The Land Beyond the Sea, Sharon Penman
Genre: General Fiction (Adult), Historical Fiction
Its years since I read a Sharon Penman novel, so I was really looking forward to this one. Sadly though, it didn’t grip me the way some of her earlier novels did. Its possible that my tastes have changed, but I think its more likely that this book, with its focus on Outremer, just didn’t draw me in as much as the books set around the UK, with figures from history I’m already familiar with.
There are so many characters here to absorb, people from different countries, differing loyalties and of course the anomaly of Jerusalem/Outremer being out of the Saracens control. It must have been difficult to keep when surrounded by enemies, and much of it seems to have come from constant negotiations, allies and truces rather than never ending battles. Its not all war, and even centuries ago politics were very important and played a huge part in running countries successfully.
I know everyone called Baldwin’s mother Agnes a cruel woman but I felt for her. Not allowed to marry the man she wanted, she was forced to marry another for family glory. Then having two kids by her husband, he puts her aside for a new bride simply because he wants to be king and the lords won’t accept her. . She doesn’t even have the children as solace, Sybilla being brought up in a nunnery and Baldwin staying with his father. No wonder she was so bitter.
I felt for Baldwin, such a potentially wonderful king, intelligent and fair, but struck down with an awful disease. The parts of the novel I enjoyed most where when it focused on particular people, and I felt I was getting to know them personally. There are just so many folk here though, such a mass of detail that I felt overwhelmed by it.
Its a well written novel, in Sharon’s usual intense and thorough style, but I just felt I couldn’t seem to get that personal angle that makes a story flow for me. I found there were so many folk, so much intensity that I had to keep putting it aside for a while. Then because I knew so few of the characters I had to recap who they were, how they fit.
Stars: Three, a well written and very intense novel, but I felt bogged down at times by the sheer numbers of new to me historical characters
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The Mystery of Love, Andrew Meehan
Genre: General Fiction (Adult) , Historical Fiction
Well, I’ve always been interested in Oscar Wilde, flamboyant, scandalous character that flouted Victorian conventions, and sadly paid for it. His legacy of words lives on, but the man himself, what was he really like?What about his home, his family?
I was interested to see his story from another perspective, but Constance seems as confused and lost-in-the-world as Oscar. She seems to live in her on head most of the time. Loyal to Oscar outwardly, and yet happy enough to live away from him. I got the impression here that she was more interested in her ideals and thoughts of Oscar than she was in the man himself. He can’t have been an easy man to live with though.
I did feel sorry for the kids, their two boys, who surely paid the greatest price. No stable family home life for them.
I wasn’t really a fan of the way the story was delivered, from Constance’s point of view, and her inner musings. I did like the Oscar footnotes though, they brought much needed levity to the story. Written in his typical understated dry wit they were the best part for me.
Stars: Two and a half, I didn’t like the main story, but Oscar’s footnotes made me smile.
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The Lady of the Ravens, Joanna Hickson
I loved this, it was a book I savoured over several sittings, not devoured in one go. I find for me that works better with historical reads, gives me time to mull over events, to think about the characters and actions, with them being so far from how we live now.
I really enjoyed the day to day bits, what they wore, what they ate, Joan chatting to her friend in the sewing trade, what each person did in the duty of the royal household. I loved it when we finally got the Raven connection, that seemed to take time and I found the story a little slow at first.
Henry 7th isn’t someone I’ve read a great deal about, I know him from the periphery of stories about his son, and of course the whole York/Lancaster issues. Turbulent times to live in when one could be royal one day, deposed and in the tower the next. Of course that stood for followers too, one day landed gentry, the next everything goes to the crown and they were out, let live if lucky, tower or death if not.
Hard decisions, yet as Joan sees, however one sympathised if a potential heir was living the followers would always be a danger, even if there was no intention on the potential heir’s part to rule.
I enjoyed reading about his royal household, the children, though was sad at how fragile life was even for royal families. Disease and death was very prevalent then, and even royals succumbed far too often.
Reading too about how children were sent away from families at such a young age, for politics, for family power, for alliances and of course for their personal futures was hard. Seemed really sad to me, that close family contact was rare in wealthy households, that parents had children they rarely saw, and who could be sent hundreds of miles away, to other countries even when still only very young. They grew up quickly then, as we see from their speech and education while still little more than toddlers.
I loved reading about Sim and the Ravens, about Joan’s championing of them and the issues she faced. Its a fictional snippet of history with roots in reality, and certainly the Raven/Tower legend is still strong. I believe the Ravens actually have their own guardians officially now.
