Category Archives: Recommended Read

Recommended Read – Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims: (Book 1) by Toby Clements

An enthralling adventure story, honest and powerful. The Wars of the Roses are imagined here with energy, with ferocity, with hunger to engage the reader.’ Hilary Mantel

February 1460 In the bitter dawn of a winter’s morning, a young man and a woman escape from a priory. In fear of their lives, they are forced to flee across a land ravaged by conflict.

For this is the Wars of the Roses, one of the most savage and bloody civil wars in history, where brother confronts brother, king faces king,

and Thomas and Katherine must fight – just to stay alive …

I was influenced in choosing to read this novel after seeing a glowing review of it by the historical novelist Hilary Mantel and am pleased that I followed my instincts to pick up the book. Many people only know the bare bones of the events surrounding the civil war in England known as the War of the Roses, often finding the interconnections between the royal houses confusing to follow and so giving up on the study. In his Kingmaker series Toby Clements sets out to rectify this lack of knowledge and understanding even though this first novel is not about the members of the powerful and wealthy families and factions at the pinnacle of society but the brutally hard lives of ordinary people. The main characters in Winter Pilgrims are not the key players as one might expect, but a monk and nun who have to flee for their lives; they are quite naïve in their understanding of who the people of power and ambition are, and the reader is able to gradually build up a solid understanding of the politics of the time alongside Thomas and Kit without any need for long passages of historical explanation. Yet Mr Clements has conducted an incredible amount of research into the topic which has enabled him to re-create a time full of historical detail which draws the reader in – the descriptions of a countryside ravaged by war; deserted villages; the cold, hunger and tiredness of an army on the move; the lack of medical knowledge and the primitive treatments given, all work together to give a depth of understanding of life for the ordinary man and woman which is at times harrowing and bloody yet also full of friendship, loyalty and compassion.

Alongside the realistic telling of the lives of ordinary people the author also immerses the reader in the blood and gore of 15th century warfare. The descriptions of training for the archers is very detailed whilst the skirmishes and battles themselves are harrowing. The elements of the cut and thrust of the fighting are incredibly accurate, both in the description of the physical fighting and in the actual historical confrontations – the author holds nothing back in writing about the battle of Towton which brings this novel to a close (and which  is closely based on historical records of the biggest and bloodiest battle to have ever been fought on English soil); it is one of the best descriptions of the chaos, butchery, exhaustion and horror of battle interspersed with moments of calm detachment and observation that I have ever read in a work of historical fiction.

As well as accurate portrayals of what was happening during the War of the Roses Mr Clements also brings to life some of the key historical characters of the time including Edward Earl of March (18 -19 years old in this novel and destined to be the future king Edward VI) and the Earl of Warwick (known to history as ‘the Kingmaker’), as well as many more of the Yorkist leaders (we find out little about the Lancastrian leadership as this novel is told from a Yorkist perspective). These important men appear infrequently in the plotline of this novel which cleverly brings together what life was like for men in all strata of society. The stories of Thomas and Kit are interwoven with the struggles of nobles to hang on to their lands during times of lawlessness and confusion, with some holding fast to their allegiances and responsibilities whilst others frequently change sides whenever it suits them in order to increase their own lands and power.

I must admit that I found some of the plot for Thomas and Kit a little far-fetched at times but no more so than in books by Conn Iggulden or Bernard Cornwell, and it is possible to stretch imagination on occasions to fulfil the key purpose of an historical novelist – the creation of a good story. The fact that the couple have been confined in religious institutions means that they are inexperienced in the wider world and so we are able to discover more about religion at the time as well as the spiritual and philosophical conflicts which are a part of the journey of these characters.

Some readers may find the fact that this novel is written in the present tense difficult at times, but I find that, as the story progresses, it helps to add a sense of immediacy to the actions and emotions of the carefully created cast of characters and as such becomes an integral part of the storytelling. Mr Clements uses all his skills of writing to create a world full of excitement and contradiction, gory battle scenes and strong supportive relationships, and an honest telling of the vagaries of human character. As a novel Winter Pilgrims is well-researched and intelligent entertainment and will be enjoyed by anyone who is a fan of such writers as Conn Iggulden and Bernard Cornwell.

Winter Pilgrims can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Toby Clements here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

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Recommended Read – The Last Tudor by Philippa Gregory

‘How long do I have?’ I force a laugh.
‘Not long,’ he says very quietly. ‘They have confirmed your sentence of death.  You are to be beheaded tomorrow.  We don’t have long at all.’

