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The Autumn Throne by Elizabeth Chadwick

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Imprisoned by her husband, King Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of England, refuses to let him bully her into submission, even as he forces her away from her children and her birthright.

Freed only by Henry’s death, Eleanor becomes dowager Queen of England. But the competition for land and power that Henry stirred up among his sons has intensified to a dangerous rivalry.

Eleanor will need every ounce of courage and fortitude as she crosses the Alps in winter to bring Richard his bride and as she travels medieval Europe to ransom her beloved son. But even her indomitable spirit will be tested to its limits as she attempts to keep the peace between her warring sons, and find a place in the centres of power for her daughters.”

REVIEW: ‘The Autumn Throne’ is the third and final book in Elizabeth Chadwick’s trilogy following the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine. I have loved this whole trilogy and was so excited to read the final novel, which did not disappoint. Chadwick writes Eleanor’s story so beautifully, absorbingly and realistically that at times it feels more like a historical biography than a novel; the thoroughness of Chadwick’s research is obvious in every line, and each figure has such a depth to their personality that the reader really feels they can connect with these long-dead historical figures. Eleanor herself is an inspiration, and has been portrayed as such throughout all three novels, but even more so in this final installment. Despite her increasing fragility and descent into old age, Eleanor remains strong and firm in her resolve. She refuses to bow to Henry, declining his offer of making her a convent abbess despite the fact that this leaves her imprisoned at Sarum, kept out of the loop of court news and only rolled out to be present for important state occasions. Upon Henry’s death, Eleanor is freed by her beloved son Richard – only to be caught up in the battle for power and position taking place between him and his brother John. Richard, although devoted to his mother, is hard-headed and determined to lead a crusade that will take him away from England; leaving Eleanor in charge. Tensions continue to mount between the sly and cunning John and the bold Richard, but Eleanor continues to hold her own, despite finding such politics increasingly draining. She travels across countries to bring Richard his bride, Berenguela, and to free him from captivity. It is also heartwarming to see Eleanor reunited with many of her daughters in this novel, who had been sent away to make prestigious matches with other Royal dynasties. I enjoyed seeing Eleanor rebuild her relationship with daughters Matilda and Joanna, and loved the character of Richenza, Eleanor’s bold and intelligent granddaughter who stayed close by her grandmother until the end; their relationship reminded me a little of the close bond I had with my Nan.

Throughout the novel, Eleanor loses several of her children, and these losses are dealt with by Chadwick in a way that is both sensitive and heartfelt. I found myself feeling strongly connected to Eleanor during these scenes, and the way in which Chadwick writes makes it so easy for the reader to understand and empathise with her. I have read several works of historical fiction on Eleanor of Aquitaine, but this trilogy has to be the best I have read. Each book has been so well-researched and written with so much detail and thought; every character comes alive and the period and landscape are so well-described that you can almost imagine yourself travelling across medieval Europe. I would highly recommend these books for their accuracy and imagination, to anyone wishing to learn more about Eleanor or about medieval England.

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The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “On an autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives at a grand house in Amsterdam to begin her new life as the wife of wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt. Though curiously distant, he presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. It is to be furnished by an elusive miniaturist, whose tiny creations ring eerily true.

As Nella uncovers the secrets of her new household she realizes the escalating dangers they face. The miniaturist seems to hold their fate in her hands – but does she plan to save or destroy them?”

REVIEW: This book has been on my TBR list for a long time (as have a significant number of the books I own!), but I decided I had to read it before watching the TV adaptation that aired on the BBC over Christmas. I was instantly hooked; Burton’s writing style is vividly descriptive as well as gripping, building suspense and the curiosity of the reader. The characters are complex, each having their own personalities and secrets that make the book, and the hints Nella receives from the miniaturist of future events, even more intriguing. Nella arrives at the home of her new husband and instantly feels left out in the cold; Johannes himself is often absent and lavishes more affection on his two whippets than he does on her (though, as a greyhound owner, I can sympathise with him on that one); his sister, Marin, is distant and controlling; only the servants, Cornelia and Otto, seem to warm to Nella and try to make more of an effort with her. When Johannes gifts her with the cabinet that holds a replica of their own home, Nella initially feels confused and a little patronised. Deciding to make the best of the situation, she looks up a miniaturist to make pieces for the house; and this is where the suspense really begins to build. Providing far more than Nella asks for, the miniaturist sends packages containing exact replicas of all those who live in the household, and as secrets unfold and events start to take a dramatic turn, every step is reflected in the figures and items made and sent by the mysterious miniaturist. I don’t want to give too much away, as one of the things that led me to enjoy this book so much was the revelation of secrets and the plot twists these led to. I couldn’t put this book down; I loved Burton’s writing style and how engrossing the plot was. It made me cry more than once, and I loved the intricacies of the characters and the depth Burton clearly went into when creating them. The book also highlighted so many of the social issues and stigmas that existed at the time, including attitudes towards sexuality, race and women. I would very highly recommend this novel and look forward to adding Burton’s second novel, ‘The Muse’, to my TBR pile!

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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “Effia and Esi, two sisters with two very different destinies. One sold into slavery; one a slave trader’s wife. The consequences of their fate reverberate through the generations that follow: from the Gold Coast of Africa to the plantations of Mississippi; from the missionary schools of Ghana to the dive bars of Harlem. Spanning continents and generations, Yaa Gyasi has written a miraculous novel – an intense, heartbreaking story of one family and, through their lives, the story of America itself.”

REVIEW: I was keen to read this book when I first read about its release, and was lucky enough to find a work colleague to borrow it from. I’m so glad I did, because this book is incredible. In equal measures both heartbreaking and heartwarming, the novel is divided into chapters initially telling the stories of Effia and Esia, and then each of their descendants. The stories are often harrowing, but it is not right that stories of the suffering of slaves should be anything other than this; in writing these tales, Gyasi spares nothing in describing the details of the trials her characters face, from the domination of white over black to the domination of men over women in traditional patriarchal cultures. The stories vary in content and each has an important moral impact on the reader. I felt every word whilst reading this novel, which is partly what makes it such an intense read; it is gripping and impossible to put down purely because every word draws you in and holds you there as a witness to the events taking place. The story of Ness was my favourite, and one I found particularly moving; I had to put the book down for a while to recover! I also particularly enjoyed the story of Abena, though once again this was a more moving tale. The book itself is pure genius, showing how our suffering and our lives can have consequences that span generations in a kind of butterfly effect. What starts with Effia, an Asante girl who marries a slave trader, and her sister Esi, captured and sold into slavery herself, takes us on a journey that ends with a budding romance between their descendants as they explore Ghana, the land of their heritage. I can’t recommend it highly enough not only as a novel, but as a historical and moral lesson, and a captivating piece of literary art.

 

 

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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.