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?

The Romanov empress by C.W. Gortner

Dagmar, who goes by the nickname ‘Minnie’, unexpectedly becomes princess of Denmark when her father inherits the crown from his uncle. Her elder sister Alix soon engages herself to the heir to the British throne, ‘Bertie’, the eldest son of Victoria. After Minnie rejects a marriage with another of Victoria’s sons, she catches the eye of Nicholas of Russia, the future Tsar. Nixa and Minnie are madly in love, until Nixa dies unexpectedly before their marriage. Minnie eventually marries his younger brother Alexander, ‘Sasha’. She takes on the orthodox name of Maria Feodorovna and leaves everything behind to build a new life in Russia as future Tsarina.

This is a fantastic book! It covers the last 60 years of the Romanovs’ reign through the eyes of Dagmar of Denmark, better known as Maria Feodorovna. Maria was the daughter-in-law of Alexander II, who was murdered by rebels, Tsarina of Alexander III and mother of Nicholas II, the last Tsar.

Maria, or Minnie, is a strong woman with a real-life personality who comes of age during this novel. As a young girl, she arrives in Russia in a big family. She tries to find her own place and genuinely loves her new country. She also tries to support the men around her, without trying to take over the power.

This is one of those books where the family tree up front really comes in handy. You also get a good but complex view of the relationships between the various European royal families. There are so many people with the same name that nicknames are needed :).

You can feel the unrest in Russia growing. From the hunger of the peasants, the disastrous war with Japan, the rise of the Nihilists and later the Bolsheviks to Tsarina Alexandra and her Rasputin. I found Minnie’s relationship with her sister-in-law the German ‘Miechen’ in particular very fascinating. Miechen is a confident and proud woman and she challenges Minnie to bring out that side in herself more.

Then there is her daughter-in-law Alexandra, whom she distrusts from the very beginning. Alexandra and Nicholas aren’t the rulers that the Russian Empire needs in times of War. But they are deeply in love with one another. Minnie struggles with that, as she senses that Alexandra will be their undoing. This is also the first book I have read where Alexandra and Nicholas are not just presented as victims, but as two people who stood at the wrong side of history.

Minnie is also concerned with the fate of the people and a true advocate of democracy, something she is not thanked for within her family. She volunteers for the Red Cross and a number of other charities.

And yet the revolution cannot be averted. It remains strange to read about these events. A century later, we still don’t know exactly what happened to the Tsar and his family, or to some other Romanovs who did not survive 1918. Fortunately, we do learn a lot about the fate of the survivors in the historical note.

Gortner is a fantastic author. And this is without a doubt one of his best books. I wish there were more historical fiction books about the Russian Empire.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Have you read anything good about the Russian Revolution before? What’s your favourite C.W. Gortner?

Where the crawdads sing by Delia Owens

Kya Clark lives with her family on the edge of the swamp until her mother, her siblings and finally her father leave her behind. Nature becomes her only comfort and she tries to make a living by selling mussels to ‘Jumpin’, one of the few people that try to help her. She quickly becomes known as ‘the swamp girl’ in the village. But when two different boys show an interest in Kya and a few years later one of them is found dead – murdered? – Kya is suspect number one.

This is really one of those books that I would never have chosen myself based on the back cover. But it is fairly hyped and so I gave it a chance. This is a fine novel about a girl with a hard life who still tries to see the beauty in it. And the wilderness is maybe an even greater protagonist than Kya herself.

Where the crawdads sing‘ is also a bit of a murder mystery with a courtroom drama attached to it. Chase Andrews, the most popular guy of the village is found dead at the bottom of a fire tower. It’s not clear if he has fallen or if he was pushed. But the police suspects the latter and only one name pops up as a potential suspect: Kya.

Overall, this is a solid novel. I can understand why so many people love it. It’s an emotional story about a girl trying to make sense of the world while fighting against prejudices. I saw certain plot lines coming, but I didn’t care. You empathize with Kya’s story and feel her pain and happiness.

But I am not that excited about this book as others seem to be. This is just a fine novel. It doesn’t always have to be literature. But I did notice that this was Owens’ debut fiction novel in her writing. However, I enjoyed it enough, just a pity about the more predictable ending.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Have you read this popular book yet?

