Winter pilgrims by Toby Clemens

After some dramatic events in the cold winter snow, Catherine and Thomas both have to leave their secluded monastery in Lincoln on the run for Giles Riven, a local lord with the power to crush them. They don’t know each other and have no clue about the current wars going on outside between the houses of Lancaster and York. The dukes of York and Warwick have just lost the last battle and Warwick’s army is gathering in Calais. By accident, Catherine and Thomas end up there and they join the retinue of Sir John Fakenham and his son Richard. This new alliance will lead them to the battlefields of Northampton and Towton.

Winter pilgrims is the first book in the kingmaker series about two commoners during the Wars of the Roses. 15th century England always makes for a nice setting, but this book doesn’t focus on the kings, queens and politics. It’s about a young man and woman trying to survive and make sense of all this. In that way, it reminded of me of Ken Follett’s approach in his Kingsbridge series.

There’s also a huge focus on some famous battles, so that you can compare Clemens to Iggulden or Cornwell. His battle scenes are gruesome, bloody and confusing. Just as any soldier would have experienced it. Especially the brutality and confusion of the battle at Towton comes alive at the end of the novel.

Winter pilgrims opens fast, setting the scene for the rest of the story. The cliches of a monk turning into a warrior and a nun into a nurse is something that should be overlooked. Another cliche is the evil arch enemy that haunts them during the book. This is foremost an adventure novel with nice characters that you get used to very quickly (only to see them murdered afterwards :D), the plot comes in second. And I’m ok with that because the story certainly was entertaining.

It’s also a book clearly written as the first part in a series. A lot of plot lines are started, but aren’t yet touched in much detail in this book. The end is abrupt and leaves some questions unanswered. The writing is in first person tense, and although that’s a bit strange, it didn’t bother me that much. I liked the focus on the common men and the battles. So, I believe I’m curious enough to read the next book ‘Broken faith’.

Clemens is no Cornwell and this novel was maybe a bit too heavy in pages with an unbelievable plot at some times. But if you’re up for an adventure during this fascinating period, Winter pilgrims will provide you with exactly that.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Do you have a favourite book set during the Wars of the Roses? Do you like to read an adventure novel?

Rags of Time by Michael Ward

Wool merchant Joseph Venell is strangely murdered on the countryside near London. Spice trader Thomas Tallant, just returned from India, is asked for his opinion on the case by an investigator. Against his will, the suspicion falls on him, even more when Venell’s business partner dies at the house of his parents. How can he prove his innocence? Luckily, Thomas gets some help from the intelligent but mysterious Elizabeth Seymour and his best friend Edmund.

The cover states that the murder was just the beginning of the affair and actually this is a great description. The story has many different plot lines that have nothing to do with the murder mystery. 17th century England under the reign of Charles I comes alive in this new historical mystery series (as I suspect there will be more books with Thomas and Elizabeth as main characters).

The 1630’s isn’t exactly a time period that I know a lot about. There’s a lot of historical context in the other plot lines, such as the religious uproar between the puritans and the Anglican followers of bisshop Laud, the protégé of the queen. We also get some insight in the world of the merchants working for the East-Indian Trading company. I especially loved the description of London, a city full of possibilities by trade. As a result many people move to London and the city is overcrowded, full of disease and with a strong stench of human filth.

There’s an enormous cast of characters. I liked Thomas Tallant, he’s no ordinary detective as in many mystery novels, but a spice trader who becomes involved in a series of strange events. This is quite an original starting point for the whole affair as Thomas doesn’t have any particular skills on how to catch a killer. However, he does have the skill to get himself into trouble 😅.

Elizabeth Seymour has a lot of potential as a character. She’s beautiful and witty, way ahead of her time and interested in science. She also has a gambling problem. But I believe she didn’t get enough ‘screen time’ in this novel to really flower.

At the end, it all comes together. For me the revelations felt a bit messy sometimes, especially the action scenes. I’m not yet sure if I’ll read any sequel though. Rags of time is an entertaining mystery novel with a great cast and an interesting historical setting.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Thanks to Michael Ward for a copy of his book in return for my honest opinion.

