Nefertiti by Michelle Moran

The family of the sisters Nefertiti and Mutnodjmet has always been close to the Egyptian throne. When the heir dies, Nefertiti is married off to his younger brother Amunhotep. But Amunhotep wants to build a new Egypt. He worships the sun god Aten and has wild plans to build a new capital. When he becomes pharaoh, he even changes his name to Akhenaten, as tribute to this new religion. It now falls down to Nefertiti to restrain her husband. But she faces numerous challenges. In the north the Hittites are trying to regain ground. And then there is Akhenaten’s other wife Kiya and her family who are all too eager to take over the power behind the throne. Meanwhile, Mutnodjmet tries to build a life in her sister’s shadow, but that isn’t easy.

This is my very first book about ancient Egypt. So this means I know little to nothing about Nefertiti’s life and this novel seemed like a good introduction. The book is narrated by Mutnodjmet, Nefertiti’s half-sister. ‘Mutje’ and Nefertiti are opposites and this makes for an engaging story.

Although the book is set so many centuries ago, I immediately found many similarities with, let’s say, the Tudor period. Nefertiti is trying to change the religious beliefs of her country as the second wife and struggling to produce a male heir to the throne. It immediately brings to mind Anne Boleyn. I can say little about the historical accuracy of this book. We know so little about that time. I read that we are not even sure which mummy is Nefertiti’s, or if she is yet to be discovered.

So it was up to Moran to fill in the gaps and come up with a believable story. And for me, she did just that. It’s a light book with plenty of drama. The ending was a bit quick I thought, but it was fitting. However, I don’t know if I would have enjoyed this book as much if it was about events I know well. But just because it was all new to me, I could fully empathize with the different characters. And I got to know a few Egyptian customs a lot better.

Nefertiti and Akhenaten, and by extension the entire 18th dynasty, lived during fascinating and turbulent times. I definitely want to give Moran’s other books a chance too now.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read anything good about Ancient Egypt?

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North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Margaret Hale returns to her childhood home ‘Hellstone’ when her cousin Edith gets married. Her father is vicar there but this weights heavy on his conscience and he decides to give up his position. The family moves to a town called Millstone in the north of the country. Millstone is an industrial village where there’s a lot of poverty. Margaret also meets the wealthy Mr Thornton, one of her father’s new pupils who she takes an immediate dislike to.

North and South is my first Elizabeth Gaskell and can be summarised as a socialist version of Jane Austen’s works. It is a slow-paced love story with some political criticism and plenty of melodrama. Which is the general summary of a typical Victorian novel.

The story is well put together, although a little predictable. I had trouble with the pacing. It is so slow, only to end suddenly. There are also some characters (The Higginsen in particular) who speak dialect which didn’t help the readability. There’s another love interest involved, but we don’t really get to know him. So you can only root for Mr Thornton, even when I didn’t really like him.

I don’t have much else to say about the book. It’s certainly not a bad classic, but you have to take your time for it. And I don’t need to read it again at the moment.

This is book 16/50 of the classics club, which I’m going to put off for a while as I don’t enjoy these classics as much as I’d hoped. I’m still constructing my own house at the moment and I feel better reading ‘lighter’ books written in modern times.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Elizabeth Gaskell before?

The honey and the sting by E.C. Fremantle

The sisters Hester, Melis and Hope try to survive together on their farm after their father’s death. When Hester’s little son, Rafe, turns nine, his father comes to claim him. Rafe’s father is none other than George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. Hester decides there’s no other option than to run away and they leave for a hidden cottage in the woods. Melis and Hope join their sister but they also have their own secrets.

Fremantle is perhaps my favourite author. After several novels set in Tudor England, she wrote the psychological thriller The poison bed set at the Stuart court. The honey and the sting is set in the same time period, but this time the link to true events is minimal. George Villiers off course really existed, but the sisters are entirely fictional.

The story is told alternately from Hester, Hope and Felton. The book has some kind of dark edge. Melis has visions of the future and the house they end up in seems haunted, as in the better gothic novel. But this book did something weird with me. It made me feel uncomfortable at times. In the end, everything falls together nicely and I think this is quite a good story. But somewhere I had hoped for much more with Fremantle. I didn’t love the book as I did with all her other work.

