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King’s Fool by Margaret Campbell Barnes

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “When country lad Will Somers lands himself the plum position of jester to the mercurial King Henry VIII, he has no idea that he’s just been handed a front-row seat to history. With a seat near the throne and an ear to the floor, Somers witnesses firsthand he dizzying power struggles and sly scheming that marked the reign of the fiery Tudor King. Somers watches the rise and fall of some of the most fascinating women in history, including the tragic Katherine of Aragon, the bewitching Anne Boleyn, and Mary Tudor, who confided in the jester as she made the best of the fragile life of a princess whom everyone wished was a prince…

Based on the life of the real Will Somers, ‘King’s Fool’ is infused with Margaret Campbell Barnes’ trademark rich detail and historical accuracy. This intimate peek into the royal chambers gives readers a unique view into one of the tumultuous periods in English history.”

REVIEW: I’ve always found Will Somers to be a fascinating historical figure, and wish that I had read more about him. This novel only served to make me wish even more than he had written memoirs – Somers witnessed the reigns of all six of Henry VIII’s wives, while also living in close and informal proximity with the King himself, which would have given historians a wonderful insight into the mind of one of England’s most infamous Kings. I have read a couple of Barnes’ other novels, which made this one even more interesting – Barnes portrays Anne Boleyn, my favourite of the wives, very differently than in her novel ‘Brief Gaudy Hour’, which focuses solely on Anne’s rise and fall. The novel mixes romance, humour, drama and politics easily with historical fact, making for a read that is both entertaining and backed up by truth. Somers’ commentary is witty and insightful, and he is a good, honest character that the reader both likes and trusts. This, in turn, allows the reader to rejoice with his successes and sympathise in his failures. The only issue I have with this novel is that I feel Barnes could have made more of it – the novel could have been at least 100 pages longer, which would have allowed for more detail to be given to certain major events – for example, the executions of More, Anne Boleyn and Cromwell, all of which seemed to be somewhat skimmed over. However, Barnes captures the atmosphere of the Tudor court in a way that makes this novel easily accessible for any Tudor historian.

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Blood Red, Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick

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RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “Deep in the snowy forest, the great bear that is Russia wakes from a long sleep and marches to St Petersburg to claim its birthright. In 1917 the Bolsheviks hold power. Lenin and Trotsky govern from palaces where the Tsars once danced until dawn. Their time is over. 

And caught in the midst, an Englishman played a dangerous game. Arthur Ransome, a journalist and writer, left his home, his wife and daughter, and fell in love with Russia and a Russian woman, Evgenia.”

REVIEW: Based on the true story of Arthur Ransome and shaped using real events from the Russian Revolution, this novel is actually targeted towards children and young adults. I was intrigued to see how Sedgwick would portray the Revolution, in sight of this target market, and was pleasantly surprised and subsequently delighted by Sedgwick’s writing of this period. Part 1 of the book, which details the frightening lead-up to the Revolution as well as the horrors of the actual event, uses beautiful and evocative metaphors – most obviously the great bear representing the common Russian people (Bolsheviks) – to create a fairy-tale atmosphere, a dream-like sense of the dying old order and the timidly dawning new age. I thoroughly enjoyed this section of the book with its vivid imagery and concise detail, with events explained simply and efficiently to aid the understanding of the younger reader. However, in parts 2 and 3 of the novel I found myself caring less and less for Arthur’s character – his motives in life seem unclear, even nonexistent, and the ambiguous ending leaves much to be desired in not telling us the true end of Arthur’s tale. An adult reader such as myself would undertake further research in the area to find out more about Arthur Ransome’s part in the Russian Revolution, but younger readers (who are more likely to read this novel) are probably less likely to undertake further research, meaning that it would be difficult for them to obtain a full picture. However, the book was engaging and well thought-out, and would be a perfect way of introducing the Russian Revolution to younger students. 

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Tudor Women: Queens and Commoners by Alison Plowden

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “The Tudor era belongs to its women. No other period of English history has produced so many notable and interesting women, and in no other period have they so powerfully influenced the course of political events. Mary Tudor, Elizabeth I and, at moments of high drama, Mary Queen of Scots dominated the political scene for more than half a century, while in the previous fifty years Henry VIII’s marital escapades brought six more women to the centre of attention. In this book the women of the royal family are the central characters; the royal women set the style and between them they provide a dazzling variety of personalities as well as illustrating almost every aspect of life as it affected women in Tudor England. We know what they ate, how they dressed, the books they read and the letters they wrote. Even the greatest of them suffered the universal legal and physiological disabilities of womanhood – some survived them, some triumphed over them, and some went under. Now revised and updated, Alison Plowden’s beautifully written account of the women behind the scenes and at the forefront of of sixteenth-century English history will be welcomed by anyone interested in exploring this popular period of history from the point of view of the women who made it.”

REVIEW: I haven’t read a non-fiction for a while, as much as I love them, and this was a welcome return to a genre I’ve always enjoyed. Plowden writes in a witty, engaging way about women that she clearly admires – most notably Margaret Beaufort, Catherine of Aragon and Mary 1st. She injects a touch of sarcasm every so often that also makes the book more amusing and enjoyable,  also including historical anecdotes. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the information provided, especially within the Anne Boleyn section, I feel that the book needed to be much longer to fully disclose all the fascinating qualities about the women that made Tudor history. For example, some chapters were extremely lengthy – such as the one on Margaret Beaufort – but other women, like Kathryn Howard, were dealt with in only a few pages, and there was nothing written in those pages that I had not read a hundred times before in other biographies. The book would be a great introduction to Tudor history in regards to the position of women, however, and was written in an engaging manner that makes it easy to recommend to other history fans.

