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Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen by Alison Weir

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “A Spanish Princess. Raised to be modest, obedient, and devout. Destined to be an English Queen. Six weeks from home across treacherous seas, everything is different: the language, the food, the weather. And for her there is no comfort in any of it. At sixteen years old, Catalina is alone among strangers. She misses her mother. She mourns her lost brother. She cannot trust even those assigned to her protection. Katherine of Aragon, the first of Henry’s Queens. Her story.”

REVIEW: This is the first in what will eventually be a full series of six novels, all penned by Alison Weir and each novel focusing on one of Henry VIII’s six wives. As a huge fan of Weir I have been eagerly anticipating the beginning of this series, and was even lucky enough to attend the book launch for this first novel at Foyles bookshop in central London, where I had my copy signed by Weir herself. Weir is clearly fond of Katherine as a historical figure, and even named her daughter after her, and this allows her to portray Katherine with the empathy that she deserves as a woman of rare bravery, dignity and faith even in the most terrifying of situations. As an avid admirer of Anne Boleyn – I recently wrote my undergraduate dissertation on how she was portrayed in religious texts during the reign of her daughter, Elizabeth I – many people might expect me to dislike Katherine, or at the very least feel indifferent towards her.

Yet, I have always admired Katherine for the qualities I have just mentioned and for many more, and I enjoyed this book all the more because Weir allowed these qualities of Katherine’s to shine through. Katherine was not a weak and feeble woman who stepped meekly aside when Henry grew tired of her; she was an intelligent, passionate woman who fought fiercely for the rights of herself and her daughter Mary even once she was no longer the King’s wife, and all the while was gracious and warm to those around her, keeping true to her deep Christian faith.

The novel begins with the final part of Katherine’s – then known as Catalina – journey, and her arrival in England to wed the young Prince Arthur, heir to the English throne. But as we all know, Arthur was not destined to become King; frail and unhealthy, Arthur died shortly after the marriage and Katherine was left adrift in England for many years before her marriage to the then young, handsome and athletic Henry VIII.

Although there has been much debate surrounding whether or not Arthur and Katherine’s marriage was consummated, as was claimed by Henry during the divorce proceedings, Weir puts forward the idea, based on new and carefully evaluated evidence, that it was not so as Arthur was feared too unwell to perform – something I have always felt was highly likely.The rest of Katherine’s story, however, is much better known; years of failed pregnancies, the horror of the divorce and her replacement by Anne Boleyn, her separation from her daughter and years spent being moved from pillar to post until her death in 1536.

Yet what is spoken of somewhat less, and what Weir makes a great deal of in this novel, is the love between Katherine and Henry. We all know that Katherine was devoted to her husband, but what finds us less often in both historical fact and fiction is that Henry truly did love his first Queen; the need to secure the succession and the passionate love he developed for Anne eventually forced them to grow apart, but all evidence seems to suggest that for much of their marriage Katherine and Henry were happy. It is heartwarming to read something that shows this side of the relationship, though it makes it all the more heartbreaking to read of Katherine’s fall from grace, and the pain and ill health she was then to suffer. Weir truly makes the reader feel as if they know Katherine personally, and we grow very attached to her – an impressive feat to accomplish when writing about a real historical figure.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I am so excited to continue to read what promises to be a fantastic and brilliantly researched series.

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Rebel Angels by Libba Bray

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “It’s the end of the year, and Gemma’s looking forward to living it up in London. Balls, fancy gowns and dancing with the handsome Simon Middleton beckon. Best of all, it’s time away from Spence Academy – and from the realms. But the lure of the enchanted world is strong, and the magic flows freely. Gemma’s visions intensify¬† -visions of three girls dressed in white, suffering horror and menace. Clearly all is not well in the realms – or out of them.”