Joanna is an author new to me, I’d be happy to read more from her when in the mood to get lost back in history for a few hours. She writes in a way that had me totally immersed in what was happening, feeling it was real, and that’s always the best stories for me.
Stars: Five. I thought at first it was a little slow, but that’s really scene setting as I discovered when I read further, and its a book I thoroughly enjoyed.
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The Familiars: Stacey Halls
Genre: General Fiction (Adult)
I hovered over this, had requested via netgalley some time ago but didn’t get it 😦 , sometimes they only have limited copies for ARCs. It sounded so intriguing after reading the sample that I bought it anyway. Yep, paid real money for this one 😉
Its a fantastic read, based around the real Pendleton Witches saga, and showing how helpless women were once accused, and how easy to was for grudges, and power hungry individuals to wreck peoples lives. Literally. That magic mix ( for me ) of fiction and reality, which I love to read.
I loved Fleetwood, only 17 but on her fourth pregnancy, hoping against hope that this time her husband gets his much wanted heir. Then she finds That Letter, and is devastated. As was I reading it, I so felt for her.
Richard seems like a really nice guy, shocking to me that at just 17 his wife is on her fourth pregnancy, but in those times marriage at a young age wasn’t uncommon. He’s away a lot on business but seems to adore Fleetwood and certainly allows her a freedom many wives didn’t have at that time. Then we learn something that shocked me. Not so uncommon but I just didn’t expect it and it coloured how I felt about him after.
Alice, poor girl, just caught up in things after trying to innocently help someone, and her involvement brings others into the ever growing web of people seeking the kings favour are weaving, knowing his vendetta against witches. Looking at the accusations and the “proof” from today’s perspective its ludicrous, but back then men were Gods almost when it came to determining who was innocent – hint, virtually no one. They seemed to see accused as guilty the minute someone laid a charge, and knowing the more “witches” they found, the higher the king would regard them was a powerful motive for those with no conscience.
Poor Fleetwood learns some unpleasant lessons about trust in this book. Alice too, helping someone injured ended up risking her life. She’d such a hard life anyway, and then doing something so innocent cost her job and brought her to the witch hunters notice.
The supernatural, the familiars element of the title is kind of elusive, certain animals could perhaps be familiars, and yet it could just be supposition, superstitious imaginings about innocent pets. Who knows, its never really clear but there’s enough co-incidences to make me wonder.
Stars: Five, a fabulous read, that mix of fiction rooted in reality and with a possible supernatural link, made it a riveting read for me. One I know I’ll re-read.
City of Pearl, Alys Clare
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery and Thrillers
I’ve said before, this series so much reminds me of the Ariana Franklin books I enjoyed years ago, and I’m really enjoying getting to know Lassair and her world. I mistakenly came in late to the series, thinking its was an AF read, so I’ve yet to have the pleasure of reading the books from the beginning. One day – so many books, so little time…. 😉
Anyway, we start in the Fens, ( a place not many miles from where I live) but the story moves on a journey to Spain. It amazes me that some folk never traveled further than the next village, which feels usual for the time, while others like Lassair, Gurdyman and his family, and a few others, embarked upon what must have been scary and perilous travails, at a time when so little was known about where they were going, and knowing the journey would be fraught with danger.
Gurdyman has always been a man of few words, Lassair has learned to curb her impatience, knowing he will tell her what she needs to know in time, but even her patience was stretched here. I’d have been climbing the walls.
Clearly the unflappable Gurdyman has been frightened, but by what? Where exactly are they going, and why? Why go now when its the worst time to travail and Gurdyman isn’t in the best of health? Lassair though is feeling her losses, poor Rollo, who died in the last book, and Jack, who so curtly rejected her so she’s ready for a change, and thinks maybe that’s why he chosen now to travel.
Like many historical reads the book is really about the gradual progress to the end, enjoying the journey the book takes us on, rather than racing to the finish. That’s good because I enjoyed that more than the actual revelations at the end.
We find the place where Gurdyman lived as a young boy, and where he furthered his education. There are more hints of some things that are a bit more Magic, than straight Healing, a trait only a few have, and of which Gurdyman has taught Lassair only the briefest history.
There’s an undercurrent of danger running through the book, of mystery, of evil and maybe harm, of things unspoken but feared, and Lassair finds herself puzzling what, why, who, where are they going etc. She has so many questions but Gurdyman reveals very little. I would be so burning with curiosity, Lassair is a better person ( all round) than me.
