Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Can't Wait Wednesday: The Romanov Brides by Clare McHugh (A Novel of the Last Tsarina and Her Sisters)
Sunday, December 3, 2023
Thursday, November 30, 2023
Publication Date: October 30, 1967
Length: 224 pages
Since Agatha Christie said this was one of her favorites I was anxious to read it and see why. It is unique, without Poirot or Marple or any stand out detective at all. And I consider this one to be more psychological than some of her others since finishing and reflecting on it. The 1960's seem to have been a time when the field of psychology and the "why" behind murder was a big interest and I can recall movies and books I've seen or read during this era really tackling the topic from a mental perspective. So this book, with its focus, being published in that time period makes sense.
Michael Rogers seems to be an idealistic twenty-two year old who wants to have the perfect life. He would like to live in a charming house, with a beautiful wife, and lots of disposable income. He hasn't made much of himself up to this point, wandering aimlessly though life, doing odd jobs, and meeting interesting people. He clearly wants the "easy" way out when it comes to providing for himself. When he stumbles upon a property called Gipsy's Acre, he thinks he has found the home of his dreams. The girl he meets there, Ellie Guteman, seems to be the girl of his dreams as well. She is an American born heiress, with plenty of money to spare, so much that Michael will not need to work if married to her. He can also have his architect friend, Rudolf Santonix, create the perfect house for them on the property. There is only one problem: Gipsy's Acre is said to be cursed, and it doesn't help that the old gipsy lady living nearby, Mrs. Lee, creepily suggests they leave and never return lest something horrible befall them.
Michael and Ellie refuse to listen to her advice, and after a whirlwind courtship and wedding, build their dream house and try to settle in. Almost immediately strange things occur. A rock is thrown threw a window with a sinister note, Ellie is injured and has to have a former helpmate, Greta come and stay with them. There is a general feeling of uneasiness both in the house and on the property and Mrs. Lee is still menacing them with what will happen if they don't leave.
Local villagers, Major Phillpot and Claudia Hardcastle are bright spots in their days and befriend the couple, Michael and Ellie having strained relationships with their families and no one else to spend time with. It seems most of the other people in their lives are either out for a piece of Ellie's money or in Michael's case with his mother, are disapproving of their life choices. Just when it feels like things are looking up for them a bit, tragedy strikes and all the dark, ominous warnings appear to be coming true. Michael must decide if he is able to continue with the life he has chosen or cut his losses and leave Gipsy's Acre for good.
This story was slow to get started but when it did it was really intriguing. I did start to figure out who the villain was as things progressed only because this time I really tried hard to think outside the box. As I'm reading more of Christie I try to see if I can put things together in the most unexpected way and this book was a lot of fun in that regard. I wasn't totally correct about everything but wasn't completely taken off guard when the ending was revealed. Without giving away any spoilers, about halfway through it reminded me of an old movie from the 1940's I've watched many times that had the same vibe and turns out I was on the right path there!
The dark atmosphere created at the beginning was done well and I started off wanting to know more about the curse and Mrs. Lee, why she was so insistent that Michael and Ellie leave and not return. The secondary characters of Greta, Major Phillpot, and Claudia Hardcastle were great additions to the story as well.
I felt like this was one of her better stories and it was a nice addition to the collection that doesn't feature Poirot and Marple. Sometimes those haven't been my favorites but it worked well with this one.
Wednesday, November 29, 2023
Can't Wait Wednesday: The Castle Abductions by David Field (The Bailiff Mountsorrel Tudor Mysteries Book One)
Sunday, November 26, 2023
Publication Date: March 31, 2023
Length: 276 pages
I have purchased books one, six, and seven in this series as they have gone on sale. They sat in my Kindle for awhile and I decided to read the last book in the series first. This was because it is about Simon de Montfort and there are so few historical fiction books about him.
Simon de Montfort begins his young life watching his parents' quest to conquer the religious Cathars in the Albigensian Crusades in southern France. His father is killed in 1218 while fighting and Simon and his brother Amaury are left as heirs to a family title that must be fought for after it is stolen and given to a distant cousin by a vengeful King John. Amaury agrees to relinquish all rights to the earldom, being the older brother and first in line to inherit any lands, if Simon gives up all rights to the family lands in France. When Simon travels to England to regain his title, Earl of Leicester, he becomes a close ally for a time of King Henry III. He spends countless time and energy proving himself as a military leader and strategist, convincing Henry of his loyalty and rightful place as part of the English nobility.
