New Read: Eleanor of Aquitaine

Back at the beginning of July, I continued my summer reading with the first in a historical saga, Eleanor of Aquitaine by new-to-me author Christopher Nicole. Originally published in 1995 under the pen name of Alan Savage – I came across this, Endeavour Press’ 2016 republication, on Netgalley.

This book took me back to 1135 to meet Eleanor, the beautiful thirteen-year-old heiress to the Duchy of Aquitaine and the most eligible bride in Europe. Negotiations are in progress for her marriage to the Dauphin, Louis of France when her father dies suddenly giving her no choice but to rush the wedding ahead. Thus in a space of a few short months Eleanor transforms from heiress to duchess, to Dauphine, to Queen of France at only fifteen years old. With her marriage comes the end of her girlhood dreams of romance however her burning desire for love and adventure remains.

While her adventurous streak is fed by taking up the cross and travelling to Jerusalem with her husband during the disastrous Second Crusade, her burning desire for love is not sated by the pious Louis; who as the younger son was initially destined for a monastic life before the sudden death of his older brother, Philip. Even before the Crusade, Eleanor and Louis were becoming estranged, and their differences were only exacerbated while they were abroad. After returning to France and the birth of a second daughter, Louis finally agreed to an annulment of their fifteen year marriage.

Immediately Eleanor escapes and makes for Poitiers – on the way evading two attempts to kidnap and marry her. Only on arriving to be claimed by the much younger Henry, Duke of Normandy and the future King Henry II of England. And this is where my prior knowledge of Eleanor begins, so it was really interesting in this book to read about her life with her first husband. Nicole portrays Eleanor as a precocious young woman, who grows into a strong-willed, passionate queen. Which fits well with the rebellious wife and formidable dowager queen I knew she went on to be in later life.

My only problem with this book was the sex. Okay, I get it Eleanor is famed to be the ‘queen of love’ or in other circles defamed as a worldly harlot. Also I knew the rumours of her ‘excessive affection’ for her uncle Raymond, prince of Antioch, who she was reunited with during the Crusade. So I knew love affairs would probably be involved in this story, however I was not prepared for the numerous amount and/or the erotic detail they would described in. According to Nicole neither man, boy or woman was safe around Eleanor!

Fortunately, overall I found Eleanor of Aquitaine to be such a gripping historical soap opera, that I was able to skim quickly over those pesky sex scenes and continue on undeterred. I have book two in the saga, Queen of Love, ready and waiting on my Kindle. Good read.

Thank you to the publishers for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

Have you read this? Or any other fiction about Eleanor?

This is book 2/10 for my 10 Books of Summer 2018 reading challenge.

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New Read: The House on the Strand

After loving My Cousin Rachel last summer, it felt right, back in June, to start this summer of reading with another of Daphne du Maurier’s wonderfully atmospheric novels. Taking recommendations from my fellow bloggers, I decided to read du Maurier’s 1969 novel, The House on the Strand next.

When Dick Young’s old friend, Magnus, offers him an escape to his country-pile of Kilmarth, on the Cornish coast for the summer holidays, Dick jumps at the chance. However there is a catch… Magnus also wants him to trial a new drug, a drug which transports Dick back to the wild, bleak Cornwall of the troublesome fourteenth century. Where Dick witnesses the intrigues of the local gentry, and becomes fixated on a horseman named Roger and the captivating Lady Isolde Carminowe. But soon Dick’s repeated trips see him withdrawing from the modern world and his family, and lead to some worrying and dangerous repercussions in the present.

After having previously only read novels by du Maurier set in the 1930s or earlier, it was a little disconcerting when I started reading this to hear mention of televisions and dishwashers! However this more modern, safe, comfortable setting is used to great effect as a clear juxtaposition to the wild, dangerous past that Dick travels back to. I must admit time travel was not something I would have ever linked with the gothic queen, du Maurier, but in fact she does it very well! Creating two gripping time lines which I was equally invested in – a precursor/inspiration perhaps for those newer dual narrative novels by Susanna Kearsley and others that I enjoy so much.

That being said, Dick is not the most likeable of characters, especially with the indifference and sometimes even contempt he treats his wife and stepsons with. As the terrible consequences of Dick’s addiction start to unfold it was them I truly felt for and Magnus: Dick’s long-lasting friendship with whom is about his only endearing feature. Like Dick though I did feel for and found myself rooting for Roger and Isolde in the past. Which made for double tension! Hauntingly I watched as Dick was powerless to help them as their fate was revealed, while I myself was powerless to stop him.