She learns more about herself, and things about her mentor which are hard to accept, but in contrast to that harsh fact, and the trials that undoubtedly lie ahead for her, she has a moment of happiness when Jack follows her on that perilous journey to ensure she’s safe. He’d only do that if he cares? Right? So thinks she, and I, and I so hope we’re right 😉
Stars: 4.5 I’m hovering between four and five here, the main thrust of the story was fascinating, kept me guessing and engrossed, and felt so very real, I felt I was there in history and I love a story that can do that. Somehow though the answers to those questions Lassair ( and I) has weren’t as satisfying as I’d hoped. Though all was made clear it just didn’t really feel enough for me, and there were of course bits I wasn’t happy to read, disappointments in some people. That was just a fraction of the overall though so its a four and a half for me.
Arc via Netgalley
The Irish Princess, Her father’s only daughter. Her country’s only hope, Elizabeth Chadwick
Genre: Historical Fiction.
Sometimes I just want to immerse myself in times past, and Elizabeth Chadwick is one of my “go to” authors. She can make me feel as if I’m there with the characters, living life like an unseen part of the cast.
I know only what I’ve read in fiction of this period in UK history. I hated history at school, shame it wasn’t taught this way, I’d have got far more from it. Plus it tended to be prehistoric times or the Tudor period and there’s so much more to read than those two eras.
Its a tough time to be alive, wars are constantly being fought over land and titles, a new king often means they’re removed and given to a favourite or bargained away for the king’s benefit. Into that scene comes Aoife, born a daughter of an Irish King, the traditionally weaker sex when kings wanted sons. Aoife is strong and soon carves her own place into her fathers heart, and does what she can to shape her own destiny. Tough, when ladies were married off at men’s whims, money, position, for political expediency. Fortunately the husband Diamait wants for her is Richard de Claire. Richard is a strong ally to have. One Diamait needs, with the men and arms he controls being a valuable asset much needed after recent losses. If Diamait is to secure his ambitions he needs them, but he’s wily and puts all sorts of constraints on the marriage to ensure he gets what he wants.
Back in England Henry ll has been helping the family ( at a cost of course, nothing ever comes for free in this time), exiled after losing their lands. Henry admires Aoife, and that time spent together forges a bond between then. Henry’s a King and always conscious of that he works ceaselessly to bolster his strength, courting men and always with an eye as to what benefits him and his heritage. He plays a tricky game in Diamait’s plans for Aoife and Richard. There’s never any real rest, the threat of wars are constant, and security is fleeting. Aoife grows up seeing that first hand, and determines that she may be a woman and ultimately not in charge of her own destiny, but she also has her own skills and she works hard using them to secure whatever she can for the benefit of herself and her family.
I loved Aoife, a strong lady, intelligent and able to plan for her family, something much needed in these times when life can change daily, when one can be landed gentry one day and have nothing the next. She shows just how ridiculous this notion of men as the only ones capable of planning, organising etc, and we see just how much work she’s doing in her clever way, to get what she wants but in such a way as the giver doesn’t realise its not their own idea. Its a dangerous path, but Aoife is determined to protect her family, and fortunately in Richard she has a husband who values her brain. It takes a strong man to have a successful, happy marriage with a woman like Aoife, but they each value the others intelligence, and the love and respect between them is deep.
There are so many great characters here, so many battles, times when its all changed by another loss or win, and we can see just how hard life was, not just for those at the lower end, but for those who rule too. They have problems too, different to those of the common people but harsh non the less.
There are many surprises in this story, a look at a period in UK history which was red with blood from never ending battles. I really enjoyed reading about the characters – must admit I skimmed the battle details, I wanted to see the result and what happens after, not the actual battle. That’s a personal issue, and for others those battle scenes are important. Its interesting reading the author notes about the story v what actually happened, how closely she has stuck to known facts whilst weaving an enthralling story.
Close to the end I was very emotional, things happened that were heartbreaking, but for the times all too common.
I really enjoyed Aoife’s machinations, her sharp brain always planning for the “what if” scenario. I loved Richard, a man loyal to his wife when few were at those times. What he and Aoife had was special, and I think something Henry envied. He may have been King, with sons, with land, riches, whatever woman he wanted ( though Aoife cleverly avoided getting caught in that trap) but he didn’t have the love, the closeness, the respect Aoife and Richard had for each other.
Stars: Five, a fascinating read, bringing life and reality to a period of history I know only vaguely from stilted texts until now.
Arc via Netgalley and publishers
Woman Who Spoke to Spirits, Alys Clare
Genre: Mystery and Thrillers
I love this kind of historical read, one where I feel I’m part of the setting, can taste the atmosphere, really feel as if I’m there in past times with the characters. It proved t be a light and enjoyable read. This is first in a new series, I’ve read a couple by Alys and enjoyed those, so was confident I’d like this one.
