Monday, May 20, 2024

When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman (The Plantagenets Book One)


Publication Date:

February 6, 1996

750 pages

This is my second read for this wonderful book. I felt like the first time I read it so quickly and was much less informed about the period so when I recently finished the fourth book in the series, Lionheart, about Richard I, I decided to go back and read this one again. I hadn't reviewed it either and wanted to do that before tackling the last book, A King's Ransom. I'm so glad I did because it really helped me solidify the timeline of the Anarchy period in my mind. Also, these books are so dense you can't possibly remember everything so it always feels new.

The story begins with the sinking of the White Ship and culminates in the ascension of King Henry II of England. Covering a span of roughly thirty years of turmoil and chaos Penman manages to make it look easy to get all the important facts in along with the emotions and feelings of the time. When Henry I loses his only son and heir in the shipwreck he is distraught and calls daughter Matilda home from the only home she has really known, Germany, as the former wife of the Holy Roman Emperor, who has died. Although Henry hopes that Matilda will take his place someday, the barons are not convinced and many side with Stephen of Blois, Matilda's cousin and the only other in line that can take on the role of King.

As far as the history is concerned, the book follows a solid timeline: Stephen becomes king, Matilda fights to regain her stolen crown, towns caught in the middle are destroyed, lives uprooted, and anarchy reigns. All the major battles, Lincoln, the Rout of Winchester, Oxford Castle, culminating in the Siege and Treaty of Wallingford solidifying Henry's triumph are amazingly told.  While Penman is exceptionally detailed and skillful in recounting all of this, it isn't the heart of the novel. I will leave the summary with this: the Anarchy was a time of horrible unrest where innocent lives were sacrificed again and again as two heirs are caught in their struggle to prove they are the rightful heirs to the throne. 

My Thoughts:

When historical fiction is done well you finish the book feeling as if you have lived through the time. You feel as if you know the characters inside and out as real people. This is how I always feel reading Penman's books. Having read others set in this time period I say there is no contest as to which author gets it right. Matilda's personality has suffered throughout history as being one of stubborn, haughty, and arrogant, only thinking of the title denied her. In this book she is still those things but with a much more human air. Her relationship with her brother Robert, Earl of Gloucester shows how much she relied on him and his judgement, both as a battlefield commander and as a trusted advisor. Her loyalty to her fellow nobleman, Brien fitz Count is touchingly portrayed and although a romantic involvement is hinted at, Penman never fully accepts the premise that it went any further than deep conversations and intense trust. 

One of my favorite parts of the novel is Matilda's escape from Oxford Castle in winter. I could feel the cold, the exhaustion, and desperation of the group as they attempt to evade Stephen's men who are completely unaware that such a feat is even in the realm of possibility. Penman recounts the harrowing night minute by minute and you feel as if you are with them.

Stephen is portrayed as the man caught between being too nice and too harsh. His inconsistency is shown throughout the story in a way that made me feel sorry for him while also being incredibly exasperated too. His interaction with his wife, also Matilda, and their son Eustace is realistic and heartbreaking as they come to the realization that Eustace is not the man they hoped he'd be. He is cruel and narcissistic and disappoints them. While Henry, Matilda's son is the perfect choice to succeed Stephen, this puts Stephen in yet another dilemma from which he is hard pressed to make difficult choices. Time and again his weakness for pleasing others comes to the surface but then he overreacts when he senses people are doubting him. I found myself identifying with this very human side in a way I didn't in other books about the period. It gave me great insight into how hard it must have been to rule effectively in a time when weakness is not tolerated and Kings must stay true to their threats or risk being undermined at every turn. 

Penman included a few fictional characters who show up in subsequent books. Ranulf, his wife Rhiannon and her family are distant relatives in Wales and Ranulf is Matilda's brother, one of Henry I's many illegitimate sons. While I enjoyed their story as a way to learn more about the Welsh, they were not a huge excitement factor for me. Ranulf's story seemed to serve as the romantic part that I guess she felt needed addding. He appears in many of the following books though so his storyline is not one to skip. 

