Catherine Of Aragon, the true queen by Alison Weir

Catalina Of Aragon is the youngest daughter of the Catholic kings, Isabella and Ferdinand, and destined to become queen of England. After a rough sea voyage she arrives in Engeland to marry prince Arthur, heir to the throne. But Arthur is shy and sickly. After only four months of marriage Catalina, now Catherine, becomes a widow. At the court of Henry VII, she sets her eyes on Arthur’s younger brother, the charismatic Henry, to become queen once more.

I must admit I had some doubts when starting ‘the true queen’. In the past I enjoyed some of Alison Weir’s books, but I also disliked her two novels about Queen Elizabeth (‘The lady Elizabeth’ and ‘The marriage game’). But I decided to give this series a try.

Catherine Of Aragon is the first of Henry VIII’s wives and a lot is known about her life. She’s a thankful subject to start off this series. And I believe Weir did a relatively great job. This book is 600 pages long and includes much detail. You can follow Catherine’s story from her first marriage to king Arthur, the years of poverty she had to endure afterwards at the court of Henry VII to her marriage with Henry VIII. A happy marriage at first but of course we all know that after some miscarriages Henry moves away from Catherine when he meets Anne Boleyn.

Having read about Catherine many times before, Weir could still hold my interest about these events. She respects the timeline until the moment that I was waiting on the Mary Boleyn affair. But that didn’t come. Weir’s Catherine is stubborn, devout, caring and naive. She dotes on Henry. But this implicates that she doesn’t know about him having affairs. Even when things start to get worse, Henry is still the loving husband. No one tells Catherine of his many affairs. And this bothered me. Because it just seems impossible that Catherine didn’t know. Especially not with Mary Boleyn who possibly bore him two children. But there were others.

This brings us to the characterization of Henry VIII. I didn’t like his portrayal in this novel. At the age of ten Catherine already finds him attractive (which is bit of perverse, don’t you think?). And from the moment they marry, he can’t do anything wrong. This also makes characters as Thomas Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell and especially Anne Boleyn the villains. Reading from Catherine’s point of view, I can understand that Anne is demonized. But that Henry was just a meek man wrongly advised by the people around him (and thus a victim himself) goes a bit too far for me.

I’m really curious to see whether this is just the Henry from Catherine’s point of view and that we’ll get a different Henry in each book. If not, I’m not sure how Weir will make from this Henry a wife killer…

This book also gives an insight in Catherine’s relationships with the Spanish ambassadors, her ladies-in-waiting and her daughter Mary whom she loves dearly. Yes, it is a long book with a lot of detail, but that didn’t put me off. I enjoyed this book more than expected. And I’m looking forward to read Weir’s story about Anne Boleyn, hopefully finding a different Henry there.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read this series? Which one is your favourite so far?

Queen of the north by Anne ‘O Brien

Elizabeth Mortimer has royal Plantagenet blood and is married to Harry Hotspur Percy, the heir to the greatest earldom in the north. She believes her young nephew Edmund Mortimer to be second in line to the throne after the childless and unpopular king Richard II. But many don’t want another child king and support her other cousin Henry Of Lancaster instead. When Henry sets foot in England again after years in exile while Richard has suffered grave defeat in Ireland, the battle for the throne is on. Elizabeth’s husband and stepfather join forces with Lancaster and abandon the Mortimer cause. Will there ever be Mortimer king?

This is the second book I’ve read from Anne O’ Brien after having enjoyed ‘the shadow queen‘ about Joan Of Kent a few years ago. Queen Of The North is one of the books she has written around powerful women during Henry IV’s troubled reign. The novel opens with Henry of Lancaster returning to England to gather support to defy king Richard II. The Percy army in the north is preparing to join him.

We meet Elizabeth Mortimer, the wife of the famous Harry Hotspur. The Mortimers are the heirs of Lionel, second son of Edward III, but through the female line of Elizabeth’s mother Filippa Plantagenet. This weakens the claim of her eight-year-old nephew Edmund should Richard die childless. I’ve never really understood why the Mortimer didn’t try harder to get on the throne. They have a stronger claim (if you ignore the female part of it), but history will be forever talking about Lancaster and York. So I found it really interesting to read this story from a Mortimer point of view.

