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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “London 1893. When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness. Retreating to the countryside with her son, she encounters rumours of the ‘Essex Serpent’, a creature of folklore said to have returned¬† to roam the marshes. Cora is enthralled, believing it may be an undiscovered species. Setting out on its trail, she collides with local minister William Ransome, who thinks the cure for hysteria lies in faith, while Cora is convinced that science offers the answers. Despite disagreeing on everything, he and Cora find themselves drawn together, changing each other’s lives in unexpected ways…”

REVIEW: I was lent this book by a friend, and after hearing and reading nothing but rave reviews – as well as loving a bit of historical fiction – I was really looking forward to reading it. Although it seems a little slow to get into at first, I was soon gripped, and was disappointed that I didn’t have as much free time as I would have liked to be able to whiz through it! ‘The Essex Serpent’ tells the story of Cora Seabourne, but also a number of smaller characters who are equally fascinating – her friend the surgeon, Luke, her Socialist maid Martha, William’s wife Stella, the schoolgirl Naomi Banks, and Cora’s son, Francis. All of the characters combine to add a real depth to the story, and the reader grows to care about all of them and is eager to find out how their stories will end.

When Cora is told about the Essex Serpent after the death of her husband, she travels to the tiny village of Aldwinter and meets the vicar William Ransome, his wife Stella, and their three children, including their intelligent and curious daughter Joanna. Despite their differing ideals a strange connection blossoms between Cora and William, much to the disappointment of Luke, who has long been in love with Cora. As events within Aldwinter, particularly near the Blackwater, begin to darken, it seems more and more likely that the presence of the Essex Serpent may actually be a reality. The book continues to twist and turn right up until its end, and hooks the reader not just with the plotline of the serpent itself, but also with all of the threads leading off from this book. Perry’s writing is wonderfully descriptive, making the reader feel as though they are really there, and has a fast-paced, gripping style that nicely builds up the suspense that is so crucial to the novel. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it, particularly for the relationship between William and Cora, which develops and progresses realistically and is more believable than many of the romances that develop in the majority of historical fiction novels.

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Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession by Alison Weir

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RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “Fresh from the palaces of Burgundy and France, Anne draws attention at the English court, embracing the play of courtly love. But when the King commands, nothing is ever a game. Anne has a spirit worthy of a crown – and the crown is what she seeks. At any price”

REVIEW: I am a huge fan of Alison Weir, and have been to see her give lectures on several occasions; I even have a signed copy of my favourite one of her books, ‘The Lady in the Tower’, a non-fiction book on Anne’s downfall. I have spoken to her about my research and writing ambitions, and she is genuinely a lovely woman. I am also a big Anne Boleyn fan, having written my undergraduate dissertation on how she was portrayed by Catholics and Protestants during the reign of her daughter, Elizabeth I – she is also now forming a large part of my Masters dissertation on how Henry VIII manipulated the treason laws on his descent into tyranny. My interest in Anne means that I am always on the lookout for new books about her, so I was very excited to read this book, the second in Weir’s collection of historical fiction novels from the perspective of Henry VIII’s six wives.

The book was incredibly well-written, as Weir’s always are. It was engaging and considering it amounts to over 500 pages, I read it quickly as I found it difficult to put down. I found Weir’s portrayal of Anne particularly compelling, as it very much fit with my own perspective on what Anne was like as a woman, and what her motivations were for marrying Henry. Weir has Anne marry him not for love, but for her own ambition, although her love for Henry begins to grow throughout their courtship, leading her to eventually become jealous of his relationships with other women and thereby slowly turning him against her. This is very much how I have always seen their relationship, so it was refreshing to read of a historical ficiton point of view that still paints Anne as a good person, motivated by her religious and radical beliefs just as much by ambition, and keen to do good despite lacking popular support; usually, if Anne is portrayed as ambitious, she is often also depicted cruelly. The scenes regarding Anne’s downfall, particularly the final few pages that deal with her execution, are extremely beautifully written and very emotional, allowing the reader to experience the horrific moment of the execution through Anne’s eyes. The sheer amount of historical research was evident, and where many historians tend to skim over writing about politics, for fear of losing the interest of the reader, Weir makes sure the reader is always aware of the political, religious and international context in which the events are taking place. She also uses phrases in the dialogue that have clearly been lifted and adapted from primary texts of the period, which adds an aspect of authenticity.

