Divided Souls by Toby Clemens

In this third book, we meet Thomas and Catherine five years after the events of the second novel. They live in peace and harmony at Marton Hall with their son Rufus and friends Jack and John Stump. But the peace will not hold for long. The Duke of Warwick turns against Edward IV and is looking for the secret of which Thomas and Catherine have proof. And he sends none other than Edmund Riven, their arch-enemy, on a quest to find it.

1469 is a strange year in the Wars of the Roses. The mysterious figure Robin of Redesdale fights against the king and it is said he has the support of the earl of Warwick. There are a number of battles in which some key figures, such as the earl of Pembroke, are eliminated. Warwick and the king quarrel, but do not meet. And at the end of the year the realm is strangely enough at peace again.

That must have been hard to understand for the common man, who is again dragged into a conflict that is not his. It’s the strength of this series. No focus on the big earls, kings and queens, but on the commoners who are trying to survive in troubled times.

And my God, Thomas and Catherine get themselves once again in trouble. A few of the same tropes are brought out and the book is, of course, somewhat predictable. But I liked it better than the second part. The events lead to a thrilling conclusion inside a tower of Middleham castle.

Divided souls‘ is a nice read and gives a different perspective on history. This is not the best series I will ever read, but I am looking forward to the fourth part to find out how it ends with Thomas, Catherine, Rufus and all those Johns.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Have you read this series? What book are you currently reading?

The bell in the lake by Lars Mytting

In the remote Norwegian village of Butangen, young Astrid Hekne dreams of a life that’s more than working on a farm and bearing children. She serves the new pastor Kai Schweigaard, who’s burning with ambition and, when the cold of the old stave church claims a victim during the harch Winter, finds himself determined to build a new church. For this purpose, the student architect Gerhard Schonauer from Dresden comes to Butangen. But the church is home to the famous sister bells, named after Astrid’s ancestors, and they are said to protect the village, against all costs.

The bell in the lake‘ is a very atmospheric historical novel in which Mytting managed to write very beautiful descriptions of the 19th century Norwegian landscape. The local myths, legends and superstition are also discussed. As well as the hard life in the village where time has stood still.

The story is told from the point of view of Astrid and the two men she meets, Kai and Gerhard. Astrid dreams of a life outside Butangen, but at the same time she wants to protect the old church, and especially the sister bells, from demolition. There are very few stave churches left in Norway and this book really introduced me to their existence. What a beautiful gems!

Although this book is well written with an original real-life setting, I still missed something to give it 5 stars. Maybe because the plot was a bit predictable? Mytting could have made some bolder choices in there I believe. This is the first book of a trilogy and I am sure that I’ll read the next one. It offers me a change of scenery to what I’m reading most of the time. I’m curious to see what will happen next at Butangen.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Have you ever been to Norway?

Elektra by Jennifer Saint

Clythemnestra helplessly watches her eldest daughter Iphigenia being sacrificed by her husband Agamemnon in return for a fair wind to start a war against Troy. The war that launched a thousand ships to get her sister Helen back for her brother-in-law Menelaus. Clythemnestra’s youngest daughter Elektra waits for ten years for her beloved father’s return while her mother is consumed by revenge, together with her lover Aegisthus. Meanwhile in Troy, no one believes the words of Princess Cassandra who sees her city going down in flames in one of her visions, gifted by Apollo.

This is the first book I’ve read by Saint and it was a very nice introduction to her work. In recent years, I have read several books about the Trojan War and/or the House of Atreus so the events are anything but new to me. Some of these books are ‘House of names’, ‘The silence of the girls’, ‘Daughters of Sparta‘, ‘A thousand ships‘, ‘A song for Achilles’… I feel that Saint stays close to the classical interpretation of the Iliad. She includes three female perspectives: that of Clythemnestra, Cassandra and of course Elektra who gives this book its name.

Compared to some of the raw and bloody scenes found in ‘House of names’ or ‘Silence of the girls’, Saint certainly doesn’t shy away from drama, but focuses more on character development. The parallels between Clythemnestra and Elektra are particularly strong. They both seek revenge and as a result can no longer see things clearly. This Clythemnestra feels real. Although the one in Toibin’s work remains the most ruthless. Elektra is not my favourite character from this well-known story and I have some trouble understanding the reasons behind her actions. But I liked the inclusion of her life in this book. Her story becomes more prominent in the second half of the book and I’m glad we still follow her after her father’s return from Troy.

