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.

The Boleyn bride by Emily Purdy

At sixteen Elizabeth Howard hopes to become lady-in-waiting to the new Spanish queen, Catherine Of Aragon. But her ambitious father marries her to Thomas Boleyn, a low-born but rising star at court. Elizabeth loathes him but has no choice than to obey her family. The Howards are after all one of the most powerful noble families. The match will produce three children: beautiful Mary, beloved George and ugly duck Anne. All three of them will play a vital part in Engeland’s future, and Elizabeth herself will also catch king Henry’s eye.

I’ve set myself a goal to still write reviews of all the books I’ve read in the first half of 2020 (thus before I started this blog), with the exception of some last parts in a series. The Boleyn Bride was one of the oldest unread books sitting on my shelves. I bought it maybe 10 years ago at a book fair for 2 euros. There’s another edition of this book where the author’s name is Brandy Purdy instead of Emily by the way – it confused me also.

I had no high expectations of this book, knowing it would be another story about the dramatic rise and downfall of the Boleyn family. But I had hoped that the perspective of their mother Elizabeth Howard would provide an original point of view. Historians are still in doubt whether Elizabeth encouraged her daughters to enter the king’s bed or whether she was against it.

This is hard review to write because actually there is little I liked about ‘the Boleyn bride‘. The biggest problem is the characterization of Elizabeth herself. She’s a total bitch. Vain, selfish, ambitious and annoying. She has no love for her family or husband, not even for her children. Her constant hate of Thomas, whom she refers to as ‘Bullen, oh no Boleyn’ bored me to pieces.

The book covers her story all the way from her marriage to Thomas until Anne’s downfall, but the most important events are told in a few pages, a few lines even. The author finds it more interesting to talk about her love affair with Remi, a fictional character, or how Elizabeth tries to hide her wrinkles. Elizabeth complains about almost everything, except herself. She’s a very passive character and has no influence on what happens to first Mary, than Anne. As their mother she’s more a silent observer who just tells the reader what happens to her children. I found that most unconvincing.

I can see past a horrible main character, but the other characters are even worse. Thomas Boleyn is a devil, Anne ugly from the day she’s born, Mary is beautiful but stupid… There was nobody I cared for in this book. Only Catherine Of Aragon seems a good person, which is a bit strange as she and Elizabeth will not have been best friends if you know what happens…

Purdy also makes some serious historical errors or bad choices, especially with the timeline (Anne’s romance with Henry Percy for example is set wrong) or the whole thing about Anne having six fingers (for which there is no evidence whatsoever). I can understand why authors of historical fiction sometimes make changes to the timeline or choose to go with a certain story or legend, but in this novel it serves no purpose at all except making it more unbelievable.

I’m quite picky when it comes to Tudor fiction, since I’ve read a lot of novels about this period already and I am familiar with the historical facts. Especially with the Boleyns, I find it important to do them justice and I cringe with how some authors chose to represent them. So maybe you will enjoy a lighter story such as these and this book might work for you. But I won’t take up a next book from Emily/Brandy Purdy.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Which book disappointed you most in 2020 so far?

Historical novels set in a monastery

Today I want to talk about one of my favorite settings of a historical novel: a monastery. I’m no religious person whatsoever, but I find it really interesting to read about life in religious houses. I don’t know exactly what attracts me to this setting. I believe the fact that inhabitants are isolated from the rest of the world and limited to a certain amount of space contributes to the story, especially when a mystery is involved. The killer needs to be someone from inside—making it all the more exciting. Do you get me?

Also the role that monasteries played during the reformation and especially the dissolution by the likes of Thomas Cromwell is a topic that I have read about a few times. It gives a nice insight in why people would want to live a solitary and contemplated life. Religion was (and still is for some people) an important aspect of everyday life. Most people took their vows willingly, or went to a convent or abbey to repent for their sins, or to seek sanctuary.

Here’s my list of books that I’ve read where a monastery or religious life is involved and plays a key part in the novel.

The name of the rose by Umberto Eco

Probably the most famous novel of the list. It tells the story of Brother William of Baskerville who, together with the novice Adso, arrives at an Italian monastery for a religious debate. But a monk was murdered and William and Adso are charged to find the murderer before the delegates of the pope arrive.