I preferred reading from Hester’s point of view because she’s the eldest sister and I could identify with her. She is the caring one, the mother who wants to fight for her child and who blames herself for things that happened in the past (although it wasn’t her fault).

All three sisters are an outcast in different ways. And not only because they are women. Hester is the unwed mother, Melis’ gift is reminiscent of witchcraft and Hope has a different skin colour. It are these kinds of women that Fremantle was keen to put at the centre for once, and I certainly understand that choice.

So yes, the honey and the sting is well written, although with some predictable plot lines. This book did not appeal to me as much as her previous work. I read that her next book will be about the painter Artemisia and am looking forward to reading it. The Queen’s Gambit, my favourite Fremantle novel, is apparently being made into a movie. So still a lot of Fremantle to look forward to. I’m happy about that.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

What’s your favourite novel set during the Stuart period?

The Alice network by Kate Quinn

The American Charlie St Clair travels with her mother to Europe to get an abortion. During a stopover in England, she has second thoughts and boards a train to London to look for Eve Gardiner. Her French cousin Rose disappeared during WWII and Eve Gardiner’s name pops up. Eve has her own reasons for joining Charlie’s search when the name of Réné appears in the case. This Réné exploited a restaurant with the same name as another establishment where Eve worked as a spy during that other Great War.

Kate Quinn is an author who has been recommended to me for so long that it was finally time to read her. The Alice Network is perhaps her best-known book. It tells the story of a spy network during WWI that was hugely successful and mostly consisted of women. Quinn explains in her epilogue what did and didn’t really happen and I found it amazing that so many details of this novel were real.

Besides Eve’s perspective during WOI, there’s also that of Charlie a few years after WWII. She’s looking for her cousin Rose who fought against the occupying forces somewhere in France but disappeared. And then you have the Scot Finn who also served in this war and who’s in Eve’s employment.

There are two wars with certain parallels, though I preferred the ‘historical’ perspective of Eve. However, for some reason I found it hard to really relate with Eve or Charlie. But the story kept me interested. I only had some problems with the pregnancy storyline. I understand why it’s included. But it felt a bit artificial.

Quinn writes well, but I wasn’t blown away yet. It’s definitely a war novel with an original and interesting angle. And I love it enough to read more of her books. I might be looking for ‘The rose code’ or one of her earlier novels about Ancient Rome or The Borgias.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Have you read anything from Quinn? Or do you recommend any other novel about spies during WWI?

Heartstone by S.J. Sansom

Matthew Shardlake is instructed by Queen Catherine Parr to help one of her old friends with a case before the corrupt Court of Wards. There are reasons to believe that the Hobbey family is trying to make money out of the lands of their orphaned warden Hugh Curteys. Matthew and Barak head for Hoyland priory, not far from Portsmouth where the English army is preparing for an invasion of the French. The ships The Great Harry and The Mary Rose are already anchored there. Moreover, Hoyland is not far from where Ellen Fettiplace grew up and where something happened 19 years ago that made her afraid to leave the Bedlam hospital.

In this fifth book, Matthew finds England at war with France. In addition, he is also somewhat at war with himself it seems. He investigates two cases of people who don’t want to be helped and this drags him into secrets and dangerous political games.

This is the thickest book of the series so far. There are a lot of subplots besides the two mysteries, of which the invasion of France is the biggest. If you know the fate of The Mary Rose then you know where we are heading towards.

Some readers enjoy the books of this series that stay in London better. I loved Sovereign immensely when we went to York and met the king up close. Heartstone also takes Matthew and Barak out and about. They befriend a group of archers and war is never far away. So, this comes very close to Sovereign and might be my second favourite Shardlake so far.

Although the mysteries are a little less fleshed out, I would never have guessed the truth in the Curtseys case myself. The pace of the book is a little slower than usual, but I found this historical setting working out very well. There is a lot going on in this book. And Matthew and Jack both remain complex main characters.