Cassandra is definitely a nice addition to include a Trojan perspective and you really sympathize with her. The fall of Troy remains so dramatic. My favourite scene was one between Cassandra and Hector on the eve of his death. I found it only a bit strange that Cassandra’s twin brother Helenus is omitted from the story. I also liked her ‘friendship’ with Helen, in times when no one believes her.

This brings me to Helen. Although Saint had the disadvantage that the Trojan War is a bit of a been there, done that for me, I really want to congratulate her on how she portrayed Helen. Although she’s only a side character, it’s the first time that Helen is represented as I can imagine her. I normally hate Helen. But in ‘Elektra‘ she’s human, vain and not unfathomably handsome. She chooses Menelaus as a husband because he’s different from the other men. And her relationship with Paris and the royal family in Troy is not perfect. This is a Helen who bears her destiny while still standing above the rest because she’s the daughter of Zeus and thus a plaything of the Gods.

I’m now very curious to read ‘Ariadne’ because I think discovering more unfamiliar events from Greek mythology will make me appreciate Saint’s writing style even more.

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Jennifer Saint yet? Who’s your favourite character from the Iliad?

The wolf den by Elodie Harper

Amara was sold as a house slave by her mother after her father died and they could not make ends meet. After being mistreated as a concubine by her first owner, she ended up in the brothel ‘The Wolf Den’ of pimp Felix in Pompeii. Together with four other ‘lupines’, she tries to make the best of it, although they all yearn for freedom and love.

In ‘The Wolf Den‘, Harper takes you to ancient Rome, to the city of Pompeii, before the disaster. The story is told from Amara’s point of view. She was once the daughter of a Greek physician but now lives as a Roman slave in a brothel. She has known freedom and finds it hard to accept her fate.

We get a glimpse into the lives of Amara and four other women in the brothel, each with their own life story to tell. There are also many men in their lives. The book is full of characters and intrigue. None other than Plinius the Elder makes an appearance.

I flew straight through this novel. The pace is good and there are some different storylines that intertwine towards the end. This is the first part in a trilogy. I wonder how things will continue for Amara in the next book of this trilogy.

There are too few books about Ancient Rome that don’t focus on wars and battles, so this was one to savour. The harsh reality in which women and slaves in general had to live is not shunned. This makes for a compelling read. In the end, this was just the book that I needed after my reading slump caused by too many classics. It’s no literature, but it’s certainly entertaining.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read this one?

The Tudor crown by Joanna Hickson

After the battle of Tewkesbury, Jasper and his cousin Henry Tudor have to flee England. While King Edward IV of the House of York sits firmly on his throne, they wash up on the coast of Brittany, where they plot their return for 14 years. Meanwhile, Henry’s mother Margaret Beaufort must look for a third husband and therefore becomes lady-in-waiting to Edward’s stunning queen Elizabeth. However, she will continue to fight for her son’s return as a duke, or who knows, even as king.

I really loved Hickson’s previous book ‘First of The Tudors‘ where she tells the story of Jasper Tudor. The Tudor crown starts after the events at Tewkesbury where the previous novel ended. This time the story is told from the point of view of Henry Tudor himself and his mother Margaret Beaufort. So the book is very pro Lancaster and anti York.

I never read about Henry’s exile before and this is yet another new perspective on the Wars of the Roses. I may not have found Henry to be Hickson’s best fleshed out main character so far, but I did find it fascinating to read about the intrigues at the courts of Brittany and France. It’s just a pity that Jasper and Jane, whom I loved dearly in the previous book, quickly fade into the background.

Margaret is portrayed as very human and even sympathetic. Her chapters tell a piece of history I know well. Yet I was surprised by Hickson’s portrayal of both Elizabeth Woodville and her daughter Elizabeth of York. We know that Margaret has been plotting with Woodville against Richard III for a long time, but in this book the queen has a lot of trust in Margaret, and I don’t quite imagine it that way. Margaret also seems to build up a good relationship with Elizabeth of York, whereas a few years later she will make her future daughter-in-law’s life difficult. So I found it a bit confusing that especially Richard III came forward as the bad one and both Elizabeths were looking so kindly at the only remaining Lancaster players at court.

