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?

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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?

The Alice network by Kate Quinn

The American Charlie St Clair travels with her mother to Europe to get an abortion. During a stopover in England, she has second thoughts and boards a train to London to look for Eve Gardiner. Her French cousin Rose disappeared during WWII and Eve Gardiner’s name pops up. Eve has her own reasons for joining Charlie’s search when the name of Réné appears in the case. This Réné exploited a restaurant with the same name as another establishment where Eve worked as a spy during that other Great War.

Kate Quinn is an author who has been recommended to me for so long that it was finally time to read her. The Alice Network is perhaps her best-known book. It tells the story of a spy network during WWI that was hugely successful and mostly consisted of women. Quinn explains in her epilogue what did and didn’t really happen and I found it amazing that so many details of this novel were real.

Besides Eve’s perspective during WOI, there’s also that of Charlie a few years after WWII. She’s looking for her cousin Rose who fought against the occupying forces somewhere in France but disappeared. And then you have the Scot Finn who also served in this war and who’s in Eve’s employment.

There are two wars with certain parallels, though I preferred the ‘historical’ perspective of Eve. However, for some reason I found it hard to really relate with Eve or Charlie. But the story kept me interested. I only had some problems with the pregnancy storyline. I understand why it’s included. But it felt a bit artificial.

Quinn writes well, but I wasn’t blown away yet. It’s definitely a war novel with an original and interesting angle. And I love it enough to read more of her books. I might be looking for ‘The rose code’ or one of her earlier novels about Ancient Rome or The Borgias.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Have you read anything from Quinn? Or do you recommend any other novel about spies during WWI?

Heartstone by S.J. Sansom

Matthew Shardlake is instructed by Queen Catherine Parr to help one of her old friends with a case before the corrupt Court of Wards. There are reasons to believe that the Hobbey family is trying to make money out of the lands of their orphaned warden Hugh Curteys. Matthew and Barak head for Hoyland priory, not far from Portsmouth where the English army is preparing for an invasion of the French. The ships The Great Harry and The Mary Rose are already anchored there. Moreover, Hoyland is not far from where Ellen Fettiplace grew up and where something happened 19 years ago that made her afraid to leave the Bedlam hospital.

In this fifth book, Matthew finds England at war with France. In addition, he is also somewhat at war with himself it seems. He investigates two cases of people who don’t want to be helped and this drags him into secrets and dangerous political games.

This is the thickest book of the series so far. There are a lot of subplots besides the two mysteries, of which the invasion of France is the biggest. If you know the fate of The Mary Rose then you know where we are heading towards.

Some readers enjoy the books of this series that stay in London better. I loved Sovereign immensely when we went to York and met the king up close. Heartstone also takes Matthew and Barak out and about. They befriend a group of archers and war is never far away. So, this comes very close to Sovereign and might be my second favourite Shardlake so far.

Although the mysteries are a little less fleshed out, I would never have guessed the truth in the Curtseys case myself. The pace of the book is a little slower than usual, but I found this historical setting working out very well. There is a lot going on in this book. And Matthew and Jack both remain complex main characters.

And yes here and there it’s perhaps a little less realistic. Matthew walks into a lot of drama with his eyes open. But this remains such a good series. And ‘this’Heartstone’ is definitely as strong as revelation. On to the next one, ‘Lamentation’.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

What’s your favourite Shardlake novel? And do you recommend some other historical mystery series?

Essex dogs by Dan Jones

Loveday Fitztalbot and his brothers in arms from The Essex Dogs land on the coast of Normandy under King Edward III to win his claim to the French throne by force. Each of the dogs leave a past behind, especially since their captain mysteriously disappeared without a trace some time ago. Marching through the French countryside, burning every town or city they pass, the Essex Dogs will face some serious challenges to keep all of them alive.

Dan Jones is a true hero for me and can always get me excited about military strategy so when I discovered he was writing a novel, I knew I had to read it. Even more when I heard about the setting. The Hundred Years’ War told from a group of ordinary soldiers is an original choice. Not many authors dare to write about this conflict. The approach to use common soldiers as main characters reminded me of Toby Clemens’ Kingmaker series about the Wars of the Roses. But Jones focuses entirely on the campaign through France, with only an occasional side story about some of the soldier’s background.

Battle after battle, you sympathize more with the Essex Dogs. We read most from the perspective of Loveday, whose their new captain, and the young Romford. We also get to know some historical figures, including the Dukes of Warwick and Norfolk and even Joan Of Kent’s first husband Thomas Holland has a major role. We get very close to the king’s son, Edward, later called ‘The black prince’. It was the first time that I read about the black prince at this young age and it took some time to get used to the fact that he is portrayed as a spoilt brat (I look at him as a fierce warrior). But it was certainly interesting.

Dan Jones writes a clever story. The book reads very smoothly, mainly because the setting is well-defined. So you can expect battle after battle, within every city they take for England there’s a fight. You travel along with ordinary soldiers, so it’s more action-driven as the strategy behind the battles isn’t discussed. Jones uses real quotes from eyewitnesses from the 14th century to introduce each chapter. It mustn’t surprise you that he has done a terrific research job. The brotherhood of ‘the dogs’ is what I loved most. And although there’s a lot of blood and gore involved in this story, there is also time for a good laugh between the men.

This series is recommended for the fans of Cornwell, Iggulden and Toby Clemens. Is Jones the best in among them? Perhaps not yet. But bringing the complicated Hundred Years’ War to life deserves all the praise. I’m looking forward to see how things will unfold for Loveday and his companions in the next book.

