Captive queen by Alison Weir

Eleanor, duchess of Aquitaine, is stuck in a loveless marriage with the French king. When she meets young and charismatic Henry Plantagenet, she falls in love instantly. After her divorce from Louis, she doesn’t hesitate to marry Henry. When he becomes king of England, the two of them together hold a realm from England all the way to the Spanish border. But Henry is no loyal husband and doesn’t want to share his power. Not with Eleanor, but neither with their sons. And when the cubs shall awake, rebellion looms around the corner.

I heard some rumours that a tv series about Eleanor was in the making based on this book. I’m usually no fan of Weir’s older historical fiction books (‘Innocent traitor‘ about Jane Grey being the exception) and I had heard that Captive queen wasn’t good. But I still wanted to see what kind of Eleanor is represented here, before watching the tv series.

I can already admit that I understand why people don’t like this portrayal. The book opens in the French court where Eleanor is trying to get a divorce since her husband the king doesn’t visit her bed too often, the result being only two daughters and no heir. She meets Henry Plantagenet, son of her former lover Geoffrey, count of Anjou, and instantly wants to bed him. In the first 150 pages there is sex everywhere.

Eleanor is portrayed as a sensual but also human woman. She makes mistakes, a lot of them. She’s too trustful and naively in love with her second husband. This is a refreshing take on her, but also far away from the strong and independent woman we know. We get an Eleanor making decisions based on her lust feelings rather than her wit.

Henry is at first a young and ambitious boy who adores his queen, but soon he grows into a forceful and short tempered man. The novel focuses on their relationship, with all their heights but also heavy arguments. The problem is that when at times Henry and Eleanor are not together, Weir struggles to write a story.

The writing is bad. There’s a lot of bad dialogue, too many sex scenes, strange changes in perspectives and almost no character development apart from the two main characters. During both the conflict with Becket and her imprisonment after the rebellion, Eleanor is too far away from the action and Weir has to turn to the ‘as you know Bob’ tactic.

I can’t help but compare this book to Chadwick excellent’s trilogy about Eleanor and come to the conclusion that ‘Captive queen‘ can’t live up to that. The only thing I did like is that there is no heavy focus on all of her pregnancies and births. Weir is more creative in handling all the children, although we don’t miss their conception ;).

But still, I enjoyed some parts of the story. This book is not as bad as some people say. I can handle some sex and detail. But I just couldn’t sympathize with this Eleanor as much as with Chadwick’s. Weir is not the best fiction writer. However, I did like her book about Catherine of Aragon enough, to continue the Six Tudor queens series.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

What’s your favourite book about Eleanor of Aquitaine?

The scarlet contessa by Jeanne Kalogridis

The orphaned Dea is taken into the household of Bona, duchess of Milan, who also cares for the bastard children of her husband. Among those is the young and beautiful teenager Catherina Sforza who dotes on her father. But Duke Gian Galeazzo Sforza has many enemies and he is murdered during a church visit. Dea’s fate is now collided with Catherina as she accompanies her to Rome to her wedding with Girolamo Riario, the pope’s nephew.

After Engeland, renaissance Italy is my second favourite historical setting. I just love all the political intrigues, the art, romances and yes even the bloodshed. Catherina Sforza is by far my most loved character of this period and this is one of the only fictional novels about her life. I also enjoyed two other works from Kalogridis before. ‘I, Mona Lisa’ about Da Vinci and his Lisa (I don’t remember a lot from it) and ‘The devil’s queen’ about Catherine De Medici which I liked a lot. Needless to say, I was looking forward to reading ‘The scarlet contessa’.

However, the novel is told from the fictional perspective of Dea, Catherina’s lady-in-waiting who has a magical gift to read the future via tarot cards. A huge part of the storyline goes to exploring Dea’s background (her parentage, her gifts, her relationship with her husband…) and I was just eagerly waiting until Catherina’s story would really start taking off.

It did at a certain point. After the assassination of her father, she goes to Rome to marry into the forceful Riario family. There, she meets charming Rodrigo Borgia, who will become her arch enemy and also Giuliano Della Rovere, another future pope. When pope Sixtus dies, Catherina and her husband move to their estates of Imola and Forli and there will be a lot of trouble for them. I don’t want go into too much detail about the (complex) politics, but Kalogridis does a great job in making it understandable.