I thought the ending with the Battle of Bosworth was well done. The focus is not on the battle itself but heavily focuses on the run-up to it. It was very nice to get to know Joan Vaux, the main character in Hickson’s next two books. That really is a gift: all her books flow seamlessly into each other and she manages to choose a new perspective that fits into the story every time. As a faithful reader, it gets an extra dimension that way, because you still encounter ‘old’ beloved characters.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Joanna Hickson? What’s your favourite novel about the Tudor family?

The rebel daughter by Miranda Mallins

Bridget and her family move to a country estate in Ely after her father, Oliver Cromwell, receives an inheritance from a deceased uncle. Not much later, Cromwell starts to fight against the Papist king and everything he stands for. Both her father and her older brothers leave for a civil war against fellow countryman. However, Bridget also wants to contribute to the ’cause’ and realizes that a domestic life is not for her. That’s why she accepts the marriage proposal of Henry Ireton, one of her father’s right hand men.

I actually know bizarrely little about the Civil War. But a name like Oliver Cromwell obviously rings a bell. So I enjoyed reading about his family, from the perspective of his eldest daughter Bridget, or Biddie as they call her. Bridget comes from a numerous family and Mallins uses pet names for all the children, which was a little annoying at times.

Bridget is a pleasant main character. She’s a rational person who puts herself in function of her family and later her husband and the war. This sets her apart form her slightly younger sister Betty, who also comes to the forefront in this novel. Betty is fiery, vain and somewhat materialistic. The total opposite of Bridget but at the same time there’s a strong bond between the sisters that I enjoyed reading about.

In the second half of the book there’s a hard focus on all the intrigues within the wars. Not always easy to be totally on board with, especially because of the many characters who also constantly switch sides or opinions.

Bridget’s relationship with Henry is not one of great love, but one of mutual respect, so you certainly sympathise with them. Mallins also wrote a book about the youngest Cromwell sister (‘The Puritan princess’) which I now definitely want to read.

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read any good books set during the Civil War?

The people’s princess by Flora Harding

Lady Diana has just got engaged to Charles and moves to Buckingham Palace to prepare for their wedding. But Diana is lonely in the big palace. She comes across a portrait of an earlier princess of Wales, Charlotte. When she gets her hands on her secret diary, she soon discovers Charlotte’s life and passions might be more familiar to Diana than she thought.

I was very hesitant to read this book because Diana is hard to call history and we all have memories of her. But Harding created such a beautiful image of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip (I read it when both were still alive) in ‘Before the crown‘ that I decided to give ‘The people’s princess‘ a start.

Diana feels very human in this story. It takes place in the weeks before her famous wedding in St Paul’s Cathedral. You feel her struggling with the distant Charles, the unreadable queen, the press and her eating disorder. One day, she gets hold of the diary of another princess of Wales, beloved by the people. And so we read the story of Charlotte in the 19th century.

Charlotte was the only child of George IV and thus heir to the throne. Her parents were unhappily married and lived apart. Charlotte was trapped in golden cage yearning for passion with only her loyal staff for company. Her only chance at freedom was to get married but she didn’t agree with the proposed match of her parents. Yearning for love and freedom, Charlotte tells her story in her diary.

The fact that the author chose to tell Charlotte’s story via a diary didn’t feel credible in my opinion. Many scenes weren’t written in diary form, so it felt a bit artificial done to weave Diana’s chapters with Charlotte’s. But ignoring the diary part, the story of Charlotte herself is interesting and well portrayed. The parallels between the two princesses are nicely highlighted in this novel.

But it doesn’t cut deep enough and sometimes felt inauthentic. Harding does write smoothly but the book unfortunately did not get under my skin. Of her two novels, I preferred ‘Before the crown’.

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

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Are you familiar with Charlotte’s story?

Villette by Charlotte Brontë

Protestant Lucy Snowe leaves her traumatic childhood in England behind and takes on a job as a nanny in the French town of Villette. Soon, she gets promoted and becomes an English teacher in the boarding school where she lives. This way, Lucy gets involved in the love affair of Ginevra, one of the pupils, and Dr John. And that doctor turns out to be a childhood friend of Lucy.