REVIEW: I remembered this book fondly as my favourite in the trilogy, and so far this still remains the case. The novel opens just as the Christmas holidays are approaching at Spence Academy, after a prologue which teaches us more about the mysterious Kartik and sets the scene for a suspenseful tale. Gemma and Felicity are anticipating their London season and, with the invention of an aristocratic relative and Russian royal heritage, Ann is able to join them despite her humble origins. Despite the exciting events that hold their attention back in London, including their reunion with the disgraced Miss Moore, the opium addiction that is slowly destroying Gemma’s father, and the attentions she receives from Simon Middleton (which cause Kartik to feel some jealousy!), the lure of the realms and the girls’ longing to see their departed friend Pippa proves too strong, and they soon find a number of opportunities to slip away and return to the realms. With the magic set loose after Gemma’s destruction of the runes, however, all is not as it was in the realms – including Pippa, who seems to be turning into something much darker than any of them expected. The mystery of the realms deepens when Gemma meets a young girl named Nell Hawkins, driven mad by the deaths of her friends at the hands of a creature from the realms. Gemma suspects their new teacher, Miss McCleethy, but struggles to decipher Nell’s clues to finding the mysterious Temple – which, she is told by Kartik – will allow her to bind the magic to the Order forever. Gemma and her friends’ search for the Temple leads them into many dangers, and introduces them to many of the creatures of the realms, adding a new dimension to the story as we see the contrast between the rigid rules of London society and the untamed magic of the realms. This is a brilliant novel and has, in my opinion, the best plot twist of the series, which is what makes it the most enjoyable of the three for me. I would very highly recommend it.

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The Winter Crown by Elizabeth Chadwick

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “In 1154, Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most powerful women in Europe, is crowned queen of England beside her young husband Henry II. While Henry battles their enemies and lays his plans, Eleanor is an adept acting ruler and mother to their growing brood of children. But she yearns for more than this – if only Henry would listen. Instead, Henry pushes Eleanor to the sidelines, involving himself with a young mistress and denying Eleanor her rightful authority. As matters reach a crisis, Eleanor becomes caught up in a family rebellion. And even a queen must face the consequences of treason…”

REVIEW: This is the second installment in Elizabeth Chadwick’s trilogy of novels about the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, a historical figure whom I have always found fascinating. The first novel, ‘The Summer Queen’, focused on Eleanor’s declining relationship with her first husband, King Louis VII of France, and her struggle to obtain a divorce in order to marry the new heir to the throne of England, the boisterous and passionate Henry II. Their efforts succeeded, and the opening of this book sees Henry and Eleanor being crowned King and Queen of England in 1154. Their relationship, however, although highly fertile in terms of heirs, is beginning to worsen, as Eleanor grows desperate to have more power and not be seen simply as a wife and mother. The death of the couple’s eldest son, William, the interference of Henry’s Archbishop, the infamous Thomas Becket, the discovery of a bastard son sired by Henry, and the introduction of Henry’s young and beautiful new mistress, Rosamund de Clifford, only combine to make things worse for the royal couple, and their marriage soon turns into a bitter and cold power struggle. Portrayed alongside this, however, is the blossoming relationship between Eleanor’s close companion and ladies’ maid, Isabel, and her new husband Hamelin, half-brother to Henry. This offers a heavy contrast to Eleanor and Henry’s marriage, and is an interesting tactic by Chadwick as it shows us just how damaged and bitter their marriage has become in comparison to a more normal, naturally happy marriage. Throughout the novel the tensions between Henry and Eleanor grow, and when their sons Henry, Richard and Geoffrey ally to rebel against their father, who seems reluctant to give them the power they are owed, Eleanor is caught in the middle of a family war, and Henry puts the blame for their son’s rebellion on her. By the end of the novel, Eleanor is held under house arrest and the rebellion seems set to rage on outside the castle wars. This book portrays the storm that took place before the darkest period of Eleanor’s life, and was a brilliant and fascinating read, making everything seem new and interesting despite the fact that I already knew the course of events. It is a very worthy sequel to ‘The Summer Queen’, which I also greatly enjoyed, and I very much look forward to the release of the final installment in the trilogy, ‘The Autumn Throne’, which is to be released in September.