And yes here and there it’s perhaps a little less realistic. Matthew walks into a lot of drama with his eyes open. But this remains such a good series. And ‘this’Heartstone’ is definitely as strong as revelation. On to the next one, ‘Lamentation’.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

What’s your favourite Shardlake novel? And do you recommend some other historical mystery series?

My brilliant friend by Elena Ferrante

Lila and Elena grow up as best friends in a poor neighbourhood of Naples. They both do well at school, but Lila’s parents don’t want her to go to the conservatory. And so at 12, Lila has to help out in her father’s cobbler’s shop, while Elena learns Latin and Greek at school. The girls estrange a bit, especially when they start hanging out with boys.

This series by the unknown Italian author (we don’t even know if it’s a she or he) Elena Ferrante is fairly hyped and even made into a series. I was expecting a story about two girls and their bond with a fair amount of drama in it. But the latter turned out to be a wrong assumption on my part. This is more of a literary story that gently moves on and explores the relationship between the two girls in much detail. No big events or drama.

The story is set in Naples during the 1950s and the first book is about their childhood and adolescent years. This is the time when girls going to school is still seen as a waste of time. And life in Elena and Lila’s neighbourhood is hard.

We get to know the whole neighbourhood and that involves quite a lot of names and at times I didn’t remember who was who. It also didn’t seem that important either because one boy was rather interchangeable for another as far as I was concerned. Lila and Elena are total opposites. It’s Elena, the one who does get to go to school, who tells the story and has a kind of fascination with Lila’s personality. She is ‘her brilliant friend’. But maybe, it’s just the other way around…

The book didn’t touch me emotionally and the slow pace made me look forward to the end when things picked up a bit more pace. The book has an open ending, but I don’t think I’ll read the next part. The story didn’t hold on to me enough for that. Ferrante writes well and builds beautiful sentences, typically for an Italian author. But this genre is just not for me.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Ithaca by Claire North

Penelope has been waiting for over 17 years for the return of her husband Odysseus, the king of Ithaca. Her son Telemachus is already grown into a young man eager to be as famous as his father. When pirates attack one of the coastal cities in search of gold, Penelope must try to defend herself with the few men who did not leave for Troy. Meanwhile, those same men expect her to choose a new husband. And then there are rumours that her cousin Clythemnestra is hiding in Ithaca, after the murder of her husband Agamemnon.

Jes, another Greek myth retelling. By an author unknown to me, who normally writes science fiction. ‘Ithaca‘ is the first book of a planned trilogy and tells the story of Penelope, Odysseus’ wife from the perspective of the goddess Hera. This unique point of view is an original choice and makes for an entertaining book. Hera is critical for her fellow Gods and the human race, but also a loving mother to the three Greek queens (Helen, Clythemnestra and Penelope).

However, the pace of the story is ridiculously slow and very little happens, especially in the middle of the book. The book is very character-driven, but I don’t think Penelope and Telemachus really come off as interesting. I felt they were overshadowed by Clythemnestra and Ellektra who also pop up in the story. There are so many suitors involved and I couldn’t keep up with who was who. And then you also have Penelope’s women who are preparing for war and who feel interchangeable. I didn’t build a relationship with any of the characters.

North writes beautiful sentences with an overtly feminist slant. But she couldn’t always hold my attention. So I don’t know yet if I want to read the next part. This book reminded me of ‘Argo‘ by Mark Knowles. Trying to turn a myth into a series involves a lot of detail and then the story loses some of its value.

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

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Anne Boleyn: a king’s obsession by Alison Weir

The young Anne Boleyn is given the opportunity to serve at the court of Margaret of Austria in Flanders, where she learns the game of courtly love. A few years later she travels to the French court to serve first Queen Mary and then Queen Claude. When she returns to England, she catches the eye of Henry Percy, Duke of Northumberland. But Cardinal Wolsey puts a stop to that marriage and not much later Anne receives attention from King Henry VIII himself.

I read Weir’s book about Catherine of Aragon more than a year ago and now I finally started the book about Anne. The most difficult book of the six, because there are so many bad books about Anne Boleyn. She’s either a marriage breaker and a whore or an innocent pawn used by her family. In my view, she’s neither and I’ve never before read about ‘my Anne’. Could Weir do just that?

