The confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

Frannie Langton is a mulatta slave at the Paradise plantation of Mr. Langton in Jamaica. As a mulatta and a house slave she doesn’t fit in, especially as she has learnt to read and write. When Mr. Langton wants to write a book about species, Frannie helps him with it and the two of them conduct some strange experiments. After a fire, Langton and Frannie leave Jamaica for London. Once there, he gives Frannie away to Mr Benham and she becomes a house slave again. She can’t remember anything when a few months later her mistress, whom she loves dearly, is found dead with herself sleeping beside the body. In jail, Frannie decides to write her story as it may be the only way to save her life.

I picked this book up at the library when looking for Bridget Collins’ ‘The binding’. Lured in by the beautiful cover and the promise of an original gothic novel, I immediately started reading it.

The story opens in London with Frannie in jail for the brutal murder of her owners, Mr. and Mrs. Benham. She can’t remember anything of that night and doesn’t believe she would be able to murder her mistress whom she loved with all her heart. So she starts writing her story from the beginning, when she was still a house slave at a Jamaican plantation.

I had expected much of this story, but it didn’t live up to my expectations. The story does have some gothic elements such as a murder, a household with secrets and some strange experiments, but I wouldn’t define it as the gothic novel I had hoped it would be.

The story itself is interesting enough, although I got the impression of having it read all before. There are a lot of predictable plot elements and some cliches. Frannie is a complex character and you don’t really get a grip on her.

What really put me off was the writing style. Collins writes in first person but it wasn’t always clear whether something was said in a dialogue or it were just thoughts of Frannie herself. I couldn’t follow what was said and done in some chapters. And especially when the trial begins, it all becomes a mess. Frannie appeals to a certain ‘you’, with which she means her lawyer and this strangely changes the whole narrative and style. There are some revelations at the end, but they couldn’t make up for the rest of the novel.

I must give Sara Collins credit for writing some beautiful lines about the importance of reading. The fact that Frannie has learned to read and can share that knowledge with Marguerite is an important aspect of the story. It makes her even more the outcast.

But in the end, I’m disappointed by this book. Yes, it has an original main character and it talks about slavery and racial debate, so in that sense it’s an important story to tell. But I couldn’t see past the messy writing style and had hoped that the crime aspect would take up a more prominent role in the book.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

What’s your favorite gothic novel?

The last hours by Minette Walters

1348. A strange and deadly sickness kills whole villages near Dorsetsire in England. When Lady Anne of Develish hears of this so called ‘Black Death’, she decides to bring all the serfs inside the walls, much against the will of her daughter Eleanor and her Norman steward. Lady Anne even refuses her husband Sir Richard entrance when he comes back from a journey and carries the sickness with him. But while in quarantine the social order between serfs and their lords is overturned. A dramatic event and the fear of starvation forces a few of them to leave, unsure about what they will find outside.

I picked this one up in the library hoping to discover an excellent and bulky historical story. Reading about a pandemic seemed appropriate now and the Black Death is one of these almost mythical illnesses we still don’t know a lot about today.

We meet Lady Anne of Develish who was educated by nuns and has different views on social class and hygiene. She is much beloved by her serfs but hated by her daughter Eleanor because she favors the bastard serf Thaddeus Thurkell.

I had hoped this book would tell me more about the plague, but actually the focus is on the little community of Develish and its underlying secrets. I did not really like one of the main characters. Especially Eleanor is the kind of person you want to be the first to perish from this new disease :D. There is also a strong sexual abuse theme and I’m still not sure what to think about that storyline.

Somewhere in the middle of the novel Thaddeus goes outside with five companions looking for food. And from that moment I started scanning through the pages as I found their journey quite boring. I couldn’t get all the names and wasn’t interested in the boys’ childish worries. I did read the parts within Develish as I liked to read about the social order during this time and how the quarantine turned it all over.

