Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession – Alison Weir

There are some times in life when you suddenly find yourself doing something that, not so long ago, you would never have believed possible. For example, I recently joined a running club. Yes. An actual running club – I even actually go out most weeks and run with them. The me from a few years ago who used to get out of breath running for a bus is absolutely gobsmacked so it is perfectly okay for you to express astonishment. To be fair, I’m mostly surprised that I’ve given up a couple of hours of reading time each week (not to mention a lie-in on any Saturday I’m off work) but, so far, it has been worth it. Slightly achy legs, the occasional soaking and only one major set of bruises is a fair return for all the fresh air, country views and second breakfasts eaten after a parkrun. It is probably not immediately obvious how this preamble about running fits in with Alison Weir’s second volume in the series of six historical novels about the wives of Henry VIII but bear with me…

30231546The first volume – on Katherine of Aragon – looked at the role of women in general and Queens in particular. Henry’s first queen is sure that she must live up to those roles but Anne Boleyn, his second, is, we have always been told, a rebel who wants to overthrow this system. This novel gives us Anne’s view of the world: her childhood, her family relationships and her girlhood in the courts of Renaissance Europe. Here she is enthralled by female monarchs who think in a new way, who feel that women have greater roles to play than just wives and mothers, who value women’s independence, intelligence and opinions. Most importantly she is told, by the women she respects at court that, above all, a woman’s most important quality is her virginity.

This is not the story of Anne Boleyn which I expected. Cleverly, Weir doesn’t give us the obvious – Anne as seductress or Anne as pawn in parental plan – but a highly original view of a much written-about woman. Once again, her knowledge of her subject and meticulous research has led her to a highly original, if fictional, version of events. There is overlap with Katherine’s story, of course, and what has been particularly interesting for me has been the  fluctuating character of Henry himself. The courtly lover, the tyrannical husband, the statesman and the would-be head of a dynasty are all there but, at the heart of it all is a man afraid that he will never have a son to inherit the kingdom he rules. Like me with running Anne, according to Weir, didn’t set out to become a queen – but when she did accept this as her role (had queen-ness thrust upon her as it were) she tried to do the best she could. I feel the same way about running (but hope that it all ends better in my case). I am also now looking forward to the Jane Seymour novel – I think Weir may even make her interesting for me…

Jane

 

Playing catch-up. Again…

Oh dear. I’ve gotten behind again with reviews and I don’t even have the excuse of a big work event to blame. I think I just got distracted and lost my mojo a little – so here is a round-up of some of the books I’ve been reading in the past few weeks. It looks like quite a varied mix of adult and YA fiction with a little history thrown in. Story of my reading life really (although I do usually read a better mix of male/female authors).

The Cows – Dawn O’Porter

the-cows-by-dawn-o-porterThis is the story of three modern women: Tara, a single mother, Stella, a PA who is haunted by thoughts of her dead twin and Cammie, a take-no-prisoners lifestyle blogger. It would be wrong to say they represent a full range of women today – they are all much of an age, all based in London, all white, all working in the arts in some way – but they do show different ways of being a youngish woman in their world. Women are often judged by their appearance, their sexuality and their ability to produce children – very much like the cows of the title – and these three are no exception. Their lives start to entwine when Tara becomes an internet sensation (after being filmed in an extremely compromising, and solo, position on the Tube) and we explore all three women’s attitudes to sex, motherhood, life and, possibly, death.

The book is very funny, fairly rude and, at some points, pretty sad. O’Porter doesn’t pull too many punches about the way women are expected to live their lives: her characters, rather wonderfully, end up refusing to conform to these expectations. Not because feminism told them to but because they realise that they need to live a more honest life – to be themselves rather than the women they are expected to be.

The Walworth Beauty – Michèle Roberts

walworthThis is the story of Walworth, a district of South-East London which I’ll admit I wasn’t familiar with (turns out it’s the bit with the Elephant & Castle and Old Kent Road). The story is told through two timelines: in modern-day Walworth Madeleine moves into a small garden flat after losing her job as a lecturer and in the 1850s Joseph Benson is working for Henry Mayhew on the articles which later became London Labour and the London Poor. Benson’s job is to interview the less virtuous poor – thieves, rogues and prostitutes – and, in the course of his work, he becomes fascinated with a Mrs Dulcimer, who runs a boarding house on the street where Madeleine will live 160 years later.

