Catherine Of Aragon, the true queen by Alison Weir

Catalina Of Aragon is the youngest daughter of the Catholic kings, Isabella and Ferdinand, and destined to become queen of England. After a rough sea voyage she arrives in Engeland to marry prince Arthur, heir to the throne. But Arthur is shy and sickly. After only four months of marriage Catalina, now Catherine, becomes a widow. At the court of Henry VII, she sets her eyes on Arthur’s younger brother, the charismatic Henry, to become queen once more.

I must admit I had some doubts when starting ‘the true queen’. In the past I enjoyed some of Alison Weir’s books, but I also disliked her two novels about Queen Elizabeth (‘The lady Elizabeth’ and ‘The marriage game’). But I decided to give this series a try.

Catherine Of Aragon is the first of Henry VIII’s wives and a lot is known about her life. She’s a thankful subject to start off this series. And I believe Weir did a relatively great job. This book is 600 pages long and includes much detail. You can follow Catherine’s story from her first marriage to king Arthur, the years of poverty she had to endure afterwards at the court of Henry VII to her marriage with Henry VIII. A happy marriage at first but of course we all know that after some miscarriages Henry moves away from Catherine when he meets Anne Boleyn.

Having read about Catherine many times before, Weir could still hold my interest about these events. She respects the timeline until the moment that I was waiting on the Mary Boleyn affair. But that didn’t come. Weir’s Catherine is stubborn, devout, caring and naive. She dotes on Henry. But this implicates that she doesn’t know about him having affairs. Even when things start to get worse, Henry is still the loving husband. No one tells Catherine of his many affairs. And this bothered me. Because it just seems impossible that Catherine didn’t know. Especially not with Mary Boleyn who possibly bore him two children. But there were others.

This brings us to the characterization of Henry VIII. I didn’t like his portrayal in this novel. At the age of ten Catherine already finds him attractive (which is bit of perverse, don’t you think?). And from the moment they marry, he can’t do anything wrong. This also makes characters as Thomas Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell and especially Anne Boleyn the villains. Reading from Catherine’s point of view, I can understand that Anne is demonized. But that Henry was just a meek man wrongly advised by the people around him (and thus a victim himself) goes a bit too far for me.

I’m really curious to see whether this is just the Henry from Catherine’s point of view and that we’ll get a different Henry in each book. If not, I’m not sure how Weir will make from this Henry a wife killer…

This book also gives an insight in Catherine’s relationships with the Spanish ambassadors, her ladies-in-waiting and her daughter Mary whom she loves dearly. Yes, it is a long book with a lot of detail, but that didn’t put me off. I enjoyed this book more than expected. And I’m looking forward to read Weir’s story about Anne Boleyn, hopefully finding a different Henry there.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read this series? Which one is your favourite so far?

The man in the iron mask by Alexandre Dumas

Our hero d’Artagnan is in the service of king Louis XIV as captain of The Musketeers. What he doesn’t know is that his friends Aramis and Porthos are plotting to remove the king. On the countryside, Raoul is still heartbroken over his love for Louise de la Vallière, the king’s mistress. His father Athos tries to console him. And in the Bastille, a young prisoner Philippe who bears a likeness to Louis, has no idea of the crime he has committed. These events will bring the former musketeers to opposing sides of a conflict at the heart of the Sun King’s court.

The man in the iron mask is the last part in the d’Artagnan romances. As I haven’t read the other books, apart from the first ‘The three musketeers’, I needed some time to understand what has happened before. Some day, I hope to read all these books again in order. Quite a task, I know.

The book opens with a strong prologue where Aramis visits a prisoner in the Bastille. We quickly discover our former musketeer, who is now bishop of Varenne, has contrived a plot against the king. Slowly, the other musketeers appear in the story and I did find the first few chapters very compelling and funny. There are a few scenes at a tailor’s shop that made me laugh out loud.

But when Aramis’ plot falls apart in the middle of the novel, the story does the same. Our attention moves to minister Fouquet and his fall out of grace with the king. There’s also the subplot of Raoul and Athos that I found a bit messy, but that might be because I haven’t read the previous books. Towards the end, the story grows stronger again and I did enjoy the last few chapters. I believe this is a great end to the series and to the lives of these characters that I love so much.

Maybe this book lacks a Milady De Winter or some other villain against which the musketeers can stand together. Now they are at opposing sides while still honoring their friendship. But nonetheless this is again a great piece of storytelling from Dumas and also a fine look into a fascinating part of French history.

This is book 2/50 for the Classics club.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

What’s your favourite Alexandre Dumas novel?

Milady by Laura L. Sullivan

Clarice is living with her mother on the English countryside when suddenly her father decides to take her to the court of James I. But first she gets a training in court etiquette and lovemaking together with George Villiers. Slowly, we discover the story of this formidable woman who will become Milady The Winter, one of France’s most notorious and feared spies.