The color purple by Alice Walker

America, early 20th century. The black sisters Nettie and Celie grow up together until their mother dies and their father abuses Celie, the oldest. Celie flees into a loveless marriage with a much older man who beats her, leaving Nettie behind. When Shug Avery, her husband’s ex-lover, comes to town, the two women develop a friendship and Celie finally starts living. Then she discovers her husband has kept Nettie’s letters, who is now in Africa as a missionary, from her.

This is the most recent book from my Classics club list, written in the eighties but already considered a classic. It even has a Penguin classic edition, so I decided I could use it for my list. I always back off from reading books about racism. I can’t really explain why I find it hard to pick them up. But once reading I seem to find them quite fascinating. This was also the case with ‘the color purple‘.

This is a novel mainly consisting of letters from Celie to God. She writes in faltered English, which makes it not always easy to read. But I hadn’t a problem with that. It contributed to the story and the characterization of Nettie, who is not learned, a bit naive and learns about life the hard way. In the middle of the book, Nettie’s perspective is added to the story. She writes her letters in more perfect English to Celie from Africa where she’s working as a missionary together with another black family.

The book is as much about racism as about feminism. Apart from Nettie and Celie, there are some other black women that are part of the main cast. The outspoken Sofie, free-fought Shug and invisible Piep (whose real name is Mary Agnes). A lot of bad things happen to them, but this creates a strong bond between the women.

I enjoyed Celie’s perspective the most. It gave me an insight into the difficult position of black women in the south of America not even 100 years ago. Nettie’s story in Africa talks about the colonization, another heavy subject. So I would understand that you can feel a bit overwhelmed when reading this book, but I should praise Walker for having written a balanced book. There’s friendship, love and hope everywhere.

I understand why this is considered a modern classic and a book every woman should read at least once.

This is book 4/50 for the classics club.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read the color purple?

Warriors of the storm by Bernard Cornwell

In the middle of the night thousands of Danes land in the north of Mercia uniting under their new ‘king’ Ragnall Ivarsson, brother to Uhtred’s son-in-law. It’s still unclear if Ragnall wants to overthrow the lady of Mercia Aethelflaed or whether his eye wanders towards Northumbria. In the meantime, Uhtred’s daughter Stiorra is being besieged in Ireland. Uhtred now has to choose between his love for his daughter and his oath as a warrior to Aethelflaed.

This is already the ninth installment in the Saxon series and we meet a much older battle-hardened Uhtred now. The previous book, the empty throne, ended with a sudden surprise for me, so I was curious to see how the story would continue. What I liked about this book is that it offers a great balance between some terrific battle scenes and the rest of the story. Uhtred is always busy in this novel and I in particular liked his small adventure into Ireland. We also finally get an insight into Finan’s past. He’s by far my favorite side character.

Although this certainly can be read as a stand-alone as the story offers a lot of closure at the end (no big cliffhanger this time), I do believe you’ll enjoy it more when you’ve read all the books in the series. There are some characters from Uhtred’s past popping up and we do say goodbye to some of them (which was a bit of a surprise for me but it promises some new characters in the next books).

Another aspect I enjoyed is Uhtred’s relationship with his children which is a big part of the story. As is the constant strive between the Christian God and the old Gods of the Danes. In that regard, I was a bit disappointed by the fast end of the storyline in Mercia. I had hoped father Leofstan would become a bigger part of the story. I also guessed the truth around Mus, but she was a great addition to the cast nonetheless. It made the final battle actually quite funny. Nobody can write that kind of scene as good as Cornwell.

Warriors of the storm was another great read. In the next book, the flame bearer, Uhtred will return to Bebbanburg and yes, aren’t we all looking forward to that?

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Amenable women by Mavis Cheek

When Flora Chapman’s husband Edward, one of the town’s most popular men, suddenly dies during a balloon flight, she doesn’t seem to grieve. Flora has always been a plain woman who lived in the shadow of her perfect husband. Between the notes on his desk, she finds an unfinished history project on the manor where they live that leads to Anne Of Cleves. Huscott manor was one of her residences after her divorce from Henry VIII. Flora decides to travel to Paris on her own to visit Anna’s portrait in the Louvre.