I loved the book for all of these reasons. I did, however, have two main issues with the novel that has caused me to give it a lower rating. Tbe more minor one of these was the idea of Anne’s secret love for Henry Norris, and even this alone would not have caused me to enjoy the book any less – I just don’t believe that this was a factor in Anne’s time as Queen or, indeed, in her downfall. But Weir explains her choice to write this in the author’s note, and I understand her use of the evidence for artistic licence and can see how, in light of writing the novel, she has shaped the evidence to fit this conclusion; it did add to the novel, and therefore I enjoyed it. My main problem was the way in which Weir chose to portray George Boleyn.

George Boleyn is one of my particular areas of interest and speciality. I am in the very slow process of writing a book on him myself; he also forms a large part of my Masters dissertation, which I am currently writing, and has been a fascination of mine for several years. I have looked at him in depth and, although I acknowledge that he had many flaws, namely his pride and ambition, I admit that as a historical figure I am attracted to him, and wish that he was more widely known. A poem by a Spanish author once accused George of being a rapist. This is a theme that Weir has chosen to use and run with, and she has George confess to Anne that he has ‘forced widows and deflowered maidens’,¬† a line taken directly from this poem. Yet, in her non-fiction work, Weir cites a poem by the same Spanish author, which accused Anne of being guilty in her adultery and acting as a whore with many men, and states that it is an unreliable piece of evidence. The poetry was written from a point of view which would have been extremely hostile to Anne and the Boleyn family as a whole, coming from both a Catholic perspective and one which would have supported Katherine of Aragon and the Princess Mary, seeing Anne and her daughter as nothing more than a concubine and a bastard. I have always agreed with this assessment of the poem being unreliable, and do not understand how Weir could say this herself and then use a poem by the same author as evidence for writing George as a rapist. The evidence is flimsy at best, and although I appreciate that he has been dead for several hundred years, I feel this is a strong and unfair accusation to make, and as one that has also been mistakenly portrayed in the TV drama ‘The Tudors’, may end up being all that people who focus only on popular fiction end up believing, thereby damaging George’s reputation completely. Weir also has George involved in the poisoning of Bishop Fisher, a rumour which was spread about at the time and one which, with the use of artistic licence, I can understand her using although I may not agree. What I cannot support, however, is her writing that George also poisoned Katherine of Aragon, when it is known full well that she died from cancer. Although I acknowledge the fact that I am protective of George and the way he is portrayed, and therefore am biased, I do believe it is wrong to write of someone as a rapist when the evidence is unreliable, even when taking artistic licence into consideration.

Overall, I would recommend the book very highly to fans of Anne, as I enjoyed the way she was written.

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Jeremy Poldark by Winston Graham

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “Cornwall, 1790-1791. Ross Poldark faces the darkest hour of his life. Accused of wrecking two ships, he is to stand trial at the Bodmin Assizes. Despite their stormy married life, Demelza has tried to rally support for her husband. But there are enemies in plenty who would be happy to see Ross convicted, not least George Warleggan, the powerful banker, whose personal rivalry with Ross grows ever more intense.”

REVIEW: My first book review of 2017 sees me returning to the Poldark series; there are so many books and my Aunt and I have been buying a few at a time and then swapping, so it’s going to take me a while to get through and I keep getting distracted by other books in the meantime! I do really enjoy this series, however, and this third installment, ‘Jeremy Poldark’, was just as good as its predeccessors. This novel opens in the weeks leading up to Ross’ trial at the Bodmin Assizes; after some ships ran aground near Nampara, Ross was suspected of not only smuggling some goods from these ships, but was also accused by some of murdering the ships’ crews. His nemesis, George Warleggan, smug after his victory over Ross in taking over the mines, is rallying people against Ross, hoping that he will be sent to prison. Demelza, however, arrives early in Bodmin and contrives to meet any whom she feels might have an influence on Ross’ case, working against Warleggan to gain support for her husband. We are also reunited with the character of Verity, who despite being happily married is clearly struggling to adjust to the role of stepmother, wiht two stepchildren who seem inclined never to see her. Francis’ struggles also come to the fore as he attempts suicide, but is talked out of it by the intelligent physician Dwight Enys, who takes on a greater role in this novel as he begins to fall in love and take over Doctor Choake’s medical authority. It is hard to write more without giving away too much, but safe to say this is a satisfying continuation of the series and I look forward to finding out what will happen next to the Poldarks – the mysterious Jeremy of the title included.