First books in a series have a hard ask, delivering characters, new settings along with an interesting story, and this book did that really well.
I’m intrigued by Lily’s past, we get hints of some awful trauma but I guess that’s going to come out more in further books. Likewise her new hire, Felix, has his own somewhat mysterious past. We know some of it, but there seems much more to him that just a down at heel former rich kid. He has so much experience of different things, and I’m keen to know how and where and when he learned all this. He seemed so much older than his actual years.
He and Lily make a good pair, work well together and even though in those times its odd to have a female boss, he makes it work, being deferential without seeming obsequious, and yet standing up when its needed. I feel maybe in further books something might develop between them but there’s little here except respect and a possible growing attraction. I want to know more about the guy in the houseboat – forgotten his name, but though he and Lily have only met a handful of times they have something special maybe? Or perhaps I’m reading things that aren’t there 😉
The mystery this is based around is actually two stories, there’s the one about the actress, the stage and young Julian, and then the primary one of Albertina and the evil she senses is out for her. That had me completely puzzled, I simply couldn’t work it out, though of course after its over I could see the clues Alys had cleverly weaved through. An original tale, not one I’ve come across before.
Stars: Four, a fun read and a great intro to the series.
Arc via Netgalley and publishers
The Confessions of Frannie Langton, Sara Collins
Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction.
A very disquieting novel. Written so well its easy to forget this is fiction, because sadly stories like it were real life for too many people – still are in certain parts of the world.
Its starts with the trial, and then reverts to Frannie’s early life, how it differed from the other slaves once she reached a certain age. It left her in a kind of no-mans land, neither accepted by the slaves because of her differences, and of course never accepted by whites, her skin colour, heritage and position in life precluded that.
What it didn’t preclude though was them using her, and poor Fannie has a pretty horrific life, culminating in the murder trial.
She’s adamant she didn’t do it, but the time is a blank to her, and the “evidence” is very strongly against her. When you read the story you’ll understand why she says she simply could not have killed her mistress.
Its a mixture of Frannie’s story, and the way people of any colour were regarded in those times, the way the ruling classes regarded anyone below them, whatever colour they were, as disposable, lesser, of having no feelings and they way they were used is shocking and yet horribly true.
There were things she had to do, no choice if she wanted to stay alive, that had me feeling really sick. Its easy from our safe world to say we’d never take part in such atrocities but if we were living her life, well, its a lot harder to decide. Those parts I skimmed over, just taking in the bare bones as I’m horribly squeamish and get nightmares, but always conscious that for many this WAS real life. Man ( men and women) really is one of the cruelest animals, there seems no end to the depravity they can conduct, and back then they had free rein citing their activities as “science” and therefore important.
Stars:Four, a perfectly written story, fascinating in parts but was just that bit too much for me to give a five to. One I’m glad I read, albeit skimming the more uncomfortable parts, but not for my re-readers files.
ARC supplied by Netgalley and publishers
Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen, Samantha J Wilcoxson
Genre: Historical fiction
Sometimes I want a break from Romance, from Fantasy, and then I take a dip back in history. With these reads, as with most fiction I enjoy, I need to feel that events could have been real,. I hopefully get drawn into the story so I’m almost part of it, instead of a detached observer.
This story did all that and more, I really felt for the characters, wondered about events, even knowing British history so I had an idea of what would happen.
Samantha has stuck broadly to facts well known, but put her own interpretation on them. Thus all UK kids learn about King Richard putting his nephews into the Tower and that they disappeared, but we never really know, even now, if they died, escaped, were murdered, and if so by whom. Samantha has an interesting and plausible take on that.
The Tudors – books generally focus on Henry V111, but we’re a bit earlier here, starting with his mother and her story from childhood. We see firsthand ( well, fictionally first hand) the trials her family went through, princesses in hiding, then out in the open and then frequently back in hiding or in Sanctuary for their safety. It was a tumultuous period, with different factions vying for the throne, each gathering their own support and some pretty bloody battles. Families were never really secure, knowing that through battle they could be deposed at any time…
I enjoyed seeing Elizabeth grow, marry, have children and seeing figures I know as adults in history, Henry and Arthur, it was interesting seeing them as children. I enjoy reading about lesser known figures from history such as Elizabeth, and the childhoods of more well known people.
An excellent read, had me swept up in the story, worrying for the families, and feeling sad for the girls who were married off as political pawns, and the boys who faced imprisonment or execution if there was a change of king. Tough times to be Royals.
Stars: five, a great historical read, that drew me in and made me feel “there” with the characters.
Arc via Netgalley and publishers