Jane Grey was Queen of England for nine days. Using her position as cousin to the deceased king, her father and his co-conspirators put her on the throne ahead of the king’s half-sister Mary, who quickly mustered an army, claimed her crown and locked Jane in the Tower. When Jane refused to betray her Protestant faith, Mary sent her to the executioner’s block. There Jane turned her father’s greedy, failed grab for power into her own brave and tragic martyrdom.

‘Learn you to die’ is the advice that Jane gives in a letter to her younger sister Katherine, who has no intention of dying. She intends to enjoy her beauty and her youth and find love. But her lineage makes her a threat to the insecure and infertile Queen Mary and, when Mary dies, to her sister Queen Elizabeth, who will never allow Katherine to marry and produce a potential royal heir before she does.  So when Katherine’s secret marriage is revealed by her pregnancy, she too must go to the Tower.

‘Farewell, my sister,’ writes Katherine to the youngest Grey sister, Mary. A beautiful dwarf, disregarded by the court, Mary finds it easy to keep secrets, especially her own, while avoiding Elizabeth’s suspicious glare. After watching her sisters defy the queen, Mary is aware of her own perilous position as a possible heir to the throne. But she is determined to command her own destiny and be the last Tudor to risk her life in matching wits with her ruthless and unforgiving cousin Elizabeth.

 The Last Tudor is a thoroughly absorbing novel which tells the story of the three Grey sisters – Jane, Katherine and Mary – and the roles they played during the lives of the last generation of Tudors – King Edward, Queen May and Queen Elizabeth. Cleverly crafted, Ms Gregory gives each girl her own voice and they each tell their story in the first person. The style of writing is different for each of the sisters which deftly portrays their differing characters and beliefs. I am well acquainted with the story of Jane Grey but knew little about her sisters; the author has produced a book here which focuses on these relatively unknown siblings and through their descriptions of their feelings for the important people of the time – love, envy, anger, hatred – we are given an insight into the events which shaped the Tudor dynasty. This is a very clever personalisation which makes the history accessible and never dull or slowing the pace of the story.

Jane Grey is the eldest, she has strongly held Protestant beliefs and holds anyone of the Catholic faith in contempt. In the telling of her story she portrays herself as a rather impatient young woman who says that she is dutiful and humble yet comes across as slightly arrogant. Jane truly believes that the reformed church is the only way to salvation and, as such, pities those who will never get to heaven. Religion is the focus of her life and she is politically naïve which makes her the perfect pawn for those who wish to bypass Princess Mary as heir to the Tudor throne. When Jane’s cousin, King Edward, dies and she is placed on the throne it is obvious that she is unwilling to play the part yet unable to do anything else. Her simple belief as a sixteen year old girl that everything will turn out right in the end is both touching and frustrating, and leaves you wondering if she really thought this or just convinced herself of the matter as reality was too frightening to contemplate. A rude awakening awaits the young queen when Princess Mary comes to claim what is rightfully hers…

The middle of the Grey sisters, Katherine, comes across as materialistic, vain and arrogant; she is fiercely jealous of Elizabeth I and feels deliberately slighted by her. Katherine’s belief that she is the true heir to the Tudor throne prompts her to marry without the queen’s permission; after all, in her view Elizabeth is an illigitemate usurper, and even Henry VIII had her declared as such by Parliament at one time. Katherine’s marriage leads to trouble for her and her family, and as the years go by there is a change in her character as her belief that she has been wrongly treated affects her physical and mental health…

The youngest sister, Mary, was very small (barely 4 feet tall) and initially seems to have stayed under the radar of Elizabeth I (no pun intended). However, Mary follows in the footsteps of Katherine, believing herself so insignificant that the queen will not care who she marries. I must admit to a little frustration at her actions, but the truth is that she did behave as Ms Gregory tells (although the historical fact is rather sketchy in places). Mary develops from a small, insignificant and unimportant courtier into a woman with surprising courage and strength of character, and a determination not to suffer the same fate as her sisters…

The Last Tudor is interesting in its depiction of Elizabeth I as seen from the perspective of her cousins – a selfish and troubled woman who seems to care little for the future of England. As such, it is a novel which portrays the difficulties of history – we can look back in time to individual views of events but it is not always possible to ascertain the truth, particularly of people’s feelings and motives. Ms Gregory has conducted a great deal of research whilst writing this novel (some of the letters of the Grey sisters are included at the end of the book) and gives an engrossing view of what happened and why from the perspective of the Grey family; others, of course, would have seen things in a very different light.