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The English Girl by Katherine Webb

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “1958. Joan Seabrook, a fledgling archaeologist, has fulfilled her lifelong dream to visit Arabia by travelling from England to the ancient city of Muscat with her fiance, Rory. Desperate to escape the pain of a personal tragedy, she longs to explore the desert fort of Jabrin, and unearth the treasures it is said to conceal. But Oman is a land lost in time – hard, secretive, and in the midst of a violent upheaval – and gaining permission to explore Jabrin could prove impossible. Joan’s disappointment is 0nly alleviated by the thrill of meeting her childhood heroine, pioneering explorer Maude Vickery, and hearing first-hand the stories that captured her imagination and fuelled her ambitions as a child. Joan’s encounter with the extraordinary and reclusive Maude will change everything. Both women have things that they want, and secrets they must keep. Ad their friendship grows, Joan is seduced by Maude’s stories and the thrill of the adventure they hold, and only too late does she begin to question her actions – actions that will spark a wild, and potentially diastrous, chain of events. Will the girl who left England for this beautiful but dangerous land ever find her way back?”

REVIEW: As many of you will know, I am a huge fan of Katherine Webb’s novels and, despite my constant annoyance over the ridiculous price of hardbacks, decided I simply couldn’t wait for ‘The English Girl’ to be released as a paperback, and bought it as soon as I could. Although not my favourite of Webb’s brilliant books, ‘The English Girl’ certainly retains her creative, descriptive writing style, which gives the reader the sense of being within the book itself, and has the usual shocking twists and turns which make the book fascinating to read but difficult to summarise in a review without giving away too many spoilers. ‘The English Girl’ tells the story of Joan, a young woman who is grieving after the death of her father and longs to escape the confinement of being at home with her widowed mother. Her father’s tales of Arabia gripped Joan’s imagination from childhood, and upon discovering that her brother is going to be stationed in Oman, she embarks on a long-awaited trip to visit the land of her father’s stories and visit her brother Daniel, accompanied by her fiance, Rory. Joan is amazed by the beauty of Muscat, and although she is initially disappointed by her first meeting with her idol, Maude Vickery, the first female explorer to cross the dangerous desert territory of Oman, the two soon form an unusual friendship that leads to Joan becoming far more involved in the ongoing conflict that she ever could have anticipated. A shocking discovery alienates Joan from Rory and increases her desire for freedom and adventure, leading to her forming a friendship with Charlie Elliot, one of Daniel’s comrades and the son of another famous explorer, Nathaniel Elliott, whose name sends Maude Vickery into a strange mixture of sadness and rage. Joan becomes closely involved with the rebels in Oman, encouraged by Maude Vickery, and finds herself becoming entangled in a web of espionage far bigger than she could have imagined, taking risk upon risk in order to be able to explore more of the land of her dreams. The story also uses a split narrative to tell the story of Maude in her younger years, leading up to the tale of her exploration and the reason she hates Nathaniel Elliot so deeply. There are many twists towards the end of the book that I will not write about, for fear of giving away spoilers, but the ending was extremely well-written and brought together the past and present threads of the stories in an unexpected yet seamless way. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and grew very attached to Joan, the protagonist, on her quest for an adventure. I would highly recommend this novel.

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Eliza Rose by Lucy Worsley

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RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “Eliza Camperdowne is young and headstrong, but she knows her duty well. As the only daughter of a noble family, she must one day marry a man who is very grand and very rich. But Fate has other plans. When Eliza becomes a maid of honour, she’s drawn into the thrilling, treacherous court of Henry the Eighth…Is her glamorous cousin Katherine Howard a friend or a rival? And can a girl choose her own destiny in a world ruled by men?”

