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?

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Anne Boleyn: a king’s obsession by Alison Weir

The young Anne Boleyn is given the opportunity to serve at the court of Margaret of Austria in Flanders, where she learns the game of courtly love. A few years later she travels to the French court to serve first Queen Mary and then Queen Claude. When she returns to England, she catches the eye of Henry Percy, Duke of Northumberland. But Cardinal Wolsey puts a stop to that marriage and not much later Anne receives attention from King Henry VIII himself.

I read Weir’s book about Catherine of Aragon more than a year ago and now I finally started the book about Anne. The most difficult book of the six, because there are so many bad books about Anne Boleyn. She’s either a marriage breaker and a whore or an innocent pawn used by her family. In my view, she’s neither and I’ve never before read about ‘my Anne’. Could Weir do just that?

Weir takes her time to tell Anne’s story and starts at the court of Malines. I liked that approach, as well as her time in France. This is a period in Anne’s life that made quite an impact on her character and it’s often overlooked in other novels.

Regarding Anne’s characterization I must admit that Weir makes a creditable attempt. Anne is an intelligent woman who at one point consciously chooses the position of queen, even though she is not necessarily in love with Henry. She goes for power, to elevate her family and have an influence on the king’s religious views. She’s a protestant and inspires Henry for his reformation, but she isn’t strongly Lutheran and does not want to go as far with the dissolution as Cromwell. Which is an interesting approach and makes her more humane. Anne cares about her family and in this story, it aren’t her parents who force her into this position.

However, this is not my Anne. Alison Weir doesn’t like the Boleyns. If you compare Anne’s character to that of Catherine in the previous book, the latter becomes almost a saint while Anne is flawed, egocentric at times, a mother who doesn’t care about her daughter and who wishes people dead. This Anne isn’t the usual whore that I read about in other books. So it’s a less problematic interpretation than the one for example presented by Gregory. But it isn’t a positive representation either.

The book has a good pace. Only in the middle did I find the enmity between Anne and Wolsey in the great matter dragging on. I understand that in real life this was also a strive of years. But Wolsey is so tiring sometimes :). The ending is very cleverly done. The trial is short but well done, Anne’s time in The Tower and her execution are dramatic, but handled with great respect. I understand Weir’s point with the final sentences and found it very gripping.

Which brings me to what I disliked in this story:

  • First and foremost: Mary Boleyn. I had forgotten that this also bothered me in the previous book. Her relationship with Henry is hushed up at court and I find this an odd choice. Also, the idea that she would be raped twice by a king is beyond me. Poor Mary. Sexual abuse was definitely a thing back then, and I can imagine that Mary may not have wanted the attention of both kings at all. But this is some 21st century writing that I just couldn’t cope with.
  • Also, the characters of George Boleyn and Jane Parker didn’t feel right. George Boleyn is the ultimate villain. I believe she does this so she can make Anne human while at the same time she is still able to put the blame for some things on the Boleyns. Especially the Catherine Of Aragon theory is far-fetched.
  • Anne’s meeting with Leonardo Da Vinci. It’s very improbable (even though they were contemporaries) and adds nothing to Anne’s characterization. What is it with authors who like to drop famous names into their stories as an extra?
  • Anne’s sixth finger. I don’t agree with Weir’s argument as to why she puts it in the story.
  • Thomas Boleyn is extremely passive in this book and a bit of a useless man. We know he was a skilled diplomate who was highly respected by the king. This puts all the initiative for power in Anne and George’s shoes. And this just doesn’t feel right.

Lastly, there is Henry. And I still don’t know if I like his portrayal or not. Henry’s character is completely different than in book one and that was a relief because I disliked him there. Henry is the one who is chasing Anne like a madman in this book. And I believe that’s very close to reality. Weir also doesn’t let him make a sudden change, for example, after the fall of his horse. A choice I very much respect, because I don’t believe the ‘wifekiller’ was made in one day. Henry’s character changed over the years.

But all this makes for a Henry who remains very much in the background during Anne’s downfall, with Cromwell somewhere in between… (I had liked more interaction between Anne and Cromwell). It’s not really clear after reading this book who Weir blames for Anne’s trial and death. I’m very curious to see how Henry will evolve in the next books.

The conclusion is that however I disliked a few choices, I still enjoyed this book. More than I thought I would. I don’t expect from any fictitious novel to represent the events fully true to the sources. There’s always room for interpretation and I respect Weir’s choices, but don’t have to agree ;). The next book is about my least favourite of Henry’s queens: Jane Seymour.