This book is an insight into the lives of various underclasses in the mid-Victorian era – Benson has a weakness for strong drink and working girls, Mrs Dulcimer is a black woman in a world which treats both her sex and her race as inferior, the girls who live with her struggle to survive without turning to prostitution. In the parts of the book set in the present day some of the characters are generally better off financially but they still have struggles – young women still have to fight hard to make their way in the world, older ones find themselves neglected and the pace of modern life leaves many struggling to make sense of the world. There is an air of slight menace as the two timelines wash up against each other – each era haunts the other as if the layers of history were two decks of cards being shuffled together. It is both a contemporary and a historical novel and we find that the two have as many similarities as differences.

What Regency Women Did For Us – Rachel Knowles

I recently reviewed a wonderful book of biographies of women aimed at primary-age children. This book is a little more specific, focussing on women who lived between the 1730s and 1850s, and is aimed more at an adult market but I feel it would still be useful for older children who were interested in women’s history. I love history and will happily (if I can make the time) read lovely big, thick, detailed histories of medieval queens or scientific movements. This book seems to be more along the lines of popular history so if you just want a quick overview of the lives of women in the Regency period this could be the way to go.

WRWDFU cover for blogThe book covered an interesting selection of women including those I’m sure most people will have heard of, like Jane Austen or Madame Tussaud, some known to those with a little knowledge of the era, like Maria Edgeworth (for those who know more on the literature side) or Caroline Herschel (for those who lean to the scientific). There are short biographies, a summary of their work and achievements and also of their legacy, and they should serve as a great starting point for any more detailed reading. I think I may now be led on to investigating further into the life and works of some of the women here who I was either unaware of or only knew by name. Harriot Mellon sounds like a place to start, or maybe Mary Parminter….Ah well, all the best reading just leads onto more books!

Best of Adam Sharp – Graeme Simsion

The whole ‘difficult second album’ thing seems to be an accepted thing and it can also apply to novelists. I, like an awful lot of people, absolutely loved Simsion’s first novel, The Rosie Project. I read the follow-up and, while I enjoyed it, it didn’t have quite the same impact. The first book, however, was wonderful enough that I will leap on anything new which the author produces so I was glad to find that this book is at least as good as the previous one.

41Ui3mMfFfL._AC_UL320_SR200,320_Adam Sharp is an IT consultant approaching his 50th birthday. He earns decent money, has a house, as much work as he needs and is a fixture on the local pub-quiz scene (specialist subject probably pre-eighties music). But he has worries, he’s not as fit as once was, his mother is getting frail in her old age and his marriage could be described as amicable at best. This situation could have been enough for Adam if, out of the blue, an email from an old flame hadn’t reminded him of the heady days of his youth when he fell in love with an Australian actress, played piano in a bar for tips but turned his back on that life when his IT job demanded he move on.

The novel shows us how that relationship played out twenty odd years ago, and how it ended. We also see Adam’s rather staid relationship with his wife, Claire, and the rather more unusual one, in the present day, between the actress, Angelina, and her husband Charlie. Although these relationships are at the heart of the story for me the main point of the book was Adam’s gradual acceptance of the fact that he was a real adult. As a young man of 26 he was torn between what appeared to be the love of his life and the need to establish himself in his chosen career. At 50 his decisions will affect more people than just himself – he has to be the grown-up he thought he already was twenty years ago.

There is a lot of music in the book – like all ‘best of…’ albums it highlights moments of the characters lives with songs – mostly from the 60s and 70s. I was good with most of the pop and rock songs although I’ll admit to not knowing quite a few of the more jazzy tracks. So as well as giving me a story I enjoyed Simsion is adding to my ongoing musical education…

Running on the Cracks – Julia Donaldson

If the previous book was a departure from the author’s previous books (less obviously humorous, change of main character) then so is this one. Julia Donaldson is known and loved by virtually every child and parent I have ever met and she is, quite possibly, the queen of storytellers in the 0-5 and 5-8 age groups. Lets face it, I probably don’t need to even tell you this, you probably (like most of us) know most of the words to The Gruffalo without needing to look at the book….This book, however, is a bit different since it is aimed at a much older readership and is being marketed at the younger end of the teen market.