The novel has an open ending, the story is not finished yet. Luckily, the sequel ‘the turn of midnight’ is already out, but I won’t read it. I believe I was just too disappointed about the story itself and expected a more gripping read about the devastating consequences of a pandemic.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Have you read a good novel about the Black Death?

The Revolt by Clara Dupont-Monod

Richard Lionheart is rebelling against his father, the Plantagenet king of England, together with his brothers Henry and Geoffrey. The rebellion unites the heirs to the throne with France, the southern lords and Aquitaine, the country of Richard’s infamous mother: Queen Eleanor Of Aquitaine. After having divorced the king of France, Eleanor remarried the Plantagenet only to be cast aside after having bared him 8 children. Now she’s looking for revenge. One thing is sure: this battle will torn the family apart.

The revolt is a short novel that focuses on the rebellion of Eleanor Of Aquitaine and her sons against Henry II, king of England in 1173. The novel is split up in three parts—before, during and after the revolt—and mainly told by Richard Lionheart. Although there are some chapters Eleanor, Henry and Alys (Richard’s ex-fiancé) are at word.

I’m quite familiar with the story and I loved Elizabeth Chadwick’s trilogy about Eleanor very much. But still the author managed to surprise me at some parts. Especially the fact that she chooses to tell the story from Richard’s perspective, even the parts before his birth, was surprising. But somehow, it worked for me as long as the story was focusing on the revolt itself.

At the end, it gets a bit messy when Richard leaves for the Holy Land. It feels like the start of a different story because Eleanor wasn’t near Richard at that time. And it’s her figure that really makes this book compelling.

This Eleanor is mysterious, cold and intimidating. Just how I imagine her. I got some new insights on her relationship with Louis, King of France (Eleanor’s first husband) and the role he played in the rebellion. I found Louis’s relationship with Eleanor’s sons one of the most interesting aspects of the story.

This might not be the best fictional retelling of Eleanor’s life because of its shortness. But it’s a well-written account of the revolt and how it tore a whole family apart.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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

Valhalla by Alan Robert Clark

Princess May Of Teck moves with her parents to Florence after they have fallen from grace within the English royal family. The serious May likes Florence and the company of painter Henry Thaddeus Jones. After their return to England, Queen Victoria wants May to marry Eddie, her grandson and second in line to the throne. Against all odds, Eddie and May become fond of each other. But when Eddie suddenly dies of the flu, May’s future becomes unsecure.

I must admit I didn’t know anything of Queen Mary’s life before I read this novel. My knowledge of the British royal family stops at Queen Victoria, apart from the current’s queen of course :). So Valhalla gave me a nice insight in the young May Of Teck and the formidable woman she would later become.

This is a story about love and duty. And the longing for freedom of a young woman not able to make her own choices. It’s about the sad loss of a prince and how it can torn a whole family apart.

I feel I now have a better understanding of Mary Of Teck’s young life, although some of the elements in the novel are fictional or only based on rumors (her love interests for example). Mary is often seen as an ice-queen alongside her husband George V. In this book you get to know the young couple and how they try to keep up appearances. I had hoped to learn more about Georgie’s character and the king he would be.

At first the writing style didn’t really grip me. I just couldn’t always follow who said what. Halfway the book, I felt a connection with May and I just wanted to know how her story would end. At that point, I was used to the writing and I enjoyed the book a lot.

The title ‘Valhalla’ is only explained in the last chapter. I believe it would have worked out better if it had been mentioned earlier in the book. Now it felt a bit artificial.

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

What’s your favorite book about royalty?

The testimony of Alys twist by Suzannah Dunn

Orphan Alys Twist has done well for herself and accepts a position as laundress at the Royal Wardrobe of the new queen Mary Tudor. At court she meets Bel, the tailor’s daughter, and the two girls start an intimate friendship. When the new queen wants a Spanish marriage and a return to the old Catholic ways, rebellion is coming to London and some people speak out in favor of her half-sister, the lady Elizabeth. Alys is sent as a spy to Elizabeth’s household to report back on her.

