New Read: The Queen’s Choice

the-queens-choice

After reading The Forbidden Queen in 2014 and The King’s Sister last year, Anne O’Brien is rapidly becoming one of my go-to authors for my historical fix. Her latest offering is The Queen’s Choice which was released earlier this year.

This time O’Brien swept me back to 1398 to meet Joanna of Navarre (also known as Joan). She is the daughter of the hated Charles II of Navarre and the wife of John IV, Duke of Brittany. Whilst at a wedding at the French court she meets Henry Bolingbroke, the son of John of Gaunt. There is an instant connection between them which grows into true affection during Henry’s exile, but they are torn apart just as quickly when Henry returns to England to confront his cousin, Richard II. For several years life continues for Joanna, during which time she loses her husband and becomes the regent of Brittany for her young son. Then, just as she is emerging from her mourning she receives a surprising and audacious proposal from England: Henry wishes her to become his wife and queen.

Joanna is not a character I have read about before. O’Brien portrays her as a strong, intelligent and proud woman. If you know your history, you will know she does become Henry IV’s wife and the queen consort of England – to reach that though she will have to sacrifice a lot, including: the regency of Brittany and heartbreakingly the custody of her sons. Then, she faces much hostility in her new home as there is a long-standing feud between the English and Bretons. While I could often sympathise for Joanna I could also see how much her pride made situations for herself and those around her ten times worse!

A character I really enjoyed getting to know better was Henry. He was a background character in O’Brien’s The King’s Sister and I recently read a history of him by Chris Given-Wilson. This book reinforced the idea of Henry as a wise, brave and fair man, who had so much potential as a king but sadly never reached it due to arguments with parliament, constant war and finally, poor health. It was lovely to read about Henry on a more personable level – seeing him as a loving husband and father, although O’Brien also portrays him with a fiery temper. I found it particularly touching how Joanna nurses him through his long and painful illness.

Sadly, the death of Henry is not the end of the troubles for Joanna as we also see her trials and tribulations during the reign of her stepson Henry V. And, really that was the issue with this book for me – there was almost too much drama, and doom and gloom. I was left feeling a little bereft by it all. Now I totally understand that O’Brien can’t really help that historically Joanna’s life was full of trouble and so this not a reflection on her skill as a writer at all. In fact, that I felt bereft shows that O’Brien very realistically brought it all to life for me. Just for my personal taste, I just wished there had been a bit more happiness!

Overall, The Queen’s Choice is not my favourite of O’Brien’s books but it is still a well-crafted story of the lives of Joanna and Henry IV; two interesting figures in history. I still very much look forward to reading more by Anne O’Brien. Good read.

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

Have you read this? Have you read any other books about Henry IV and Joanna of Navarre?

New Read: The Circle Maker

the-circle-maker

As a practicing Christian, I like to read Christian literature to help with the growth of my faith, so I was thrilled when the vicar proposed to create a church book club. Our first book to read was The Circle Maker: Praying Circles Around Your Biggest Dreams and Greatest Fears  by Mark Batterson.

The Circle Maker starts with the story of Honi the circle-drawer. Who when Israel was plagued with a drought went out, drew a circle in the dust and stepped inside to pray; vowing not to move until it rained. When it began to rain softly, instead of being satisfied and leaving the circle, Honi stayed put and prayed for harder rain! Many thought him mad but Honi’s big prayer was answered because of his strong faith and dedication. Mark Batterson believes using Honi as an example has vastly improved his own prayer life, with him and his church reaping the rewards and so in this book he aims to share how we can do it too.

To do this Batterson breaks down the circle making method to three key factors. First, dream big – Honi didn’t just want light rain he wanted hard rain. We may think the simpler request is better however the bigger it is the more pleasure and honour it will bring God to answer. Second, pray hard – even in the face of mockery Honi kept praying. We will all face mockery, adversity, pain and hard times but we must pray through it all. And thirdly, think long – that rain didn’t come for Honi in five minutes. We may have to wait days, months or even years for our prayers to come to fruition; Batterson recommends keeping a prayer journal to keep track.

As well as being an author, Mark Batterson is pastor at the National Community Church in Washington, D.C.. In this book, he shares the ways in which using this method of prayer has helped the church to grow in numbers, acquire new premises, raise money and set up new initiatives; while also sharing with us more personal stories about himself and his friends and family. I found his style to be positive and very accessible. Although, sometimes I did want a bit more raw emotion in the recall of hard times. I can see stylistic why he may have chosen not to bare all, as it enabled the mood to stay positive and inspiring for the reader.

