9

A New Favourite: Three Sisters, Three Queens

A few years ago, I got really excited because one of Philippa Gregory’s new books was billed as her first sister story since The Other Boleyn Girl.

As you may recall, I loved The Other Bolyen Girl – it was my Philippa Gregory gateway drug. But The Kingmaker’s Daughter, although technically about the Neville sisters, was mostly about men making decisions around women.

In short, I didn’t like it.

I’ve tempered my expectations when it comes to Gregory of late. Most of the time, I take her books out from the library.

But, I think she might be hot again. Because The King’s Curse, The Taming of the Queen and now, Three Sisters, Three Queens were all amazing.

I didn’t post about The Taming of the Queen when I read it but know that Gregory’s depiction of Henry VIII’s clever final wife is excellent. Henry VIII as a stinking, cranky, brute of a man is vividly brought to life as poor Katherine Parr is forced into marriage with him and just wants to survive. I loved it – although finishing the book was bittersweet as you leave Katherine momentarily happy but if you are a student of history, you know she’s headed for a sad ending all the same.

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Three Sisters, Three Queens is mainly about Margaret Tudor, but Gregory weaves Katherine of Aragon and Mary Tudor (the Dowager Queen of France, not Mary I) into the story as well. This is incredibly effective for a couple of reasons: Katherine’s story has already been told and Mary’s wasn’t that interesting and this allows Gregory to play with the sister dynamics that are so fascinating given their statures and the times they lived in.

I had no idea about Margaret Tudor but now I love her. She was married off to the King of Scotland, James IV when she was barley 14. She was sent to live in Scotland, among a completely foreign court, forced to accept her husband’s many illegitimate children. When her husband was killed (on the orders of her sister-in-law, Katherine of Aragon who was acting as regent for Henry VIII), she became regent for their son, James V.

But then she went and married this guy, Archibald (Earl of Angus) and the rest of the Scots were like “right, you forfeited the regency by marrying him so we’re in charge now.” She spent the next 10 years fighting for her right to be regent, fleeing anytime it looked like she was in danger. Her marriage, to a younger man who she had married for love, complicated her ambition as his family was knownto be in the employ of the English, working for personal gain, against Scotland.

Throughout the novel, Margaret and her sisters write each other letters, admonishing each other over matters of state, faith and family, the loss of children, troubles in their marriages, the changing borders. Their sisterhood is complicated by their status as queens, as each fights for her kingdom, her children and her happiness.

When I posted about this book on instagram, I said that it elevated the historical fiction genre. I stand by that. Gregory has written a fast-paced interesting book about women that history pits against each other. Viewed through Gregory’s lens, you see that these women were as much a product of their times as the men they were married to.

PS This one was recently released in paperback!

7

Heartbreaker: The Summer Before the War

Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand was one of the early books my book club chose to read. I was completely taken in by the story of a gruff old man learning how to let go of his prejudices in a town that had always enforced them, of learning to open his heart to a most unexpected love.

That book was published way back in 2010. I wasn’t waiting for a new book from Simonson, but when it showed up on my radar, I was interested.

Then I started reading reviews of it on Goodreads and people didn’t seem to love it. I backed off.

I came across a copy at the library a few weeks ago and thought “why not?”

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The Summer Before the War is set in a village in England, in the summer of 1914. Beatrice Nash has taken the post of Latin teacher at the school, the first woman to ever hold the post. When she arrives she meets Agatha Kent, who has been instrumental in Miss Nash’s success in getting the job. Mrs Kent warns her that she has a lot riding on her doing well in the job. Mrs Kent has two nephews, Daniel and Hugh. Daniel fancies himself a poet, intent on running away to Paris and setting up a literary magazine with his titled best friend; Hugh is training to be a surgeon, the more serious of the cousins, he becomes a good friend to Beatrice.

The book becomes about the havoc that the war wreaks on a certain way of life in England at the time. Belgian refugees come to the village, straining resources and forcing people to confront the realities of a war they’d prefer not to think about too much. This book is less about whatever might happen between Beatrice and Hugh and more about how a whole village does or does not pull together in a time of crisis.