Now this wouldn’t be a review of a du Maurier novel without mentioning her ever vivid and realistic portrayal of the Cornish coast, that, like in many of her novels, is as important as a character in its own right. In the modern day, I was able to immerse myself in long summer days of sailing, fishing and picnics. While, in stark contrast, in the fourteenth century we go through all the seasons: from Isolde’s children riding on a sunny day, to a ship floundering in a storm and deep snow trapping everyone indoors. Although some of the houses have come and gone, the only big (ominous) change to the landscape is the railway cutting through the land in the present day.

All in all, I thought The House on the Strand was a superb, time-travelling horror, that had me gripped from beginning to end. Not as great as Rebecca but definitely a contender for my top ten reads of this year. I look forward to reading even more from du Maurier – I have Frenchman’s Creek and The Loving Spirit on my shelf to choose from next. Great read.

Have you read this? What do you think I should read next?

This is book 1/10 for my 10 Books of Summer 2018 reading challenge.

New Read: Vanishing Grace

As a practicing Christian, I like to read Christian literature to help with the growth of my faith and I am very lucky that my church has it’s own book club to help me with this. In May, we read and discussed the classic Christian memoir, God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew. Next up, for our June meeting, was Vanishing Grace by best-selling evangelical author Philip Yancey.

Yancey’s international best-seller What’s So Amazing About Grace? explored Christianity’s great distinctive element from all other faiths: grace. Now in Vanishing Grace he returns to this theme and vigorously questions what exactly the church has to offer the broken world of today, and why, to outsiders, Christians often seem the bearers of bad rather than the good news! (I haven’t read the previous book, but I didn’t find this a problem as I found this book didn’t refer back to it or presume you had knowledge from it.)

Yancey discusses this whilst reflecting on the current, depressing state of the evangelical church in the USA. Honestly, I found this first half of the book slow and pretty hard going. Mainly because I found it difficult to relate to as – while the Church of England church I attend is evangelical in style – I am not an American evangelical and thankfully, I have never faced such negative and angry views against my faith.

Fortunately, Yancey then moves on to explain how it doesn’t need to be this way and draws our attention to modern-day pilgrims, activists and artists as examples of how to communicate the gospel to a world that thinks it is less and less relevant to them. Most importantly he suggests that Christians need to remind themselves about the good news at the heart of their own faith. This second half of the book was a lot easier going for me and I read it in less than half the time than the first half took me! Which means I finished this book just in time for my church’s book club meeting in mid-June.

At the meeting, I was relieved to find I wasn’t the only one who struggled a little with the structure of this book, in particular the first half. We all agreed we much preferred the second half, where Yancey highlighted inspiring individuals who live out and share the good news in simple, fresh ways, even though we felt the final chapter was superfluous as it added nothing new. Several members shared that they had read and enjoyed other books by this author, and that this was perhaps not his best. So I am definitely keeping an open mind about reading more by Yancey.

Overall, I thought Vanishing Grace was a challenging read and sometimes we need to be challenged, especially about our faith. Whilst I didn’t feel this had the best structure and style, I did think it had some real gems of wisdom, advice and inspiration within. Good read.

Have you read this? Or anything else by Philip Yancey?

New Read: Headline Murder

After being on my autumn and winter to-be-read lists without success, I finally got round to reading Headline Murder by new-to-me author, Peter Bartram, at the end of spring. This is the first book in Bartram’s Crampton of The Chronicle crime, mystery series.

It’s August 1962, and Colin Crampton, a crime reporter for the Brighton Evening Chronicle, is desperate for a front-page story, when he receives a tip-off about the disappearance of the owner of the seafront’s crazy-golf, Arnold Trumper. On further investigation, Crampton scents a scoop as he discovers that Trumper’s vanishing act is possibly linked to an unsolved murder and dodgy property deals. However some powerful and dangerous people are determined Crampton should not discover the truth, so he will need to use every journalist trick in the book if he is to land this exclusive.

What follows is a very British murder mystery, with twists, turns, colourful characters and a good dash of humour too. All of which befits a story set in Brighton: one of Britain’s coolest, trend-setting towns. Plus Bartram took me back and brilliant evoked the time and style of the swinging sixties – like two of my favourite crime dramas, Endeavour and Inspector George Gently – with its classic cars, well-cut suits, pop music, food and smoky pubs! So I was pretty much in setting heaven! And while there is a dark, realistic edge to this, there is no gratuitous blood or gore, which makes this perfect for those, like me, who prefer lighter murder mysteries.

