The Puritan Princess by Miranda Malins

Frances Cromwell is the youngest daughter of Oliver Cromwell. After the Civil War, her father becomes the country’s leading man and the family moves into the palaces of the old Stuart kings. A long discussion starts about whether her father will also get a crown, and Frances dreams of a life as a princess. But princess or not, she may be an important pawn in politics to make an advantageous marriage.

The Puritan Princess is Malins’ debut novel. She’s specialized in Oliver Cromwell’s life and the Civil War. I previously read her second novel The rebel daughter about Bridget, the eldest Cromwell daughter. In that book, we are still in the midst of the Civil War. Focusing on Frances now, we follow the Cromwell family after the war during their ultimate moments of glory until their brutal fall.

Frances is especially close with her sister Mary and looks up to the even older and charming Elizabeth, the opposite of the rational Bridget. Her eldest brother Richard is named as his father’s successor and her other brother Harry is in Ireland. It’s a big family!

Frances mostly enjoys life at court and has her eye set on Robert Rich. A match that’s not approved by her father. There’s more drama in this book, but still a lot of politics and halfway through I found it all rather slow. Only when things start to deteriorate for the family the story seems to pick up and I couldn’t put it down.

Malins really did introduce me to the Cromwell family as I had never imagined them before. But in terms of writing style, I struggled at times, as I did with the stupid nicknames for all the sisters. I found The rebel daughter more engaging, but the puritan princess gives a good picture of a different Oliver Cromwell and his family than they are remembered for.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Have you read anything from Malins? Do you have any recommendations about the Civil War or Oliver Cromwell?


The heart and the crown/ The king’s pleasure by Alison Weir

When Henry’s elder brother Arthur and not much later his mother Queen Elizabeth suddenly die, he must begin to prepare for his task as future king. Henry has his eye set on marrying Arthur’s widow Catherine Of Aragon, but his father doesn’t want to make an alliance with Spain just yet.

Alison Weir wrote six books about Henry VIII’s wives, one about his mother Elizabeth Of York, and now finally gives voice to the larger-than-life figure himself. The book is called The heart and the crown in the UK and the king’s pleasure in the US.

This novel covers almost Henry’s entire life, from his mother’s death to his own end. That isn’t easy. Besides six wives, there has to be time for all the intrigues at court, his relationship with Wolsey, More and Cromwell and the complex foreign policy and wars going on.

It’s a lot. And that forces Weir to do away with some important events in a few paragraphs. Weir stays truthful to the bulk of the facts – which is why his first two marriages account for half the book and the four others are disposed of in the second half (the last four wives just didn’t take a long time). You can feel me coming: there isn’t much depth.

I’ve only read the books of the first three women, but when reading about them I already had problems with how inconsistently Henry was portrayed. I was hoping this book was going to fix that. After all, it’s about Henry himself now.

But we get a Henry who barely knows why he does or feels certain things. He is madly in love with his Kate – Catherine Of Aragon – but suddenly he isn’t anymore. He passionately falls in love with Anne (which I liked) but already on the first night of their marriage – 7 years later, admittedly – he doubts his choice. Even the love for his Jane came across as strange.

Not to mention how double-minded he’s about Thomas More, or his sudden hatred for Cromwell. Weir doesn’t answer the questions we all still have today about his motives. Weir does put Henry himself at the steering wheel of the deaths of both Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard (though he doesn’t really want the latter dead, but he feels compelled). But the why behind his actions remains unexamined.

In this book, we get a vain, power-hungry and jealous Henry who wants to be worshipped by everyone. Who is sex-crazed and quickly gets over his crushes. And who very much blames the failure to have a son on his wives. Henry is portrayed as a woman-killer and you just don’t want that in a book about him, don’t you think? Yet while reading, I couldn’t help but lose my sympathy.

So should Henry VIII be portrayed as a likeable happy king? No, but this book feels like a huge missed opportunity to give an insight into his emotions and motives.

Still three stars after all? Tudor England was the perfect distraction during my move. For which I want to thank Weir!

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

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The London séance society by Sarah Penner

Lenna Wickes travels to Paris after the murder of her sister Evie for an apprenticeship with the famous medium Vaudeline d’Allaire. Vaudeline makes contact with spirits of deceased people who have been murdered in order to track down the killer. When Vaudeline receives a letter from a Mr. Morley to solve the murder of the president of the London Séance Society, a former friend, the pair return to London. And Lenna secretly hopes to also learn the truth about Evie.

I enjoyed Sarah Penner’s ‘The lost apothecary‘ last year. ‘The London séance society‘ is her second novel and has a very different theme that didn’t attract me as much. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a try and after the first chapters I already noticed I was totally into it.

This time it isn’t a dual timeframe novel. Everything takes place in the 19th century in London and Paris. The novel opens with a seance in a chateau in Paris where Vaudeline and Lenna receive a letter from one of the key figures of the London Séance Society, Mr. Morley. Vaudeline has fleed London a year before but is now asked to return as Mr. Volckman – head of the society – has been murdered on All Hallows Eve, the same day as Lenna’s sister Evie was found stabbed to death. We read alternately from Lenna and Mr Morley. Soon you realize that the two murders are linked so you try to solve a central mystery.