I am currently finishing the last book in the Plantagenet story written by Penman. These are books that are sure to be classics. I do not doubt that I will read them again one day. If you start with this one you will not want to wait to buy the next in the series. I found myself peeking back into book two, Time and Chance, and having to force myself not to go down that rabbit hole! You will be hooked and find you are spoiled for her writing as you tackle other stories. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Can't Wait Wednesday: The Passionate Tudor: A Novel of Queen Mary I by Alison Weir


For this week's Can't Wait Wednesday, hosted by Tressa at Wishful Endings, I'm featuring The Passionate Tudor by Alison Weir. It is her latest fictional take on another famous queen. She always has wonderful research and excellent narrative for these historical fiction books so this one is sure to be good. I know so much about Queen Mary I already so it's not on the top of my TBR pile yet. But I wanted to share it because others might be interested. 

Hope you have found something you can't wait for this week!

May 28, 2024

Historical Fiction

Description courtesy of Amazon

The New York Times bestselling author of the Six Tudor Queens series explores the dramatic and poignant life of King Henry VIII’s daughter—infamously known as Bloody Mary—who ruled England for five violent years.

Born from young King Henry’s first marriage, his elder daughter, Princess Mary, is raised to be queen once it becomes clear that her mother, Katherine of Aragon, will bear no more children. However, Henry’s passion for Anne Boleyn has a devastating influence on the young princess’s future when, determined to sire a male heir, he marries Anne, has his marriage to Katherine declared unlawful, brands Mary illegitimate, and banishes them both from the royal court. But when Anne too fails to produce a son, she is beheaded and Mary is allowed to return to court as the default heir. At age twenty, she waits in vain for her own marriage and children, but who will marry her, bastard that she is?

Yet Mary eventually triumphs and becomes queen, after first deposing a seventeen-year-old usurper, Lady Jane Grey, and ordering her beheading. Any hopes that Mary, as the first female queen regent of England, will show religious toleration are dashed when she embarks on a ruthless campaign to force Catholicism on the English by burning hundreds of Protestants at the stake. But while her brutality will forever earn her the name Bloody Mary, at heart she is an insecure and vulnerable woman, her character forged by the unhappiness of her early years.

In Alison Weir’s masterful novel, the drama of Mary I’s life and five-year reign—from her abusive childhood,marriage,andmysterious pregnancies to the cruelty that marks her legacy—comes to vivid life.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Stacking the Shelves #28

Stacking the Shelves is a weekly meme hosted by Reading Reality. It's a place to showcase any books I have purchased, borrowed, or been lucky enough to have been given an advance copy of. Hope you find something that looks interesting to you or that makes you remember a favorite book you need to finish. Enjoy your reading this week :) 

This is the first full length biography about Edward III's queen. The author is one who has extensive knowledge of the time period and has written several books about the major players and events of the middle ages. I feel Philippa of Hainault is overlooked in both historical and historical ficition books and had a remarkable life. I wish I could find more on her. This one is hard to come by in the U.S. so it had to be purchased.

This is book one of the Lady Caroline mysteries. I love cozies but have become a bit pickier about which ones I'll read. Bassett did a great job with the one set in Egypt. She actually created the atmosphere and had some history and authentic details throughout the book. So I'm willing to give her series a chance. I confess I may be listening to this one on audiobook if I am pressed for time but I went ahead and purchased this for my Kindle. A steal at $2.99. 

I confess I have only read one Chadwick book so far. I know, I know, in the historical fiction medieval world that is unheard of. But I just have been so engrossed in Penman novels the last few years, I haven't tackled these yet. This one is about a unique subject, Joanna of Swanscombe, whom I know nothing about and it was on sale for $0.99. I hope to get to it this year. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Can't Wait Wednesday: The Schoolmaster by Jessica Tvordi


For this week's Can't Wait Wednesday, hosted by Tressa at Wishful Endings, I'm featuring The Schoolmaster by Jessica Tvordi. It tells the story of a young King James VI, son of Mary Queen of Scots and his tutor. It follows James as he grows into a man and the loves of his life.  A unique take on the subject to be sure. 