Weir takes her time to tell Anne’s story and starts at the court of Malines. I liked that approach, as well as her time in France. This is a period in Anne’s life that made quite an impact on her character and it’s often overlooked in other novels.

Regarding Anne’s characterization I must admit that Weir makes a creditable attempt. Anne is an intelligent woman who at one point consciously chooses the position of queen, even though she is not necessarily in love with Henry. She goes for power, to elevate her family and have an influence on the king’s religious views. She’s a protestant and inspires Henry for his reformation, but she isn’t strongly Lutheran and does not want to go as far with the dissolution as Cromwell. Which is an interesting approach and makes her more humane. Anne cares about her family and in this story, it aren’t her parents who force her into this position.

However, this is not my Anne. Alison Weir doesn’t like the Boleyns. If you compare Anne’s character to that of Catherine in the previous book, the latter becomes almost a saint while Anne is flawed, egocentric at times, a mother who doesn’t care about her daughter and who wishes people dead. This Anne isn’t the usual whore that I read about in other books. So it’s a less problematic interpretation than the one for example presented by Gregory. But it isn’t a positive representation either.

The book has a good pace. Only in the middle did I find the enmity between Anne and Wolsey in the great matter dragging on. I understand that in real life this was also a strive of years. But Wolsey is so tiring sometimes :). The ending is very cleverly done. The trial is short but well done, Anne’s time in The Tower and her execution are dramatic, but handled with great respect. I understand Weir’s point with the final sentences and found it very gripping.

Which brings me to what I disliked in this story:

  • First and foremost: Mary Boleyn. I had forgotten that this also bothered me in the previous book. Her relationship with Henry is hushed up at court and I find this an odd choice. Also, the idea that she would be raped twice by a king is beyond me. Poor Mary. Sexual abuse was definitely a thing back then, and I can imagine that Mary may not have wanted the attention of both kings at all. But this is some 21st century writing that I just couldn’t cope with.
  • Also, the characters of George Boleyn and Jane Parker didn’t feel right. George Boleyn is the ultimate villain. I believe she does this so she can make Anne human while at the same time she is still able to put the blame for some things on the Boleyns. Especially the Catherine Of Aragon theory is far-fetched.
  • Anne’s meeting with Leonardo Da Vinci. It’s very improbable (even though they were contemporaries) and adds nothing to Anne’s characterization. What is it with authors who like to drop famous names into their stories as an extra?
  • Anne’s sixth finger. I don’t agree with Weir’s argument as to why she puts it in the story.
  • Thomas Boleyn is extremely passive in this book and a bit of a useless man. We know he was a skilled diplomate who was highly respected by the king. This puts all the initiative for power in Anne and George’s shoes. And this just doesn’t feel right.

Lastly, there is Henry. And I still don’t know if I like his portrayal or not. Henry’s character is completely different than in book one and that was a relief because I disliked him there. Henry is the one who is chasing Anne like a madman in this book. And I believe that’s very close to reality. Weir also doesn’t let him make a sudden change, for example, after the fall of his horse. A choice I very much respect, because I don’t believe the ‘wifekiller’ was made in one day. Henry’s character changed over the years.

But all this makes for a Henry who remains very much in the background during Anne’s downfall, with Cromwell somewhere in between… (I had liked more interaction between Anne and Cromwell). It’s not really clear after reading this book who Weir blames for Anne’s trial and death. I’m very curious to see how Henry will evolve in the next books.

The conclusion is that however I disliked a few choices, I still enjoyed this book. More than I thought I would. I don’t expect from any fictitious novel to represent the events fully true to the sources. There’s always room for interpretation and I respect Weir’s choices, but don’t have to agree ;). The next book is about my least favourite of Henry’s queens: Jane Seymour.

This is book 11/20 for ‘20 books of summer

Rating: 4 out of 5.

What’s your favourite book about any of Henry’s queens?