Unfortunately, she has to omit certain things from the story in order to do that. There is no mention of Catherina’s second marriage and a few of her children are also not spoken of. Instead, we again get some more insight in Dea’s gifts and a heavy focus on the Borgias.

I did like this novel, I just believe a less heavy focus on the fantasy part would have worked better. Regarding Catherine De Medici, I liked the magic because it is just part of how we look at her. In this novel, it felt out of place. Catherina Sforza was a formidable woman and commander of her army. Had she been born a man, she would have become a great military leader. In this novel, she turns from a vain young lustful girl into this woman that I admire. And no magic is needed to tell that story in my opinion.

I still need to read Kalogridis’ most famous book ‘The Borgia bride’ which receives higher ratings and is about Sancha of Aragon. If you have read and loved Sarah Dunant’s work about renaissance Italy, Jeanne Kalogridis is your next go to!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

What’s your favourite novel set in Italy?

August recap

So summer is over, but I still need to look back at August. As you might have guessed from my 20 books of summer recap, this was a successful reading month. But in the end, this summer didn’t work out as I wanted in some way. We had so much bad weather, some troubles were on my mind and my boyfriend got sick during our the few days we would go on holiday. But well, here’s what I read :D.

Read(ing)

I stared off with my classics club spin result ‘Treasure island’, which I enjoyed but the language was a bit too difficult for me at times. Then I finally got to ‘The scarlet contessa’, a novel about Catherina Sforza, one of my favourite historical figures.

My library haul just before my holidays included ‘Captive queen’, ‘A thousand ships’ and ‘Dit leven is van jou’ (the newest book of Tatiana De Rosnay in Dutch, translated from French. The book is not out yet in English, so I’ll not review it for the moment. But it was great, I finished it in one day!).

Number of pages read: 1.922 pages
Number of books finished: 5
Favorite read: A thousand ships
Centuries visited: Ancient Greece, 12th century, 15th century, 18th century and 21st century
Countries visited: England, France, Italy and Greece
Currently reading: ‘Lolita‘ for the classics club and ‘The collector’s daughter‘ (an e-arc I received via Netgalley).
Next up: I might finally start ‘World without end’ as this was on my 20 books of summer list but I didn’t manage to pick it up.
20 books of summer: 14/20

Reviewed

Blogged

Watched

  • I watched the BBC docuseries ‘The Boleyns, a scandalous family’. I liked the focus on Thomas Boleyn and his politics. I disliked the framing of Mary as the victim and Anne as the scheming one. Mary’s absence at the French court and her lying with the French king make for a whole different story. Also no mention of her two children whose father possibly was Henry VIII.

Added to my TBR

I was looking for some more Greek myth retellings #sorrynotsorry.

Do you have any other Greek myth recommendations?

Plague Land by S.D. Sykes

Oswald De Lacy returns to his elderly home at Somershill manor after the plague killed his father, his two older brothers and half of their tenants. At eighteen, he’s to become lord of the estate. But raised in a monastery, he’s untrained in the many responsibilities such an office holds. When a young girl is found murdered in the woods and the local village priest is talking about dog hounds and the devil, Oswald starts looking for the real murderer. A few days later, a second girl goes missing.

Plague land is the first book in the Somershill Manor Mystery series and introduces us to Oswald the Lacy, the third son of a noble family in Kent. It’s 1350 and the Black Death has been killing peasant and lord alike. The whole estate now turns to Oswald as their lord and after the body of Alison Starvecrow is found, Oswald is charged with finding the culprit (as the constable himself has also died from the plague).

Oswald is inexperienced in many things but gets help from his mentor brother Peter, who has a drinking problem. There’s a wide range of other characters, such as Joan, the local village whore, Oswald’s talkative mother and his sour sister Clemence. Apart from the characters, the medieval atmosphere also comes alive. You can smell the filth and disease from the pages. There’s a lot of superstition and talk of the devil and witches. These really were the Dark Ages.

I had my suspicions regarding the murder mystery but there are enough turns and twists to keep you hooked until the end when everything is revealed. This is not the best historical mystery. Sykes is no Sansom. But it’s entertaining and Oswald has a lot of potential as a main character for the coming books. He will have a lot more mysteries to solve it seems. And I’m looking forward to meet him again in ‘The butcher bird’.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Have you read this series? Any other medieval mystery recommendations?

20 books of summer: the recap

I can’t believe that summer is already over (or almost, I’m still hoping at an Indian summer). I don’t really mind going back to work, as I need some routine to function properly, but I’m a bit sad that autumn is here.