As with all Ms Gregory’s novels this one places the reader squarely in a time and place in history with vivid descriptions of life at the Tudor court – the food and drink, the revels, the political intrigue, the fears, the treasons. The author has used very skilled writing to tell the story of Elizabeth and her advisors, the search for a husband and an heir, the delicate political situation between England, Scotland, France and Spain, in such a way as to convey an understanding of the scene quite briefly (as it is the backdrop to the story of the sisters not the main plot), yet in enough detail for the reader to understand its impact on the three young women.

The Last Tudor is one of the best historical novels I have read in a long time which gives us a clever telling of the politics of the court of Elizabeth I through the lives of three young women, and which has made me rethink some of my previous views on the glorious reign of Elizabeth I, as such it has inspired me to look once more at that whole period of history. If you like historical fiction and have enjoyed books by Philippa Gregory in the past I can guarantee that you will enjoy this latest offering. And if you have never read one of her novels? Then this would be a very good place to start.

The Last Tudor can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Philippa Gregory and her books here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff

(New York Times Bestseller)

In Nazi-occupied Holland, seventeen-year-old Noa snatches a baby from a train bound for the concentration camps, fleeing with him into the snowy wilderness surrounding the train tracks.

Passing through the woods is a German circus, led by the heroic Herr Neuhoff. They agree to take in Noa and the baby, on one condition: to earn her keep, Noa must master the flying trapeze – under the tutorage of mysterious aerialist, Astrid.

Soaring high above the crowds, Noa and Astrid must learn to trust one another…or plummet. But with the threat of war closing in, loyalty can become the most dangerous trait of all.

In this novel Noa, a Dutch teenager who falls pregnant after a one-night stand with a German soldier, is disowned by her family and forced to give up her baby. She later comes across a train pulling a cattle truck full of Jewish babies en-route to a concentration camp, and impulsively takes a child – partly because of her horror at the situation and partly because of the loss of her own child which has left her feeling guilty and bereft. Noa gets lost in a snow storm and expects to die, but is rescued by a travelling circus where she makes a strange alliance with Astrid who has her own complicated history as a Jew who had once been married to a German officer. The premise of this story may seem far-fetched but, surprisingly, it is based on a number of true stories from the Second World War. In her notes at the end of the novel Ms Jenoff explains how she came across two stories in the Yad Vashem archives whilst doing research for her job as a diplomat for the U.S. State Department handling Holocaust issues in Poland. The first story was an account of a boxcar full of babies being sent to a concentration camp, the second was the story of a German circus which had sheltered Jews during the war (the owner, Adolf Althoff, was named Righteous Among The Nations by Yad Vashem). The author has taken these stories and woven them together to create a fictional circus with characters and incidents which give us a glimpse of the fear and hardship of those who put humanity above nationality during one of the darkest periods of the 20th century.

Using parallel narratives Ms Jenoff tells an inspiring story of two very different women brought together by war; characters who are believable because they are so flawed – capable of generosity and selflessness at times, and at other times quite reckless and selfish; women who are changed for the better by the tragedies they have to endure. I must admit that I found Noa’s almost instant love for Luc, and his for her, rather improbable; for me this is the weakest part of the novel but, setting that aside, it does help the author to explore one or two other themes connected to war and conflict, particularly how a family (in this case Luc’s) can be divided by their beliefs and by what they feel is the best way for them to protect the people around them. Noa also seemed rather reckless at times as she knowingly did things which could jeapordise the safety of others but, having said that, one must remember that the character is just seventeen years old and I’m sure that the characteristic traits of a teenager could not be totally surpressed even during a time of war! The focus of this novel is on the relationship of these two women rather than the war itself, and I find this to be one of the strengths of the book. The two women journey from jealousy and suspicion to a grudging respect, and then even love for each other.

Ms Jennoff has also shown a detailed knowledge of circus life in her writing. The atmosphere of the circus ring is vividly evoked – the excitement and glamour as seen from the perspective of the customers. Yet this is well contrasted with life behind the scenes – the shabbiness, the hard work, the lack of privacy, the monotony. The author also conveys how life became much more difficult for German circuses during the war as restrictions were placed on them by the Nazis, yet the determination that ‘the show must go on’ shines through, particularly as the circus brings a feeling of normality and escapism to the people of towns and villages living under German occupation.

‘The Orphan’s Tale’ has a well-structured plot which is well paced with the tension rising steadily to the ultimate climax in the big top. Interestingly the pivitol role is a baby who has no words to speak and no actions which influence the tale; the purpose of his character is, in my view, to be a symbol for all those who were victims of the Nazis. The child represents every Jew, or gypsy, or homosexual, or disabled person taken by the regime; it doesn’t really matter who he is or where he came from, the underlying current of this novel is that he should survive to tell the tale and to live a life denied to so many others. ‘The Orphan’s Tale’ is historical fiction with a focus on how ordinary people survive during times of conflict and upheaval rather than on the key events of the war. If you are fond of character driven  historical novels you will probably enjoy this.