We follow all the fast-paced action and unravelling plot through the eyes of our protagonist, Colin Crampton, a dedicated – if sometimes rather cocky – local reporter. Who is willing to go the miles, even risking personal grief and putting himself in danger to finally solve this mystery and get his story. I must say I became very fond of our reporter, especially seeing him get up to all kinds of mischief while on the case, which also leads to romantic strife with his feisty Aussie girlfriend, Shirley!

What I was also really impressed with was how Bartram was able to so realistically describe the world of crime reporting, for even a journalistic novice like me! So it was no surprise to learn, after finishing this book, that Bartram has years of experience as a journalist himself. I just loved how he brought alive the smoky, bustling newsroom, with its ringing phones and clicking typewriters. And how – in an age without computers or mobile phones – Crampton has to do good, old-fashioned leg work and trips down to the archive office, as he desperately tries to produce the sort of copy that is demanded for the editor’s deadline.

All in all, I am so pleased I finally got round to reading Headline Murder. It was a good, page-turning murder mystery, with a likeable protagonist and great setting. I would be very interested in reading more from this series. Good read.

Thank you to the author for providing a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

Have you read this? Or any other mysteries set in the colourful Brighton?

New Read: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Back in March, I took part in The Classics Club’s 17th Spin event, which chose The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë for me. I was thrilled with my result as I love Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë and I enjoyed Jane Eyre and Shirley by Charlotte Brontë, so I was looking forward to finally reading something by the third Brontë sister.

Through the eyes of local farmer, Gilbert Markham we see the excitement, gossip and rumour that is generated in his small, rural community when a mysterious tenant unexpectantly moves into the dilapidated Elizabethan mansion, Wildfell Hall. The tenant is revealed to be the young widow ‘Mrs Graham’, with her small son, Arthur and faithful servant, Rachel. However their secluded life soon sees them the victims of slander, but refusing to believe anything scandalous about the lovely widow, Gilbert befriends her and finally she reveals the painful past that forced her to seek refuge in this isolated place.

Most of the novel is framed as a series of letters written by Gilbert to his friend and brother-in-law about the arrival of ‘Mrs Graham’; their growing friendship and the subsequent scandal. While in the middle, we switch to Helen’s (Mrs Graham) diary, which she entrusts to Gilbert to reveal the heart-breaking marital strife she suffered and her desperate attempts to save her son – topics that must have reverberated through Victorian society when this was published. I thought this style was really effective, because it meant I was able to intimately get to know the main protagonists, Gilbert and Helen.

And as I came to slowly know Gilbert and Helen better, I became very fond of them both. Gilbert is a practical, hardworking and honest young man – who, at first, is prone to idle flirtation and terrible tantrums, however as the story progresses he does grow and mature. While Helen, at first, comes across as aloof and cold, but it is revealed later that she is a good-hearted, pious and sophisticated woman – whose bad treatment has taught her to hide her true feelings and to hold herself back from people. I was rooting for both of them!

Now you may be wondering – considering I started this back in March – why it took me so long to read?! Well it certainly wasn’t down to the quality of the writing or story. In fact, I found Anne’s writing talent to be equal to her extremely talented sisters. Instead it took me so long because I simply found this was a story that I wanted to take my time with – Savouring the beautiful descriptions, each subtle new nuance; and each new character and plot revelation; especially in the first half of the novel, where we are as in-the-dark as poor Gilbert. Once the major revelations have been revealed, I found myself ripping through the last half to discover how it would end!

Overall, I thought The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë was a beautifully written classic, with engaging characters, which cleverly explores the societal troubles, strifes and wrongs of the time. Sadly this is one of only two novels Anne wrote, so only Agnes Grey left to look forward to. Great read.

Have you read this? Or Anne’s other novel Agnes Grey?

This is book 2/50 for my Classics Club II reading challenge.

New Read: Peach Blossom Pavilion

Several years ago now, I snapped up this exotic, historical fiction, Peach Blossom Pavilion by Mingmei Yip, when it was being offered for free on Amazon (UK). However since then it has sadly lay neglected on my Kindle, even though I was excited to read it! That was until now, as taking part in the What’s in a Name 2018 reading challenge encouraged me to finally pick it up.