Let’s start with the fact that I’m a huge ‘the three musketeers’ fan. I loved the book by Dumas and the BBC series ‘the musketeers’ is one of my favorite series that I could watch over and over. But my all-time favorite character of Dumas’ universe is definitely Milady. She’s the perfect female antagonist. I admire her strength, courage and wit.

So I needed to read this book. I hadn’t heard of Laura L. Sullivan before and this appears to be her first adult novel. She has written Milady’s story with tons of respect for the original plot. You feel that she has done a lot of research into Dumas’ story and the history behind it. The novel has two different time frames. We learn Milady’s story behind the events in ‘the three musketeers’, but Sullivan also takes us to her past as Clarice, a young Englishwoman.

I loved the first setting at the English court where she and George Villiers try to make their place at court. I also enjoyed to read about her relationship with Athos, the compte de la fère. But there’s also a setting in the middle of the novel that I enjoyed less. In the convent Sullivan lost me at times, as not every element of the plot contributed to the story in my opinion.

Sullivan hasn’t changed the character of Milady, she just made her more human. A young naive girl in a man’s world. A girl that grows into a villain, a murderess and a spy because of all the men that have abused her in so many ways during her life. She’s a woman that has learned her lessons the hard way. But she still does evil. And she doesn’t hide from the consequences of her misdeeds. You can love and hate her at the same time and so you understand what Athos must be feeling towards her.

Milady is a great retelling of one my favourite classics. It made me want to reread the three musketeers immediately, as I felt that I’ve missed some of the details. And maybe I should reread this book too after finishing Dumas’ masterpiece! Milady has once again stolen my heart. Highly recommended if you loved the original story.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

What’s your favourite retelling?

Queen of the north by Anne ‘O Brien

Elizabeth Mortimer has royal Plantagenet blood and is married to Harry Hotspur Percy, the heir to the greatest earldom in the north. She believes her young nephew Edmund Mortimer to be second in line to the throne after the childless and unpopular king Richard II. But many don’t want another child king and support her other cousin Henry Of Lancaster instead. When Henry sets foot in England again after years in exile while Richard has suffered grave defeat in Ireland, the battle for the throne is on. Elizabeth’s husband and stepfather join forces with Lancaster and abandon the Mortimer cause. Will there ever be Mortimer king?

This is the second book I’ve read from Anne O’ Brien after having enjoyed ‘the shadow queen‘ about Joan Of Kent a few years ago. Queen Of The North is one of the books she has written around powerful women during Henry IV’s troubled reign. The novel opens with Henry of Lancaster returning to England to gather support to defy king Richard II. The Percy army in the north is preparing to join him.

We meet Elizabeth Mortimer, the wife of the famous Harry Hotspur. The Mortimers are the heirs of Lionel, second son of Edward III, but through the female line of Elizabeth’s mother Filippa Plantagenet. This weakens the claim of her eight-year-old nephew Edmund should Richard die childless. I’ve never really understood why the Mortimer didn’t try harder to get on the throne. They have a stronger claim (if you ignore the female part of it), but history will be forever talking about Lancaster and York. So I found it really interesting to read this story from a Mortimer point of view.

Elizabeth is also a Percy and thus future ‘queen’ of the north. We meet her ambitious stepfather, the earl of Northumberland, and her husband Harry “Hotspur” as he is referred to by the Scots. The marriage between Elizabeth and Harry is quite happy, although there are some serious clashes between them in this novel, not in the least about the succession. Their relationship is the most compelling part of the book in my opinion. I really could love and hate Harry at the same time.

I had hoped that the rebellion would be the biggest part of the novel, but it happens quite fast and the second half focuses even more on Elizabeth’s development as a traitor to the crown. Near the end of the story, I had more and more sympathy for her feelings.

We also meet Queen Joan Of Navarre and Constance Of York in this novel. About both women O’ Brien has written a separate novel. I have the one about Constance ready on my shelves and am curious if I will like her more than in I did this book.

O’ Brien focuses on the story of women, this also means that the main character is far from the action that happens at the battlefield. There are also some serious time jumps adding to the pace of the novel. All things together, I find O’ Brien’s writing style a bit too dry and distant. She lacks the flair of a Joanna Hickson or Elizabeth Fremantle for example. But she writes about forgotten women with a unique story, so I’ll continue to read her books.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read any books set during Henry IV reign?

The gates of Athens by Conn Iggulden

490 B.C. The Persian army is ready to invade Greece. In Athens, they won’t welcome another dictator as they have beaten the last one decades ago with Sparta’s help. Now every free man has a vote in their democratic political system. Xanthippus, Aristides, Miltiades and Themistocles are all ‘strategos’ who will lead their people to war. They send word to Sparta and the other Greek cities for help. The two armies will meet at the battle of Marathon. It’s the start of a war between two kingdoms and a power struggle between Athens and Sparta that will have a mark on Greece for years to come.

