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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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The Story of Alice by Robert Douglas Fairhurst

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “This is the secret history of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Wonderland is part of our cultural heritage. But beneath the fairytale lies the complex history of the author and his subject. Charles Dodgson was a quiet academic but his second self, Lewis Carroll, was a storyteller, innovator and avid collector of ‘child-friends’. Carroll’s imagination was to give Alice Liddell, his ‘dream-child’, a fictional alter ego that would never let her grow up.

This is a biography that beautifully unravels the magic of Alice. It is a history of love and loss, innocence and ambiguity. It is the story of one man’s need to make a Wonderland in a changing world.”

REVIEW: I have wanted to read this book since its release, and was very excited to receive it for my birthday last month. I am a huge fan of Alice in Wonderland and have read the book and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, many times. Although I knew a little, as many of do, about the story behind Carroll’s creation of this famous tale – his close friendship with a little girl named Alice Liddell, whom he one day took a boat ride with and, to amuse her, told her the story which would eventually become Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – I learnt a great deal more through reading this biography. Douglas-Fairhurst writes beautifully, and the book reads almost like a novel itself, truly capturing the magic surrounding both the creation and dissemination of Alice. A great deal of time is spent discussing one of the great mysteries of Lewis Carroll; how close was he to Alice Liddell and the other little girls he befriended and photographed? As an amateur photographer, the majority of Carroll’s portraits involved young girls, many of them named Alice and some either nude or barely dressed. Douglas-Fairhurst discusses the problems this poses for us in the modern day, looking back on Carroll and his life; realistically, many of us might apply the term of paedophile to Carroll, in light of what we can see from his photographs and the letters he wrote to these young girls. However, Carroll – when he was busy being Charles Dodgson – was a reverend, a religious man, and often condemned those who viewed the purity and innocence of children through a ‘sinful’ eye. I would concur with the conclusion that Douglas-Fairhurst makes: that Carroll was, in fact, simply captivated by the innocence and beauty of youth, a period of life which he saw as carefree and creative. Carroll maintained a close relationship with children because he loved youth and wished to reconnect with his own lost years, and I think you can see that childish and youthful imagination shining through in both of the Alice books. I really enjoyed learning more about Carroll and the story behind the creation of Alice, and would highly recommend this book.

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George Boleyn by Clare Cherry and Claire Ridgeway

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “George Boleyn has gone down in history as being the brother of the ill-fated Queen Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII, and for being executed for treason, after being found guilty of incest and of conspiring to kill the King. This biography allows George to step out of the shadows and brings him to life as a court poet, royal favourite, keen sportsman, talented diplomat and loyal brother.”

REVIEW: As many of you will not know, but as everyone who knows me well is all too aware, I am completely obsessed with George Boleyn. Much of my academic career so far has been dedicated to research about him and his life, and I am currently planning my Master’s dissertation, in which he will heavily feature. It has always frustrated me that George, despite being such a fascinating and important historical figure is generally overlooked due to the fame of his sister, Anne Boleyn. Although Anne Boleyn is of course worth great admiration –  my undergraduate dissertation was on her, in fact – it is upsetting that George is often relegated to a chapter or a few sentences in books about his sisters. His portrayal in fiction, both in the form of books and TV shows, is also something that I have often found distressing, not to mention based on very little factual evidence, as is pointed out in this book. Therefore I was delighted to receive this biography as a Christmas present from my Mum, who has been a victim of my obsession for several years now and has herself become quite fond of George. This biography brilliantly gathers together the little evidence we have on George from primary documents and cleverly examines what these sources can tell us about George’s life and his career as a courtier, poet and diplomat. The authors’ admiration for George and respect for his talents really shines through in the writing, and it made such an enjoyable change to read something of this nature dedicated entirely to George. This book will be a valuable source to me in the research and writing of my dissertation, and I hope it introduces many more people to the fascinating historical figure that is George Boleyn.

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Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and author Mary Shelley were mother and daughter, yet these two extraordinary women never knew one another. Nevertheless, their passionate and pioneering lives remained closely intertwined, their choices, aspirations and tragedies eerily similar. Both women became famous writers and wrote books that changed literary history, had passionate relationships with several men, were single mothers out of wedlock; both lived in exile, fought for their poisition in society, and interrogated ideas of how we should live.”

REVIEW: I have counted both Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley among my historical idols  since I was introduced to them both by my fantastic English teacher during my AS level year: Wollstonecraft for her feminist tract A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which addresses many areas that feminists such as myself still identify as areas that require change to this day; and Shelley for her novel Frankenstein, one of my favourite books of all time, as well as her tumultuous personal life. Until now, I have never before had the opportunity to read a biography covering this exceptional mother and daughter in one go. I thoroughly enjoyed the way in which Gordon chose to structure this biography; it can be difficult, initially, to understand how Wollstonecraft and Shelley can have led such similar lives, and how Wollstonecraft had such an influence on her daughter, when the two only shared the same earth for a matter of days. In structuring it so that the chapters alternate between Wollstonecraft and Shelley, Gordon makes it easier for the reader to map out the parallels in the lives of these two women, looking at what they were each experiencing during the different stages of their lives. Gordon’s writing style itself is fantastic – the book flows almost like a novel, and is engaging from start to finish, with keen speculation and vivid description adding to the enjoyment of the reader, who may feel daunted by such a large non-fiction text without such additional flourishes. Gordon made me feel much closer to these two women, whom I have long considered as role models, and I feel I gained so much more understanding and sympathy from knowing more about their lives. It has also given me a new way to look at things when reading their written works, as I can now apply my knowledge of their backgrounds and the events occuring in their lives when writing to enhance my understanding of their novels, letters, diaries and tracts. I found it difficult to put this book down, something of a rarity with me and non-fiction, and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in literature, the women themselves or even those interested in the period from a historical perspective, as the lives of these women tell us much about the political climate and social expectations of the period.

