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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

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Shadows and Strongholds by Elizabeth Chadwick

An awkward misfit, nine-year-old Fulke FitzWarin leaves his family for the household of Joscelin de Dinan, Lord of Ludlow. Once there, he begins to learn the knightly arts which he desperately hopes will free him from the shadows of his past.

Joscelin’s youngest daughter, Hawise, befriends Fulke when he most needs it. But as the years pass, an enemy to Ludlow changes their friendship unalterably, forcing them onto opposite sides of a cruel divide.

When the menace to Ludlow intensifies, Fulke must confront the future head on or fail on all counts, all the while desperate to know if Hawise stands with or against him.

Shadows and Strongholds is the early part of the story of a family who appear in Ms Chadwick’s novel Lords of The White Castle, which is itself based on the history of the FitzWarin family as it was told in a rhyming story written in the thirteenth century – the sort of story told to pass long winter evenings in the great hall. After completing that book the author felt compelled to tell the story of the early life of the key characters, and I am glad that she did! This is a tale steeped in the tensions and conflicts of a time which may not be well known to many readers but which is a fascinating period of English history, telling the story of the lords of Ludlow and Whittington against the broader backdrop of a country riven by civil war. The competing claims for lordship of Ludlow and Whittington castles are well documented, as is the outcome (no spoiler here!), but what is compelling for the reader is the fact that many of the key players in this novel are unknown to us so we don’t know how they will be affected by events, creating an exciting plot line which draws you in.

The original writer of the medieval tale is known to have been free with chronological order and some facts, Ms Chadwick has often followed his lead as this creates a great story line, and as Shadows and Strongholds is a work of historical fiction most readers will be happy with that. After all, this is not an academic historical account of the times but, instead, the author immerses the reader in the sights and sounds of a bygone age, the structure of a society which is unfamiliar to us, the violent conflicts between barons and those in authority which would be impossible in England today but which moulded and influenced the political scene in a much more turbulent time.

Those who are already familiar with Ms Chadwick’s work will recognise her style in this novel – a well written character driven story based on detailed research. The characters are well rounded, with the young Marion in particular drawing a sympathetic response despite her actions (which stem from a traumatic event in her childhood). In the modern world Marion would have been given psychiatric counselling and would most likely have turned out very differently, but understanding of mental problems in the twelfth century was limited, and Ms Chadwick has used this to develop a character whose interactions with those around her are pivotal to the plot. As well as Marion and the other characters about whom we know little but their names there are also brief appearances in Shadows and Strongholds by key players in history, such as Henry II, and the interplay of these characters is what makes for an exciting story. Added to this is a strong evocation of period through the careful use of language with the novel written in an easy to read style yet utilising a number of medieval words for clothing and objects which we no longer have, further infusing the reader with a sense of time and place.

Shadows and Strongholds will appeal to both fans of Ms Chadwick and those new to her work. If you enjoy good historical fiction, politics and battles, family life and romance, good strong plot-lines, well rounded characters and authentic dialogue then this book is for you. I enjoyed it, and Lords ofThe White Castle is now on my list of books to read.

Shadows and Strongholds can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Elizabeth Chadwick here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – House of the Hanged by Mark Mills

France, 1935: At the poor man’s end of the Riviera sits Le Rayol, a haven for artists, expatriates and refugees. Here, a world away from the rumblings of a continent heading towards war, Tom Nash has rebuilt his life after a turbulent career in the Secret Intelligence Service. His past, though, is less willing to leave him behind. When a midnight intruder tries to kill him, Tom knows it is just a matter of time before another assassination attempt is made. Gathered at Le Rayol for the summer months are all those he holds most dear, including his beloved goddaughter Lucy. Reluctantly, Tom comes to believe that one of them must have betrayed him. If he is to live, Tom must draw his enemy out, but at what cost to himself and the people he loves…?

House of the Hanged is a thriller with the majority of the story set in the mid-1930’s when the threat of war hangs over Europe once more, but no one is sure whether it will be fascist Germany who is the enemy, or communist Russia, or maybe a combination of the two.

The novel begins almost twenty years earlier in revolutionary Russia with the main character, Tom, failing to save the life of the woman he loves. The story swiftly moves on to the years leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War where Tom has given up working for British Intelligence and settled down in the south of France. As the novel progresses we learn more about Tom’s work, how it affected him, and how he is now trying to redeem himself, put the past behind him, and enjoy a life of peace. Each year Tom invites friends to join him at his villa for the summer; he also extends a welcome to refugees, particularly from Russia, as though his efforts to help them may in some way atone for not saving his love. After the thrilling opening the pace of the novel slows as we settle into the relaxed lifestyle of cocktail parties, sailing, swimming etc. in the south of France, but there is already a feeling that this year will not be like those which have gone before. When an attempt is made on Tom’s life the pace quickens again as he begins to question those around him – one of the people he is close to, perhaps someone he loves, has betrayed him.