978140522233415-year-old Leonora (Leo to her friends) has run away. Her parents have died in an accident and she is living with her aunt, her bitchy cousins and her slightly creepy uncle. She runs to Glasgow in the hope of finding her chinese father’s family but ends up sleeping on a bench until she is taken in by an odd but kind woman named Mary. She makes friends with would-be Goth Finlay and sets about searching for her family, avoiding her uncle (who gets even creepier) and working out how best to help Mary, who is obviously struggling with her mental health. I would say this is a book firmly aimed at the younger teen – it is generally restrained in its language (hovering at the ‘bloody’ level of swearing), the slightly predatory uncle is creepy but never gets as far as being overtly sexual and there is no romance angle to the relationship between the youngsters. There are serious issues covered, the plight of runaway children, the problems inherent in mental health care, immigrant communities and the difficulties youngsters have in feeling like they ‘fit in’. I liked the main characters, particularly Finlay and Mary, and thought the plot was good. This isn’t a new book, it came out in 2009, but I hope that Donaldson makes some time to write more for older children.

Jane

 

 

Arrowood – Mick Finlay

I was brought up in the days when you had to like one thing or the other. It started with the choice between the Bay City Rollers and David Cassidy, moved on to Wham vs Duran Duran and reached its peak in the Britpop era. Obviously, I’m awkward. I spent the seventies quite liking all the big names in pop but saving my actual fandom for the Wombles (I was 7 – surely I was meant to like kids bands rather than wasting my time wanting to marry Donny Osmond…), in the eighties I was still listening to everything but developing my teen love of Prog Rock (played Yes and Genesis at my wedding, there’s nothing like a twelve-minute long first dance…) and in the nineties, alongside Blur and Oasis, I’d discovered folk-rock and Nick Drake. Let’s face it, if I see a crowd all looking in the same direction I’ll have a quick glance and then a good look round to see what they’re missing. In the late Victorian London of Mick Finlay’s novel I’m the kind of person who would have read all about Sherlock Holmes in the paper and then wondered about all the cases he didn’t take. Which is how most people seem to discover Arrowood…

9780008203184William Arrowood is a detective and he’s, frankly, got no time for Sherlock Holmes. Which is a shame because most of the rest of London have got such a crush on him it’s almost as if Benedict Cumberbatch were already in the role – there is a great running joke throughout the book that whenever Arrowood and his assistant Barnett meet anyone new they start to enthuse about the great Sherlock, much to Arrowood’s disgust. Our heroes, however, take on the cases of people who are too poor to afford Baker Street rates and they delve into cases which seem much more sordid than anything Dr Watson would care to describe. In this book they are searching for a missing young Frenchman but soon become involved with the criminal underworld (in the form of a gang who have London sown up and would like to move onto stitching up Arrowood and Barnett), the fight for Irish independence, human trafficking and prostitution. The plot is rather nicely complicated and I really liked some of the characters. It looks as though this book ends poised to begin a whole series – in which case I look forward to hearing more about Neddy, the obligatory urchin, and Arrowood’s indefatigable sister.

Jane

There’s more than one way to be a princess

So there have been a couple of ‘days’ recently. You know, like International Boycott Sausages Day or World Lemon Day but these ones were a bit better. In fact they were right up my street…Thursday 2nd March was World Book Day – a day for celebrating books and dressing up as your favourite character – and because we love WBD so much we invite local schools in for class visits for the whole of that week and the next one too. This is great fun as there is nothing so energising a class full of 6 year-olds roaring like lions when you read Lion Practice to them – but it does mean I now have a stinking cold. And then, yesterday 8th March, was International Women’s Day – a great opportunity to celebrate everything that women do. What was really heartening was, when I asked the groups of children visiting the store what they dressed up as for World Book Day, as many girls said they’d dressed as superheroes or pirates as princesses. To mark these two ‘days’ I have been reading about two very different sorts of princesses.

Frogkisser! – Garth Nix

I’ve not previously read any Garth Nix but I have heard a colleague raving about how good he is on YouTube so I was expecting good things. I wasn’t disappointed, I’m very pleased to say.

9781848126015Anya is a Princess, for what it’s worth. The world she lives in is a patchwork of tiny kingdoms, after a terrible magical accident, and Princesses (and Princes) seem to be fairly thick on the ground. She’d rather be in the library, learning about sorcery, than anything else but her stepstepfather (it’s a long story) is a real sorcerer and, therefore, quite evil and she finds herself having to undertake a Quest to save her sister, her sister’s Princely suitor who has been transformed into a frog, her own life and, along the way many, many other things. She is accompanied by a talking Royal Dog, a boy thief who has been transformed into a giant newt and the aforementioned frog-Prince and must hunt for the ingredients for a magical lip-balm which will return the Price (and the thief) to their original forms. Along the way she meets some very cool wizards, seven dwarves, river otters and some highly responsible robbers but gains a lot of extra aspects to her Quest. The whole book is really funny but you also end up learning that Princessing is hard work if you are going to do it right.