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Top Ten Books of 2016

So, the time of year for summarising my Top 10 best reads of the year has come around again! It’s been an unbelieveable awful year for me, and for a lot of people I know, but books have always been there to keep me going, and keeping this blog has given me a purpose even when I didn’t feel like I could ever be motivated to do anything again. First of all, a brief disclaimer – no, I did not include Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, despite it being one of my favourite reads of the year. Why? It’s a script, and it seemed unfair to include it and neglect some of the amazing writers whose work I have had the pleasure of reading this year. Just for the record though, if I could have had two number 1 spots, it would have been on here.

10. Frenchman’s Creek, by Daphne du Maurier

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https://coffeebooksandparis.wordpress.com/2016/03/05/frenchmans-creek-by-daphne-du-maurier/

9. Katherine Howard by Josephine Wilkinson

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https://coffeebooksandparis.wordpress.com/2016/08/01/katherine-howard-by-josephine-wilkinson/

8. Four Sisters by Helen Rappaport

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https://coffeebooksandparis.wordpress.com/2016/08/20/four-sisters-by-helen-rappaport/

7. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

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https://coffeebooksandparis.wordpress.com/2016/11/10/the-girl-on-the-train-by-paula-hawkins/

6. The Angel Tree by Lucinda Riley

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https://coffeebooksandparis.wordpress.com/2016/02/29/the-angel-tree-by-lucinda-riley/

5. The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

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https://coffeebooksandparis.wordpress.com/2016/02/20/the-storyteller-by-jodi-picoult/

4. Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

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https://coffeebooksandparis.wordpress.com/2016/06/06/me-before-you-by-jojo-moyes/

3. The Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

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https://coffeebooksandparis.wordpress.com/2016/12/26/the-fate-of-the-tearling-by-erika-johansen/

2.The Kingdom of Little Wounds by Susann Cokal

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https://coffeebooksandparis.wordpress.com/2016/08/20/the-kingdom-of-little-wounds-by-susann-cokal

1. The Bronze Horseman Trilogy by Paullina Simons

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https://coffeebooksandparis.wordpress.com/2016/09/05/the-bronze-horseman-by-paullina-simons/

https://coffeebooksandparis.wordpress.com/2016/09/13/tatiana-and-alexander-by-paullina-simons/

https://coffeebooksandparis.wordpress.com/2016/09/23/the-summer-garden-by-paullina-simons/

Okay, so it’s a bit cheeky to have a whole trilogy hogging the number one spot in my chart; but these books flowed so seamlessly together and we are all incredible that it would have been impossible to separate and rank them: so here they are, the whole set, as my top read of 2016. Aside from having the most amazing quotes (because the writing is among the most beautiful I have ever read), this trilogy is gripping, absorbing, heartbreaking, surprising, and it fills your heart with so much love and pain and joy you hardly know how to handle it – and that, I think, is the very best kind of books.

Thank you so much to everyone who reads this blog, makes comments, gives recommendations, and favourites and follows my post – I am eternally grateful. I also run accompanying Twitter and Instagram accounts for this blog (both @CBPbookblog); feel free to look them up. Thank you so much for all your support – see you in 2017!

 

 

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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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The Mistresses of Henry VIII by Kelly Hart

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Seventeen-year-old Henry VIII was ‘a youngling, he cares for nothing but girls and hunting’. Over the years, this did not change much. Henry was considered a demi-god by his subjects, so each woman he chose was someone who had managed to stand out in a crowd of stunning ladies. Looking good was not enough (indeed, many of Henry’s lovers were considered unattractive); she also had to have something extra to keep the king’s interest. And Henry’s women were every bit as intriguing as the man himself.”

REVIEW: I’ve had this book sitting on my Amazon wishlist for ages, so when I saw how cheap the second-hand copies were I decided to finally give in and order it. I’ve read  quite a bit on Henry VIII’s more famous mistresses, particularly Mary Boleyn, but I enjoyed learning more about some of his other mistresses, such as Anne Stafford and Bessie Blount, and was fascinated in uncovering those whom I didn’t even know existed. This book was clearly well-researched and the rumours and gossip surrounding possible mistresses of Henry’s was clearly lifted from primary documents, giving it true authenticity. My only criticism of the book, however, is that I feel the title can be a little misleading – the book did, in fact, focus quite heavily on Henry VIII’s wives as well as his mistresses. This is something that Hart explains clearly in the introduction, as she puts forward her intention to focus on all of the women of Henry’s romantic life, which would include his wives as well as his mistresses. In this case, I feel that the title should perhaps have reflected this direction of study more obviously; however, this did not spoil the book for me and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and learning more about the extramarital affairs of Henry VIII.