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Humbert Humbert travels to America to teach French poetry. He falls in love with the 12-year-old daughter of his landlady, Dolores Haze. He calls her his ‘Lolita’. To be closer to her, he marries the mother. But when she learns the truth she gets run over by a car. Humbert now takes his stepdaughter on a roadtrip through America during which they become intimate.

Lolita is this kind of classic everyone has heard about. “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” It’s probably one of the most famous opening lines ever written. The topic is taboo. A sexual relationship between an adult man and a teenage girl. It’s so wrong. Lots of classics are said to be about topics that were sensitive at the time they were published. But this is still sensitive today. It leaves you with a wry feeling and a sour taste in your mouth.

The story opens with ‘Humbert Humbert’ writing his story from prison awaiting trial. He wants to explain his actions to the public. Humbert is an unreliable narrator and this makes for a disturbing story. He takes us back to his childhood love for a young girl of his age and his sexual desire for her that was never consummated. Ever since, he has a longing for young girls, around 12-13 year old. He calls them ‘nymphets’.

So when one day he meets dark haired (no idea why there are always blondes on the cover of this book 🤷‍♀️) Dolores, who is 12 but quite outspoken for her age, he is lost. He constantly seeks for ways to be with her. And day by day, she also warms towards him.

The writing is poetic. Nabokov creates beautiful sentences. His metaphors and images are vivid and full of detail. But this also means it’s a difficult and at times tiring book to read. The pace is slow, every sentence is a story in itself. I must admit that I began skipping parts near the end of the book. It did appreciate the writing, it’s a work of art. But it was all a bit too much.

This is rightly considered a classic. Especially as Nabokov wrote this originally in English instead of Russian. But I’ve read it now once, and for me that’s enough.

This is book 8/50 for the classics club.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Have you read Lolita yet? What did you think?

The collector’s daughter by Gill Paul

Lady Evelyn Herbert is the daughter of the earl of Carnarvon who finances Howard Carter’s expedition to find the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt. Eve who wants to become a lady archeologist herself can’t believe her eyes when she’s one of the first people to enter the burial chamber. But after the unique discovery, things start to go wrong with the people she loves and there’s talk of an ancient curse. Decades later, Eve is struggling with the aftermath of another stroke when Ana Mansour starts asking questions about missing artefacts from the tomb. Only Eve can still tell the tale, or will she take her secrets with her to the grave?

Gill Paul is an author I’ve meant to read a long time ago. She often writes a two perspective novel with one the characters being from royal blood. Her newest novel ‘The collector’s daughter‘ is different in that regard. There’s only one female perspective, although we meet her at two certain points in her life, and she has noble but no royal ancestors.

The discovery of Tutankhamun has always fascinated me so I did know who Evelyn Herbert was. The book opens with Eve waking up in the hospital after a stroke with her loyal husband Brograve Beauchamp besides her. We learn that Eve has had a car accident some time ago since when she suffers from strokes that sometimes take away her speech, but also parts of her memories. This time she does recall the distant past as if it was yesterday and her mind takes her back to the 1920’s in Egypt and the balls in Engeland where she met Brograve after WOI.

Highclere castle, the real Downton Abbey, also features in the story. We meet Eve’s complex family from the earl who dotes on his daughter, her lively but spendthrift mother Almina and her brother Porchy, the future earl of Carnarvon.

I did enjoy this novel, but it’s a light read. There’s a heavy focus on Eve’s health and her revalidation, leaving not enough space in my opinion for the historical perspective. I loved traveling back to Egypt, but the storyline became a bit shallow at times. I didn’t like Eve referring to her father as ‘Pups’ all the time. I also didn’t think the character of Ana really contributed to the story. We never get to know her or her motives. The focus is on Eve and her relationship with Brograve. And there’s talk of a curse to spice things up.

Paul has written an extensive historical note. A lot of research has gone into this book with utter respect for the real people behind the characters. As it’s a book about 20th century people with living descendants, I can really appreciate that.

I’ll certainly pick up one of Paul’s earlier books now, and I want to read more historicals novels about Egypt (any recommendations?). But I don’t know if this will be a story I still remember in, let’s say, two years from now.

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

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Gill Paul? Any recommendations on the history of (ancient) Egypt?