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Last Term at Malory Towers by Enid Blyton

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “Darrell’s last term at Malory Towers promises to be as exciting as ever. There’s a new girl, Amanda, a stubborn sports star set on swimming in the dangerous sea¬† -with or without permission. And there’s spoilt Jo, only happy when she gets her own way”

REVIEW: This is the final novel in Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers series, and provides a heartwarming and satisfying ending to Darrell’s story. One of the major threads that runs throughout the novel is finally tied up in this book; that of Gwendoline, who throughout her time at Malory Towers has failed to reform her ways, and when the book opens she is bragging of having bullied her father into sending her to a fancy finishing school in Switzerland. When her father falls fatally ill, however, Gwendoline is finally forced to change her ways and her future plans, leaving Malory Towers and taking up a job as this is the only way she can support her family. Although a sad ending to Gwendoline’s tale, the reader is at least comforted by the fact that it proves that Gwendoline can change and be a better person. However, there are two new girls in this novel that prove to be almost as difficult as Gwendoline; the spoilt Jo, who has been raised by her brash American parents to be disobedient and eventually ends up stealing money and leading astray a pliable young first-former, Deidre, persuading her to run away in the dead of night; and Amanda, a bold and domineering girl who looks down on Malory Towers and is focused only on her ambitions to enter the next Olympic games. Both of these girls are taught a lesson, however – Amanda when a dangerous swim in the sea leads to her receiving injuries that she may never recover from, and Jo when her thieving is discovered and she is expelled, the first girl this has happened to throughout the series. What with all these goings on, Darrell and her friends find little time to enjoy their final year at Malory Towers, but we do at least get to enjoy with them a final trick, played by Darrell’s sister Felicity and some other mischevious younger students on the sixth formers’ behalf. The series is tied up nicely, with Darrell and many of our other favourite characters going on to attend Saint Andrew’s University, or following professional paths – Bill and Clarissa, for example, are to set up a riding school – and therefore concludes with just as heartwarming an ending as the rest of the series. I have thoroughly enjoyed re-reading them, and would highly recommend that any others who enjoyed these books in childhood should also return to them!

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A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “It’s 1895 and after the death of her mother, 16-year-old Gemma Doyle is shipped off from the life she knows in India to Spence, a proper boarding school in England. Lonely, guilt-ridden, and prone to visions of the future that have an unexpected habit of coming true, Gemma finds her reception a chilly one. She’s not completely alone though…she’s being followed by a myserious young man, sent to warn her to close her mind against the visions. It’s at Spence that Gemma’s power to attract the supernatural unfolds, as she becomes entangled with the school’s most powerful girls and discovers her mother’s connection to a shadowy, timeless group called The Order. Her destiny awaits…if only Gemma can believe in it.”

REVIEW: I first read this book (and it’s sequels, which altogether are known as the Gemma Doyle Trilogy) when I was about fourteen, and although this is the first time I have re-read them since then this trilogy remains one of my all-time favourites. The novel begins by introducing us to Gemma, the protagonist of the books, who has a fractious relationship with her mother as she chafes to leave their home in India and enjoy a socialite’s season in London. With her mother’s murder, however, by a terrifying and mysterious figure, Gemma’s whole world is completely changed, and when she finally reaches England it is nowhere near the paradise she hoped for. Now motherless, Gemma is sent to Spence, a boarding and etiquette school, at the urging of her grandmother, father and brother. Gemma finds herself isolated and alone, and drawn deeply in by both the visions she experiences and by Kartik, a stranger who offers his help and urges her to resist the visions. When Gemma discovers a strange diary, however, events take an even darker turn as she begins to learn about The Order, a group of women who can open a door to a magical world known as the Realms. With the help of her new friends and allies, the poor and insecure Anne, the confident and compelling Felicity and the spoilt Pippa, who is betrothed to a much older man against her will, Gemma finds that she too can enter the Realms and visit her mother, who is herself a member of The Order; it is her destiny to lead The Order, but this knowledge is something she struggles with. The four friends begin their hunt for Circe, the murderess of Gemma’s mother, and as their desire for power grows stronger, they become divided over how to deal with the magic possessed by Gemma and by the Realms themselves. As I said, I have always adored this series; it is gripping and fascinating, full of mysteries and surprises, and brilliantly illustrates how fine the line between light and dark can be. Gemma is instantly likeable and often relatable; and even if Gemma is not relatable to the reader, readers are surely to find some aspect of themselves in her friends Ann, Felicity and Pippa (the first time I read this series I felt a much stronger identification with Ann, and in some aspects I still do), which adds a depth to the book and also makes it easier for us to imagine ourselves into the novel. I am enjoying this series just as much as I did the first time around, which I feel proves its worth as an amazing and compelling trilogy; I would highly recommend it.