I previously read two novels of Suzannah Dunn, the first being ‘The queen of subtleties‘ about Anne Boleyn which I disliked and the second was ‘The May bride‘ about a young Jane Seymour that I enjoyed enough to give Dunn another try.

In ‘the testimony of Alys Twist‘ we again travel to Tudor England where the new queen Mary Tudor has just been crowned after the short reign of her cousin Lady Jane Grey. Mary is much beloved by the public and everyone is hoping that this will be the start of a new chapter for England. We meet young laundress Alys who carries a past with her and tries to find her place at the Royal Wardrobe. She befriends Bel and the two of them start to hang around together.

But when the new queen is looking to Spain for a marriage and wants to reinstall the Catholic faith, tensions start to rise with the protestant fractions resulting in the Wyatt Rebellion. Mary’s half-sister and heir to the throne Elizabeth is named as a conspirator. Alys gets charged with going to Ashridge to spy on the princess. As a laundress nobody is taking any notice of her and she can report back on what is said and done within the household.

I loved to read about Mary’s reign, as she is mostly overlooked in favor of her sister Elizabeth. From the Wyatt rebellion, the dramatic marriage with Philip of Spain to the burnings, you can feel how her people are having a hard time to accept that the new queen wants to turn back time.

Alys is a bit of a strange main character. As a laundress she can easily move within a royal household but she isn’t a real part of it. She’s still far from the action. Therefore, there’s a strong focus on her own story and for me Alys’ story was a bit of mess. She has a past she wants to keep secret at any cost, she falls in love with the wrong person and she doesn’t know where her loyalties lie—with the queen or the princess?

Also the whole spying on the princess thing turns out a bit different from what I thought it would be. I had hoped to get more of an insight into Elizabeth’s character and how she copes with her arrest and consequent house arrest at Woodstock. But Alys only comes occasionally into her room to pick up the dirty laundry.

All this results in a sudden ending of the story and too many loose ends. Dunn also uses very modern language, something that already bothered me in her previous works, but it doesn’t really feel like an issue here. I think I’m simply disappointed in the story itself. If you want to read something from Suzannah Dunn, I heartily recommend ‘The May Bride’, as it is still the better novel I’ve read from her.

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

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant doesn’t like surprises. She is living alone on the same flat and working at the same office for years. Every Wednesday she calls her mum and every Friday night she buys a pizza and two bottles of wodka. When Eleanor and her new colleague Raymond help an old man after an accident on the street, she is forced to break her routine. At the same time she has met the men of her life. The only problem is that he doesn’t know it yet.

I don’t read many non historical books. Only a few per year. This one was a Christmas gift from my sister-in-a-law and coincidence or not, I already had this book on my TBR list as everyone seemed to love it. Yep, I’m the kind of person that reads a hyped book just to know what all the fuzz is about. I have decided to also review them on this blog.

Eleanor Oliphant is a quirky main character. A recipe that always makes for a good story. But sometimes it doesn’t work out for me (I found ‘Stoner’ for example utterly disappointing). But this is a good story. Once your start reading, you just know that Eleanor is not ok but that she tries to cope with her life in a different way than any of us would. We all recognize something of ourselves in Eleanor. She’s human with all her faults and flaws.

Not much happens. Eleanor meets a new colleague who truly shows an interest in her and together they bring an old man to the hospital. This sets some things in motion. Slowly you discover her past as Raymond and Sammy force Eleanor to open up her heart and leave her safe habits behind. Her character development is the sole focus of the book. A lot of bad things happened to Eleanor and you wish her all the best. Still the book had me at a certain plot twist and I was fulfilled at the end.

Honeyman writes a wonderful story, beautifully paced, although sometimes with some difficult literary words. As this was her debut novel it’s quite impressive that Eleanor conquered a place in the heart of so many readers. One of the better non historical books I’ve read in recent years.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Have you read this one? Are you a routine person or do you just go with the flow?

The ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

1666. London is burning. In the midst of the chaos a body is found at St. Paul’s. James Marwood, the son of a convicted traitor during Cromwell’s Glorious Revolution, is charged with finding the murderer. And time is running out. A few days later a new victim is found, murdered in the same way. During his investigation the name of Catherine Lovett always pops up. She has left her aunt’s house after the first murder and is looking for her father, a regicide on the run.

I do love a good historical mystery and this has been on my list for some time. I’m really intrigued by The Great Fire of London and the premise of a murder investigation during this disaster caught my attention.

The story opens with James Marwood, an anonymus clerk living outside London to hide his ill and traitorous father from the world, standing in the crowd before St. Paul’s cathedral to watch it burn. He saves a young boy running into the fire. But the boy turns out to be a girl! Before he can talk to her, she bites him and runs off with his jacket. A few hours later James is told a body has been found inside the church, with his thumbs bound behind his back.

A few chapters later we meet Catherine Lovett, a young heiress who is forced to marry an older man she doesn’t like by her aunt and uncle. She’s looking for her father and leaves the house, just before Marwoord arrives to inform the family the body in St Paul’s was one of their servants.

The story switches between James and Catherine both looking for the murderer and each other. Step by step, you discover what happened. I had hoped to read a good murder mystery, but the hunt for the killer isn’t the real focus of the novel. It’s all about the historical setting and the background stories of James and Catherine in the light of the still recent rebellion and Civil War. Even the king himself meddles in the case. And there is the fire. During the whole book we walk through a burning London. You can smell the ashes through the pages.

It took some time before I could empathize with James and especially Catherine. The revelations are slow and the whole book felt like an introduction to the coming books. The ending didn’t really give an explanation for all the murders but I liked it nonetheless. And as I read in other reviews that this series gets better and better, I’m inclined to give the second book ‘the fire court‘ a chance.

The ashes of London gives a nice and dark insight into the greatest natural disaster on British soil in the aftermath of the Restoration. But for real suspense, you’ll need to read some else.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Have you read this series? Or any other books about the Great Fire or Restoration?

The passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland

Artemisia Gentileschi has learned to paint from her father Orazio and his colleague Arentino. When the latter rapes her and her father forces her to take the case to court, 18-year-old Artemisia becomes the talk of Rome. After being tortured and her father’s betrayal, Artemisia marries the painter Pierantonio who lives in Florence. Trapped in a loveless marriage she fights for acceptance as a female painter in a world full of men. In Florence, she will find a patron in Cosimo II De Medici and a friend in Galileo Galilei and Michelangelo The Younger. Her life will never be easy, but the greatest art springs from sorrow.

Ever since creating a Goodreads account, this book has been on the recommendations list. When I recognized the title in our library, I decided to give it a try. I love stories about art and painters and I adore novels about Italy and especially Rome and Florence. So yes, this might be something for me.

The story opens in Rome when Artemisia goes to court to defend her case against Arentino, a colleague of her father who raped her. She needs to endure some awful things and you immediately get an insight in the male dominated society of Baroque Italy.

I must admit that I didn’t know much of Artemisia’s life and work. But what a life she had! I loved to read about her search for acceptance and her journey through Italy. We travel to Florence, Rome, Naples and Genoa to look for patronage amongst the nobles. I was especially interested in her friendship with Galilei. As he is also struggling to be taken seriously by the Pope.

The story takes some leaps in time which made the transitions a bit too fast sometimes. Vreeland tries to include most of the key moments of Artemisia’s life and adds her own imagination to fill the gaps. The author takes some liberties regarding Artemisia’s relationship with her father and husband.

Artemisia first and only love was painting and in this novel she creates her most-known works such as her Judith paintings and Susanna and the elder. After every chapter where she created a painting, I Googled it to study the details. It certainly enriched my reading experience.

The book reads like a fictional biography. The writing style is dry and some characters feel distant. But I still enjoyed it a lot. I’ve added Vreeland’s other famous novel ‘Girl in hyacinth blue‘ about Johannes Vermeer to my list.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The poison bed by E.C. Fremantle

The beautiful and ambitious Frances Howard is locked in The Tower after having confessed the murder of Thomas Overbury, her husband’s best friend. That husband is Robert Carr, the personal favorite of king James I. Robert himself sits also behind bars in the Tower, suspected of the same murder. One of them is the murderer. The other will go free. Who speaks the truth?