The animals of Lockwood manor by Jane Healey

When WOII is luring around the corner, the Natural History Museum of London is looking elsewhere to store their precious collection of mammals. Hettie Cartwright is made director—as all men are going to war—of the new museum at Lockwood manor, an old country home with more than 99 rooms. Her reception by the lord of the manor is hostile. The only friend she can turn to is Lucy, the lord daughter’s. Lucy’s mother and grandmother have just died in a car accident and Lucy herself suffers from nightmares about a woman dressed in white and a blue room. When animals are starting to disappear or are changing places, Hettie wonders if this really is a haunted house after all.

Hettie has grown up in an unloved family and has always devoted most of her time to her work. However, as a woman she has little prospect to get promoted. But when all the men are called to war, this is her chance to prove herself as the responsible of the mammal collection. When soon after her arrival at Lockwood manor (the name being an allusion to Emily’s Brönte’s narrator in Wuthering Heights) animals start to disappear, she wants to preserve the animals and her promotion no matter what. She becomes obsessed. This sets her at hostile ground with Lord Lockwood and the servants of the manor.

The only person that seems to be friendly towards her is Lucy. But she’s a complicated character. Suffering from a sensitive nerving system and bad dreams, Lucy is afraid to leave her home and doesn’t dare to stand up to her father.

The animals of Lockwood manor is Jane Healey’s first novel and is set in the tradition of the great gothic classics such as Rebecca and Jane Eyre. All the gothic elements are there: a haunted house, a ghost story, family secrets, a young and inexperienced main character and a fire. However, I don’t think of this book as a merely gothic story. There’s also a heavy romance plot line.

The book has an original setting. The mammals and the home feature as real characters in the book. And while the story is set during WOII, the war is never really a part of the plot. Only just looming in the background. Chapters are alternating between Hettie and Lucy. With Lucy’s part being in diary form. I did enjoy Hettie’s perspective the most. I could relate to her and her fear and doubts felt real.

There’s a heavy sapphic romance in the book, which was a bit cliche done. I’ve recently read a range of books with the same theme (The crimson ribbon, The mercies, The testimony of Alys Twist…) and the plot felt a bit forced at times. I wanted to read more about the mystery that was hiding within the manor.

Jane Healey’s writing was ok. I had some trouble with the pace. Some chapters felt really slow, while the ending was quite sudden in its revealings. I’m ok with the ending, I had guessed some part of it, but it gives an explanation to most things that happened.

Overall, I did enjoy the animals at Lockwood manor and I’ll happily try one of Healey’s future works. The sound of ‘The Ophelia girls‘, which will be published this summer, already appeals to me.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Have you read this one? Any gothic recommendations?

Lady Chatterley’s lover by D.H. Lawrence

Middleclass woman Connie Read marries Clifford Chatterley of the Wragby estate, who got paralysed during WOI and is now bound to a wheelchair. This also means he isn’t able to give Connie any children of his own. The monotonous life at Wragby starts to bore Connie. When she meets her husband’s gamekeeper, the troubled Oliver Mellors, she loathes him at first. But in time, she visits him more and more in the woods and the two of them start an affair.

This is the winning novel of my first classics club spin. I added this book to the list because I saw the excellent BBC movie with Richard Madden and Holiday Grainger a few years ago. I didn’t remember anything from the plot so I was curious to start reading Lady Chatterley’s lover, expecting a romance novel with a lot of sex and drama.

But this didn’t turn out as expected. It’s written during the interwar period and has that typical early 20th century atmosphere. There were a lot of philosophical discussions that I wasn’t prepared for. About themes as social class, communism, women’s rights, industrialization… And that’s why I felt the story dragged on at times.

This book has a lot of sex, but compared to 21st century standards (I mean, we have 50 shades) it isn’t big deal. I can assume that in the 1920’s this was not done and the book has been banned in a lot of countries. But I also believe this was the cause because the book is about an affair between two people of a different social class. A respectable lady who mingles with a gamekeeper, who is far below her status… It would have caused quite a scandal in real life.

I didn’t feel the romance. Connie hates Mellors at first and slowly they grow towards each other, but I couldn’t understand why. The first times they have sex, it’s all about the sex and Connie is even thinking about other things while having intercourse. Her feelings towards Oliver change suddenly, but it’s never explained why. Mellors is a character that I couldn’t relate with. He speaks a certain dialect that I couldn’t understand (I read this book in English so that made these parts unreadable to me). I didn’t root for them, but I couldn’t also stand Clifford, who has little thought and affection for his wife.