I had hoped this book to be an entertaining dual time frame novel. But actually it’s not. The story focuses on Flora who recently became a widow and by accident takes a large interest in the life of Anne Of Cleves. At Huscott manor her husband had found a stone with her date of death carved into it. But no one knows who left this mark 40 years after Anna’s death and why. She decides to leave for Paris to see Anna’s famous Holbein portrait in the Louvre to see for herself if she really was a Flanders’ mare.

There’s a second perspective of Anna her portrait. Yes, at night she awakes and tells her story to other portraits, such as Elizabeth I and Mary De Guise. It says a lot about this book if I tell you that Anna’s perspective was the most interesting part of this book. Too bad, the author didn’t choose for a real 16th century perspective of Anne Of Cleves. The whole portrait thing was a bit too far fetched for my tastes.

The problem with this book is that although Flora is a witty main character, I just didn’t seem to care about her life and problems. I cared even less about all the people in the town. I did find the parallels between Flora’s life and Anna’s not at all that big. And at times Flora and the other characters behaved as toddlers. Flora desperately wants the town’s solicitor to like her and tries to achieve this by out-arguing a museum guide. Her daughter Hilary isn’t any better as she dotes on her deceased father and needs to put him on a display in every sentence she says.

The other thing that really bothered me was the fact that the story tries to contradict the fact that Anne was plain and ugly. That she wasn’t a Flanders’ mare. While at the time some other historical women such as Catherine Parr and Jane Seymour are being called ‘a nursemaid’ and ‘dull’. I’m fine with a bit of feminism, but I don’t like one-sided feminism.

This book is more about the grief of a woman who lived in her husband’s shadow and now tries to find her own place in the sunlight than a historical book. If you love chick-lit or a light novel and you don’t know a lot about The Tudors this book might be something for you. If you’re a history lover like me, I suggest you look elsewhere.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

What’s your favorite dual time frame novel?

Flowers of darkness by Tatiana De Rosnay

Clarissa is a successful author who has just left her second husband and is looking for a place to stay. By accident, she gets selected for a spot in a new apartment complex destined for artists. This apartment is built in the new neighbourhood that has risen from the ashes of a terrorist attack on the Eiffel Tower. After a few weeks, Clarissa notices some strange things in her new home. There are cameras everywhere (except on the toilet), her personalized virtual assistant seems to know her deepest fears and at night her dreams are haunted with a strangely familiar voice. Together with her granddaughter Andy they start an investigation. Are they really being watched? And by who?

Tatiana De Rosnay is my favorite novelist. I always pick up her books, regardless of the topic. The premise of ‘Flowers of darkness‘ didn’t grab my attention at first as artificial intelligence isn’t a topic I’m used to reading about. But once I started, I discovered all the familiar De Rosnay elements are there. A mother recovering from a loss, a small family with their problems and secrets, a bilingual main character who’s also a writer, Paris…

Yes this is a story about the near future where Europe is recovering from a range of awful terrorist attacks, from the Brexit (not so science fiction), from the bee extinction and a sea level rise. It’s an awful future, where people are competing with robots. But not everything is so different in this story. There is love and there is loss. I loved the side characters from her first husband Toby, over her English father to the heartwarming neighbour who befriends Clarissa. And of course, there’s Andy, Clarissa’s angel.

A part of the story is also about Clarissa’s research into the lives of the writers Virginia Woolf and Romain Gary. And the parallels with her own struggles. The mystery element of the apartment is build up but open for interpretation at the end. I had no problem with that. You constantly wonder if Clarissa really sees and hears those things or if it’s just her imagination working.

I finished this book in two sittings. That’s very rare. And it’s just because I enjoy her writing so much. Reading De Rosnay is like wrapping myself in my favourite blanket. This might not be her best, but it still has much to like. I highly recommend to read one of her books.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Who’s your favourite novelist?