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In the Fifth at Malory Towers by Enid Blyton

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “The exams are over! Now Darrell and her friends can settle down to a year of fun. But with a pantomime to run and some terrible fights amongst the Upper Fourth, life’s not as quiet as they’d hoped…”

REVIEW: This was always my favourite book in series, as I absolutely loved the plotline of Darrell and her friends teaming up to write, produce and perform in the school pantomime, ‘Cinderella’. The new characters introduced in this book are also far less likeable than the previously introduced characters, which adds some enjoyment to the book because of the conflict this creates between the existing fifth formers and these other girls, the domineering Moira and the sickeningly sweet Katherine. Most of the book is taken up by the thoroughly enjoyable pantomime plotline, but also by the myserious poison pen letters that Moira begins to receive after falling out with many of the other girls, providing a number of possible culprits for the letter-writing. The identity of the culprit may provide a surprise for some readers, and this revelation, combined with the delightful chapter about the play and a brilliant trick played by Mademoiselle Dupont makes this book my favourite one yet, and also provides a fun and satisfying ending that captures the sense of the fun the girls themselves have had throughout the novel as they did not need to take any exams.

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Yellow Brick War by Danielle Paige

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “Once upon a time, there was a girl from Kansas named Dorothy. You might know her as the Girl Who Rode the Cyclone. She ended up in Oz, where she became friends with the Tin Woodman, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion. But the temptation of magic was too much for her. She let it change her. Her friends became twisted versions of their former selves. The magical land of Oz is now a dark and menacing place. My name is Amy Gumm. Tornadoes must have a thing about girls from Kansas, because I got swept away on one too. I also landed in Oz, where Good is Wicked, Wicked is Good, and the Wicked Witches clued me in to my true calling: Assasin. The only way to stop Dorothy from destroying Oz – and Kansas – is to kill her. And I’m the only one who can do it. But I failed. Others died for my mistakes. Because of me, the portal between the worlds has been opened and Kansas and Oz are both in danger. And if I don’t find a way to close it? Dorothy will make sure I never get to go home again.”

REVIEW: I was very excited to read what I thought would be the final installment in the Dorothy Must Die series, which I always assumed was a trilogy; after reaching the end of the book, however, I am now even more excited to say that I am pretty much certain that I was wrong, and another book in the series will, hopefully, soon emerge – or at least I hope so, because I thoroughly enjoyed this book and was left desperate for more when I finished reading the final page. After being swept into a portal, Amy must resume her quest to finish Dorothy from Kansas, a place she finds very different to the home she remembers. The drastic change in her once alcoholic mother is heartwarming for the reader as the two are reunited, as is her growing friendship with once-nemesis Madison Pendleton and her blossoming romance with the witch Nox; yet, Amy still has a job to do. With both help and threats from a new enemy, the Nome King, Amy and the Revolutionary Order of the Wicked find Dorothy’s shoes in Kansas and are sucked back into the land of Oz, destined to find Dorothy and put an end to her reign of terror by killing her, once and for all. I can’t reveal much of what happens upon their return to Oz, for fear of giving too much away; but I feel that this book really connected more to the atmosphere of the first novel in the series, being gripping, shocking and easy to read – I had found the middle book slightly less so, although I still enjoyed it. Amy’s character has also greatly developed by this point and her relationship with Nox provides some relief for the reader from the tense and graphic battle scenes. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and if – as I suspect – there is to be another installment, then I can’t wait to read it.