The Orphan’s Tale can  be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Ms Jenoff here

You can  find more of my Recommended  Reads here

 

Recommended read – ‘A Town Like Alice’ by Nevil Shute

a-town-like-alice

Jean Paget is just twenty years old and working in Malaya when the Japanese invasion begins. When she is captured she joins a group of other European women and children whom the Japanese force to march for miles through the jungle – an experience that leads to the deaths of many. Due to her courageous spirit and ability to speak Malay, Jean takes on the role of leader of the sorry gaggle of prisoners and many end up owing their lives to her indomitable spirit. While on the march, the group run into some Australian prisoners, one of whom, Joe Harman, helps them steal some food, and is horrifically punished by the Japanese as a result.

‘A Town Like Alice’ is a classic which loses none of its appeal with the passage of time. The description of life for the English women and children who are unwanted prisoners of the Japanese, forced to march for months on end by Japanese officers who refuse to take responsibility for them, is harrowing. You would be forgiven for saying that something as inhumane as that could never have happened – but it did, though in Sumatra not Malaya. Mr Shute met with one of those women after the war, and this novel is a tribute to her strength and endurance and that of those who were held with her, and those who died during their long captivity.

You may also be forgiven for thinking that the story must be depressing, it is not. This is a novel of hope not despair. Mr Shute uses his characters to show us the good in humanity, the willingness to help others despite personal cost – Joe, the Australian soldier, who stole to feed the women, with tragic consequences; Jean’s struggles as she tries to cope with the ‘normality’ of England after the war, unable to begin life again because of a burden of guilt she carries from her time as a prisoner; the kindness and support show to Jean by her solicitor, Noel. Mr Shute skilfully weaves a believable plotline which takes Jean back to Malaya and on to Australia, searching for answers and for a purpose in life. Can she re-build her life in a new country in ‘a town like Alice (Springs)’ which Joe told her so much about?

This is a well-researched and well written novel in which Mr Shute immerses the reader in life in three very different locations – war-torn Malaya, bombed out London and the developing outback – with the effortlessness of a master wordsmith. This is a story of ordinary people with an extraordinary tale to tell; a timeless tale of love and loss, of romance and redemption. ‘A Town Like Alice’ is one of the books I’ve read more than once and always enjoy coming back to. If you have never read this modern classic you really must give it a go.

‘A Town Like Alice’ can be purchased from Amazon

You can find out about more about the life and work of Nevil Shute at the Nevil Shute Norway Foundation

Book Review – ‘The Secret Wife’ by Gill Paul

the-secret-wifeA Russian grand duchess and an English journalist. Linked by one of the world’s greatest mysteries . . .

Love. Guilt. Heartbreak.

1914 Russia is on the brink of collapse, and the Romanov family faces a terrifyingly uncertain future. Grand Duchess Tatiana has fallen in love with cavalry officer Dmitri, but events take a catastrophic turn, placing their romance – and their lives – in danger . . .

2016 Kitty Fisher escapes to her great-grandfather’s remote cabin in America, after a devastating revelation makes her flee London. There, on the shores of Lake Akanabee, she discovers the spectacular jewelled pendant that will lead her to a long-buried family secret . . .Haunting, moving and beautifully written, The Secret Wife effortlessly crosses centuries, as past merges with present in an unforgettable story of love, loss and resilience.

 ‘The Secret Wife’ is an engrossing read which takes the reader back to the days of the Russian Revolution and on through the years of the 20th century. It follows the life and loves of Dmitri, an aristocrat who has to flee from the communist regime not knowing where the woman he loves is, or even if she is still alive. It is a tale of war, romance, lost love and redemption. The book also follows the troubled life of Kitty, Dmitri’s great-granddaughter, whose research into the life of her ancestor helps her to come to terms with problems in her own life and helps her to make a decision about what she wants for her future. The two stories are expertly woven together into a novel which I found difficult to put down.

Ms Paul has written a truly captivating novel with strong characters and a strong, believable story line. The history, particularly the turbulent times surrounding the lives of the Romanov’s, has been well researched and is presented in a style which is easy to read yet immerses the reader in the political intrigue and violence of revolution and the life of a political refugee. Ms Paul also expertly delves into the psychological impact that such events would have on an individual. It is easy to sympathise with Dmitri as he struggles to come to terms with his changed circumstances, with Tatiana as she copes with violence and loss, and with Kitty as she understands why she is the person she is and finds a new direction for here future.