This is book 11/20 for ‘20 books of summer

Rating: 4 out of 5.

What’s your favourite book about any of Henry’s queens?

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?

Heresy by S.J. Parris

As a teenager Giordano Bruno has to leave his Italian convent because he reads forbidden books and believes that the earth revolves around the sun. He eventually ends up at the English court of the protestant queen Elizabeth I. One day he is sent by spymaster Francis Walsingham to Oxford University in search for hidden Catholics who might be plotting an attack on the queen. Bruno himself is secretly looking for a certain forbidden book that might be hidden in the Oxford library. But then the university is rocked by some horrific murders. And Bruno finds himself charged with the murder investigation.

Heresy is the first book in a historical mystery series around the character of Giordano Bruno. We meet Bruno when he has to leave his monastery because he was reading Erasmus on the toilet. The Inquisition is looking for him and after years of wandering around he ends up in England. There he meets his old friend Philip Sidney, a cousin of Robert Dudley and friend of Francis Walsingham. Although still a Catholic, Bruno receives much praise as a philosopher and is thus sent to Oxford to debate the universe.

Secretly, Sidney and Bruno are also looking for hidden Catholics and Bruno himself hopes to discover a particular book in the library. On his first evening, he meets Rector Underhill and his lovely daughter Sophia, but when one of the doctors is mauled by a wild dog during the night, the university turns out to be hiding a lot of secrets.

In many ways, this book is reminiscent of the Shardlake series by C.J. Sansom. Like Shardlake, Bruno is a man between two religions and he ends up in a closed community to solve a series of murders, just like Matthew in the first Shardlake book ‘Dissolution’. But the comparison stops there, because Parris has her own style. Maybe all a bit less sublime than Sansom, but she knows how to build a good story. I like that the book takes its time to set to story and when you finally end up in the middle of the action, the book is finished in no time.

Heresy contains many different characters who are all neither good nor bad. You are constantly put on the wrong track and have no idea who is and who isn’t a secret Catholic. Only the story of Sophia is too cliché for my taste. Certainly not a perfect book, but a good start to this series set in the later Tudor era under Elizabeth I.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Have you read this series yet?

The Tudor crown by Joanna Hickson

After the battle of Tewkesbury, Jasper and his cousin Henry Tudor have to flee England. While King Edward IV of the House of York sits firmly on his throne, they wash up on the coast of Brittany, where they plot their return for 14 years. Meanwhile, Henry’s mother Margaret Beaufort must look for a third husband and therefore becomes lady-in-waiting to Edward’s stunning queen Elizabeth. However, she will continue to fight for her son’s return as a duke, or who knows, even as king.

I really loved Hickson’s previous book ‘First of The Tudors‘ where she tells the story of Jasper Tudor. The Tudor crown starts after the events at Tewkesbury where the previous novel ended. This time the story is told from the point of view of Henry Tudor himself and his mother Margaret Beaufort. So the book is very pro Lancaster and anti York.

I never read about Henry’s exile before and this is yet another new perspective on the Wars of the Roses. I may not have found Henry to be Hickson’s best fleshed out main character so far, but I did find it fascinating to read about the intrigues at the courts of Brittany and France. It’s just a pity that Jasper and Jane, whom I loved dearly in the previous book, quickly fade into the background.

Margaret is portrayed as very human and even sympathetic. Her chapters tell a piece of history I know well. Yet I was surprised by Hickson’s portrayal of both Elizabeth Woodville and her daughter Elizabeth of York. We know that Margaret has been plotting with Woodville against Richard III for a long time, but in this book the queen has a lot of trust in Margaret, and I don’t quite imagine it that way. Margaret also seems to build up a good relationship with Elizabeth of York, whereas a few years later she will make her future daughter-in-law’s life difficult. So I found it a bit confusing that especially Richard III came forward as the bad one and both Elizabeths were looking so kindly at the only remaining Lancaster players at court.

I thought the ending with the Battle of Bosworth was well done. The focus is not on the battle itself but heavily focuses on the run-up to it. It was very nice to get to know Joan Vaux, the main character in Hickson’s next two books. That really is a gift: all her books flow seamlessly into each other and she manages to choose a new perspective that fits into the story every time. As a faithful reader, it gets an extra dimension that way, because you still encounter ‘old’ beloved characters.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Joanna Hickson? What’s your favourite novel about the Tudor family?

