Wednesday, January 24, 2024
Can't Wait Wednesday: The Abandoned Queen by Austin Hernon (Berengaria of Navarre Medieval Trilogy Book Two)
Saturday, January 20, 2024
The King's Commoner: The rise and fall of Cardinal Wolsey by David Field (The Tudor Saga Series Book Two)
Wednesday, January 3, 2024
Friday, December 29, 2023
This is the second David Field book I've read this year and he is fast becoming one of my favorite authors. His books have that perfect balance I love between straight, dry history facts and overly romantic fiction in too many modern historical fiction books today. And while I am happy his books are so inexpensive to buy and free to read with Kindle Unlimited, I'm starting to think he is selling himself short and needs to charge more!
This is the sixth book in his seven part series about the Norman conquest through the reign of Henry III and his son Prince Edward, who eventually becomes Edward I. I reviewed book seven last month, The Conscience of a King, which was about Simon de Montfort. I decided to back up and read about King John, who I honestly know little about, having run across very few historical fiction books devoted to just him and his reign. The book incorporates a fictional character, Hugh, Earl of Flint, to guide the narrative and shows his service to John along with the real person of Ranulf, Earl of Chester. The two cousins endure many hardships and abuse as they try to carry out King John's demands and also care for their much neglected families, who suffer loneliness and worry for their men who are usually far away from home and involved in the next brutal battle.
When the story begins, Richard the Lionheart is still alive and ruling as well as taking advice from his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine and it seems as if there is no reason to believe this world of strong leadership will not go on for some time. Hugh, having been on crusade with Richard, is happy and content serving his King who he respects deeply and holds in much esteem. When Richard dies young and unexpectedly, Hugh's world drastically changes with the ascension of his younger brother John to the throne of England.
John and Richard are as different as is possible and Hugh learns quickly that taking advice and self-restraint are not qualities the new leader possesses. Seeing everyone as a possible threat, John seems to work overtime to alienate even his most loyal supporters of which Hugh and Ranulf try to be. As the barons of the day are overtaxed, over committed to endless wars across the channel in France, and treated with disdain at every turn, things become perilous for Hugh as he tries to support John, while seeing the writing on the wall of a coming showdown between the King and his subjects.
Throughout the story of the facts of John's reign, the attempts to restore his lands in France, and his interaction with the Welsh and Scots, is the side story of Hugh and his wife Edwina and their children. Geoffrey, Hugh's son, who will also factor in the next book, is anxious to prove himself and learn the art of being a squire, then a knight in the King's service. He is sent at the age of fifteen to train on the Earl of Chester's estate and bears witness to the brutality of the day in situations beyond his control. The personal stories of Hugh's family members serve to keep the story from becoming too dry and give the reader someone to root for.
As I read this book I realized that it is a great place to start if you have very little knowledge of the time period. But it is also a great recap of events that are easily forgotten. I found myself wishing I'd read it before tackling some of Sharon Kay Penman's work because Field's books are much shorter and to the point, at only 250-300 pages each. You will not get the detailed, intricate backgrounds of each character or the exhaustive research in Penman's novels, but you will definitely come away with sound information and understand the why, who, and what behind the chosen subject.
Field has done his homework and he even adds some things I hadn't read about before. His description of the storm which led to the loss of the crown jewels at the end of story was superb and he explains things so effortlessly that even the Great Charter (Magna Carta) was made interesting, something I'd always been a bit bored by. He did a wonderful job of making me understand how John went from being totally in control to being forced to agree, albeit with his fingers crossed, to demands from barons who dared to defy him.
I love that Field didn't start writing and publishing until he retired from his work as a lawyer. I think to become an author in your 70's is amazing! I am pretty sure I read he'd written a lot before then but hadn't published his work until later. He is doing a great service by giving us these books about English and Australian history, written in an entertaining, readable style for all. I will definitely be reading more. I'd like to start the new year with his book about Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, The King's Commoner, because I don't know much about that story.
Friday, December 8, 2023
Publication Date: May 18, 2023
Length: 434 pages
As someone who came late to the game in studying the period of The Anarchy between Stephen and Matilda, I am always excited to get my hands on any books set during that time. It is fascinating and exciting and a great backdrop for historical fiction. This author seems to be very popular right now and the gorgeous covers of her books really catch the eye and make you want to try them.
The story begins in 1127 at Windsor Castle. Matilda, or Maud, as she is called, former Empress of Germany, has been called home to England by her father, the current King Henry I, to take up her rightful place as heir to the throne. Having been widowed in Germany and no longer wife of the Emperor there, being female she is at the mercy of her father who insists on making her the one to inherit the crown upon his death. The barons and clergy are not thrilled, but with Maud's brother William, the only legitimate male heir having drowned years before, Maud is all that is left. They swear allegiance to her in front of Henry but this is short lived upon his death.
Maud is also painfully betrothed to the immature Geoffrey of Anjou and the two are like oil and water. Geoffrey is several years her junior and Maud is used to the adulation and honor due an Empress from her years spent in Germany, while Geoffrey is completely uninterested in both his older wife and in taking up duties in England. He is much more wedded to France, specifically his home territory and in acquiring Normandy and its surrounding lands.
The basic story of the Anarchy period is related chronologically from the years of Henry's death to the crowning of his grandson, Henry II. We witness the chaos of Maud's fight to regain her title and crown from her cousin Stephen, who has the support and backing of much of the nobility who see a male ruler as the only real solution. All the major players are here: Maud's confidante and trustworthy brother, Robert of Gloucester, sheriff Miles of Gloucester, and Brian Fitz Count, one of the nobility and supporter of Maud. The major battles and skirmishes, Lincoln, Oxford are recounted, as well as Maud's escape into the wintry night to Wallingford.
We are also introduced to fictional character, the loyal Alice, and her knight love interest, Sir Jacques, who serve as the way McGrath inserts the goings on of the more common folk and their attachment to the nobles and royals in the time period. Alice and her family are entertainers, puppeteers who are loyal to Maud and her side of the fight for the crown.
I started out really enjoying this book. And then about halfway through I started to lose interest. I pushed through to the end but found myself trying to figure out why I wasn't as excited to read it as it unfolded. After reading some reviews by others on Goodreads I finally realized the answer. There just wasn't the character development I wanted and one reviewer described the writing as "wooden." Sometimes it vacillated between sounding like a history book recalling facts and details, and then would try to switch to a more romantic style. It just didn't work for me. I will not say it is not worth reading but I didn't come away learning a lot of new information about the period and I also didn't really care about any of the characters involved, fictional or real. All the information was there but it just didn't flow or have that personal touch the way good historical fiction should.
Will I read another book by this author? Yes, I would like to try one of the books in her Rose trilogy. I am wondering if I read about a subject I don't know a lot about I might enjoy it better. Possibly because I've read so much on the Anarchy period in much greater detail, this book just recapped things I already knew and I skimmed through it for that reason. I rarely shut out an author after one book as I like to see if another works better. This book is a great fit for someone who is just learning about this subject and needs the background information told in an entertaining style. McGrath clearly has that knowledge and her research is solid. It is good to know what you do learn from it is based on proven, historical facts. That is my number one reason for reading and loving historical fiction.
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.
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.
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!
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!