Many of the characters in this novel are actual historical figures about whom we know quite a lot, but historical evidence for what happened to some of them disappears after 1916/17. We do know the fate of some (no spoilers!), but it would be nice to think that Ms Paul’s story could be true!

If you like historical fiction, sagas, intrigue, strong characters and a story which draws you in right from the start then please give this book a read. I will certainly be reading more of Ms Paul’s books in the future.

Ms Pauls website can be found here

The Secret Wife can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

 

Book Review – ‘The Soldier’s Farewell’ by Alan Monaghan

The Soldier's FarewellBefore reading this novel I had a sketchy knowledge of the Irish War of Independence. ‘The Soldier’s Farewell’ has brought it to life for me. Set in England and Ireland in 1921 this novel follows the Ryan brothers through these momentous historical times. Stephen is an Irishman who fought for the British during the First World War, he is subsequently sent to London as part of the Irish Delegation to help with negotiations for the independence of Ireland. Joe, his brother, is jailed for his actions as a member of the IRA. Through the two brothers we follow the political and military upheavals of the early 1920’s, the ending of one war and the beginning of a new, more sinister conflict.

A sub-plot follows Stephen’s girlfriend, Lillian. A gifted mathematician, her work is stolen and her career progress blocked because of her gender. This provides an interesting look at the role and position of women in the early twentieth century, noting some changes (such as women’s suffrage in Ireland) and predicting some of the changes which would ultimately come. This sub-plot is expertly woven into the story of independence and helps to create a full, rounded character in Stephen.

As a historical novel ‘The Soldier’s Farewell’ is well researched, the real-life facts and characters portrayed through the story in an engaging way which never lectures. The fictional characters are believable and the dialogue well written. The descriptive scenes are compelling; from streets scenes to a prolonged journey on foot through snowy mountains, from formal meetings and court scenes to desperate military actions, from scenes of love to scenes of murder, Mr. Monaghan has created a world which brings to life a period of history which all British people should become more familiar with.

I can heartily recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about the history of Ireland, the dreams and aspirations of the IRA, and how the Anglo-Irish conflict of the twentieth century was born in Dublin in 1921. (The Soldier’s Farewell is part three of Alan Monaghan’s trilogy set during the Irish Civil War).

Mr Monaghan’s website can be found here

‘The Soldier’s Farewell’ can be found on Amazon

Book Review – ‘The Royalist’ and ‘The Protector’ by S J Deas

Unusually, I am recommending two books for you to read this month.

The Royalist‘The Royalist’ is the first book about William Falkland by S. J. Deas, set during the English Civil War. The main character, William Falkland, fought for the king but was captured and, as the novel opens, he is in prison awaiting execution. Falkland is led out, presumably to his death, but instead he has a surprising meeting with Oliver Cromwell who wants him to investigate some suspicious deaths in an army camp. To do what Cromwell wants is the only way that Falkland can save his own life, and return to his family.

‘The Royalist’ is a real page-turner, with many plot twists which keep you guessing to the very end. Are the deaths suicides, or something more sinister? What is the reason for Cromwell calling on a royalist to investigate, rather than one of his own men? Falkland finds the answers Cromwell wants (no spoilers here!) and is free to return to his family.

The Protector‘The Protector’ continues the story of William Falkland which began in ‘The Royalist’. Still searching for his family, Falkland is once more called upon by Cromwell, this time to investigate the disappearance of a woman – the sister of the renowned John Milton. Once again the author creates a compelling mystery. Why would someone kidnap Milton’s sister? Is it to silence the writer, or for some other reason? What happened to Ann’s husband? What secrets are hidden in a ruined manor house in Lincolnshire? Deas masterfully weaves a detective story with a picture of life during the English Civil War. Rather than a straight history, details of the war are revealed through conversations amongst the characters, as part of the plot rather than a telling of facts. Deas also conjures the feelings of insecurity, threat, suspense and suspicion which were rife in England at the time as friends, neighbours and families chose sides and fought for what they believed was right.

These two books about William Falkland are thoroughly enjoyable historical mysteries. The characters are well-rounded and totally believable. Falkland is a sympathetic hero, Milton is a complex character who draws out conflicting emotions in Falkland (and the reader!), Miss Cain is a resourceful woman who ably assists in the investigations, and the initially simple Warbeck turns out to be a more complex character than first imagined.

I thoroughly enjoyed the history and mystery in these two books, and hope that there will be more novels about William Falkland in the future.

I heartily recommend both books to you.

Mr Deas website can be found here

The Royalist can be found on Amazon

The Protector can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Book Reviews here