I loved Iggulden’s Emperor series about Caesar and Brutus so much that I definitely want to reread it someday. But strangely, I haven’t picked up any other book from this author until now. Not even his books about the Wars of the Roses.

The gates of Athens is the first part in a new series about the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, although in this book the focus is on the war with king Darius and his son Xerxes of Persia. I’m not quite familiar with this history and haven’t studied Greek in high school (only Latin). So it took me some time to get to know all the names and the setting.

The story focuses on two great battles, and thus reminded me of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon series. The battle of Marathon is the big event during the first 100 pages. After the battle, we go back to Athens and the story starts focusing on the lives of the main characters and the political intriges in the city. This was the part I enjoyed most as I learned a lot about how the democracy in Athens worked. I found the voting system, where every free man could write a name on a piece of broken pottery to banish him for 10 years, especially interesting.

The story is a bit slow and I read this one in a week that I couldn’t really focus on anything, so I couldn’t give it all the attention it deserved. But that isn’t Iggulden’s fault. He’s a great storyteller. His battle scenes are epic and his character development is terrific.

No doubt, I’ll pick up the next book in the series, but in the meantime I might finally start with Stormbird, his first book about the Wars of the Roses.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

When Mrs Helen Graham and her five-year-old son Arthur move into the abandoned Wildfell Hall, she becomes the talk of the town. Her strange ways and ideas mark her from the other nobel families. Gilbert Markham is the only one to befriend the young woman who paints to earn a living. But rumours grow that Helen has left her husband, the father of her son. Wildfell Hall is a quiet sanctuary no longer when her secrets are to be exposed.

Anne is the last of the Brontë sisters of whom I hadn’t read a novel yet. Having both loved ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’, I was looking forward to discover her writing. So ‘The tenant’ became my first book for the classics club.

The tenant of Wildfell Hall is a Victorian epistolary. The novel is told from two perspectives. The first part is a long letter from Gilbert Markham to his brother-in-law (who doesn’t appear in the novel, apart from just being the unknown receiver of the letter). He writes about the arrival of Mrs Graham and her son at Wildfell Hall and the reception by the other families. There is some irony about the elite in this book reminiscent of Jane Austen. But in my opinion Anne is more subtle and funnier (I especially loved Fergus, who’s sadly only a minor character).

I loved Gilbert’s perspective. You get to read the opinions of women on another woman from the point of view of a man who adores her. Gilbert is a bit naive, insecure and stubborn at times. But still he makes for a good main character.

Halfway, Gilbert receives Mrs Graham’ diary and we are introduced to her story. Here, the writing style changes and I needed some time to get used to it. Helen’s story covers some very serious themes that must have been taboo subjects in the 19th century. Alcohol addiction, mental abuse, adultery… The men in Helen’s story are vile creatures.

Anne has written a quite modern story, that maybe isn’t as upsetting anymore than it used to be. But it tells the story of a woman fleeing her unhealthy marriage for a safe haven. This story doesn’t need ghosts or a haunted house. The writing is extremely readable, it didn’t feel as if I was reading a 19th-century-book.

This doesn’t make it any easier to choose my favorite Brontë sister 😅

This is book 1/50 for the Classics club.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

What’s your favorite Brontë classic and why?

The Fabergé secret by Charles Belfoure

Prince Dimitri Markhov is one of the closest companions of tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra. He’s an architect, which makes him one of the few aristocrats with a real job, while his wife Lara likes nothing more than to gossip and meet with her lovers. When Dimitri meets the young doctor Katya at a ball and she takes him to a few art meetings, he discovers that the situation of the peasants in Russia is worse than his friend the tsar wants him te believe. Jews are killed in pogroms, while children sleep in dirty houses and the war with Japan is draining the imperial coffins. Slowly, Dimitri starts to doubt his aristocratic friends and joins the revolutionary cause.

I was happy to be approved for this book of a new to me author because of its beautiful cover (gorgeous, isn’t it?) and interesting setting. I always enjoy books that take place in Russia under the tsars. I can’t really explain why, I just find the Romanovs an interesting dynasty.

But when I started reading I was afraid this would be too much a love story as the blurb suggests. But luckily, I enjoyed the story no less. There are enough elements to like. The novel is written in short chapters from different perspective which kept the pace up.

Dimitri’s character is in constant conflict between his friendship with the imperial couple and his new views on Russia and the need for change. There are also some interesting side characters such as the baron, Lara and of course Nicholas and Alexandra. Their struggle with the sickness of their son touched my heart.