Revelation by C.J. Sansom

1543. In the court of the aging Henry VIII the catholic fraction is again winning sympathy with the king. Gardiner and bishop Bonner are arresting protestants in the streets of London and Cranmer is worrying about his position. In the meantime, the king is looking for a sixth wife. He’s courting Lady Latimer, a friend of the Seymours who was recently widowed.

Matthew Shardlake receives a new case from the court of requests about a boy named Adam Kite who seems to have become mad. People talk he is possessed by the devil but Matthew and his friend Guy don’t believe so. When suddenly one of his fellow lawyers and comrades is brutally murdered, Shardlake and Barak once again are hunting a killer commissioned by Cranmer and the Seymours.

It’s no secret that I love this series. Revelation is the fourth book and in this story the topic of religion is explored. At the end of Henry VIII’s reign protestants and catholics were fighting for power. Bonner is burning protestant heretics, while at the same time the king is hunting a new wife with protestant sympathies… You can feel the unrest in the streets of London through the pages. It’s a great setting.

Shardlake again has two different cases to solve. We have the case of Adam Kite, a protestant boy who is talking about God and constantly praying. Because people believe him mad, he’s placed in the Bedlam hospital for the insane. A few days later, one of Matthew’s lawyer friends is cruelly killed in a fountain. Matthew promises his widow he will find the killer but before he knows he’s at court standing before the archbishop Cranmer and the brothers Seymour. There have been other killings and one of them is linked to Catherine Parr.

There are a few other secondary plot lines such as the relationship between Barak and Tamasin, the friendship between Matthew and Guy and Matthew’s own religious conscience which is once again tested. I did like the different stories, but the resolution around Adam Kite felt too fast and artificial. It seems Sansom especially wanted to introduce Ellen, one of the other inhabitants from the Bedlam hospital, as a character for the coming books. I also believe we will see more of Edward and Thomas Seymour.

Revolution has the disadvantage that it comes after Sovereign, which is still my favourite book from this series. But it is once again a great mystery novel in a phenomenal historical setting. I always like books that feature Catherine Parr, she was so much more than a nursemaid. Highly recommended series, but I suggest you start with the first one ‘Dissolution’.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read this series? If yes, what’s your favourite?

Amenable women by Mavis Cheek

When Flora Chapman’s husband Edward, one of the town’s most popular men, suddenly dies during a balloon flight, she doesn’t seem to grieve. Flora has always been a plain woman who lived in the shadow of her perfect husband. Between the notes on his desk, she finds an unfinished history project on the manor where they live that leads to Anne Of Cleves. Huscott manor was one of her residences after her divorce from Henry VIII. Flora decides to travel to Paris on her own to visit Anna’s portrait in the Louvre.

I had hoped this book to be an entertaining dual time frame novel. But actually it’s not. The story focuses on Flora who recently became a widow and by accident takes a large interest in the life of Anne Of Cleves. At Huscott manor her husband had found a stone with her date of death carved into it. But no one knows who left this mark 40 years after Anna’s death and why. She decides to leave for Paris to see Anna’s famous Holbein portrait in the Louvre to see for herself if she really was a Flanders’ mare.

There’s a second perspective of Anna her portrait. Yes, at night she awakes and tells her story to other portraits, such as Elizabeth I and Mary De Guise. It says a lot about this book if I tell you that Anna’s perspective was the most interesting part of this book. Too bad, the author didn’t choose for a real 16th century perspective of Anne Of Cleves. The whole portrait thing was a bit too far fetched for my tastes.

The problem with this book is that although Flora is a witty main character, I just didn’t seem to care about her life and problems. I cared even less about all the people in the town. I did find the parallels between Flora’s life and Anna’s not at all that big. And at times Flora and the other characters behaved as toddlers. Flora desperately wants the town’s solicitor to like her and tries to achieve this by out-arguing a museum guide. Her daughter Hilary isn’t any better as she dotes on her deceased father and needs to put him on a display in every sentence she says.

The other thing that really bothered me was the fact that the story tries to contradict the fact that Anne was plain and ugly. That she wasn’t a Flanders’ mare. While at the time some other historical women such as Catherine Parr and Jane Seymour are being called ‘a nursemaid’ and ‘dull’. I’m fine with a bit of feminism, but I don’t like one-sided feminism.

This book is more about the grief of a woman who lived in her husband’s shadow and now tries to find her own place in the sunlight than a historical book. If you love chick-lit or a light novel and you don’t know a lot about The Tudors this book might be something for you. If you’re a history lover like me, I suggest you look elsewhere.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

What’s your favorite dual time frame novel?

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?

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.

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.