Although I saw some things coming, I thought it was a well-developed plot. The ending was a bit too elaborate perhaps. Penner’s writing felt more mature now. And amthough there are supernatural things in the book again, it didn’t bother me. This time, those powers were more concrete – in the form of ghosts.

I am definitely looking forward to another book by Penner as her first two novels are already very different. This one is definitely my favourite so far.

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Sarah Penner?

Kingdom come by Toby Clemens

It’s 1470 and Catherine and Thomas are startled when a small rebellion breaks out in Lincoln that seems a dedicated attack on one of King Edward’s men. Not soon after, it is rumoured that the Duke of Warwick is behind the scheme and a lawyer comes to threaten to evict them from Martin Hall, their home. Thomas must once again seek out Lord Hastings in the hope that he can mediate, while the threat of war is again getting a little closer.

Kingdom come is the last book in the Kingmaker series, and so Barnet is quietly approaching. The book finally solves all the riddles that have been developed in the previous three books. One about Catherine her parents (I had already guessed the outcome during book 1 and am proven right) and about the ledger that they have been trying to hide from both Warwick and Hastings’ bloodhound.

Kingdom come also contains some battle scenes as this was a gruesome episode of the Wars of the Roses with both Barnet and Tewkesbury. But for some reason these chapters didn’t grip me as the Towton battle scene that we had in the first book. As always, the novel has a slow start and picks up more and more as we are nearing the end. The ending for both Catherine and Thomas satisfied me.

This is a good series about the life of the common man during the gruesome Wars of the Roses, but after four books, the story (not yet the wars) comes to an end. And I was fine with that. I don’t know if Toby Clemens still writes books, but this series was very well researched. It just lacked some gripping storytelling at times.

Now that I’ve finished this series, I might finally start Conn Iggulden’s series on the Wars of the Roses, which I’ve always put off because it seemed too similar to this one.

What’s your favourite book set during the Wars of the Roses?

The royal secret by Andrew Taylor

London, 1670. Lord Arlington’s clerk Abbott dies in suspicious circumstances and James Marwood must look for secret papers he is alleged to have taken home. This leads him to the Blue Bush tavern and a mysterious Dutchman called Van Riebeeck. Meanwhile, Cat Lovett or rather the widowed mrs. Hakesby, is working as an architect for Lord Arlington and is also designing for Mr Fanshawe who harbours a lion in his stables and has connections with Van Riebeeck. In this way, Cat and Marwood again become entangled in the same case, one that leads to a secret at the heart of Charles II’s court.

This is another strong volume in the series about James Marwood and Cat Lovett. In The royal secret they both have an equally big role and Cat seems to finally have found her place in the world. Thus, I found it more enjoyable to read about her.

Besides Abbott’s murder, there is an important storyline about the king’s sister Minette – or Madame as she is called at the French court. She is married to Louis XIV’s brother and wants to bring both kings together in all things, also religion. Something the Dutch would rather avoid.

It brings Cat, who gets an assignment for Madame, to France. So there are many new elements in this story, which does make this one of the better parts of the series. There are plenty of plotlines that keep it engaging, also one about two young girls at the Fanshawe household who perform witchcraft. But beside all those different storylines, there’s a clear focus on the case.

The relationship between James and Cat remains an off and on game, but in some way this works for me. Even as a non romance lover. I’m curious to see if the next installment will bring Cat and Marwood closer together.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Do you like on and off relationships in books?

The alchemist’s daughter by Mary Lawrence

Bianca Goddard is estranged from her father, an alchemist who was imprisoned in The Tower because of a plot against Henry VIII. In her new home in Southwark, she helps others with medicinals. When her friend Jolyn comes to her complaining of stomach pains, Bianca provides her with a tonic after which she immediately dies. Her friend was poisoned and suspicion falls to Bianca. Now she must try to prove her innocence, but who wanted to harm Jolyn?

This is the first book in a series of historical mysteries surrounding Bianca Goddard. It’s set in Tudor England in the 16th century, but the events are completely fictional. There is hardly any link to real history. The book does try to paint a picture of the hard life in the Southwark district, especially for a woman alone.

The mystery surrounding Jolyn’s death is engaging enough. There is her living at Barke house, a former house of ill repute, and her relationship with a new mysterious benefactor. But I would have liked a bit more complexity in the matter.

Lawrence tells the story from different perspectives but I found some rather short or odd. Bianca is a complex main character, and her relationship with John, a long-time friend who is in love with her, was interesting to read about. You can feel that this is still the first book in the series and we need to get to know them better.

So this felt more like an introductory book and although it was an easy read, I don’t immediately feel the urge to read further in the series.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Have you read this series?

When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman

When the heir to the throne dies in The White Ship shipwreck, Henry I designates his only legitimate daughter Maude as future queen. However, he has a whole army of bastard children including the charismatic Robert and young Ranulf who is half-Welsh. Maude is married off to Geoffrey Plantagenet, the lord of Normandy. The marriage is loveless but does produce sons. When Henry dies, however, Maude is too late to claim the crown; her cousin Stephen has already been recognised as England’s new ruler. But Maude, with the help of her stepbrothers, does not submit. And so the Anarchy begins.