This also means I must look back at my first participation of #20booksofsummer. This challenge is hosted by Cathy of 746 books. In May, I made a list of 20 books of which I have tried to read as many books as possible by the end of August. I aimed to read somewhere between 10 and 20 books during the three summer months and I hoped to finish around 10 of the 20 books I originally chose. This means that there was some space to pick up other books not on the list. And haha, of course I didn’t stick to the list completely. But how did I do? Let’s look back, month by month.

June

I started off strong, finishing four books in June. And you won’t believe it, but all of them appeared on my original list! 🤩 That wasn’t too hard as ‘The vanishing witch‘ and ‘the crimson ribbon‘ were part of my library haul in May, I read ‘Far from the madding crowd‘ for the Classic club and ‘Cecily‘ was a review copy. But still, not bad at all.

Round-up June: finished 4 books in total, 4 from the original list.

July

And then came July. Bad weather forced me to read inside and I did read a lot. I finished 5 books, which is the highest number of books finished in one month this year. So great, this challenge is really helping me to read more. Or was it the weather? 🤔

Just one little comment: only 2/5 (The last daughter and ‘Plague land’) books appeared on my original list from May. But shht, I still did read a lot. And I have found some good excuses 😅. I was only approved for ‘Daughters of Sparta‘ after having made the list and both ‘Animals of Lockwood manor‘ and ‘The city tears‘ are from another library haul. So it just went a bit out of hand in the library. 🤫

Round-up June + July: finished 9 books in total, 6 from the original list.

August

And then came August, the month were I finished another solid 5 books and started a sixth one. I had two weeks off from work and as my boyfriend became ill, I did have much more time to read than I anticipated. 🤷‍♀️ I even managed to pick up three more books from my original list. ‘Captive queen’ and ‘A thousand ships’ were available at the library. As was the newest Tatiana de Rosnay (title not yet available in English) which I finished in one day.

I finally managed to read ‘The scarlet contessa’, one of the books I was looking forward most to read, but other books always took precedence. Not this summer, I enjoyed it a lot! ‘Treasure island‘ was my classic clubs spin result and in the meantime I’ve started another classic novel, ‘Lolita’ from Nabokov.

Total round-up:

  • 14 books finished, one started
  • I finished 9 books from my original list (so not the hoped for 10, but I was almost there :))
  • I have written the reviews of all the books I’ve finished so far, they will be published in the upcoming weeks.

I highly enjoyed participating in this challenge. Thanks again to Cathy for organizing and I hope to rejoin for the summer of 2022!

Treasure island by Robert Louis Stevenson

The young Jim Hawkins gets his hands on a treasure map from the old sailor Billy Bones. The map belonged to the feared pirate captain Flint and indicates the location of riches on Skeleton island. Jim sets sail to the island with a few friends, but the one-legged cook John Silver turns out to be an old shipmate of Flint and the crew turns against them.

This classic novel was my result for the 27th CC spin and I must admit that I was looking forward to reading it as I had just finished the Starz series ‘Black sails’, which can be seen as a prequel to this novel. I also do have a thing with pirate stories and novels that take place on a ship.

The book opens with Billy Bones coming to stay at the pub of Jim and his parents. He offers old tales of his life as a seaman and is scared of a pirate with a wooden leg. When he dies, Jim finds a treasure map in his belongings, just before a pirate crew can get hold of it. Subsequently, Jim and his friends from the town set sail to Skeleton island but mutiny looms around the corner and Jim has to use his wit to make it out the adventure alive.

I must start with admitting that this was not an easy read for me. I struggled with the language (I read it in English). A lot of words were unfamiliar to me and I had difficulties with understanding what was going on at times and who was speaking. This is a common critic on this novel apparently. Maybe, next time I should read it in Dutch.

But it is a classic adventure novel with a lot of imagination. It highly influenced how we think of pirates and it has a lasting impact on popular culture (Black Sails is a great example of that of course). The story did feel a bit outdated at times, and I expected more action. But still, I believe I enjoyed this one enough.

I in particular loved the opening chapters, where Jim and his mother try to outwit the pirates. John Silver proves the ideal villain, although I can’t help but love him too. It was a short and entertaining read but I had expected to love it even more.

This is book 7/50 for the classics club. And book 10 for #20booksofsummer.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Have you read this? Did you enjoy it?