Essex dogs by Dan Jones

Loveday Fitztalbot and his brothers in arms from The Essex Dogs land on the coast of Normandy under King Edward III to win his claim to the French throne by force. Each of the dogs leave a past behind, especially since their captain mysteriously disappeared without a trace some time ago. Marching through the French countryside, burning every town or city they pass, the Essex Dogs will face some serious challenges to keep all of them alive.

Dan Jones is a true hero for me and can always get me excited about military strategy so when I discovered he was writing a novel, I knew I had to read it. Even more when I heard about the setting. The Hundred Years’ War told from a group of ordinary soldiers is an original choice. Not many authors dare to write about this conflict. The approach to use common soldiers as main characters reminded me of Toby Clemens’ Kingmaker series about the Wars of the Roses. But Jones focuses entirely on the campaign through France, with only an occasional side story about some of the soldier’s background.

Battle after battle, you sympathize more with the Essex Dogs. We read most from the perspective of Loveday, whose their new captain, and the young Romford. We also get to know some historical figures, including the Dukes of Warwick and Norfolk and even Joan Of Kent’s first husband Thomas Holland has a major role. We get very close to the king’s son, Edward, later called ‘The black prince’. It was the first time that I read about the black prince at this young age and it took some time to get used to the fact that he is portrayed as a spoilt brat (I look at him as a fierce warrior). But it was certainly interesting.

Dan Jones writes a clever story. The book reads very smoothly, mainly because the setting is well-defined. So you can expect battle after battle, within every city they take for England there’s a fight. You travel along with ordinary soldiers, so it’s more action-driven as the strategy behind the battles isn’t discussed. Jones uses real quotes from eyewitnesses from the 14th century to introduce each chapter. It mustn’t surprise you that he has done a terrific research job. The brotherhood of ‘the dogs’ is what I loved most. And although there’s a lot of blood and gore involved in this story, there is also time for a good laugh between the men.

This series is recommended for the fans of Cornwell, Iggulden and Toby Clemens. Is Jones the best in among them? Perhaps not yet. But bringing the complicated Hundred Years’ War to life deserves all the praise. I’m looking forward to see how things will unfold for Loveday and his companions in the next book.

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

Stone blind by Nathalie Haynes

Medusa is a Gorgon, but unlike her two immortal sisters Sthenno and Euryale, she’s a mere mortal girl. During a visit to Athena’s temple, she’s raped by the sea god Poseidon. The goddess takes her revenge afterwards by cursing Medusa with snake hair like her sisters and a deadly stare. Anyone who looks at her turns to stone. Meanwhile, Perseus, son of the supreme god Zeus and the mortal Danae, must go on a quest to save his mother from a forced marriage. His mission? The head of a Gorgon.

There’s no one who can tell more enthusiastically about Greek myths than Nathalie Haynes in the press, podcasts or her non fiction books. This enthusiasm can also be found in her novels. Stone blind is an absolute gem!

Stone blind tells Medusa,’s story, but it isn’t the story you’re familiar with. In this book everything is turned upside down. Gorgons are not monsters with snake heads and Perseus is not the hero of the day, but a stupid boy who can achieve nothing without help from the Gods.

And those Gods, perhaps even more than Medusa, play the leading role. Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hermes, Athena… They watch over the humans and play with them. There’s a lot of humour in the chapters of the Gods, but also quite a bit of drama. They are always fighting each other or cursing mortals.

Just as in ‘A thousand ships‘, the chapters are told alternately from many perspectives. Medusa, Athena, Perseus and Andromeda pass by frequently, but Haynes chooses so many different characters who all contribute to the story in their own right. This is storytelling in its purest form. I did like the chapters of Medusa and her sisters the most and disliked Perseus off course . I hadn’t heard about Cassiope or her daughter Andromeda before, so this was a new story to me. It all falls nicely into place at the end of the book.

No matter how good the books of Madeline Miller, Pat Barker or Jennifer Saint, Nathalie Haynes is the true queen of Greek myth retellings. I hope there will be another book soon and in the meantime I must make time for ‘the children of Jocasta’.

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

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This is book 12/20 for ‘20 books of summer‘. What’s your favourite Greek myth retelling?