My Name is Victoria – Lucy Worsley

Now, Lucy Worsley is someone I am familiar with – not so much as a writer but as a tv historian. I quite enjoy her slightly off-beat view of history and definitely appreciate her enthusiasm for her subject. I was certain that this book, another book for children aged 9-12, would be well researched and I hoped it would have Worsley’s charm. Again, I think the book did everything I asked of it.

victoriaThe book is narrated not by Princess Victoria, heir to the throne of Great Britain (and the Empire etc…), but by Miss V Conroy. Miss V, as she is known to everyone, is the younger daughter of John Conroy, comptroller of the household of the Princess and her mother, the Duchess of Kent. All the characters in this book are real – Conroy and the Duchess, Miss V, Victoria’s other attendants and the rest of the Hanoverian Royal Family, even her dog, Dash – but the story of what happens to her is altered, very slightly. Victoria and Miss V become friends – in fact Miss V is the only young friend available under the repressive Kensington System set up by Conroy – and support each other through the years leading up to Victoria’s reign. Miss V learns to mistrust her father and to understand the life that Victoria will have to lead when she is Queen.

Lucy Worsley has some fun with the story of Victoria and Miss V, blending solid historical facts with both the speculative rumours of the day and few interesting ideas of her own. The ending would certainly come under the heading of alternative history but, because it is reasoned out and handled so well, it is entirely believable.

Jane

In the Name of the Family – Sarah Dunant

In terms of reading my Mum, I think, raised me to enjoy a lot of the things she liked. She and I used to read a lot of poetry together (mostly from the last quarter of her copy of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury – Stevie Smith was our favourite) and I still have very fond memories of her Welsh(ish) accent when reading me Under Milk Wood. I also used to read all her Jean Plaidy historical novels when she’d finished with them. We were working our way from the Norman Trilogy, through the Plantagenet Saga and the odd bit of Tudors, Stuarts and Victoriana but I don’t think we read any of the Italian books. Maybe she didn’t want me (at 11 or 12) delving into the world of the Borgias. Although I do seem to recall being allowed to watch the odd episode of I, Claudius at this age so maybe this wasn’t a deliberate omission. The upshot is that my knowledge of the Borgia family is only what I have read in general histories of Europe in the Renaissance period (and also histories of disease, which is an odd interest of mine). Which meant I was coming to Sarah Dunant’s book about the last few years of the family’s power with few misconceptions beyond those popularly held ones of violence, nepotism, incest and general lewdness.

30375755In the Name of the Family is a very well researched historical novel which doesn’t ignore these aspects of the Borgia family. So it doesn’t just trot out those ‘facts’ (most of which, it seems, would earn you a very loud klaxon on QI) but explores them by showing us the characters of the family themselves. In some cases the reputations seem well-earned: Cesare is a man steeped in violence, seems to have no principles beyond the advancement of his own view of a Borgia empire and who has no qualms about killing those he has no further use for. The Pope, Rodrigo Borgia, is a man given to indulging his fleshly urges and focussed on promoting his family and Lucrezia is a beautiful young woman willing to be used as a pawn, married off to the most valuable ally possible. However, Dunant digs a little deeper and instead of giving us just the lurid details (from histories written by the Borgia families many enemies, perhaps) shows a more nuanced view of the characters. Cesare is given to violent mood swings but we see how they may be made worse by the effects of syphilis, the new disease sweeping Europe. Roderigo is venal but has a sincere love for his children, his mistress, the Virgin Mary and sardines. If he were a lesser man rather than a Pope he’d be a wonderful man in many ways.

Lucrezia’s story is interesting since an effort is made to show what she achieved herself rather than just portraying her as an object to be traded. Much mention is made of her reputation, spread again by the family’s enemies, as a whore, as a poisoner and as a woman interested only in fashion, dancing and pleasure but we see her as much more than this. She is aware that she has made personal sacrifices for her father and brother’s ambitions – a husband murdered and a son taken away – but she is shown as a woman of intelligence and feeling who works hard to make the best of the situation she finds herself in. She has an astute sense of politics and a keen interest in the arts; she cares about the women who attend her, many of whom have moved with her from Rome to her new home in Ferrara; she is determined to help to rule her new home well. She is shown very sympathetically but, as a modern woman, I found her willingness to be used, by her father, brother and husband, a bit depressing.