I’ll be honest, it took me a while to get into this one. Simonson lays a lot of groundwork of the time, the characters, their backgrounds, the rules that govern society – all on a backdrop of this idyllic, golden English summer. I found it hard to figure out how much time had passed – war seemed to very suddenly affect the village in a myriad of ways and it felt like more time should have passed. But you know, I wasn’t around in 1914, so maybe that’s exactly how it played out. Simonson probably knows better than me.

The strength of this book lies in the foundation. Before you know it, you are deeply invested in the lives of the characters that you’ve totally fallen in love with. Snout, a 15-year-old with a questionable heritage, a passion for Latin, who decides war will be the making of him; Celeste, the beautiful Belgian refugee who needs the support of the village when the full extent of her experiences become known; Eleanor, whose German husband is in Germany and who people suspect of possibly being a spy. And of course, Beatrice, Agatha, Daniel and Hugh.

And lest you think it’s completely character driven, know that Simonson also did an amazing job, like she did with Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, of examining the prejudices of the day. Women’s suffrage, the plight of the Fallen Woman, antipathy towards the area’s Romani population, and class snobbery are all embroidered in the fabric of the story.

By the time I finished reading this one, tears were streaming down my face. Totally unexpected.

I meant to buy this one many times over and now that I’ve returned the library’s copy, I regret that I didn’t give in to that temptation. This is a book I would have liked to loan to others.

15

Filling the Downton Abbey void

It’s maybe been a while since I mentioned that I loved Downton Abbey. I mean, it was a popular show, I’m not alone in this. The show definitely also sent me scurrying after related reading material. That’s how I came to read Lady Almina and the Real Downtown Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle, and then Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey, and even Below Stairs, which really led to Serving Victoria.

Downton Abbey’s creator, Julian Fellowes, had a follow up show where he visits famous estates and digs around to find out some of the more interesting stories. It’s called Great Houses with Julian Fellowes and it’s awesome.

Recently, I read his new book, Belgravia.

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Belgravia opens on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels. The next day many of the guests go off to fight in the battle; many of them do not return. We meet the Trenchard family – James, his wife Anne and their beautiful daughter Sophia. James is a supplier to the army and his fortunes have been climbing as he’s able to achieve what most cannot. They manage to get an invite to the ball via Sophia’s relationship with Lord Bellasis, a favourite nephew of the Duchess of Richmond.

In a time when social rules dictated who could marry whom, Sophia is not a ‘good’ match for Lord Bellasis – her father works.

The rest of the story takes place in London in the 1840s, when those heady days in Brussels changes everything for these families.

I know – I’m being vague again. But the enjoyment of this book relies on one not knowing very much going in.

Here’s what’s interesting about Belgravia: yes, you can read it in traditional book format, but originally it was released as a serialization, both text and audio,  via an app! The book very much reads this way – each chapter feels episodic, there are cliffhangers, and I ended up speeding through the 402 pages.

Otherwise, this book was eminently readable. There is no one better when it comes to this type of historical feature. Fellowes has an incredible depth of knowledge when it comes to society, the relationships therein, the changes as a new class of wealth showed up on the scene intent on mingling with the top echelons of English Society, as well as the dynamics of service at the time. The characters feel like real people and Fellowes writes for an audience that he knows is capable of following along. He doesn’t write down to you, he doesn’t affect jargon of the time to try and lend his work more credibility. It just is credible. Even watching him on Great Houses, I’m always struck by how polite he is, how respectful he is of everyone he interacts with.

Perhaps that shouldn’t be notable, but it totally is.

If you miss Downton, this should fill the void.

10

Review: Pillars of Light

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

Jane Johnson’s Pillars of Light is billed as a “masterpiece of historical fiction” by none other than Anne Fortier, author of Juliet.

I am always looking for new historical fiction to get swept up in and the promise of a completely new era (this one takes place during the Third Crusade, in and around 1189) was more than enough to get me excited about this one. I mean, I love reading about Yorks and Tudors, Victorians and WWII but sometimes you need something new.

Pillars of Light is supposed to be a love story between Zohra, a young Muslim woman responsible for looking after her father and brothers after the death of her mother, and  Nathanael, a young Jewish doctor in the middle of a siege on their city of Akka, in Syria.