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

The price of blood by Patricia Bracewell

In 1006, the Danes continue to attack England. King Aethelred, traumatised by the murder of his brother to get to the throne himself, trusts no one. Not his sons and certainly not his wife, Queen Emma of Normandy. His nobles undergo his mistrust as well and he has Elgiva’s father killed by his new favourite Aedric for conspiring with the Danes. Meanwhile, Emma is having a hard time fighting for her son Edward and is struggling with her love for Aethelstan, the aetheling who hopes to become heir to the throne. And in the north, Elgiva is forced to consort with the enemy.

I have actually waited a ridiculously long time to read this second book about Emma of Normandy. I loved the first one (‘Shadow on the crown‘) and ‘The price of blood‘ is equally good. We don’t know much about the complex years before 1066 when the weak king Aethelred II (nicknamed ‘The Unready’) sits on the English throne. The Danes attack constantly and England pays them to leave. That is pretty much the summary, causing high taxes and unrest in his country.

The story is still told from four perspectives: Emma, Aethelred, Aethelstan (Aethelred’s eldest son) and Elgiva. This gives a very complete picture of all the events. It allows Bracewell to put the reader close to everything and I love that. You’re always at top of things, never missing any key event.

Both Emma and Elgiva have a fascinating story and the Saxon era is certainly not inferior to, let’s say, the Tudors. I am very curious to see how the third and final book will end.

This is book 6/20 for 20 books of summer.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

That bonesetter woman by Frances Quinn

Endurance, Durie, Proudfoot dreams of a career as a bonesetter – a kind of 18th century chiropractor – and hopes to be apprenticed by her father to succeed him. But a female bonesetter is not what people are used to. Still, she and her brother are allowed to join their father so he can choose who’s got the knack. But then Durie’s sister Lucinda gets pregnant and the sisters go to their aunt Ellen in London so Luncinda can give up the child to The Foundling Hospital. Drurie sees her dream go up in smoke.

What a fantastic book! Quinn has such a fine storytelling style and is tremendously good at creating believable characters that you really empathise with. Durie is a sturdily built woman and bold in her speech, which makes her constantly feel out of place. But she is strong and therefore very suitable to become a bonesetter.

Her sister Lucinda is her total opposite and tries to get a good position through the men in her life. And then there is Aunt Ellen, who has built a career on her own through her cake shop, without any help from men. As you can tell, there’s a strong feminist theme in this book. The men in Durie’s life (with one exception) make things very difficult for her, especially the other doctors. Purely out of jealousy.

You would think that a female chiropractor has sprung from the author’s imagination. But Durie’s story is loosely based on the life of Sally Mapp, a female bonesetter who earned her living in London during the 18th century.

There are so many different plot lines in this book: rurie bonesetter’s dream, Lucinda’s career as a stage actress, Ellen’s cake shop, Durie’s visits to the menagerie of the Tower and The Foundling Hospital where Lucinda’s baby ends up. 18th century London really comes alive.

I now urgently need to read Quinn’s first book ‘The smallest men’ and look forward to whatever she will write next.

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

This is book 7/20 for ‘20 books of summer‘.

Have you read anything bij Frances Quinn?

The heretic wind by Judith Arnopp

Mary Tudor sees how her father gradually casts aside her mother Catherine of Aragon because she cannot give him a son. His eye falls on Anne Boleyn and Mary herself is later forced to take care of her daughter Elizabeth. Nevertheless, she will become Queen of England and during the last week of her life she tells her story to a young maid.

This was my first book by Judith Arnopp and also the very first time that Mary Tudor is at the centre of a book I read. Much more is written about Elizabeth. Arnopp writes in first person tense and only from the perspective of Mary, both the young version and the queen who tells her story a few days before her death. So the narrative style wasn’t quite my thing and especially the added value of the older perspective completely escaped me. It kept the pace out of the story for me at times.

Mary Tudor has undoubtedly had a miserable life. She’s portrayed here as a proud princess with great loyalty to her mother, Spain and the Catholic Church. With a weak immunity and a stubborn character. She loves her sister Elizabeth and brother Edward, but cannot always reconcile this with her ambitions to make England Catholic again. In itself, this is a good characterisation, but I had problems with just about every other character.

To begin with, her whole life from childhood to death is told in about 300 pages. Stepmother after stepmother is briefly reviewed and nothing is portrayed with any depth. Some things are omitted, others are said in just one sentence.

From page two onwards, Anne Boleyn is already portrayed as an adulterous witch. And I understand that Mary may not have liked her, but she was a child at the time and this lifelong hatred of Anne seems a bit harsh. Jane Seymour is a saint. Anne of Cleves is hardly worth mentioning. Catherine Parr is a nice one according to Mary, but too weak because she is in love with Thomas Seymour.

Elizabeth is a vain master manipulator. Edward is an innocent child who has nothing to say during his reign. Jane Grey is Dudley’s puppet queen. Philip II of Spain an uninterested man who’s barely worth two pages. The book is simply full of ‘last century clichés’. There is no nuance at all. As a result, I did not find Mary a sympathetic main character. Even though Arnopp wants to focus very hard on all the dramas in her life. And I certainly feel sorry for her. But this is life at the Tudor court from a caricature and I found that a pity.

I don’t know if I’ll read another book by Arnopp. Mainly because of the narrative style and the characters. But it was certainly not a bad book. It’s a good introduction to Mary’s life. But also not more than that.

This is book 5/20 for ‘20 books of summer‘.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Arnopp? Do you know other books that feature Mary Tudor’s reign?