Hope you have found something you can't wait for this week!

June 1, 2024

Historical Fiction

Description courtesy of Net Galley

Scotland, 1570. Catholic followers of the exiled Mary, Queen of Scots wage war against those of her four-year-old son, King James VI. Enter Master Peter Young, a Geneva-educated merchant’s son. Eager to make his way in the world, Peter is appointed to serve as the king’s tutor alongside the formidable George Buchanan. Their objective? To shape Scotland’s young monarch into a perfect, Protestant ruler—a difficult task in a world filled with religious violence, power-hungry lords, and the petty squabbles of both boys and men.

Over the years, Peter sees success with his pupils, proves an invaluable friend to the king’s caretaker, the Countess of Mar, and her troubled son, Johnny Erskine, and gains status at court. But when the king’s French-raised cousin Esmé Stewart, Seigneur d’Aubigny, arrives in Scotland, Peter and his friends must discover whether this seductive stranger is an agent of Catholic Rome or another greedy relation hoping for preferment.

The Schoolmaster is a coming-of-age story, as King James rejects lessons of the schoolroom for love, and Peter navigates treacherous political waters to ensure the nation's security. Through Peter's eyes, readers are transported to a pivotal moment in Scottish history: the arrival of the first of King James’s many controversial lover-favorites. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Top Ten Tuesday: Reasons I DNF'd a Book


Reasons I DNF'd (Did Not Finish) a Book

Well it has been awhile since I have posted for Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. I don't know why but these posts seem to take a lot of work and thinking for me. I love doing them but they are time consuming. Today I'm just going to make a list and join in! No book covers or titles, because I wouldn't want to actually name these books and discourage the authors. So here is my list as to why I didn't finish certain books. (You can decide if they are "petty" reasons as the original challenge is titled :) 

1. The terrible dialogue- I just can't with some of these modern books and inserting modern discussion into historical novels. Makes me want to toss the book across the room.

2. Too long- Don't get me wrong, I love an epic as much as anyone but some books just don't need to be 1,000 pages. You could cut it in half and still get the gist of the story.

3. The plot twists in a way I find unbelievable- Sometimes I'm halfway through a book and it just becomes too far fetched. I just can't buy into it anymore and want to stop reading.

4. I've figured out whodunnit quickly- When reading a mystery if I really think it's too easy I will skip to the end or just stop reading. This is terrible I know but I'm being honest, I do this!

5. Annoying Main Characters- I have to have some buy in with the main character. If I don't like them and I'm supposed to (meaning they aren't the villain) I don't always want to continue with the story.

6. Written in present tense language- This seems to be the new trend and I do not enjoy it! Give me the old fashioned narrator style.

7. A better book caught my eye- I do try to finish books I like before straying off to start a new one. But sometimes I come across a book I just have to begin reading today! And I ditch the other book and forget to get back to it. This is a bad habit to get into where you have all these half finished good books.

8. Politics enters the story- When I'm reading a good historical fiction book or mystery the last thing I want is someone preaching at me about modern day standards. So if I get the sense that is happening I'm apt to DNF that book quickly. It better have a realistic sense of the time or I'm out.

9. The story just moves too slowly- The book starts out strong and I'm really hooked. But halfway through I start realizing there is nothing new happening and the author is just rehashing and dragging out the ending. I confess this is when I start skimming, which I hate to do but sometimes you just have to.

10. Part of a series that isn't evolving- I absolutely love books that are part of a series. I know I'll never be able to read all of them but I love knowing the same characters are there if I want to meet them again. So I have to choose wisely and if a series is getting stale with the same plot lines told over again, I ditch it. And start another series. 