On doing so I was swept back to China, at the turn of century, where young Xiang Xiang’s father is falsely accused of a terrible crime by a powerful war lord and is brutally executed. The dishonour forces her mother to enter a Buddhist nunnery, so Xiang Xiang is left in the care of a distant relative, who takes her to the Peach Blossom Pavilion. There she is well fed, clothed and schooled in music, literature, painting and calligraphy, but also, to her innocent surprise, the art of pleasuring men. For the beautiful Pavilion is in fact an elite house of prostitution. Now to repay all that care and training she must sell her skin and smiles to the filthy, rich chou nanrens.

From a sunny California apartment, this riveting story is revealed as Xiang Xiang, now an old lady, is questioned by her great-granddaughter and her fiancée about how she rose from a childhood of shame to become Precious Orchid: one of the richest, most celebrated Ming Ji or “prestigious courtesan” in all of China. And it is a tumultuous tale unlike any they’ve heard before… Filled with deceit, abuse, friendship, suffering, love, loss, politics, danger and daring escapes. Through it all though Xiang Xiang/Precious Orchid never gives up on her dreams to escape; be reunited with her mother; avenge her father’s death and find true love.

In Xiang Xiang/Precious Orchid the author, Mingmei Yip, has created a well rounded and believable heroine – I just had to feel for this sweet, naïve young girl, who through so much heartache and hardship grows into a clever, strong woman. Though there is a selfish streak to her, it was forgivable as it was a product of her treatment. And through her eyes Yip was able to beautifully evoke China of the 1900s and the life at the Pavilion, with its sensual silk gowns; mouth-watering food; traditional tea service; the opera, arts and festivals; faith and the start of western influence.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed getting lost in the exotic setting and heart breaking tale of Peach Blossom Pavilion. After reading this I would be interested in reading more by Mingmei Yip. Good read.

Have you read this? Or any other historical fiction set in China?

I have included this book in my What’s in a Name 2018 reading challenge, as a title with a fruit or vegetable in it. (2/6)

New Read: Queen of Hearts, Volume 3: War of the Cards

I really can’t believe that it was back in 2014 that I read the fantastic Volume 1: The Crown and Volume 2: The Wonder of Colleen Oakes’ twisted YA Wonderland re-imagining, Queen of Hearts. Finally, three years, a new publisher and republications of the earlier two volumes later, we have the concluding part, Volume 3: War of the Cards! (Warning: this will probably contain spoilers for the earlier volumes).

In this final volume, we re-join Dinah, the exiled princess of Wonderland, as she marches her fractious army of Spades and Yurkei warriors on to the palace of Wonderland. Where her father, the cruel King of Hearts, and his deadly army of Hearts await for a final, bloody showdown. Although gripped by fear and doubt, Dinah is propelled on by a burning rage that seeks revenge for the brutal murder of her beloved brother Charles and to claim the throne which is rightfully hers. But an inner battle rages within Dinah too – with such all-consuming love and fury can she be the ruler the kingdom needs? Or will her tumultuous nature bring Wonderland to its knees?

Through-out this trilogy, I have been fascinated to watch our young, head-strong and rebellious protagonist grow and survive through so many harsh trials and tribulations. Now she is a strong, brave woman with such high expectations on her shoulders to be a strong, wise and victorious leader. I couldn’t help but to continue to pity her in this book. However Dinah is an imperfect character. In particular, in this conclusion, there is one absolutely horrific incident, which, while I could sympathise with how she came to feel so hurt and angry, I could never condone her terrible reaction. If only she could hear me shouting stop!

Although if Dinah didn’t have a darker side to her, she wouldn’t be a very convincing Queen of Hearts now would she! And I do have to praise Oakes’ better fleshed out and more realistic take on the quintessential characters of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, such as Cheshire, the royal advisor; the Caterpillar, a Yurkei witch-doctor and Charles, the Mad Hatter. Also I loved Oakes’ clever twists on the classic elements of the cards, magical food and the Jabberwocky. Even though I went into this knowing what should become of Dinah, Oakes was still able to generate tension, throw me some real curve balls and leave me with a hopeful note.

All in all, I thought War of the Cards was a fitting and very satisfying ending to this clever and refreshing re-imagining of Wonderland. It was worth the wait! After enjoying this and her Wendy Darling series, I am interested to see what Oakes will do next. Great read.

Thank you to the publishers for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

Have you read this? Or any other re-imaginings of classic tales?

I am also including this book towards my What’s in a Name 2018 reading challenge, as a title with a shape in it. (1/6)