I absolutely loved Elizabeth Fremantle’s Tudor novels. I read them all, except ‘Watch the lady’, as I’m saving this for a special moment :D. I love the fact that she always includes different perspectives, both from real historical figures and fictional characters. I must admit that I was disappointed when I heard her next book would a historical thriller in Jacobean times, published under a slightly different author’s name. I was afraid this story would be too different from her previous work. Luckily, I was wrong as ‘the poison bed’ is one of my favorite reads of 2020 so far!

The poison bed, being the first written as E.C. Fremantle, tells the story of the infamous murder of Thomas Overbury in The Tower Of London. It was at the time itself a real political scandal, and this unsolved murder still intrigues us centuries later.

The story opens with Frances imprisoned in The Tower with her baby daughter and Nelly, a wet nurse. Frances has just confessed and recounts her side of the story to Nelly. She starts with her first marriage to the earl of Essex and slowly we discover how she and Robert Carr fell in love. At the same time, we get to know Robert’s story. His friendship with Overbury, his relationship with king James and his first meeting with Frances.

Slowly events are unfolding and you get some clues why Overbury was murdered and who could be behind it. But at the same time Fremantle waves other historical topics into the narrative. The Jacobean court comes alive with tensions between the catholic and protestant fractions at court, the witch hunts, a king that has some personal secrets…

Halfway, the novel’s atmosphere changes and it all becomes darker. It is a historical thriller after all. The ending lingered on for a while in my mind. If only we could travel back in time to discover what really happened ;).

Fremantle’s writing style is gripping and the short chapters make it a real page turner. The chapters switch between Frances in third person tense and Robert in first person narrative. I found Frances’ perspective more interesting than Robert’s story. Robert was too soft and passive for my liking.

It’s such a shame that I haven’t yet read more books set during the Stuart reign. Fremantle proves not only The Tudors make for a good story.

The poison bed is a story about love, treason, lies and murder. For all those that love a good mystery novel or a compelling historical story. This book has both.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Do you like reading historical thrillers? Which one is your favorite?

How to stop time by Matt Haig

Tom Hazard starts a new career as a history teacher in London. He teaches about Shakespeare as if he has known the man himself. And he did know Shakespeare. Tom was born in the 16th century and suffers from a strange disease that makes him age slowly. One day, he discovers that he isn’t the only one with this condition. Tom becomes part of a secret society where they call themselves Alba’s. The society arranges a new life for you every 8 years and in return you help them find and recruit more Alba’s. To live long may seem a wonderful dream but it can be hurtful too, especially when love is involved.

This was my first book of Matt Haig and I deliberately picked this one as the focus is less on sci-fi and it has some historical elements. The book contains short chapters switching between Tom’s past lives and his current one as a teacher in London. We travel to Elizabethan London, James Cook’s discovery of Australia, New York, Paris… Sometimes it’s a bit confusing in which life we are.

We learn about Tom’s first love Rose and how his disease forced him to part from her. Tom’s undying love (you can take that literally if you want) for Rose is a central topic during the whole story. It becomes an obsession and for me it was a bit too much.

We also get an insight in the secret Alba society. How they found Tom, what the rules are and how they try to hide from the rest of the world. For me, the whole society thing wasn’t the most interesting part of the novel. Tom doesn’t ask questions and just goes along with whatever they tell him. I didn’t find it very convincing.

What I did like were Tom’s ‘accidentally’ encounters with famous figures such as Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald. You’re a history nerd, or not :D. I also liked Haig’s writing style, which becomes very philosophical at times. The concept of ‘time’ is a key element throughout the story.

So yes, I truly understand why people love this book. It’s well-written with some unique storylines, but for me there were too many loose ends to be blown away.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.