The second part of the book got better (more action and dialogue, less philosophical themes), but all together I believe this story is better suited for a 2-hour movie than a 6-hour book.

This is book 5/50 for the classics club.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Have you read anything by D.H. Lawrence?

The color purple by Alice Walker

America, early 20th century. The black sisters Nettie and Celie grow up together until their mother dies and their father abuses Celie, the oldest. Celie flees into a loveless marriage with a much older man who beats her, leaving Nettie behind. When Shug Avery, her husband’s ex-lover, comes to town, the two women develop a friendship and Celie finally starts living. Then she discovers her husband has kept Nettie’s letters, who is now in Africa as a missionary, from her.

This is the most recent book from my Classics club list, written in the eighties but already considered a classic. It even has a Penguin classic edition, so I decided I could use it for my list. I always back off from reading books about racism. I can’t really explain why I find it hard to pick them up. But once reading I seem to find them quite fascinating. This was also the case with ‘the color purple‘.

This is a novel mainly consisting of letters from Celie to God. She writes in faltered English, which makes it not always easy to read. But I hadn’t a problem with that. It contributed to the story and the characterization of Nettie, who is not learned, a bit naive and learns about life the hard way. In the middle of the book, Nettie’s perspective is added to the story. She writes her letters in more perfect English to Celie from Africa where she’s working as a missionary together with another black family.

The book is as much about racism as about feminism. Apart from Nettie and Celie, there are some other black women that are part of the main cast. The outspoken Sofie, free-fought Shug and invisible Piep (whose real name is Mary Agnes). A lot of bad things happen to them, but this creates a strong bond between the women.

I enjoyed Celie’s perspective the most. It gave me an insight into the difficult position of black women in the south of America not even 100 years ago. Nettie’s story in Africa talks about the colonization, another heavy subject. So I would understand that you can feel a bit overwhelmed when reading this book, but I should praise Walker for having written a balanced book. There’s friendship, love and hope everywhere.

I understand why this is considered a modern classic and a book every woman should read at least once.

This is book 4/50 for the classics club.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read the color purple?

Howards End by E.M. Forster

The middleclass sisters Margaret and Helen Schlegel are living in London together with their younger brother Tibby. On holiday in Germany, the land of birth of their deceased father, they meet the Wilcoxes, a family rich by business. Back in England, Helen goes to live a few days with them at Howard’s End, the favourite house of Mrs. Wilcox. But things don’t go as planned. After a romantic affair with the youngest son Paul, Helen returns to London. At an opera show, she accidentally steals an umbrella of the clerk Leonard Bast who has a poor income. In the coming years fate will bring these three families together again.

I had already seen the most recent BBC/Starz adaptation, so I knew the story a bit. I love how everything comes together at the end and how Howard’s End seems to be an extra character in the book. The house is always there, looming over the events.

Howard’s End was published in 1910 and offers a pre-war perspective on European relationships. At times, it felt like a total different world out there. The book covers a lot of interesting themes: social class, poverty, prejudice, feminism and sisterhood. The three families are all part of a different social class. The Schlegel sisters are middleclass. They love art, poetry and culture and don’t need to worry about money. The Wilcoxes are affluent, trying to make even more money thanks to the right investments. They tend to value things over people. While at the same time, the Basts are struggling to make ends meet. Leonard wants to get higher up in life and starts taking an interest in books and art, a subject he enjoys discussing with the Schlegel sisters.

The main perspective was that of Margaret, the older Schlegel and not my favourite character. Margaret is sensible and thoughtful. She’s the perfect opposite of her impulsive and emotional sister and the rather dull and rational Wilcoxes. She’s the much needed conscience in the story, as many of the other characters appear rather flat and insensitive at times.

The writing is good, although I found it a bit difficult at times. There is some dialogue, but also a strong narrator perspective where Forster directly speaks to the reader. Some of these aren’t always that easy to follow. There are also some time jumps that can be confusing.

In the end, I understand why Howard’s End is considered a true classic. The unique atmosphere of Europe before the Great War combined with themes that are still highly relevant today make for a great novel. I also have ‘A passage to India’ from Forster on my classics club list and am looking forward to see if I’ll like it even more.

This is book 3/50 for the Classics Club.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Have you read anything by E.M. Forster? What’s your favourite?

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.