As a frequent member of the court, Simon witnesses Henry's ability to be swayed by whomever is in his current circle. Henry's wife, Eleanor of Provence and her foreign relatives, often influence him in negative ways, wanting lands, money and titles of their own. Henry's mother, Isabella, who has married into another influential family, the de Lusignans of France, also vie for special privileges and the result is a bitter revolt of the barons and native English nobility who see their rightful inheritances being squandered by those without the authority to do so.
When Simon marries and begins a family with Henry's sister Eleanor, the stakes increase and the couple work to navigate the tricky political world they are thrust into. When the King and Simon have a serious disagreement and falling out over money owed, the de Montforts flee to France, living as exiles. As things become more tense in England between the barons and Henry, Simon is eventually to return, fighting against Henry and his son Edward, with a showdown of epic proportions.
This book stuck to the facts of Simon's life as a history book would, only adding a few fictional characters. It is not a long book but packs a lot into the pages. We witness Simon growing both physically and emotionally as well as spiritually and as he moves from young, idealistic boy to military leader, husband, and father, he gains respect from those around him and devotion from those he has saved from a life of poverty and misery.
Field does a great job of simplifying what is a complicated period, with the Barons' Wars, the foreign influences at court, and the reasons behind the discontent in the nations of England and France. Using a fictional girl, Merle, who is given to Simon as a concubine, whom he never treats as one, the author allows us to glimpse the compassionate part of de Montfort, when he treats her well and cares for her when he doesn't have to.
I have always found this period and subject to be a bit on the dry side, as it is hard to keep up with the political machinations going on but I understood things so much better after reading this book. The significance of de Montfort's attempts at reforms with the provisions of Oxford is not easy for the casual reader and I wish I'd read this one first before Falls the Shadow, by Sharon Penman because I think I might have kept things straight a bit more in her much longer, involved novel.
The only downside I felt was that there was a bit of hero worship regarding de Montfort. I know from researching him that he had his faults, including his treatment of the Jews and history of anti-Semitism. While I can appreciate not dwelling on this for long and focusing on his obvious contributions to English Parliamentarian reforms, I nevertheless like to know all aspects of a historical character's legacy, warts and all. It just informs and makes them all the more human to give the whole story.
Field's goal is to write books that teach English history in an easy, entertaining way, much like Jean Plaidy, but with a more adult style. I intend to read the other books in this series as well as his Tudor and Maritime ones focusing on Sir Francis Drake. If you are looking to better understand the period of the Norman Conquest through the reign of Henry III, I highly recommend these books in the Medieval Saga Series.
Sunday, November 19, 2023
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 :)
Friday, November 17, 2023
I have been wanting a place to post things I've come across that might not fall into the book review or book accumulation category. This might be an author I heard on a podcast, a book advertised online that is already out but I haven't read yet, or just an article that covers a topic related to history or books that looked interesting. So this is my first blog entry titled, "Noteworthy News." If I hear or read something noteworthy that I want to share I'll do it here. Likely it will involve history or mysteries as that is what I love the most!
Sunday, November 12, 2023
Friday, November 10, 2023
Publication Date: September 1, 2014
Length: 1190 pages
I am still making my way through this wonderful book. But as crazy as my week has been I decided since I haven't finished another complete book, I wanted to review this one anyway as it is one you can read a little at a time, skip around in, treat it more as a "coffee table" type of book. That, and I absolutely love it. It is the kind of history book I will come back to again and again. The colorful pictures and sidebars alone are worth the price and even though I bought it on Kindle I am thinking of ordering the hardcover copy just to have the glossy pictures at my fingertips.
This book is organized into short chapters on every British monarch, beginning with the Kings of Wessex and starting with a brief history of Roman Britannia. It covers all the important dates and events in the lives of the rulers and the common people, while skipping too many details that would confuse and bore readers who might not have all the background knowledge to follow along easily. Although I consider myself to be better educated in this area than say the average American friend I know, there are many monarchs I know very little about and so giving a general overview of each King and Queen and the milestone historic events in their lives, allows me to see if I am interested in learning more about that person or time in history.
The sections included are: The House of Wessex, The Norman Kings, The House of Plantagenet, The Houses of Lancaster and York, The House of Tudor, The House of Stuart, The House of Hanover, The House of Windsor, and Royal Edicts. Beautiful pictures of landmark buildings, people, castles, and original documents are included and I spent a lot of time looking at those before I even started reading anything.
Another plus with this book is that it is not filled with dry and dull facts. The author states that he wanted it to be a "pageant of personalities" rather than a straight history book and he does a great job of focusing on the personal stories while also adding the necessary background of the time period to complement the subjects' life events.