Overall I enjoyed this book. I felt that I learned a lot about the period and the characters. Some of the more minor characters were particularly interesting – Niccolo Machiavelli and Lucrezia’s husband among the historical figures, a convent herbalist and a young black servant among the less famous – and the plot moved on at a pace. If you enjoy historical fiction (with added violence and unflinching descriptions of death and disease) then give this a go.

Jane

 

The House at Bishopsgate – Katie Hickman

I seem to have a fairly bad habit (developed at the point where I moved into general bookselling from a campus store and really started to ramp up my reading for reviewing) of reading the first book in a series and then never managing to find time to read on. I have managed to finish a few – the Wool trilogy for example or David Barnett’s Gideon Smith books – and there are some authors (like Connie Willis or Gavin Extence) I will always look out for but, sadly, my favourite hashtag seems to be #somanybookssolittletime… This is not to say that when I read the first book in a series I don’t enjoy them, that they are not good books, it’s just that I run out of time. And then, sometimes, I discover that I’ve read a book which is part way through a series and I realise that it may not even make a difference. In fact, it was only after I read the House at Bishopsgate that I realised that there were two books-worth of story leading up to the start of this one. The good news is that this book made perfect sense as a standalone novel. Backstories were sufficiently well covered that there were no blank spots (and there weren’t great swathes of ‘explanation’ at the expense of plot either) and all the characters seemed well-rounded.

9781408821145The House at Bishopsgate belongs to wealthy merchant Paul Pindar and it has sat empty for years while Paul and his wife Celia live in Oriental splendour in 17th century Aleppo where he is a representative of a powerful trading company. But now they have returned to introduce Celia to London society in the reign of James 1st but that society, as is so often the way, is more interested in gossip about Celia’s past (she spent years in the harem of a sultan) and Paul’s prized jewel – a huge diamond known as the Sultan’s Blue. But, somehow, they can’t seem to shake off Lady Sydenham, a young widow they escorted home from Antwerp, and who is now settled into their home with them. Add in a secondary plotline about an ex-nun, a missing servant of Paul’s and his rather unsavoury brother Ralph and there is plenty there for any fan of historical fiction. I was reminded of early Philippa Gregory (Wideacre/Earthly Joys era stuff) which can only be a good thing. I was, to be honest, pretty much raised on Jean Plaidy so reckon I know a good historical yarn when I see one. And this one isn’t bad at all.

Jane

 

The Spy – Paulo Coelho

I am a very contrary sort of person. If there is one thing likely to make me not indulge in some aspect of popular culture (be it a book, film or tv show) it is being told by lots of people, and the media, that I really must read/watch/listen to x. For me x has equalled Dan Brown novels (although I did eventually relent in the interests of research), the entire 50 Shades phenomena in all formats, ditto Game of Thrones and just about all films based on Marvel/DC comics. I’m sure the loss has been more mine than any of those massively successful franchises but I’ve always felt that life is too short to make commitments to series (either of books, films or tv shows) that you may not love. Maybe one day I’ll give in and go on a reading/box-set spree of GoT but until then I shall float like a butterfly from author to author, rarely getting beyond book one of any series. But that does mean that I really ought to try authors at least once – even if they are writers, like Paulo Coelho, who I have been aware of for years without having any urge to read them.  Not that I think there is anything wrong with his books (over 65 millions purchasers can’t be wrong, surely?) but I’ve never really felt they were my kind of read.

spyTrawling through the offerings on Netgalley recently, however, I was struck by the cover for Coelho’s latest, the Spy, and decided to give him a go. The image suggested something with a period setting and an air of the exotic (for some reason I didn’t bother with the blurb…) – the reality, a novel about the life and death of Mata Hari, suggested that my book-jacket radar still works. We hear the story in the form of letters written by Mata Hari herself from prison just before her execution and by her lawyer. Mata Hari’s letters are intended for her only daughter (who, I later read, died only a few years after her mother, possibly as a result of her parent’s syphilis) and aim to explain her life as well as her death.

This isn’t a serious historical exploration of the facts around Mata Hari’s life and death but the little details of fashion and general society seem pretty accurate. I don’t feel that I know the truth about whether she was a spy or not but the story hangs together very well. I was less comfortable with the letter by the lawyer at the end – for me it added little beyond an understanding of Coelho’s own philosophy. But if you are already a fan of the author then you’ll love this bit as well. What I liked most was the personality of Mata Hari herself – a strong, determined woman aware of her faults. Even if she were being untruthful about her spying activities the charm and allure of the woman would be enough to make this an enjoyable read.

Jane