The animals of Lockwood manor by Jane Healey

When WOII is luring around the corner, the Natural History Museum of London is looking elsewhere to store their precious collection of mammals. Hettie Cartwright is made director—as all men are going to war—of the new museum at Lockwood manor, an old country home with more than 99 rooms. Her reception by the lord of the manor is hostile. The only friend she can turn to is Lucy, the lord daughter’s. Lucy’s mother and grandmother have just died in a car accident and Lucy herself suffers from nightmares about a woman dressed in white and a blue room. When animals are starting to disappear or are changing places, Hettie wonders if this really is a haunted house after all.

Hettie has grown up in an unloved family and has always devoted most of her time to her work. However, as a woman she has little prospect to get promoted. But when all the men are called to war, this is her chance to prove herself as the responsible of the mammal collection. When soon after her arrival at Lockwood manor (the name being an allusion to Emily’s Brönte’s narrator in Wuthering Heights) animals start to disappear, she wants to preserve the animals and her promotion no matter what. She becomes obsessed. This sets her at hostile ground with Lord Lockwood and the servants of the manor.

The only person that seems to be friendly towards her is Lucy. But she’s a complicated character. Suffering from a sensitive nerving system and bad dreams, Lucy is afraid to leave her home and doesn’t dare to stand up to her father.

The animals of Lockwood manor is Jane Healey’s first novel and is set in the tradition of the great gothic classics such as Rebecca and Jane Eyre. All the gothic elements are there: a haunted house, a ghost story, family secrets, a young and inexperienced main character and a fire. However, I don’t think of this book as a merely gothic story. There’s also a heavy romance plot line.

The book has an original setting. The mammals and the home feature as real characters in the book. And while the story is set during WOII, the war is never really a part of the plot. Only just looming in the background. Chapters are alternating between Hettie and Lucy. With Lucy’s part being in diary form. I did enjoy Hettie’s perspective the most. I could relate to her and her fear and doubts felt real.

There’s a heavy sapphic romance in the book, which was a bit cliche done. I’ve recently read a range of books with the same theme (The crimson ribbon, The mercies, The testimony of Alys Twist…) and the plot felt a bit forced at times. I wanted to read more about the mystery that was hiding within the manor.

Jane Healey’s writing was ok. I had some trouble with the pace. Some chapters felt really slow, while the ending was quite sudden in its revealings. I’m ok with the ending, I had guessed some part of it, but it gives an explanation to most things that happened.

Overall, I did enjoy the animals at Lockwood manor and I’ll happily try one of Healey’s future works. The sound of ‘The Ophelia girls‘, which will be published this summer, already appeals to me.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Have you read this one? Any gothic recommendations?

The last daughter by Nicola Cornick

Eleven years ago, Serena’s half sister Caitlin disappeared between the old ruins of Minster Lovell Hall. Unfortunately, Serena can’t remember anything from that night. Then suddenly Caitlin’s body is found during archeological research in strange circumstances. Serena travels back to Oxfordshire determined to uncover the truth. In the fifteenth century, Anne Fitzhugh is betrothed to Francis Lovell, a close friend to Richard of Gloucester. She discovers the existence of an ancient old relic, the Lovell lodestar, which is said to have magical powers.

I was happy to get the chance to read ‘The last daughter‘ as it was my introduction to Nicola Cornick’s work. She is known for her dual timeline novels with an interesting historical perspective and a bit of magical or science fiction elements woven into the story.

The novels opens in our century when Serena receives a call from the police while on a visit to her aunt Polly in America. The remains of her missing twin sister have been found, close to the place where Caitlin disappeared all those years ago. Minster Lovell Hall is a medieval manor, where her grandparents lived and Serena and her sister spent their holidays. Her grandfather Dick is suffering from dementia and has moved to an elderly home. Their house has been sold and is now a tourist museum. Serena travels to Lovell Hall to see if she can remember anything from that dreadful night.

The historical timeline is told from Anne Fitzhugh whose mother was a Neville, brother to Richard Neville, earl of Warwick and kingmaker. Her parents become involved in the rebellion against Edward IV and Anne is married to Francis Lovell, one of Warwicks wardens. Francis is a close friend to Richard of York, the king’s younger brother. As you can tell, we’re in the middle of the Wars of the Roses so Anne and Francis will be in much trouble.