Monday, April 29, 2024

The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie (Miss Marple Mysteries Book One) Read Christie 2024 April Selection


Publication Date:
October 1930

256 pages

This is the first Christie story to feature Miss Marple and for that reason alone I wanted to read it. Reverend Lawrence Clement narrates the story. He is the vicar of St. Mary Mead and lives with his wife Griselda who is a much younger and cheerful lady. His nephew Dennis lives with them. Clement dislikes the church warden he works with, Colonel Protheroe, and that sentiment is shared by many in the village. When Protheroe is shot to death in Clement's office one evening while the vicar is called away, Clement is pulled into finding out who did it and why. 

Prior to the shooting, Clement observed Protheroe's wife, Anne in a romantic encounter with one Lawrence Redding, an artist who is just visiting the village and although he doesn't out them at the time, he now wonders if they had anything to do with the murder. 

The police are unable to narrow down a working timeline of the murder due to conflicting notes and reports of the actual time of the gunshot. Miss Marple, local villager and shrewd amateur detective of sorts has her own theories. She believes there are seven people who could have had the means and motive and begins to zero in on their wherabouts and likelihood of guilt. The hardest clue to discern the answer to is the sound of the gunshot itself. Witnesses claim to have heard the sound coming from the woods, not the vicar's house. Also, at least one of the suspects was seen near the woods, but not carrying a pistol. It is tough for Miss Marple to puzzle out.

Meanwhile, Clement, who despises the Inspector Slack assigned to the case, finds his curate, Hawes, dying from an overdose and confessing to stealing from the church accounts. He also has a note that appears to confirm his guilt. Can Miss Marple narrow her suspect list down to find the real murderer in time? Or is is Hawes?

My Thoughts:
I liked the narration of Clement and his way of thinking. He is an interesting character and it is fun to hear his depictions of his wife and the local, colorful people in the town. Sometimes he doesn't sound much like a vicar in that he is very human, but that is what makes him interesting. Miss Marple doesn't figure in the story nearly as much as him, although we definitely see her personality come through with her sleuthing skills. 

I found the women in the story to be a bit shallow and irritating: Griselda, Clement's wife, Lettice Protheroe, the Colonel's daughter, and Anne Protheroe, the Colonel's wife all seem a bit scatterbrained and helpless. 

I thought the story moved a bit too slowly and had a lot of repetition sometimes when going through the clues but the ending made up for it. It was cleverly done as always and although I did suspect someone correctly I was wrong about the how and why. Overall it turned out to be a good, intriguing story with all the loose ends wrapped up neatly. Everyone who is a Christie fan needs to read it just because it is the first Miss Marple story. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

A Royal Murder by Verity Bright (Lady Eleanor Swift Mystery Book 9)

Publication Date: 
Februrary 28, 2022 

290 pages

This ninth book in the series doesn't take us to an exotic location but does include plenty of royal excitement. Eleanor is attending the royal regatta boat races with her friend Tipsy Fitzroy. Tipsy has taken it upon herself to "help" Eleanor with her image...clothes and bearing. Eleanor, who is new to the whole lady persona she inherited upon her Uncle's death and the acquisition of his money and home, Henley Hall, obliges without enthusiasm. 

Hoping to enjoy the day peacefully, she stumbles into another murder mystery when the King's cousin, Lord Xander Taylor-Howard drops dead after drinking a glass of champagne during the after races ceremony. At first everyone thinks it might be an innocent tragedy but it soon becomes apparent that foul play is involved. 

Because of her past track record with solving suspicious deaths, Eleanor is asked to help Sir Percival, the head of the royal police, in solving the murder. She is surprised but happy to put her skills to use. She is also thrilled to be in the company of Detective Hugh Seldon, her love interest and someone she has worked with before, usually without Seldon's approval. 

As they follow the clues they have many options before them: was it gambling debts owed? Family secrets? A Russian mobster? Or a jealous lover's husband? So many suspects and directions to pursue. Of course Clifford the butler and her adorable staff pitch in when they can especially Clifford, who is always one step ahead of everyone else with background knowledge and insight. 