Elizabeth is also a Percy and thus future ‘queen’ of the north. We meet her ambitious stepfather, the earl of Northumberland, and her husband Harry “Hotspur” as he is referred to by the Scots. The marriage between Elizabeth and Harry is quite happy, although there are some serious clashes between them in this novel, not in the least about the succession. Their relationship is the most compelling part of the book in my opinion. I really could love and hate Harry at the same time.

I had hoped that the rebellion would be the biggest part of the novel, but it happens quite fast and the second half focuses even more on Elizabeth’s development as a traitor to the crown. Near the end of the story, I had more and more sympathy for her feelings.

We also meet Queen Joan Of Navarre and Constance Of York in this novel. About both women O’ Brien has written a separate novel. I have the one about Constance ready on my shelves and am curious if I will like her more than in I did this book.

O’ Brien focuses on the story of women, this also means that the main character is far from the action that happens at the battlefield. There are also some serious time jumps adding to the pace of the novel. All things together, I find O’ Brien’s writing style a bit too dry and distant. She lacks the flair of a Joanna Hickson or Elizabeth Fremantle for example. But she writes about forgotten women with a unique story, so I’ll continue to read her books.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read any books set during Henry IV reign?

The forgotten orphan by Glynis Peters

Maisie Reynolds has grown up at the Holly Bush orphanage in Southampton. At the age of 17, she realizes she’ll never be adopted. Separated from her twin brother Jack at the age of five and with no memories from her parents, Maisie is looking for answers about her past. When WOII arrives in Engeland, all the orphans except Maisie are moved from the city. The building will be turned into a care home for wounded soldiers. Maisie’s future is unsure. Will she be able to set up a life on her own? Can she find her brother?

I must start with the fact that this wasn’t a book for me. It is astandard WOII fiction novel, a genre that dominates the book store shelves. These kind of books tend to feel like they are all the same.

This is a coming of age story with good character building. Maisie is a young naive girl trying to make the best of the situation. She has some lovely friends in Charlie and Joyce. I enjoyed to read about all the secondary characters and their lives during the war. But the plot is just too thin for my liking. Especially the mystery around Maisie’s family is too far fetched and there are too much coincidences in how the revelations slowly unfold. There is also a heavy romance plot line in the form “boy meets girl and they are instantly in love”.

Britain in times of war made for a fine scenery. In times when the world outside comes to a halt due to a global pandemic, it’s strange to read about normal life going on through the bomb attacks of the Germans.

If you love WOII fiction with some drama and romance, this might be the perfect holiday read for you.

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

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Before the crown by Flora Harding

In 1943 war is raging through Europe and Prince Philip of Greece is an officer in the English navy. His Greek royal family is in exile and his sisters are wed to German officers. At Windsor Castle, seventeen-year-old princess Elizabeth, heir to the English throne, is eagerly awaiting Philip’s visit to court. She fell in love with the prince some years before and hopes to win his affection. But in times of war not everyone is fond of Elizabeth marrying a foreign prince.

I must admit that I haven’t read many books about the Windsors before, I haven’t even started watching ‘The crown’ yet. But this ensured I could start this book without expectations.

The novel is written from both Elizabeth’s and Philip’s point of view and opens with the two of them meeting at Windsor during the War. Elizabeth has been smitten with Philip for some years, and the two of them write letters to each other on a regular basis. Philip hasn’t formed an attachment yet but his Mountbatten relatives have made clear that a match with the English throne would be advantageous for him and his family.

It seems strange to read a historical novel about people still alive. If felt wrong to get an insight into their private lives. Harding writes some very real and convincing dialogues. You immediately discover there’s a difference between Elizabeth’s confined life at court and Philip’s worldly views. Philip never had a home, as the Greek royal family lives in exile and his parents chose to live apart. I didn’t know much about Philip’s family and I found it very interesting to get to know his uncles, parents and sisters.

I also loved the representation of the Queen and King, both not destined for the throne but determined to make the best of it. Elizabeth is a more passive character. She’s clearly in love but has learned to restrain herself. She places herself in the shadow of the more lively and extraverted Margaret. Sometimes that made me shout at her to stand up for herself.

The couple will face some serious challenges before their marriage, but the reader knows they will overcome them in the end. There is some romance involved of course, but the focus of the novel is more on England during and after WOII. It will never be my favorite period, but Harding has certainly surprised me with this sweet and interesting story.