Mr Mills has created a cast of well-drawn and believable characters in this novel, and the reader will enjoy learning about them and how they could be involved in the attempts to kill Tom. Is the threat to him linked to the current political climate, or has his past in Russia finally caught up with him? (Don’t worry, no spoilers here!) Tom is so unsure of the people around him that he keeps the danger to him a secret; all is calm on the surface, but the author has deftly created an undercurrent of fear and suspense which draws the reader in, helped in no part by his skilled writing, particularly in dialogue. Mr Mills has obviously researched this period of European history and has therefore been able to contrast the relaxed lifestyle of a particular social group on the French Riviera with the tension of a continent edging ever closer to all-out war. He has an evocative style which leaves the reader feeling immersed in a particular place and time – it is almost possible to feel the heat of the Mediterranean sun, the coolness of the water and the everchanging breeze – yet, at the heart, this is a well-paced cat and mouse thriller in which the pace is not slowed by the historical detail.

House of the Hanged is a classic spy story which would make a great holiday read for anyone who likes historical fiction, mysteries and intrigue. I will certainly be trying other books by this author.

House Of The Hanged can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Mark Mills and his work here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Belgravia by Julian Fellowes

Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia is the story of a secret. A secret that unravels behind the porticoed doors of London’s grandest postcode. Set in the 1840s when the upper echelons of society began to rub shoulders with the emerging industrial nouveau riche, Belgravia is peopled by a rich cast of characters. But the story begins on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. At the Duchess of Richmond’s now legendary ball, one family’s life will change for ever.

Right from the start Belgravia immerses the reader in life in Victorian times with its detailed descriptions of two families. The initial scenes at a grand ball on the eve of Waterloo cleverly introduce the families who will become the main protagonists two decades later, as well as giving an initial insight into a society where class and position were all important. But things were changing in the nineteenth century, and this novel deftly portrays the currents of prejudice faced by wealthy self-made families when they came into contact with those with inherited wealth. This conflict is the backdrop to a story of love and loss, hope and fear, prosperity and debt, and as such it draws us in.

As always, Mr Fellowes has created a cast of characters who are all too human, with all the strengths and foibles which we possess ourselves. We can feel sympathy for some whilst others draw feelings of anger or even contempt from us as they live life in their ivory towers, expecting everything but giving nothing in return. The detailed research conducted by the author places these characters in an authentic historical setting where such behaviour was the norm, and it is a testament to skilled writing that we see the events of the novel through the eyes of Victorians and not our own with our two hundred years of hindsight. Belgravia immerses us in the past with its descriptions of houses, parties, costumes and transport of a bygone age; I found the description of the development of central London and its architecture during that period particularly interesting.

As with Downton Abbey Mr Fellowes cleverly interweaves the lives of the wealthy with those of their servants creating a novel which is well-paced with interesting plot twists to keep the reader wanting to find out more. With a deft touch the author gives us light romance, humour, mystery, suspense, scandal, conflict, and murderous intent. Belgravia is a classic love story which would appeal to anyone who loves books in a similar style to that of Jane Austin.

Mr Fellowes is able to bring the past alive for us is a way which helps us to understand the social and political conflicts of a time which, in some ways, is not too different from our own where reputation is all important for many people. If you like historical fiction, and enjoyed Downton Abbey, then I can pretty much guarantee that you will enjoy Belgravia.

Belgravia can be found on Kindle

You can find out more about Belgravia 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

 

Sashenka by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Winter, 1916. In St Petersburg, snow is falling in a country on the brink of revolution. Beautiful and headstrong, Sashenka Zeitlin is just sixteen. As her mother parties with Rasputin and her dissolute friends, Sashenka slips into the frozen night to play her role in a dangerous game of conspiracy and seduction.

Twenty years on, Sashenka has a powerful husband and two children. Around her people are disappearing but her own family is safe. But she’s about to embark on a forbidden love affair which will have devastating consequences.

Sashenka’s story lies hidden for half a century, until a young historian goes deep into Stalin’s private archives and uncovers a heart-breaking story of passion and betrayal, savage cruelty and unexpected heroism – and one woman forced to make an unbearable choice …

Sashenka is a classic historical fiction novel focusing on the lives of a family across generations. Encompassing the story of Russia through the 20th century Mr Montefiore has woven a fascinating tale of the rise and fall of Soviet Russia and its impact on Sashenka, the daughter of a wealthy family, who embraces the message of equality within the communist doctrine. As with all good books in this genre a number of historical figures are featured, and it is their interaction with fictional characters which is so appealing – you can know the history of Russia, but the way it impacts on this fictional family is new to you and, as such, draws you in.