Howards End by E.M. Forster

The middleclass sisters Margaret and Helen Schlegel are living in London together with their younger brother Tibby. On holiday in Germany, the land of birth of their deceased father, they meet the Wilcoxes, a family rich by business. Back in England, Helen goes to live a few days with them at Howard’s End, the favourite house of Mrs. Wilcox. But things don’t go as planned. After a romantic affair with the youngest son Paul, Helen returns to London. At an opera show, she accidentally steals an umbrella of the clerk Leonard Bast who has a poor income. In the coming years fate will bring these three families together again.

I had already seen the most recent BBC/Starz adaptation, so I knew the story a bit. I love how everything comes together at the end and how Howard’s End seems to be an extra character in the book. The house is always there, looming over the events.

Howard’s End was published in 1910 and offers a pre-war perspective on European relationships. At times, it felt like a total different world out there. The book covers a lot of interesting themes: social class, poverty, prejudice, feminism and sisterhood. The three families are all part of a different social class. The Schlegel sisters are middleclass. They love art, poetry and culture and don’t need to worry about money. The Wilcoxes are affluent, trying to make even more money thanks to the right investments. They tend to value things over people. While at the same time, the Basts are struggling to make ends meet. Leonard wants to get higher up in life and starts taking an interest in books and art, a subject he enjoys discussing with the Schlegel sisters.

The main perspective was that of Margaret, the older Schlegel and not my favourite character. Margaret is sensible and thoughtful. She’s the perfect opposite of her impulsive and emotional sister and the rather dull and rational Wilcoxes. She’s the much needed conscience in the story, as many of the other characters appear rather flat and insensitive at times.

The writing is good, although I found it a bit difficult at times. There is some dialogue, but also a strong narrator perspective where Forster directly speaks to the reader. Some of these aren’t always that easy to follow. There are also some time jumps that can be confusing.

In the end, I understand why Howard’s End is considered a true classic. The unique atmosphere of Europe before the Great War combined with themes that are still highly relevant today make for a great novel. I also have ‘A passage to India’ from Forster on my classics club list and am looking forward to see if I’ll like it even more.

This is book 3/50 for the Classics Club.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Have you read anything by E.M. Forster? What’s your favourite?

The queen’s dressmaker by Meghan Masterson

Versailles, 1789. Giselle is one of Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe women and hopes to draw her own dresses one day. But revolution is looming in the streets of Paris and Giselle gets herself involved in a riot. She’s saved by Léon, a young revolutionary, and soon the two of them start to develop an intimate friendship. When things get worse and the king and queen are blamed, Giselle needs to choose between her loyalty to the queen and her revolutionary friends.

I was happy to get a chance to read ‘The queen’s dressmaker‘, a reissue of ‘The wardrobe mistress’, Masterson’s debut novel that already was on my TBR. It tells the story of Giselle, a wardrobe women of Marie Antoinette and is set in the final years of her life during the revolution.

Although I love French history, Marie Antoinette isn’t one of my favourite historical figures. I believe she wouldn’t be that famous without her dreadful end. As a queen she didn’t get a chance to change things. Or rather: she didn’t grab the chance for change.

What I loved about this story is that it also shows the bloody and fearful side of the revolution. The events of 1789 and the coming years are glorified nowadays, but it were uncertain times and the terror that followed the execution of the monarchs made many victims. You walk with Giselle through the street of Paris where no one is quite sure how things will play out as royalists and Jacobins can’t agree on the role of the king in their new regime.

I also enjoyed the portrayal of Marie Antoinette. You feel some sympathy for her, while at the same time she behaves herself as a snob not understanding the real threat of the revolution. But this is Giselle’s story, not Marie Antoinette’s. I liked her character and the fact that she’s constantly in between two conflicting loyalties. There’s also a heavy romance. And as you know, I’m usually not a big fan of those, but I did become quite invested in it this time. But for the wrong reasons. I didn’t think Léon deserved Giselle so I became quite mad at him sometimes 😅.