I do want to include this book, but I need to say that I didn’t like reading it at all. I didn’t understand the whole religious conflict thing. The murder mystery was what kept me reading, but I was as lost in the story as William and Adso were in the monastery’s mysterious library.

I gave the story a second chance by watching the excellent Italian mini series (also named The name of the rose). I did enjoy it a lot but I didn’t recognize anything from the book :D. So, I do recommend to give this book a try, as so many love it. But I won’t reread it.

Dissolution (Matthew Shardlake #1) by S.J. Sansom

We move on to what might be my favorite story of this list. One of Thomas Cromwell’s men is murdered at the monastery of Scarnsea. Lawyer Matthew Shardlake is sent to catch the murderer.

This is the start of a historical mystery series about Shardlake during the Tudor era. I’m quite new to this genre of historical novels, but I love this series and I love Matthew. The murder mystery is quite good, although I found out halfway who the killer was, there were still a lot of elements that surprised me.

The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau

Joanna Stafford is a novice in the monastery of Dartford. During the dissolution of the monasteries, she get’s involved in the quest for an ancient relic on behalf of bishop Stephen Gardiner.

What I liked about this book is the fact that you get an insight in how a monastery reacted to the dissolution by Cromwell. You feel their fears and doubts. What I didn’t like was the search for the relic, this gave the story some kind of Dan Brown vibe (and coming from me, I don’t mean that as a compliment). Also the flashback to Joanna’s previous court life didn’t contribute to the story, I would have liked to just stay between the walls of the monastery. I still don’t know if I want to read the second book in the series. Is it getting better?

Sacred hearts by Sarah Dunant

This story is set in 15th century Italy in the convent of Santa Catherina. In that time a lot of noble girls where forced to enter a convent for the sake of their family. And not all of them go willingly. We meet young novice Serafina who is such a girl. With the help of Suora Zuana, the convent’s apothecary, she starts to feel at home a bit.

This is a different story, no murder mystery, but a novel about love and friendship during challenging times. Every nun has its own story and burdens to bare. I enjoyed this book a lot and I definitely want to reread it.

The pillars of the earth by Ken Folett

Everyone will know this book and yes, it’s not only set within a monastery. It’s an epic medieval tale set during the Anarchy in England. But thanks to prior Philip, you get an insight in the workings of an abbey and how a new prior could get selected and the power that it gave him.

Also the building and funding of the new church is an important topic and convinced me to add this must-read novel on this list.

Have you read any of these? Do you know of any other good story about a monastery, convent or abbey? I’m happy to add it to my list!

In the company of the courtesan by Sarah Dunant

Bucino is an ugly dwarf living and working together with Fiametta, Rome’s most beautiful courtesan. When the papal city is attacked the pair flees to Venice where they need to build their reputation anew. They receive help from La Draga, a blind healer whom Bucino distrusts immediately and Arentino, a satirical poet looking for a patron.

Sarah Dunant is one of my favorite authors because she brings renaissance Italy vividly to life. In ‘In the company of the courtisan‘ she takes us to the sack of Rome in 1527. The cruel fate that the Spanish, with the help of German protestants, inflict upon the city’s inhabitants is reported by Bucino, a dwarf who tries to protect his misstress Fiametta. As a courtesan she is subject to ugly humiliations during the night. Then the story switches to Venice, a city rich by trade with the Ottomans and Jews. A city of promise where the pair tries to rebuild their life.

I have never been to Venice, but this story makes we want to jump on the plane immediately. You experience the small dark streets and smelly water alleys through Bucino’s eyes and his special rational view on the world. I liked Bucino from the beginning, as he can be both invisible and attracting attention by his looks.

This may not be Dunant’s best book. The plot is a bit slow and not so much happens. But it’s an atmospheric novel with interesting characters. The book is full of outcasts. A dwarf and a courtesan, a converted Jew, a Turk and a blind widow to name just a few. Towards the end, you want to know if Bucino and Fiametta will make it together or not.

And for the art lovers, you get a behind-the-scenes look of the painter Titian creating his ‘Venus of Urbino’. I loved these parts!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

What’s your favorite Sarah Dunant novel? I believe mine is ‘sacred hearts‘.