REVIEW: I am a huge fan of Lucy Worsley’s work, so despite the fact that this, her first historical fiction novel, is clearly intended for the child/young adult market, I was eager to read it anyway. This novel tells the story of Eliza Camperdowne, a young girl from a ruined gentry family who is her family’s only hope of achieving greatness under the reign of Henry VIII. After a failed betrothal to the son of the Earl of Westmoreland, Eliza is sent away to be educated in the art of courtly manners at Trumpton Hall, the home of the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. Trumpton Hall, however, is also home to Eliza’s confident, beautiful, reckless and often rather spiteful cousin, Katherine Howard. Katherine and Eliza instantly clash, and matters become worse when Katherine and the music master, Francis Manham, make Eliza the victim of a cruel joke. When the time comes for the girls of Trumpton Hall to be sent to court, however, it is only Katherine and Eliza who make the cut, and the two of them are forced to at least try and get along as they share accomodation and serve the same Queen, Henry VIII’s fourth wife Anne of Cleves. Unbeknownst to Eliza, who is struggling with her own feelings and engaging in her own flirtation with the illegitimate but charming servant of the King, Ned Barsby, and earning the admiration of Will Summers, the King’s Fool, Katherine is doing some serious flirting of her own. Eliza is both stunned and horrified when Katherine announces that she is to marry the King; Eliza herself had reluctantly decided to fight for the position of King’s Mistress, in order to help her family’s prospects. As a Maid of Honour, Eliza now has to work even harder to play the court game, and distances herself ever farther from her beloved Ned. When the whole thing comes crashing down around them with the discovery of Katherine’s adultery, it is Eliza who stays by her side, despite all their past bitterness and rivalry, and as Eliza achieves her happy ending she realises how foolish she was to have been jealous of Katherine in the first place.

This is a well-written story, very imaginatively written,¬† and it does evoke to some extent the dangerous, rumour-filled atmosphere of Henry VIII’s court in its latter years. I do feel, however, that the book was spoiled for me by some of the adjustments that the author chose to make to the historical facts. I do not blame Worsley for doing this, and in light of this novel’s intended audience I understand why the story was made simpler and some of the more lurid details removed. For example, instead of writing separately of Katherine’s affairs with the music master Henry Manox and her later, more serious affair with Francis Dereham, Worsley combines them into one person; a music master named Francis Manham who later attends on Katherine at court and continues a reckless affair with her there. Thomas Culpepper is not included in the tale at all, which I did find somewhat surprising even in consideration of the audience. When I removed myself from my mindset as an historian myself, however, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and felt it was an easy to read and engaging tale, and would be a good introduction to history for younger girls; I feel it would inspire many of them to pursue studies into the Tudor period, and this I think is the books most admirable quality – it serves as a source of inspiration.

 

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The Summer Garden by Paullina Simons

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Tatiana and Alexander have suffered the worst the twentieth century had to offer. Now, after years of separation, they are miraculously reunited in America, the land of their dreams. They have a beautiful son, Anthony. They have proved to each other that their love is greater than the vast evil of the world…but they are strangers. In the climate of fear and mistrust of the Cold War, forces are at work in the US that threaten their life and their family. Can they make a new life for themselved and find happiness in this new land? Or will the ghosts of yesterday reach out to touch even the destiny of their firstborn son?”