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But their story is almost a footnote to the battle for control of the Holy Land, between Christian kings and the Muslims, who’s country it actually was. We meet the Sultan who is trying to wrest the port city of Akka back from the infidels, a band of thieves and con artists from England who travel all the way to Syria to take part in the battle and a host of other secondary characters that muddy the waters of what I had hoped was going to be a straight up love story in a historical context.

Johnson is a talented writer; she knows her subject matter and I suspect that were you to sit down with her to talk about the Third Crusade, you would come away much better educated than you went in. And I appreciated the theme of love woven through this tale: love of others, love of self, love as conquerer in a world torn apart by hate and misunderstanding. The fact that most of the action took place in Syria, among a people who were being starved out of their town, victims of a war that none of them wanted any part of, is obviously extremely topical and made me think about the plight of those same people now and what we have a responsibility to do to help.

But in terms of the actual reading…this one was middling for me. It felt at times like maybe Johnson had a hard time deciding if she was going to tell a story about the every day people or about the people making the decisions that affected the every day people. In the beginning, when we first meet Zohra and Nathanael and are appraised of Zohra’s life in particular, it seemed like maybe it would become a story of her asserting her personhood in the face of her family, culture and religion. I would have loved that story. There was a moment when one of the band of thieves, John Savage, realizes something about himself and his relationship with a mysterious man called just The Moor, that seemed like maybe it would become something bigger, a rare example of an LGBT relationship in historical fiction where the point of the relationship wasn’t persecution, but acceptance.

But none of it ever materialized.

I wanted more from this book than I got. Back to the drawing board for me and Crusade-based historical fiction.

Any suggestions for me?

12

Batch Reviews: An Actual Batch

I know when I started this little random collection of batch reviews, I made it seem like there would be more than 2 reviews per post. Today there actually will be.

We begin with Second Life by SJ Watson. Some of you may have read Watson’s first book, Before I Go To Sleep, which quickly found it’s way among the thriller heavyweights. I could not wait to get my hands on Second Life.

Julia is living a pretty ideal life in London with her son and surgeon husband. A photographer, one of her photos is now hanging in an exhibition in a major gallery. The shot, Marcus in the Mirror, has been replicated on postcards and is showing up all over the place. But then she gets a phone call that changes everything: her sister, Kate, has been murdered in an alley in Paris.

Julia struggles with Kate’s death. They were more or less estranged when Kate died and recently, Kate had been asking for the one thing Julia wasn’t willing to give up: her son. Kate is Connor’s real mum but Julia and Hugh adopted him when he was little. Turns out that Kate was spending a lot of time online and there’s a chance that the person who killed her was one of them. Intent on finding the person responsible, Julia starts her own profile and starts chatting with a man, Lukas. Kate’s roommate, Anna, becomes Julia’s confidante, as both struggle with what happened and how to move on.

Soon it’s about more than finding out what happened to Kate; Julia has fallen for Lukas.

Pacing was an issue for me in this one. It took a looooooooong time for me to feel anything. I just wanted to get on with it. But once you get there, it’s pretty good. Watson is adept at covering his tracks so that when he reveals the real story you are honestly gobsmacked. Like it’s predecessor, Second Life ends abruptly. You know everything that’s happened but that’s all you’re going to get.

If you’re willing to put in the work, Second Life has a pretty solid payoff but it’s not going to be for everyone.

The Sisters of Versailles by Sally Christie. I got a text from my librarian friend saying she was pretty sure this book would be right up my alley. She was so incredibly right.

Louise, Pauline, Diane, Hortense, and Marie-Anne all became mistresses of Louis XV. It is a completely true story and The Sisters of Versailles tells it in English for the first time. Louise is the first. Married to a man she doesn’t care for she jumps at the chance to escape her country house and go to court. At first she is so good it’s almost a joke but eventually she learns how to navigate this world, embarking on her first affair. Soon she is strategically placed as the king’s mistress – the powers that be think she will do as they want and not challenge anything. She falls in love with the king and leads a pretty enchanted life.