Thanks to Netgalley and HarperCollins Publishers Australia to provide me a copy of this book in return for my honest opinion. Before the crown is now worldwide available.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Sovereign by C.J. Sansom

One year after the dramatic downfall of Thomas Cromwell, Matthew Shardlake is mourning his father. He receives a summons from archbishop Thomas Cranmer to go to York to bring legal petitions before the king during his Progress of the North. Shardlake accepts as this is a chance to settle his father’s debts and he travels to York with Barak. But Cranmer has also another task for Matthew. A dangerous prisoner needs to be brought safe and sound to London for interrogation in the Tower. Once in York, Matthew witnesses a murder on a glazier while at the same time a young girl is determined to form an attachment with his only friend Barak.

I love this series! After some disappointing reads, I was happy to wander again through Tudor England with my favorite crookback lawyer. The setting in Sovereign might be my favorite so far. We are 1941, a few years after the Pilgrimage of The Grace when a new conspiracy is discovered in the north of the country. The aging and obese king Henry VIII decides to go on Progress to the north together with his new teenage queen, Catherine Howard.

As this novel counts over 600 pages, some readers may find it slow. But this isn’t your standard murder mystery, this is also a terrific novel about Tudor England. The details about the Progress, the hostile atmosphere towards southrons and reformists in York, the queen’s secret.. it all adds to the drama.

The murder mystery is about a glazier that has been pushed from a ladder. When Shardlake and Barak find a box full of discriminating documents about the king himself, they are in grave danger. But before they can read the papers, someone has already stolen them. Someone within the court in York. The mystery will take us back to the Wars of The Roses and although I guessed what would be the basis of the documents after seeing the royal family tree, I was still curious how it would all play out in the end. There are a few red herrings and for once I was in doubt what to believe and who to suspect.

There is more than the murder alone. Barak and his love interest Tamasin get in trouble with Lady Rochford and the queen. The prisoner Broderick receives help from someone inside. Richard Rich is on war with Shardlake to drop a case in London. As always all the plot lines will come together in the end. I didn’t even miss Cromwell, as Cranmer and Rich fill his shoes perfectly.

This is the best book in the series so far. You can read it as a standalone, but I would suggest to start with ‘Dissolution’ first, as you will understand some relations better. And both ‘Dissolution‘ and ‘Dark fire‘ are great reads too.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Ross Poldark by Winston Graham

Ross Poldark is alive. After having fought in the American Civil War, Ross returns to Cornwall where he discovers his father has died, his estate is neglected by lazy servants and his sweetheart Elizabeth has married his cousin Francis. Not really the warm welcome he had expected. Slowly he tries to rebuild his life. He reopens an old mine and saves a young girl from a dog fight to make her his kitchen maid. Meanwhile, his cousin Verity has fallen in love with captain Blamey, much against the wishes of her family.

I must admit I discovered Winston Graham’s books thanks to the excellent Poldark series on BBC with Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson. I was quite addicted to the series and have watched the five seasons more than once. Leaving behind a gap in my heart when the series stopped, I decided to start the book series. The last four books haven’t been screened and I’m curious how the story of Ross and Demelza will end.

The first book represents the first four episodes of season one. So I knew it would be a slow story and it is. The book is written in 1945 so the ‘older’ writing style makes for no easy read. Especially not since some characters are speaking a kind of Cornish dialect. I was already accustomed to the typical language of Jud & Prudie which made me comprehend the story, but I’m not so sure it will be effortless for newcomers to the story.

This book is full of adventure, humor and romance. Ross is the typical anti-hero. He makes a lot of mistakes and bad decisions but it makes him human and real. I was surprised by how young Demelza is in the first book, her character still needs to develop a bit more to the strong women I know.

But what I like most about the story is that you get an insight in mining and the contrast between the noble ruling class and the poor workers. We’re in the 18th century, so revolution is coming to Europe. There’s also a third class on the rise: new men such as George Warleggan who have become rich by trade and banking but aren’t from noble birth. They struggle at being accepted by the old families. It’s such a great historical setting to start off a series.

I’ll probably continue reading this series and enjoy the storylines, although the first book didn’t make me immediately jump onto the next.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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?

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 with 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.

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?