The ending was perhaps a bit too perfect for my liking but I understand the author’s choice. As Dimitri Markhov apparantly isn’t based on a real person, this was the perfect way to write him out of what happens next.

I hadn’t heard of the jeweller Fabergé and his famous imperial eggs before. I loved the descriptions of the eggs, and all other cultural references to Tolstoj and Tchaikovsky in the story. I hope to one day marvel at a Fabergé egg in real life.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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

The glass woman by Caroline Lea

Iceland. 17th century. After the death of her father, Rosa has to make a good marriage to help her impoverished mother. When the stranger Jon comes to her village looking for a new wife, only a few months after the death of his first spouse Anna, Rosa agrees to the marriage. After a three-day-ride to her new home, Rosa discovers the villagers are afraid of Jon and that there’s some mystery around Anna’s death. Why did Jon burry her on his own in the middle of the night? And what are the strange noises coming from the loft, that Rosa is forbidden to enter?

Nearing the end of year, I think I can say that this novel will be one of my favorite reads of 2020. The glass woman is a gothic romance novel reminiscent of Rebecca and Jane Eyre. It’s about a young woman that marries an older widower she barely knows anything about. Once married, he seems to hide a lot from her, not in the least the true fate of her predecessor. It all sounds very familiar.

But Lea writes her own gothic story in a unique setting. The hardships of Iceland, a rough and cold land. A country where religion is rising, but people still believe in the old myths and sagas.

Rosa is her own woman and has a strong character. I admire her strength. But she’s not perfect and makes mistakes. And that’s maybe what I loved the most about this book: all the characters are extremely human.

Until halfway the tension is built. You can’t trust anyone and have no clue what the hell is going on. It surprised me that the story took a turn when you get to read from Jon’s perspective. Suddenly you start seeing things in a different light. I couldn’t stop reading until I reached the end.

I loved the ending. It was fulfilling in a way that all my questions were answered. The glass woman is highly recommended for everyone who loves a gothic story or just wants to try something different.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The forgotten orphan by Glynis Peters

Maisie Reynolds has grown up at the Holly Bush orphanage in Southampton. At the age of 17, she realizes she’ll never be adopted. Separated from her twin brother Jack at the age of five and with no memories from her parents, Maisie is looking for answers about her past. When WOII arrives in Engeland, all the orphans except Maisie are moved from the city. The building will be turned into a care home for wounded soldiers. Maisie’s future is unsure. Will she be able to set up a life on her own? Can she find her brother?

I must start with the fact that this wasn’t a book for me. It is astandard WOII fiction novel, a genre that dominates the book store shelves. These kind of books tend to feel like they are all the same.

This is a coming of age story with good character building. Maisie is a young naive girl trying to make the best of the situation. She has some lovely friends in Charlie and Joyce. I enjoyed to read about all the secondary characters and their lives during the war. But the plot is just too thin for my liking. Especially the mystery around Maisie’s family is too far fetched and there are too much coincidences in how the revelations slowly unfold. There is also a heavy romance plot line in the form “boy meets girl and they are instantly in love”.

Britain in times of war made for a fine scenery. In times when the world outside comes to a halt due to a global pandemic, it’s strange to read about normal life going on through the bomb attacks of the Germans.

If you love WOII fiction with some drama and romance, this might be the perfect holiday read for you.

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

Rating: 2 out of 5.

A time for swords by Matthew Harffy

Hunlaf travels as a young monk to the minster of Lindisfarne with his teacher Leofstan only to witness the first Danish attack on the English coast. While the brethren are being slayed, Hunlaf discovers the warrior within him when he tries to defend two children together with Runolf, a big redheaded norseman. Hunlaf is convinced that God has sent Runolf to help them defend the other minsters on the English coast from the next attacks. They recruit their own war band and prepare for a bloody battle to defend everything they hold dear.

I’m always in for a bloody viking story. Although I prefer to use the more historical correct term ‘Danes’ when England is involved. I hadn’t read anything by Harffy before and his writing certainly didn’t put me off.

The story isn’t new and full of clichés that you’ve read before. A monk turning into a warrior. A Dane and an Englishman joining forces to defeat the Danes. A group of outcasts preparing to defend a bunch of villagers. If you’re looking for an original story, you should look elsewhere.

I’m still happy that I’ve read ‘a time for swords‘. I loved the character building of the different fighters and their underlying relations. The battle scenes aren’t that great, but entertaining enough to read. Entertaining is the perfect word for this book. Don’t expect more than that.

The ending was fine and hints to a sequel. I must admit that I’m not inclined to read the next book as I wasn’t interested in ‘the romance’ part of the story. But I might try another of Harffy’s books some day.

Matthew Harffy is no Bernard Cornwell or Conn Iggulden. But if you’re looking for your next viking read when the world outside is still a mess, this might be your next go to.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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