But all is not so rosy for her sisters. After the death of their mother, they have been left to shift for themselves. Pauline and Diane were shipped off to a convent school, while Hortense and Marie-Anne were taken in by an elderly aunt with a very strict moral code. Marie-Anne manages to find a suitable match for herself and soon is living in Burgundy, bored out of her mind. For years, Pauline has been begging Louise to have her stay at court and when she finally relents, she will pay for it dearly: Pauline usurps her as the king’s mistress.

That’s a good start for anyone that thinks they may be interested. This book is littered with sister on sister crime, broken hearts, possible poisonings, court intrigue and all manner of delightful historical detail.

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The best part? The Sisters of Versailles is the first in a promised trilogy. The Rivals of Versailles should be out in April, while The Enemies of Versailles is expected in September.

Finally, let’s discuss the tiny powerhouse that is Helen Phillips’ The Beautiful Bureaucrat. Phillips manages to cram a lot of book into 177 pages. Josephine Anne Newbury has moved to the big city and is desperate for a job, any job. She manages to land a data entry type gig at The Database, a deeply suspect, incredibly impersonal place that frowns on lunch breaks, personal touchs and speaking to your colleagues. (Pretty sure I worked here from 2008-2010, guys)

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But Josephine has a job and at the end of the day she can go “home” to her husband, Joseph. “Home” is a series of temporary sublet spaces, until they can get a little bit up on their feet. They also long for a child of their own.

As Josephine spends more time at her job, she starts seeing strange coincidences and takes it upon herself to investigate. One day she sees something she can’t ignore and when her husband doesn’t return home she risks everything to track him down.

This was a clever little book. A rumination on the kind of soul destroying work we’ve all done and it’s place in our world, the desire for a child and the struggles of infertility and the strains both of these things place on relationships. Joseph and Josephine have very similar jobs and both look forward to the day when their lives are different, committed to building a new life in this big city but they start to see themselves lose bits of humanity, the longer they work there like when Josephine starts referring to her husband by his social security number.

It was a strange little book and definitely not what I normally read but I loved it. I almost want to read it again and read it more closely but it has to go home to the library.

 

18

A Historical Fiction Win: The King’s Curse

Uncharacteristically I’ve been away from the blog for a while! I got really sick, which luckily only happens once every couple of years but when it does happen it is usually pretty terrible. I didn’t even have the energy for reading, so you know it was bad. It did give me a chance to take down two seasons of The Mindy Project though so it wasn’t all bad. That said, here’s a return to our regular programming.

Many years ago I read The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory. And then I read The Queen’s Fool and the Wideacre books (I’ve said it before and I will say it again, those books are messed up) and anything else she had written and when any new book came out, I bought and read that too. Somewhere around The White Queen my interest started waning. By the time we got to The Kingmaker’s Daughter I thought that I was done with Gregory for good. I still read The White Princess though. And at a library sale where The King’s Curse was available for $2, I still bought it.

But you guys? The King’s Curse was SO GOOD.

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Margaret Pole is one of the last York heirs. She is the daughter of George, the Duke of Clarence, the one who was executed in a cask of wine. So her father is dead, her brother was in the tower for years, his only crime being the fact that he was a York when the Tudors took the throne. Then her brother is executed as well and Margaret is married off to a knight, to hide the fact that she is in fact a York heiress. Margaret is friends with her cousin, Elizabeth of York, the new Queen. It is Queen Elizabeth who confides in Margaret that she is afraid that there may be a curse on her own family -that she and her mother cursed whoever had murdered her brothers in the tower, that all their sons should die and the line end with girls. Margaret’s husband is the steward of Prince Arthur, the Prince of Wales and it’s their job to look after him and his young wife, Princess Katherine of Aragon. When Prince Arthur dies soon after he is wed, Katherine makes Margaret promise to keep it a secret that they ever consummated their marriage. This is also when Margaret begins to be dogged by the whispers of the curse.

So begins Margaret’s life at the new Tudor court. Always aware that she is a York, heiress to the the real royal family of England and how dangerous that is with suspicious Henry VII on the throne. When her husband dies, leaving her with 4 young sons and a daughter to look after, Margaret desperately sends her two eldest sons to the household of a York cousin, one son to live with a religious order and keeps her daughter and youngest son with her to live in a nunnery.