My Thoughts:

I really enjoyed this one. I like it when my cozy mysteries move to a special location outside of England or America but this time the story was fun and intriguing enough that it didn't need that. The clues were interesting and kept me guessing right up until the end. There was a twist that I expected right before it was revealed and although I got the gist of it correct, there was still another piece that I didn't see coming. I absolutely love the characters in these stories, especially Clifford and his witty comments. The Henley Hall staff is so cute and work so hard to make everything perfect and beautiful and I always learn little things about the time period and running a country estate in the 1920's when they are cleaning or cooking something. 

The royal link doesn't factor in a whole lot, I think it is just there to make the story seem more surprising. But it works because it's more fun to read about Lord Xander than just plain old Xander, right? I will be reading and reviewing the next three books this year as the season dictates with their theme. The latest book 18, Murder in Mayfair, will be released in June. Wonder if I'll ever catch up?



Monday, April 15, 2024

Dark Clouds Over Nuala by Harriet Steel (The Inspector de Silva Mysteries) Book Two


Publication Date: 
May 22, 2017

216 pages

Set in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, in the 1930's, these charming mysteries are really unique. This is book two and I like to go in order so I will probably read and review that way. There are fourteen now with more on the way so this author has definitely found a formula that works. The stories center around native born Inspector Shanti de Silva and his British wife Jane who live in the quaint town of Nuala. Another place where murders and mysteries seem to happen quite frequently, Nuala is nevertheless a sleepy place full of good people. 

De Silva is called in to investigate the mysterious death of a lady linked to British royalty. No one knows why she decided to tumble off a cliff seemingly, to commit suicide. There is much doubt in that conclusion as the case unfolds. Was she sleepwalking? Or severely depressed and wanting to end it all? Add to the drama the uncomfortable aspect of De Silva's bosses, Archie Clutterbuck and William Petrie wanting to keep things as hush hush as possible as to avoid any possible embarrassment to the crown and de Silva is hard pressed to walk a delicate line investigating and being true to where the path follows. A mysterious Russian Count and his wife are involved in the scandal with a backstory of their own.

Along with the main mystery is the side story of the men working under de Silva's charge. Sergeant Prasanna and Constable Nadar are young men who are dealing with their own struggles while trying to balance their work lives. De Silva is caring and patient, treating them almost as the children he and Jane do not have. When Prasanna becomes infatuated with a village girl, Kuveni, the de Silvas work to make an impossible dream a reality. 

My Thoughts:
The story unfolds very slowly. A couple of times I was distracted enough to think about skimming but I stuck with it a bit longer and was glad I did. As with book one, the author takes her time setting the scene, the colorful life in the area, and building the case with lots of detours and additional suspects. I appreciate the balance between a little bit of darkness, followed by humor and the warm interactions between the Inspector and his wife. The twists along the way were sufficient enough to keep me guessing and the last minute reveal was unexpected. You won't find many books like this one so it is a series I will definitely keep up with if I can.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Conquest by David Field (The Medieval Saga Series Book One)


Publication Date: 
March 4, 2022

288 pages

The first book in a great series, Conquest sat in my Kindle awhile as I read books six and seven first. This one just didn't interest me as much but now that I have finally finished it I'm so glad I did. I really had no working knowledge of the Norman Conquest before the date 1066 and how it was the beginning of the England we know today. But William the Conqueror and his defeat of the Saxon way of life wasn't something I cared much about. With his usual, practical yet entertaining way, Field has managed to make me not only care but now want to seek out more about this turbulent time period.

Will Riveracre, son of the local miller in the village of Sandlake, wants only to marry a nice girl and live his life quietly and peacefully. Although his family is not the most well off in the area, they are content with their lot in life, beholden to the local nobility, or Thegn, who rely on the villagers to supply their way of life at the local Manor.  Accustomed to years of tradition and societal hierarchy, everyone generally accepts their place and with little working knowledge of political machinations outside of their immediate surroundings, cannot imagine things any other way.