As always, Mr Motefiore has conducted detailed research into the period he is writing about. The description of St Petersburg under the last of the Tsars gives an insight into two very different Russias – high society with its materialism and decadence, coupled with the secret police and their attempts to destroy the fledgling communist party set against the extreme poverty of millions of women and children whose men are sent to fight in the First World War. The novel then leaps forward to the Soviet period under Stalin and focuses on the fear and insecurity of people like Sashenka, people who have been loyal communists from the very beginning yet are just as likely to suffer under Stalin’s mercurial rule. The final section is moving in the way it portrays life after communism, the search of people who lived through difficult times for those they loved and lost, most not expecting any kind of reunion but just wanting to know what happened to their families.

The author of Sashenka has created believable characters who can be idealistic yet brutal, worldly yet naïve, and who it is easy to sympathise with. This is not a comfortable novel to read, at times it can be quite brutal, but to omit such sections would give a false picture of those times in Russia and do a great disservice to the real people on whose lives these fictional characters are based. The style of Mr Montefiore’s writing is clear and precise at times but can then switch to a description of deep love and passion, whether between a man and woman or a woman for her children, and as such the book has a great emotional impact.

Sashenka is a novel full of plot twists and turns, it is well-paced and vivid, complex and passionate, and incredible evocative of time and place with its accurate historical backgound; in all a gripping read which I would recommend to anyone with a love of historical fiction or of Russia.

Sashenka can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Simon Sebag Montefiore here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – At Break Of Day by Elizabeth Speller

In the summer of 1913, the world seems full of possibility for four very different young men.

Young Jean-Baptiste dreams of the day he’ll leave his Picardy home and row down-river to the sea.

Earnest and hard-working Frank has come to London to take up an apprenticeship in Regent Street. His ambitions are self-improvement, a wife and, above all, a bicycle.

Organ scholar Benedict is anxious yet enthralled by the sensations of his synaesthesia. He is uncertain both about God and the nature of his friendship with the brilliant and mercurial Theo.

Harry has turned his back on his wealthy English family, has a thriving business in New York and a beautiful American wife. But his nationality is still British.

Three years later, on the first of July 1916, their lives have been taken in entirely unexpected directions. Now in uniform they are waiting for dawn on the battlefield of the Somme. The generals tell them that victory will soon be theirs but the men are accompanied by regrets, fears and secrets as they move towards the line.

1st July 1916 will always be remembered as the day that the Battle of the Somme began, a day of appalling loss of life in the midst of terrible confusion. At Break Of Day is the story of what led four young men to be there on the Somme on that day, and what happened to them. As you begin to learn about these young men you discover why they joined up and what led them, inexorably, to be in that place at that time; and as you read you know that, statistically they will not all survive to the end of this story.

Ms Speller introduces us to four very different young men, giving each his own distinctive voice in the narrative and crafting believable characters whom it is easy to sympathise with. It takes great skill to write about four main characters using slightly different styles in a way that makes them believable and yet very distinct for the reader, so avoiding any possible confusion. As the story moves towards its climax the lives of the protagonists cross briefly and often unknowingly. This had the potential to feel contrived and weaken the story line, but the author’s deft handling of the narrative made it all seem so natural – after all these four disparate characters are no different to those thousands of young men from so many different places and backgrounds who did, in reality, find themselves in that same place on that same day with such tragic consequences.

Many of us know about the First World War from documentaries, photographs and the poems written in the trenches, and At Break Of Day certainly evokes that sense of a landscape of mud and craters, barbed wire and fortified positions, horror and despair. I felt it was a clever plotline for Ms Speller to have her French soldier, Jean-Baptiste, growing up on the banks of the Somme as we see how the beautiful pastoral home that he loves is changed beyond all recognition by the terrible destruction of the First World War, and it is not difficult to see this as a metaphore for the way the Battle of the Somme changed men of hope and vitality into wounded and scared men who would never be the same again, if they survived at all.

The final section of this novel brings our characters together on that one fateful day. Here Ms Speller describes the trenches and no man’s land; the officers, soldiers, and medics; the fear and confusion. This section, like the remainder of the novel, is well researched and gives an insight into a little known soldier – the cycle messengers and their folding bicycles which they often carried over the rough terrain as they struggled to deliver orders in a sea of confusion. It is research which truly enhances the novel without ever being heavy or slowing the storyline.

At Break Of Day re-creates for us an image of life at the beginning of the 20th century with all its sense of hope and promise, and then shows how that hope and promise was shattered. It encapsulates the fragmented nature of the battlefield and so evokes some understanding of what it might have felt like to be a soldier during the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It is an intensely moving novel though never sentimental and although it is, finally, about death and destruction, it is also about family and friendships and love. Reading this novel is not always easy but it is something which I would recommend as a reminder to all of the utter futility of war.

At Break Of Day can be found on  Amazon

You can find out more about Elizabeth Speller here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here