I once read Penman’s ‘The Sunne in Splendour’ about Richard III and the Wars of the Roses and then resolved to read the rest of her oeuvre. However, it took years until I dared to start this series, which centers on Henry II and Eleanor Of Aquitaine. The books are thick and full of historical detail. This one was written in the early 1990s.

But When Christ and his Saints Slept reads like a modern historical novel. Penman constantly switches perspectives, letting mainly protagonists have their say (Maude, Stephen, his wife Matilda, Robert, Henry, Eleanor and the fictional Ranulf), but also frequently unknown people who, for a short chapter, recount what they experience.

The book begins with the disaster of The White Ship and the perspective of the butcher’s boy who survives was an instant favourite. In addition, I was extremely charmed by Stephen’s queen Matilda (she, like Maude, is called Matilda, a name that appears several times in the book). I was actually not that familiar with her story and this book did trigger something to find out more about her.

Ranulf comes up perhaps the most often and I was saddened to discover that he is a fictional addition, although I suspected as much. He goes through an awful lot and Penman describes this in detail. I really empathised with him and later in the book his Welsh family.

The Anarchy is a complex period and although I knew the basics beforehand, I still learned a lot about the war. The main battles are covered, as are the protagonists besides the royals including for ex. the famous Earl of Chester and his wife Maude (yes, another Maude), the needless violence towards civilians and the role of foreign nations such as France and Normandy.

Eleanor is absent for three quarters of the book and yet she is always there because as queen of France, she is regularly gossiped about. The end of the book where we get to know Eleanor and Henry read even smoother because this is a piece of history I have read about before.

This is a big book, you spend some time with it. It is a bit dry at times. But is it’s worth every page as far as I’m concerned. This is one of those books to be totally immersed in. I will enjoy reading the next parts, but don’t ask me when :).

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Penham? Or anything else good about the Anarchy?

Jane Seymour, the haunted queen by Alison Weir

At eighteen, Jane Seymour decides not to take her vows as a nun after all. After a family scandal, she leaves her home Wulfhall to become a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine. But the king is in love with Anne Boleyn and wants to start a reformation. When Anne fails to provide the king with an heir, Jane catches Henry’s eye.

Jane Seymour is by far my least favourite of Henry VIII’s wives. She was queen for such a short time and although that period was very turbulent (Aftermath of Anne’s execution, dissolution of the monasteries, Pilgrimage of the grace…) she achieved very little herself. Apart from reconciling Lady Mary with her father, which is also a heavy storyline in this book. A bit too heavy perhaps :).

This is why a lot of authors seem to always start her story when Jane’s eldest brother Edward marries his first wife Catherine. The scandal surrounding Catherine is juicy, which makes for a nice opening. It was the case with Suzannah Dunn’s ‘The may bride’ (which I read before starting this book blog) and it’s also the opening chapter of ‘The haunted queen’.

The problem in the middle of the book is that you have to go through Catherine’s story first and then Anne’s again. And Anne does come off very badly here, while Jane and Catherine almost seem like saints. Jane’s story is so intertwined with her two predecessors that the book felt a bit repetitive compared to the previous ones.

The most fascinating thing was Jane’s view of Anne’s fall. I’ve always realized that many courtiers turned against her, but in this story the opposition is so powerful that she didn’t stand a chance. And this made me think again about her cruel downfall. The title of the book ‘the haunted queen‘ refers to Jane blaming herself about Anne’s death. I’m not sure what to think about that. She must have felt sorry for her, but she also gains the title of queen because of it and her family rises to unseen power.

I’ve always thought that Jane herself was aiming at the power to advance her family and to influence Henry (at least about Mary/Catherine and about religion as is suggested in this book) more than we tend to think nowadays. I don’t think of her as an innocent pawn used by her family. I just believe that Henry learnt his lesson with an out-spoken queen with Anne and that he couldn’t have the same amount of politic views from Jane. And that because of that and her short reign, Jane had to keep quiet more than she wanted. There is also so little of her written correspondence that has survived, that it’s impossible for us to really get hold of her character and views.

Things only get really interesting when Jane becomes queen. Weir writes several pregnancies into the story, while we are only sure of her last one. I understand why, but for me it didn’t fit with the pious Jane portrayed in this book. It also makes Jane become queen ‘by accident’ (because she was already with child, she was a good choice for Henry), which I don’t think is the case.

Weir opts for a docile sweet Jane, who, while having her opinions, loves the king and doesn’t want to anger him. That’s why we also see a sweet concerned Henry this time, with fierce angry outbursts at the same time. Henry is more balanced in this book than in the previous two and I liked that.

As for Jane’s death, Weir makes some interesting suggestions that she can back up by research. But even then, this book left me feeling a bit wry. Jane is the grey mouse among the other women. And this book didn’t really manage to change that. Curious about what would be the hardest story for me to write: that of Anne Of Cleves.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

What’s your favourite book about Jane Seymour? Do you like her?

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?