Unaware of the brewing threats around them to the North, South, and across the English Channel, the Riveracres and the other villagers are naively of the opinion that as long as they have their men on the ready to defend the current Saxon King Harold Godwineson against any overt threat that could materialize, life will go on as it always has. Suddenly overnight though it seems that they are under attack from Viking Harald Hardrada of Norway and William of Normandy, both who claim to have a right to rule England themselves. Will and Selwyn Astenmede, the Thegn's son, are eventually embroiled in the fighting, both unsure of who to back as the outcome of which warrior will come out on top is so uncertain. Choosing the wrong side will have deadly consequences for the defeated. 

Throughout the next year the young men will manage to carve out personal lives with wives and children, while fighting for their way of life. As the battles tear apart the villages and towns caught in the middle, Will and Selwyn try to defend their families, maintain loyalty to their people, but also placate the wrath of William the Conqueror as he tears through the land, showing no mercy to anyone who doesn't bow to his authority. It will be up to Will to eventually convince the people that they must accept their conquest or die fighting it. This doesn't make him popular, but keeps him alive at great cost to himself and his old way of life. 

My Thoughts: 

Normally I prefer not to have fictional characters in these types of stories but Will and Selwyn were interesting and colorful enough that they fit in seamlessly into the storyline. It made me much more sympathetic to the local, terrorized people and how jarring it must have been when all the fighting and plundering of their way of life began. I had no idea how ruthless William of Normandy was either. I grew to really dislike him a lot and although he probably was doing what many other warriors have done who came before him, I found Field's portrayal of him to be one of a fearsome fighter alternating with an almost petulant, child like man who pouts when he doesn't get the immediate respect he feels he deserves. He is completely unforgiving to the Saxon people who don't want him there and scorns anything to do with their way of life.

Field is good at giving battle descriptions without veering off too much into super detailed facts which moves the story along. These books are great at giving one a snapshot of the facts, timeline, and personalities involved but leave enough so that you can pick and choose which subject or person you want to know more about and then go get more on that one area from another source. He also includes such interesting side stories I'd never heard about. There is a mysterious priest, hiding a great secret, a mistress, Edith Swan Neck, who was a real person with a famous shrine to the Virgin Mary, and people at court with William who factor into the fictional cast of characters. Another great read and I'm looking forward to the next book, Traitor's Arrow, which will tell the story of Henry I, son of William the Conqueror and his own rise the the throne.

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Can't Wait Wednesday: A Death in Venice by Verity Bright (A Lady Eleanor Swift Mystery: Book 17)

For this week's Can't Wait Wednesday, hosted by Tressa at Wishful Endings, I'm featuring A Death in Venice by Verity Bright. I can't believe this is already book 17 in this series. I am planning to read books 9, 10, 11, and 12 this year. Maybe one day I will catch up! Always a lot of fun, this story features Eleanor and her crew on a grand tour of Italy. Of course she becomes entangled in yet another murder and must follow the clues. 

Hope you have found something you can't wait for this week!

March 28, 2024

Historical Mysteries

Description courtesy of Amazon books

Stunning views across the Grand Canal and a hotel suite fit for royalty… Lady Eleanor Swift is having a jolly good time on her Italian vacation, until a gondola ride is cut murderously short!

1924. Lady Eleanor Swift has been on a grand tour around Italy for a month with her butler Clifford. Finally arriving in Venice, she’s thrilled to be attending the famous carnival: all that’s needed is the perfect bejewelled costume for her faithful bulldog, Gladstone. But on her first gondola ride to take in the sights, a passenger collapses into the canal with a knife sticking out of his back.

Eleanor saw an argument break out between the gondolier and the victim, Councillor Benetto Vendelini, and it turns out they're rivals from the city's two great families. Vendelini’s murder is sure to reignite their centuries-long feud. While attending a glitzy ball that night, Eleanor learns of a plot to steal a precious family heirloom from the Vendelini household. Is the stolen item the key to solving this baffling murder?

In this floating city of tiny winding alleyways, Eleanor traces the missing heirloom to an antiques dealer in a far-flung corner of town. But when her handbag is snatched by a cloaked thief, she realises the murderer is dangerously close. Can Eleanor unmask this most cunning of killers, before she joins the other victim at the bottom of the Grand Canal?