In the end, this book couldn’t really grip me as much as I would liked it to. The second part is certainly a lot better than the first but the ending is a bit sudden. I had hoped to know a bit more about what happens next to the characters. But this is a good read for anyone interested in the French Revolution and/or Marie Antoinette.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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

The strange adventures of H by Sarah Burton

H. has never known her full name. After her father has died, her five sisters all go their own way. H. and her sister Evelyn go to live with their caring aunt in London. Once there, her nephew rapes her and a deadly plague strikes down, killing one third of the town’s population. Orphaned, homeless and pregnant H. needs to survive on her own strength. But her adventure has only just begun.

The strange adventures of H. is a fun historical novel with a modern twist. We follow the adventures of H., a young Englishwoman born into poverty who, after some dramatic personal events, needs to sell her body to survive. And 17th century London proves quite a challenge: from a devastating plague summer, the Great Fire of 1666 to the Shrove Tuesday riots. This novel offers a vivid historical setting for anyone interested in the Restoration period.

But what I liked most about this book wasn’t the setting. The characters make this book. They are almost caricatures, whereas the plot is a web of coincidences. The narrator even admits this during the story and jeers at the implausibleness of certain events. Normally, this would put me off. But Sarah Burton possesses such an own voice in her writing that it kept me hooked until the end.

The book is divided into three parts corresponding the development H. goes through as a person: the shy H., seductive Doll and confident Halycon. I liked H. most of the times, despite being very naive (but she’s still so young in the biggest part of the book). ‘Her adventures’ bring her in touch with many different persons. Some you’ll love instantly, others you’ll loathe. I was quite satisfied with the ending and am curious if Burton plans to write another novel about one of the other sisters.

This isn’t the story I’ll remember for ages. But I’ll look out for more books of this author in the future. She’s a new voice in the genre who offers straightforward historical entertainment. And sometimes that’s all you need (especially during a global pandemic).

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

The fire court by Andrew Taylor

A few months after the fire of London, James Marwood is still working as a clerk at Whitehall Palace when his elderly father falls under the wheels of a wagon and dies. The night before his death, he came home with blood on his sleeves telling a strange story about a women in a yellow dress with red spots. Marwood dismisses the story as nonsense until suddenly a body of a woman in a yellow dress is found in the ruins of the burnt city. This leads him to the fire court, where judges are trying to solve conflicts between landowners and renters about the reconstruction after the fire. A case about a place called Dragon Yard guides Marwood again in the arms of Cat Lovett, daughter of a regicide, who’s now hiding at the house of Dr. Hakesby as his niece Jane Hakesby.

The fire court is the second book in a series of historical mysteries set after the fire of London in 1666. You don’t need to have read the first book ‘ashes of London‘ but I do recommend to do so. When reading ashes of London, it felt like an introduction to the background of the main characters James Marwood and Cat Lovett. The murder mystery wasn’t that big. And that disappointed me a bit.

But in this novel, the mystery is the main focus point of the story and there’s a lot more action. Again, you get to read different chapters from either James’ or Cat’s perspective, but there’s also a third narrator. Jemina Limbury is the rich but troubled wife of Philip Limbury, an important man at Whitehall who also has an interest in the Dragon Yard case of the fire court.

I liked the setting of the fire court, as I had no idea about the details of the reconstruction of London after the fire. Taylor again does a great job in creating an atmosphere where you can smell the ashes from the pages. This setting in combination with a complex mystery made it an enjoyable read. There are some convincing side characters from James’ traumatized father Nathaniel, his servants the caring Margaret and Sam, the one-legged war veteran, to the scheming Jemina Limbury, her loyal maidservant Mary and Gromwell. A man as dark as the man whose name resemblances his own.

I finally felt some connection with Cat, now Jane Hakesby. James Marwood goes through a lot in this story. The death of his father, a personal tragedy when trying to save a victim from a fire and conflicting loyalties towards his two employers at Whitehall. I’m curious what lies ahead for them in the next installment in the series: the king’s evil.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

What’s your favourite mystery series?