REVIEW: I have been completely blown away by the Bronze Horseman Trilogy and, as such, was VERY excited to read this, the final installment in the series (though I admit, I’m definitely sad that it’s all over!). In this novel, Tatiana and Alexander are finally safe in America, ready to build a new life together as a proper family with their young son, Anthony. What neither of them is prepared for, however, is the huge physical and emotional impact that the war years have had on both themselves individually and on their relationship. Unable to fully understand each other’s experiences and sufferings, yet unable to move past them, Tatiana and Alexander find themselves stuck in a sort of limbo, moving from place to place across America as nowhere seems to ever feel like home. With this new life comes new secrets, new problems, and most importantly some new enemies – including a woman who tempts Alexander astray (I was so angry and felt so betrayed when I read this part of the novel that I couldn’t bear to read another word for two full days) and men who are determined to turn Alexander into the kind of man he never wanted to be – one of whom is equally as determined to get to Tatiana, at all costs. This novel takes us throughout the lives of Tatiana and Alexander, experiencing these new d0mestic, economic and personal struggles alongside them, and also allows us to witness Anthony’s growing up. As history begins to repeat itself by dragging an ambitious Anthony into the Vietnam war, Tatiana and Alexander find themselves facing the greatest test yet of their new lives – how to save their son from the fate they kept him from for so many years. This book is an amazing conclusion to an epic, brilliant and truly breathtaking trilogy, leaving the reader with the kind of satisfying ending that, back when reading ‘The Bronze Horseman’, we as readers would never have dreamed to be possible. I cannot describe to you how glad I am that this trilogy was recommend it to me, and nor can I pass on that recommendation highly enough. These books moved me to tears more times than I can count, and not just tears of sadness, either; tears of anger, relief and happiness were all part of my reading process as well. Simons’ writing style is elegant, beautifully descriptive, heavily detailed and constantly gripping. I have always been able to imagine the tales that this series has told so vividly because of her writing, which I feel definitely contributes to the major emotional impact this trilogy has had on me. I have genuinely found reading this series to be a process that has changed my view of the world and made me see so many things differently, and I will undoubtedly come back to read these books again and again.

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Tatiana and Alexander by Paullina Simons

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Tatiana is eighteen years old, pregnant and widowed when she escapes war-torn Leningrad to find a new life in America. But the ghosts of her past do not rest easily. She becomes obsessed with the belief that her husband, Red Army Major Alexander Belov, is still alive and needs her desperately…Meanwhile, oceans and continents away in the Soviet Union, Alexander, having barely escaped execution, is leading a battalion of soldiers considered expendable by Soviet high command. New recruits survive only days. Yet Alexander is determined to take them across the ruins of Europe in one last, desperate bid to escape Stalin’s death machine, and see Tatiana once again…”

REVIEW: As frequent readers of my blog would have noticed, I absolutely adored the previous installment in The Bronze Horseman Trilogy, so I was extremely excited to start ‘Tatiana and Alexander’, the second novel in this series – so excited, in fact, that after allowing myself half an hour to sob over ‘The Bronze Horseman’, I launched straight into this one. After being told that her husband Alexander is dead, Tatiana, beyond heartbroken and pregnant with their first child, takes her flight from Leningrad as she and Alexander had planned. When both of her travelling companions are killed, Tatiana is forced to make the rest of the perilous journey alone, and upon her arrival in America she gives birth to a boy whom she names Anthony Alexander Barrington, after his father. Despite her best attempts to move on in life, caring for her son, working at the hospital and befriending a flighty young nurse named Vikki, Tatiana soon has reason to believe that her husband isn’t actually dead at all, and becomes obsessed with her desperation to find him. Meanwhile, Alexander is going through Hell back in Russia. Being questioned by the NKVD proves to be an experience full of torture and fear, but Alexander refuses to break, holding the memory of his Tatiana close to him. As his situation becomes more and more bleak, however, Alexander’s memories of Tatiana begin to fade and become tainted with the camp where he is imprisoned. Both Tatiana and Alexander, however, are determined to find each other, and both go to extreme lengths to do so. Once again, I do not want to go into too much detail on the journeys that both Tatiana and Alexander go through in their attempts to find each other, through fear of spoiling the book for readers. Just as with ‘The Bronze Horseman’, however, I formed a huge emotional attachment to this book, and on more than one occasion found myself sobbing with both sadness and joy. As can probably be inferred from the fact that there is a third installment in the series, Tatiana and Alexander are reunited (though I will not reveal how), and this moment is written beautifully, providing one of the most touching scenes I have ever read in a novel. The reader finds themself almost aching with relief for the couple, both of whom have suffered so much, and leave the novel with cherished hopes that they can finally, finally be happy. Simons’ gift for writing with such emotion is truly remarkable, and I am so excited to find out what happens in ‘The Summer Garden’, the third and final book in this epic trilogy.