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The White Princess by Philippa Gregory

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Somewhere beyond the shores of England, a Pretender is mustering an army. He claims to be brother to the Queen, and the true heir to the throne. But is he the lost boy sent into the unknown by his mother, the White Queen? Or a counterfeit Prince – a low-born enemy to Henry Tudor and his York Princess wife? 

When Henry Tudor picked up the crown of England from the mud of Bosworth Field, he knew he would have to marry the princess of the royal house – Elizabeth of York – in an effort to unify a country divided by war for nearly two decades. But his bride was still in love with his enemy – and her mother and half of England still dreamed of a missing heir and a triumphant return for the house of York. The new Queen Elizabeth has to decide if she can stand by a King whose support and courage are crumbling before her eyes. She has to choose between Tudor and York, between her new husband and the boy who claims to be her beloved lost brother: the rose of York come home at last.”

REVIEW: I should start by pointing out the fact that, although I always thoroughly  enjoy the historical novels of Philippa Gregory, I have found it necessary to always take them with a large helping of salt. I haven’t read much about Elizabeth of York, but what I have read has always made her seem to be a largely placid, innocent figure and a docile Queen. Gregory made Elizabeth much more likeable and even engaging – within the novel she is obedient, as women at the time unfortunately had to be, but she also has a spirit and warm, loving nature that creates much more of a connection with the reader. However, there are many areas in which Gregory embellishes the rumours of history with artistic licence, and she has chosen to use some interpretations of different historical events that aren’t necessarily those I believe in – for example, Gregory uses the scandalous rumours of Richard III’s romance with his niece, Elizabeth of York, to create the degree of Yorkist sympathy needed to make Elizabeth’s fate interesting to the reader. Her views of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York’s marriage, including rumours over the premature birth of Prince Arthur, were shocking, yet extremely engaging – we know very little about the feelings within their marriage, yet I truly enjoyed the way Gregory portrays their romantic dynamic, and would even suggest that her version is probably quite close to the truth. Although I did disagree with some of her interpretations of events, I really enjoyed the book – as much as I have enjoyed the previous novels in the Cousin’s War series – and would recommend it to any lovers of history, as long as you’re not looking for complete historical accuracy!

 

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The Orchid House/Hothouse Flower by Lucinda Riley

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “As a child, concert pianist Julia Forrester spent many idyllic hours in the hothouse of Wharton Park, the grand estate where her grandfather tended exotic orchids. Years later, while struggling with overwhelming grief over the death of her husband and young child, she returns to this tranquil place. There she reunites with Kit Crawford, heir to the estate and her possible salvation. When they discover an old diary, Julia seeks out her grandmother to learn the truth behind a love affair that almost destroyed the estate. Their search takes them back to the 1940s when Harry, a former heir to Wharton Park, married his young society bride, Olivia, on the eve of World War II. When the two lovers are cruelly separated, the impact will be felt for generations to come”.

REVIEW: This is one of those types of book that I find it very hard to review without giving anything away! I have always enjoyed novels in this style, introduced to me by my Nan, which combine historical events, settings and atmospheres with modern protagonists intrigued to discover more about their pasts. The plot-lines from 1940s Wharton Park and Thailand combine wonderfully with the present-day settings, ensuring that a great degree of mystery and intrigue is developed. Riley captures cleverly the true essence of family, and what impact the skeletons in the closet can have on the inner workings of a family unit. Although the dialogue can sometimes seem stilted or even cliched, the characters are developed in such a way that the majority of them are likeable, and all of them manage to gain some degree of the readers’ sympathy. The only character I found myself scathing of was that of the main 1940s protagonist, Harry Crawford, whose confusion over his sexuality is dealt with in a somewhat unsatisfactorily dismissive manner. After this episode I found it difficult to trust him and therefore difficult to like him anywhere near so much as I liked some of the other more minor characters, such as Elsie and Bill. Overall, however, Riley’s story is entertaining and engaging, with a twist in the last 100 pages that will have you completely stumped as to how the ending will turn out. Well worth a read for both historical and modern realism fans.

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Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

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RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “When Griet becomes a maid in the household of the painter Johannes Vermeer, she thinks she knows her role: housework, laundry and taking care of his six children. But as she becomes part of his world and his work, their growing intimacy spreads tension and deception in the ordered household and, as the scandal seeps out, into the town beyond”.

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I fear that, much like with my previous review of ‘The Snow Child’, the reviews I had read predisposed me to expect much more of this book than I actually got. Don’t get me wrong – I liked the book – but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I was expecting to. The novel tells the story of Griet, the maid who served Johannes Vermeer and was later to become his muse, forever immortalised as the ‘Girl with a pearl earring’. From the blurb, I had suspected that Chevalier would make this a romantic tale – the growing obsession of an artist with his muse has been the subject of several other historical novels I have enjoyed, such as ‘Portrait of an Unknown Woman’ by Vanora Bennett. However, the relationship between Vermeer and Griet fails to develop in the way the reader suspects, leading us to feel somewhat unfulfilled. Griet’s relationship with Pieter the butcher’s son is also not what the reader hopes for and further increases the sense of unfulfillment – perhaps we are supposed to feel as unfulfilled as Griet, who develops an infatuation for Vermeer but never truly has her feelings or emotions enacted, aside from one touching moment of intimacy between the two characters that readers would surely have hoped to lead to something more. Although realistic, and relatively interesting, the story would have made a much better tale had it given the reader a sense of empathy for Vermeer, or even a connection with Griet, a character who feels distant and aloof to the reader throughout the novel. For fans of art or historical fiction, however, the book may be thoroughly appreciated in that it does well in recreating the atmosphere and scenery of 17th century Holland – the highlights of the novel are in Chevalier’s descriptive techniques, which evoke a vivid image of the setting worthy of any painter.