The whole mystery surrounds around Minster Lovell Hall, Francis’ family home. It is said it contains a so called ‘lodestar’ that can make you fall through time. We learn about the story of the mistletoe bride who disappeared on her wedding night and of course Francis Lovell himself vanishes after the battle of Stoke field.

I did like both perspectives, but I think I enjoyed Anne’s most. It’s set in one of my favorite periods and I believe Francis Lovell is a great main character to depict the events as he was in the midst of it all as Richard’s closest friend and advisor. However, when the story progresses towards the disappearance of the princes in the Tower, I had my doubts about the plot. In one chapter, Anne and Francis are against the princes, proclaiming them as bastards. In the next, they try to protect them together with Elizabeth Woodville. This felt a bit artificial.

I also enjoyed the magical elements and legends surrounding the lodestar. This is a light read and the focus isn’t really on the history but rather on the mystery surrounding all the disappearances and especially Caitlin’s. I’m sure I’ll pick up one of Cornick’s earlier works now.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for a copy of this book in return for my honest opinion.

This is book 9 for #20booksofsummer.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Nicola Cornick?

The city of tears by Kate Mosse

Minou Joubert and her family are living in Puivert after the dramatic events of 10 years ago. They take care of Huguenot refugees as the religious wars are still raging across France. When they receive an invitation to the marriage of the Huguenot prince Henri Of Navarra to the catholic Marguerite of Valois, Minou and Piet leave for Paris with their children Martha and Jean-Jacques. In the meantime, their arch enemy bishop Vidal is looking for documents of Piet’s mother in Amsterdam.

The city of tears opens ten years after the events of ‘The burning chambers‘. Minou is now the lady of Puivert and Piet, injured from yet another battle, is harboring refugees in their village. But a royal marriage promises peace and Piet and Minou are invited to Paris. When their five-year-old daughter Martha vanishes on the 22nd of August 1572 and blood is shed in the streets Paris, the family flees to Amsterdam.

Mosse takes you to the bloody events of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. One of the most dark chapters in the history of France. It’s the first time I read about it from another perspective than Catherine De Medici and the royal family (as was the case in ‘The devil’s queen‘ and ‘Queen Jezebel‘). Afterwards, we arrive in Amsterdam during the Eighty Year’s War with Spain. Amsterdam is still a catholic city but protestants are crying in the streets for change. I love how Mosse takes me to the 16th century but without the traditional focus on The Tudors. This is also fascinating European history, but often overlooked.

It’s again a very smartly crafted novel. It blends the lives of two families with real historical events. This of course means that sometimes there are some coincidences to make it work, but that didn’t bother me. As in ‘The burning chambers’, a part of the plot surrounds around the parentage of one of the main characters. Another plot centers around Vidal and his son Louis looking for relics around France. But I still preferred the historical context and the storylines that focused on Minou and her relationship with her husband, children and other relatives.

I believe I enjoyed this book even more than ‘The burning chambers’, as the characters were already familiar to me and the historical setting was even more gripping. I’m really curious to see how the next book will play out as we already got two prologues set almost 300 years later in South-Africa. But as this sequel isn’t out yet, I’ll first start with her other trilogy set in France of which ‘Labyrinth‘ is the first part.

This is book 6 for #20booksofsummer.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Kate Mosse? What’s your favourite historical novel set in France?

July recap

I almost forgot to write this, as I didn’t realize another month has passed. I don’t really have a summer feeling, apart from the fact that my 20 books of summer challenge is going great. We experienced some grave floods and a lot of people lost their homes. It made me extremely sad. 😢

But August is my favorite month with my summer holidays, birthday and this blog’s first anniversary apparently :D.

Read(ing)

In terms of reading this was my best month so far as I’ve finished 5 books. All lighter entertaining reads that I enjoyed a lot. My favourite was ‘The city of tears’, closely followed by ‘The last daughter’. But I can’t say anything bad about the other books either. Great reading month!

Number of pages read: 2.016 pages
Number of books finished: 5
Favorite read: The city of tears
Centuries visited: Ancient Greece, 14th century, 15th century and 21st century
Countries visited: England, France and Greece
Currently reading: I’ve started my spin result ‘Treasure island’
Next up: One of my kindle books, but I’m not sure which one yet
20 books of summer: 9/20

Reviewed

Blogged

Added to my TBR

Watched

  • ‘Luca’ at Disney+ while recovering from my second Pfizer shot. It was great!

How is your summer reading going?