Wow, this is such a different book from Jane Eyre. Charlotte Brontë can certainly craft a good novel but this story proved difficult for me. It’s rather uneven in pace and seems to go nowhere at times. Lucy Snowe is a complex main character who doesn’t think very highly of herself and even struggles with a depression at times. So it’s an intense story that doesn’t exactly make you happy.

When she’s working as an English teacher in France, Lucy meets two completely different men and gets involved with both of them, while always keeping her distance to not get too closely attached. I found the story around Dr John interesting to follow. But the character of Mr Paul Emmanuel is one I just couldn’t fathom. I did liken’t reading about him and didn’t understand Lucy’s behaviour towards him at all.

Apart from the personal indulgences of the different characters, the clash between the two religions (protestant and catholic) and countries (England and France) is also a strong theme. Lucy remains a Protestant foreigner and has to fight against prejudices.

Apparently, this book is very autobiographical to Charlotte’s life and I can understand why it has its value and charm. But I’m really glad I finished this one and I’m sure I won’t read it again. I found it lacking of a story that really gripped me.

This is book 14/50 the classics club.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

What’s your favourite Charlotte Brontë novel?

The last protector by Andrew Taylor

Clerk James Marwood is entrusted with observing the illegal duel between the Dukes of Buckingham and Shrewsbury and to report to Joseph Williamson, Under Secretary of State to Lord Arlington. Buckingham still hates Marwood, whom he calls ‘Marworm’, and James only narrowly escapes his henchmen. Meanwhile, Cat, who still feels trapped in her marriage to the architect Hakesby, is approached in the streets by an old childhood friend, Elizabeth Cromwell. Her father Richard, the former protector who was in exile, is back in London and asks her help in stealing an old family secret from the palace of Whitehall.

This fourth book in the series is a bit of an outlier. There’s no murder to solve and therefore it reads less like a mystery. The great fire of London is also not the biggest historical background anymore, as the book already opens in 1668, two years after the disaster. We follow the adventures of Cat and Marwood, who both become entangled in the machinations of the duke of Buckingham and thus encounter each other again. The various plot lines come together again nicely at the end.

I actually liked the fact that the focus of this story is more on the intrigues at the Court of lords like Buckingham, lord Arlington, Richard Cromwell and even the king himself. It was a different approach and it keeps the series refreshing.

Marwood also really grows as a person, now that he has risen through the ranks at Court and is taken more seriously. Meanwhile, Cat struggles in her marriage to Hakesby who has a sudden surge of sympathy for the Cromwells. Something she cannot afford as the daughter of a regicide. I’m glad Cat and James are given an equal amount of ‘screentime’ in this novel, as in the last few books Cat was less present and I had some trouble sympathizing with her. She felt more mature in ‘The last protector‘.

I’m already looking forward to part five, ‘The royal secret’.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read this series? Do you recommend a similar one?

The flame bearer by Bernard Cornwell

The relative peace between Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria makes that Uhtred sets his hopes on reconquering his family castle of Bebbanburg. But the cunning King Constantin of Scotland forces him south, where lord Aethelhelm tries to persuade Uhtred’s son-in-law Sigtryggr to a fight.

This is the 10th book in the series and we are nearing the end (only three more to go after this one). Uhtred finally begins his lifelong quest to conquer Bebbanburg since Aethelflaed and Sigtryggr have signed a peace treaty that also king Edward of Wessex is willing to respect.

The previous book in the series ‘Warriors of the storm‘ killed off some of Uhtred’s bitter enemies. So ‘The flame bearer‘ introduces us to a few new characters and foes. Such as Lord Aethelhelm, who we already knew from the previous books but now takes a stand against Uhtred to support his grandson Aethelweard’s claim against that of Aethelstan. There’s also the Scottish king Constantin of whom we’ll see more in the next books I hope. And then there’s the mad and cunning bishop Ieremias. He was a Dane before he started to believe in Christian miracles and now wants to take hold of the holy island of Lindisfarne to build a church for -the nailed- God. A character only Cornwell can come up with.

This is one of the best books in the series because it’s full of intrigue and cunning tactics. And the book ends of course with a phenomenal battle scene on the walls of Bebbanburg (better known as Bamburgh Castle). This means that there’s less time for character development, but you can’t have everything. And ‘The flame bearer’ certainly has enough allure and offers pure entertainment. Up to the next one.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read these books or seen the television series?