The last section on Royal Edicts is a wonderful addition. It begins with the Laws of William the Conqueror and runs all the way to Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee Speech. As someone who is a bit lazy about reading authentic, primary sources when researching an event in history it was really great to have the major ones complied together and ready to read. There were some like The Assize of Clarendon or The Magna Carta that I know a bit about from reading historical fiction but had never bothered to look at outside of the novel I was reading. It just made this book that much more thorough of a source to pick up when I need to see a chronological timeline of rulers and resources.
If you are someone interested in the entire chronological timeline of British rulers while not wanting a gigantic, super detailed, time consuming tome this is the book for you. I have found other ones that focus on just Kings or just Queens or maybe a certain era, but this is the best one I've run across that fits in all the rulers with colorful, engaging stories and fascinating supplemental material. It's a perfect gift for the true Anglophile in your life!
Friday, November 3, 2023
Publication Date: October 4, 2011
Length: 624 pages
I looked back at my Amazon purchases to see when I actually bought this book. It was March of 2022. I couldn't believe it because I started it the week it arrived. It has taken me a year and a half to read every page and it was worth the time. When I finished it, I felt as if I had lived through every moment of the third crusade along with Richard, Berengaria (his wife and queen), and Joanna (his sister and former Queen of Sicily). It is a masterpiece of storytelling and research.
The first half of the book the main subjects are making their way across Europe to the Holy Land; not necessarily together. We see Joanna, widowed and desperate in Sicily as her former husband's scheming cousin Tancred tries to seize the throne and takes her prisoner in Palermo. She is rescued by Richard as he is traveling to Jerusalem on his crusade to retake the holy city. He frees his sister while subduing Tancred and regaining Joanna's dowry. It is a glimpse into the character and bravery of Richard to come as he stops to exert time and energy into the situation, never doubting his ability to create events to unfold according to his plans.
Joanna and Richard are eventually joined by their mother Eleanor of Aquitaine (whom Joanna has not seen in decades) and Richard's new betrothed, Berengaria of Navarre. Richard, Joanna, and Berengaria continue on their journey to Jerusalem and Eleanor returns to England to deal with brother John and his scheming back home. The journey across the sea to Acre is hardly uneventful as Richard manages to conquer the island of Cyprus along the way, marrying Berengaria there before continuing on their way.
Also traveling to the middle east is Phillip II of France and their whole relationship is one of necessity and dysfunction. Jealousy, greed, and eventually bitterness become the heart of their interactions and as things unfold along the way, the two men and their entourages are embroiled constantly with infighting and suspicion. Neither leader wants to concede power or prestige to the other and their inability to work together to defeat Saladin will be the undoing of the carefully laid plans to retake Jerusalem.
The second half of the novel focuses on what happens after the arrival of the Crusaders in Acre and their many battles, setbacks, victories, and perilous attempts to accomplish their goals. It feels like Richard and Phillip are always one foot forward, two steps back with success and failure. Other major players getting in the way include Hugh III of Burgundy, who always seems to be opposed to whatever Richard decides, the irritating Guy of Lusignan, and Conrad of Montferrat, whom Richard must unwillingly work with in order to secure the Holy Land after he eventually has to leave to return to his place as King of England. At every turn, Richard skillfully works to lead his soldiers, showing no fear, and that he will be right alongside them in the trenches, along with striving to maintain diplomacy between the Crusader leaders and the Muslim factions with whom he often has a cordial relationship. It is a lot for one man to shoulder.
Interspersed between the chapters with Richard as the focus, we see the relationship between Joanna, Berengaria, Richard, and other minor characters. These are nice breaks of quiet domesticity because the intense fighting and political discussions are frequent and require much concentration to follow. I especially loved getting to know the person of Henry II of Champagne, Richard's nephew, who strives to keep the peace between those around him and stay loyal to those he believes in.
This book is incredibly dense with material. There are vivid descriptions of the major battles, the landscape, and the cultures found in Sicily, Cyprus, Tyre, and Acre. Even the first half of the book had me intrigued to find out more about Sicily. I thought I'd be bored by the fact that we don't even arrive in the middle east until halfway through the book, but the battle to conquer Cyprus is so wonderfully told I found myself a bit sad when they finally leave the island.
There is a definite bias Penman displays towards Richard in that she clearly feels he is usually making the correct decisions for those around him. One comes away with the feeling that Richard is stubborn, but thwarted by others, rather than sometimes wrong. She does do a good job of showcasing his inability to be an attentive husband and in that area the reader can't help but side with Berengaria, who is portrayed as loving, sweet, and desperate for a child with Richard. It is this that makes him appear a bit cold and unfeeling with his often one sided obsession with his mission, rarely considering how it all will take a toll on his wife and sister Joanna, who is also often waiting around to see what they will have to endure next.