However, when Henry VII dies and his son, that laughing golden boy Henry VIII becomes king, live changes again for Margaret. This time she and her sons must carefully navigate the ups and downs of life under a king who no one says no to, who is so desperate for God’s favour in the form of a son to carry on the destiny, that he will do just about anything.

Here’s the difference from The Kingmaker’s Daughter and The White Princess: the reigns of Henry VII and VIII are fairly peaceful. That is there are no huge wars that men need to fight on battlefields, leaving their wives and daughters at home. The battles in The King’s Curse are fought with gossip and intrigue and that is very much a woman’s game. With her husband dead and a place at court, Margaret Pole becomes the head of her family, her sons looking to her for what they should do next. She is a woman to be reckoned with and even Henry VIII knows it.

I loved this book. I loved reading about a woman who knows herself and wants to bring honour to her once great family again. I loved that she was the one that her sons looked to for approval and answers, that she ran her own houses and fortunes, that she was the one who arranged marriages and appointments for her children.

Margaret Pole was a real person who suffered cruelly at the hands of Henry VIII in the end. I loved reading her story and am hopeful that this book marks a return to the kinds of historical fiction I can’t get enough of from the incomparable Philippa Gregory.

13

Giving Daisy Goodwin Another Shot

Recently The Socratic Salon hosted a discussion about what it takes for readers to go back to authors who have burned them before. It was an interesting and lively discussion about the ways that we make room for or dismiss authors who have maybe disappointed our hopes in the past.

The first time I read Daisy Goodwin, I was disappointed. In The American Heiress, I was expecting a Downton Abbey worthy story featuring a fabulously wealthy American who comes to Britain intent on snagging a titled young man to marry. And that is the bare bones story but it never really gelled with me. I remember being disappointed that there wasn’t more substance to the story. I’m not sure if I had hoped that she would marry for love or find that a title wasn’t what it was cracked up to be. I’m always annoyed when characters move to other worlds and just expect to be able to do whatever they wanted. I remember being disappointed, though, that the main character lacked any kind of spunk.

But when I saw The Fortune Hunter, and read that it featured the love triangle between Elisabeth of Austria, Bay Middleton, and Middleton’s fiancee Charlotte Baird, well I was immediately willing to forgive Goodwin her past transgressions against me.

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If you’ve ever been to Vienna, you’re probably familiar with Elisabeth of Austria because of all the places that her portrait, the one of the young woman in the white ballgown with diamond stars in her abundant hair, is featured. When I went to Vienna and kept seeing the Winterhalter portrait, I was so entranced that I needed to know more about the woman. I found and purchased the Brigitte Hauman biography of Sisi (a book that Goodwin mentioned in her Afterword as being the best written about Sisi).

So I was somewhat familiar with the story. But there’s something so different about reading a biography of a person and having them brought to life by a fictional account.

The Fortune Hunter is a delight. It is the perfect kind of historical fiction novel that hits all the right notes. It manages to find the right balance of expressions that are right for the time without being heavy handed and phoney sounding. I thought Goodwin did an amazing job bringing Elisabeth to life as well as addressing her relationship with Bay Middleton. It’s not ever been proven whether their relationship was romantic and physical, although most tend to agree that it probably was. Charlotte Baird, the heiress to an immense fortune who Middleton did eventually marry, is the kind of heroine I can totally get behind. She doesn’t spend her time getting ready for parties and gossiping, she has an interest in photography and a disdain for the types of women who only think about The Season and getting married, as exemplified in her sister-in-law to be, Augusta.

fortune hunterOh no I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and am glad that my previous experience with Daisy Goodwin didn’t prevent me from wading into this one whole-heartedly. In the same Afterword, Goodwin mentions that she so enjoyed writing the scenes that feature Queen Victoria (and I can see why, they were hilarious) that she has become a main character for her next novel. She also mentioned that the new biography of Queen Victoria by A.N. Wilson was one of the best biographies written about her. A biography I just so happen have sitting on my table.