears that there may be some kind of link back to the time of Anne Boleyn, and Cromwell’s betrayal of this woman who helped him come to power. Shardlake has the first of several assistants who appear throughout the series – Mark Poer, a young man whose career is already blighted by a scandalous liaison with a lady of the court. We also meet Brother Guy, the Moorish monk whose discussions with Shardlake allow Sansom to lay out the religious differences of the time.

I listened to it this time round, narrated by Steven Crossley who does an excellent job, providing the monks with a wide range of regional accents all sounding completely authentic. There are few women characters in this one, but those that there are, he does very well. Having thoroughly enjoyed revisiting this one through audio, I’ll now be happily looking forward to listening to the rest of the series over the coming months – or years, perhaps, since each book is exponentially longer than the last!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

TBR Thursday 243…

Episode 243

The TBR has remained steady over the last couple of weeks with a few drifting out and a few drifting in – still 208. The reading slump continues, the reviewing slump continues – fortunately, there hasn’t been either a chocolate slump or a cake slump, or life would be truly intolerable!

A couple of review-along announcements to start with:

  1. A Month in the Country review-along. This is one of my 20 Books of Summer and Sandra suggested we should read and review it at the same time. Sounds like a great idea to me, so we’ve set 31st August as the date for our synchronised reviews. Alyson and Christine (both non-bloggers at the moment, though I’m working on it 😉 ) have already joined in and anyone else is welcome to jump aboard! The rules are simple – either review it on your blog on 31st August or if you prefer leave your views in the comments section on my review and/or the reviews of anyone else who reviews it. I’ll put links to any other reviews on my own.
  2. Tender is the Night review-along. This didn’t win last week’s People’s Choice but Alyson suggested it would be fun to read it at the same time and discuss. Another great idea! Since then Sandra and Eva have said they might join in too, and again, anyone else is welcome! Same rules – we haven’t set a firm date for reviews yet, but I’m proposing 26th October. Anyone who’s thinking of joining in, especially you, Alyson, of course, please let me know in the comments if that date does or doesn’t suit you.

Doesn’t that all sound like fun? 😀

Here are a few more I might or might not miss dinner for…

Winner of the People’s Choice Poll

The Messenger of Athens by Anne Zouroudi

Excellent choice, People, especially since it will fit in well with my plan to read some lighter stuff for a while till my slump lifts! Tender is the Night stayed in the race but was always a furlong or two behind, and I fear the other two collapsed on the verge just a few yards from the starting line. This will be my introduction to Zouroudi and her detective, more or less, except for one short story I read and enjoyed in an anthology several years ago. It’s been on my TBR since 2014. I plan to read and review it by the end of August.

The Blurb says: Idyllic but remote, the Greek island of Thiminos seems untouched and untroubled by the modern world. So when the battered body of a young woman is discovered at the foot of a cliff, the local police – governed more by archaic rules of honor than by the law – are quick to close the case, dismissing her death as an accident.

Then a stranger arrives, uninvited, from Athens, announcing his intention to investigate further into the crime he believes has been committed. Refusing to accept the woman’s death as an accident or suicide, Hermes Diaktoros sets out to uncover the truths that skulk beneath this small community’s exterior.

Hermes’s methods of investigation are unorthodox, and his message to the islanders is plain – tell the truth or face the consequences. Before long, he’s uncovering a tale of passion, corruption and murder that entangles many of the island’s residents. But Hermes brings his own mystery into the web of dark secrets and lies – and as he travels the rugged island landscape to investigate, questions and suspicions arise amongst the locals. Who has sent him to Thiminos, and on whose authority is he acting? And how does he know of dramas played out decades ago?

Rich in images of Greece’s beautiful islands and evoking a life unknown to most outsiders, this wonderful novel leads the reader into a world where the myths of the past are not forgotten and forbidden passion still has dangerous consequences.

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English Classic

The African Queen by CS Forester

One from my Classics Club list. I’ve seen a couple of reviews that suggest this is one case where the film perhaps is better than the book, but since the film is brilliant that’s hardly surprising! And happily, I have the DVD lined up for a re-watch after I’ve read it…

The Blurb says: As World War I reaches the heart of the African jungle, Charlie Allnutt and Rose Sayer, a dishevelled trader and an English spinster missionary, find themselves thrown together by circumstance. Fighting time, heat, malaria, and bullets, they make their escape on the rickety steamboat The African Queen…and hatch their own outrageous military plan. Originally published in 1935, The African Queen is a tale replete with vintage Forester drama – unrelenting suspense, reckless heroism, impromptu military manoeuvres, near-death experiences – and a good old-fashioned love story to boot.

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Fiction

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

And finally! What other choice could I possibly make for the final book in my mammoth Around the World in 80 Books challenge? This will be a re-read from a long time ago, and Oxford World’s Classics have kindly provided me with a copy, so the intro and notes will make it even more fun to read…

The Blurb says: One night in the reform club, Phileas Fogg bets his companions that he can travel across the globe in just eighty days. Breaking the well-established routine of his daily life, he immediately sets off for Dover with his astonished valet Passepartout. Passing through exotic lands and dangerous locations, they seize whatever transportation is at hand—whether train or elephant—overcoming set-backs and always racing against the clock.

Around the World in Eighty Days has been a bestseller for over a century, but it has never before appeared in a critical edition. While most translations misread or even abridge the original, this stylish version is completely true to Verne’s classic, moving as fast and as brilliantly as Phineas Fogg’s own race against time. Around the World in Eighty Days offers a strong dose of post-romantic reality but not a shred of science fiction: its modernism lies instead in the experimental technique and Verne’s unique twisting of space and time.

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Historical Fiction on Audion

Dissolution by CJ Sansom

Sansom’s Shardlake books are my favourite historical fiction series of all time. I’ve been meaning to re-read them for ages but never seem able to fit them in. So I decided to try the first one on audio since on the whole I prefer listening to books I’ve already read. The narrator is Steven Crossley – I haven’t come across him before but the reviews of his narrations are very positive…

The Blurb says: The first book in the best-selling Shardlake series. It is 1537, a time of revolution that sees the greatest changes in England since 1066.

Henry VIII has proclaimed himself Supreme Head of the Church. The country is waking up to savage new laws, rigged trials and the greatest network of informers ever seen. And under the orders of Thomas Cromwell, a team of commissioners is sent throughout the country to investigate the monasteries.

There can only be one outcome: dissolution. But on the Sussex coast, at the monastery of Scarnsea, events have spiralled out of control. Cromwell’s Commissioner, Robin Singleton, has been found dead, his head severed from his body. His horrific murder is accompanied by equally sinister acts of sacrilege.

Matthew Shardlake, lawyer and long-time supporter of Reform, has been sent by Cromwell to uncover the truth behind the dark happenings at Scarnsea. But investigation soon forces Shardlake to question everything that he hears, and everything that he intrinsically believes….

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Audible UK or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?