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?

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?

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?

Cecily by Annie Garthwaite

Cecily Neville is a highbred noblewoman and a distant family member of the weak king Henry VI via her Beaufort mother. She’s married to Richard, earl of York, whose father was executed as a traitor under Henry V because he had a claim to the throne. But the loss of France in the Hundred Years War, the bad choice of his advisors and the inability to provide an heir for the throne makes Henry unpopular with his nobles. Richard and Cecily must choose to stand with him or risk everything (their position, family and life) and start a rebellion.

Cecily Neville is one of those perfect female perspectives to talk about the Wars of the Roses. She experienced the conflict from the beginning to the very end. This makes her a popular main character. I already read about her in ‘Red rose, white rose’ by Joanne Hickson (I loved it!) and recently Anne ‘O Brien published ‘The queen’s rival’ which I haven’t read yet. Annie Garthwaite is a new voice in historical fiction and I was curious to see what she would do with Cecily’s story.

The books opens with the burning of Joan d’Arc. King Henry VI is on the throne and the Wars of the Roses still seem far away. It’s always interesting to discover which starting point an author takes for this complex conflict. It’s certainly so that one of England’s greatest triumphs in the Hundred Years War can be seen as the beginning of the end for England in France.

This also means that two third of the book is set before the first battle and I liked that. I’ve read so many times about the Wars itself that we tend to forget the period before it where the seeds of the conflict are planted. We follow Richard and Cecily to France and Ireland. Learn more about the key advisors around the king that caused unrest. About the different fractions and the difficult family ties. The story really focuses on Henry VI reign and I definitely learned some new things.

We get an insight into the relationship between Cecily and Richard. She bore him twelve children. Seven would survive and make great marriages. Two would become king. Cecily is set as a formidable and highly intelligent woman who is a central character in the political game and a true advisor to her husband. I understand this feministic choice and I do believe that Cecily was a smart and cunning woman. However, this forces Richard into a more passive and weak role. Towards the end, Cecily even loathes him for it. This irritated me a bit.

You also learn about Cecily’s family (her mother, uncle and brother), her relationship with Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Isabel of Burgundy and of course queen Margaret of Anjou. I really appreciated that Garthwaite chose a human Margaret of Anjou which can’t have been easy when you write from the perspective of her enemy. Margaret is so demonized during history, I’m still waiting on a book from her viewpoint (let me know if you know of such a book).

The writing is bit rational and descriptive. For me, it lacked some emotion to really get me involved in the characters. I also would have liked to read from different perspectives. Cecily was so strong a character, that she needed to stay strong even in times of peril. I wasn’t engaged in this book as I was with First of the Tudors (both books cover more or less the same period but from a total different viewpoint).

Still, I would recommend ‘Cecily‘ to every history buff or to people who want to discover the early days of the Wars of the Roses.

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

This is book 4 for #20booksofsummer.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Daughters of Sparta by Claire Heywood

Helen and Klythemnestra are the daughters of the Spartan king Tyndareos and his wife queen Leda. When rumours start to circulate around Helen’s birth Klythemnestra, although being the eldest, is forced to marry king Agamemnon of Mycenae. Helen becomes the heir of Sparta and her father receives all the kings of Greece to compete for her hand. The choice falls upon Menelaos, Agamemnon’s brother. Neither marriage will be happy and both sisters will be drawn into the huge conflict of the Trojan War.

I love Greek myth retellings, that’s no secret. Having already read Colm Toibin’s ‘House of Names’ where Klythemnestra and her children appear as main characters, I was curious to see how Heywood would tell her story. Both Helen and Klythemnestra are demonized women. One being the girl that launched a thousand ships and caused the destruction of Troy, the other a husband killer.

Daughters of Sparta‘ tells the story of the sisters from their youth as happy princesses in their fathers palace until right after the siege of Troy. I’m in general no fan of the Helen and Paris storyline. But Heywood manages to create some sympathy for Helen, at least until Paris arrives. Then it goes all so fast and her decision is made as quickly as the choice of how she will dress.

Klythemnestra’s story takes us to the Greek shores where she tries to stop her husband killing her daughter Iphigenia as a sacrifice for the Gods. Still, Heywood tries to create a woman who is in pain but not full of revenge. This works to a certain extend, but I missed the fury and hate I imagine when thinking about Klythemnestra.

I think the main problem with this novel is maybe that Heywood tries to paint their lives as them being just normal women. She also focuses on their unhappy relationship with their husbands. This implies that she omits certain things from the classic story, especially once we are in Troy. No Achilles, almost no Hector, no Apollo and a Cassandra that doesn’t speak out about her visions.

But still the fall of Troy took my breath away. I always hope this story will end differently, but of course it never does. The cruel fate of the women is again described vividly and gave me goosebumps (and reminded me of Pat Barker’s ‘Silence of the girls’).

Maybe, this isn’t the best retelling. But Heywood writes straightforward and can set a small foot next to Miller and Barker in my opinion. Daughters of Sparta takes a moderate approach towards two sisters whose stories have never been told that way.

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

This is book 5 for #20booksofsummer

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Far from the madding crowd by Thomas Hardy

Sheep farmer Gabriel Oak falls in love with the outspoken and beautiful Bathsheba Everdene, but she refuses him. However, Gabriel stays loyal to her and becomes her shepherd when Bathsheba inherits a farm from her uncle. Bathsheba wants to govern the farm herself and attracts the attention of two new suitors in doing that. One of them is her neighbour farmer Mr. Bolwood, a quiet single man ten years her senior. The other is a soldier and womanizer who goes by the name of Frank Troy.

I was looking forward to discover Hardy’s writing, expecting a romance that would swoon me away. The story is set in the fictional county of Wessex in the 19th century and centers around Bathsheba Everdene and her three suitors. When Bathsheba becomes head of a farm run by men, she wants to do things in her own way.

This is a difficult review to write. Hardy is a master writer. I loved his poetic writing. But I’m sorry to say that I didn’t enjoy the plot at all. I’m no romance person in general, but I had too many issues with the unhealthy relationships that were a focus in this story.

I didn’t like Bathsheba at all. She’s impulsive, restless and can’t make up her mind. Her character evolves during the story, but still I find her selfish in her behaviour towards the men. She only seems to care about her own feelings. Her joke on Valentine’s Day towards Mr. Boldwood made my eyeballs roll out.

And then we come to the men. Mr. Boldwood comes forward as a pusher, or a stalker even. He expects Bathsheba’s love in return for I don’t understand what. And Troy is just the casual bad boy who has a nice talk but don’t takes it serious with any woman. The only character I really felt bad for in this novel was Fanny Robin, poor thing.

But luckily we have Gabriel Oak. Sweet and loyal Gabriel. Patient and trustworthy Gabriel. He always knows what to say or when to stay quiet. Gabriel is perfect. He never stinks. I’m just not into perfect characters. So yes, he is the least annoying, but I found him irritating nonetheless 😅.

I really appreciated Hardy’s writing and the humour in the discussions by the villagers in the local pub. They were fun. But I’ve again experienced that good writing isn’t enough for me. I need to enjoy the plot and this starts with having characters I can relate to.

I still have ‘Tess Of d’Urbervilles’ on my classcis club list, so I’ll definitely give Hardy another change. I really expected to like this one, as everyone seems to do. So don’t let my review put you off from reading this.

This is book 6/50 for the classics club. And book 3 for #20booksofsummer.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Have you read and enjoyed anything by Thomas Hardy?