Overall, I found The Circle Maker to be an inspiring and worth while read – I will certainly be taking up his advice about a prayer journal. It also made for a great discussion piece for our first book club meeting. Next up for the club, we will be reading Surprised by Hope by Tom Wright. Great read.

Have you read this? Or anything else by this author?

New Read: Jane Steele

jane-steele

I had heard wonderful things about the Charlotte Brontë inspired Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye and I thought it sounded just my cup-of-tea. The lovely Lynn from Lynn’s Book Blog thought I would love it too so kindly sent me her copy!

Jane Steele, like the heroine of her favourite novel Jane Eyre, is orphaned at a young age, suffers at the hands of her spoilt cousin, her cold aunt and her vindictive schoolmaster, watches young friends die at school and finally becomes a governess in an isolated house with a capricious master and a big secret. However, this is where the similarities end because Steele is a very different creature to Eyre. Whilst Eyre wrote ‘Reader I married him’ – Steele writes ‘Reader I murdered him’!

While I thought Jane Eyre was a beautifully written gothic tale, I really struggled with the self-deprecating character of Jane herself. So I was intrigued to find out how, the author of this book, Lyndsay Faye’s twist on Jane’s character would play out. I am happy to say I loved her twist on this classic character. Steele, while not beautiful, is a striking and intelligent woman who has never stood for any nonsense; even as a child. Whilst the cruel upbringing and many mistreatments turned Eyre to faith instead the same experience sees Steele become stronger, more cunning and steely. Both were accused of being wicked but Steele knows that in her case, this is true.

When I first picked this book up, I made a slow start as I found the language rather convoluted and disjointed which hindered me getting into the flow of the story – the book also has a slow, steady pace to it so it takes a while to get anywhere. However, once Steele returned to Highgate House I found myself completely swept away! I was fascinated with this isolated, cold house’s transformation with colourful, exotic furnishings; the spicy, rich food; deadly secrets and mysterious goings-on in the basement; and the new, unusual inhabitants, including: Mr Thornfield, his ward Sahjara, the butler Mr Singh and other Sikh servants. All previous problems with style were forgiven and forgotten.

Overall, I found Jane Steele to be a refreshing and cool twist on Jane Eyre with a beautifully described setting; an interesting cast of characters and a gripping mystery. Great read.

Have you read this? How did you think it compared to Jane Eyre?

10 Books of Summer – 8/10

New Read: A House Divided

a-house-divided

Earlier this year, I read and loved Turn of the Tide by Margaret Skea; the first part of her sweeping 16th century tale. I found I couldn’t wait too long to find out what happened next in, the second part, A House Divided.

In the first book, the Earl of Glencairn and the Cunninghames set a deadly ambush for their long-time rivals, the Montgomeries, which led to a string of bloody reprisals across the land. Finally, the young James VI stepped in to stop the chaos; forcing the leaders of the clans to sign a peace treaty. In this second book the peace is just about holding but tensions are running high, both sides are barely holding it in and the success of Hugh Montgomerie at court only antagonises the vicious Cunninghame heir, William, further. William can’t touch Hugh or his family without risking the wrath of his father and the king, so he goes after the next best; Munro and his family.

Again I loved immersing myself in this bloody, family drama during the reign of the young James VI in Scotland; a period of history I have previously not read about before. In fact, it is well documented that the Cunninghames and the Montgomeries did have a long-standing rivalry, with attacks and deaths on both sides. For the purposes of this story though, the author has chosen to portray the Earl of Glencairn as the antagonist (although he has cooled off in this second book) and his heir, William, as the villain; and what a villain he makes! While Hugh Montgomerie, his family and friends get to play the more sympathetic roles.

In addition, in this second book the author has incorporated other elements from history into the story, including the role of women in society. Most women were expected to marry, be subservient to their husbands and have children, perhaps join a convent, but they were not expected to be educated or have an opinion. Interestingly, there are examples of good and bad marriages in this story. Sadly, there was also wide-spread witch hunts and burnings in this time period, which was allowed by James VI unlike Elizabeth I in England.

The author cleverly steps out from the real history to narrate the story to us through the fictional Munro and his family. Munro is an honest and hardworking man who was dragged into this terrible feud due to his forefathers long-standing allegiance to the Cunninghames. However sickened by the blood shed and the behaviour of William, Munro turns his back on his old, family ties. This has led to his family been torn apart, living in hiding and fearing the repercussions of breaking his oath. They live safely for several years but the rumours of their deaths doesn’t ring true with William and he continues to seek them for revenge.

In conclusion, I found A House Divided to be another gripping and fascinating 16th century tale of family, rivalry and death, which is evoked beautifully by the author. I would love to read more by Margaret Skea. Great read.

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

Have you read this? Any recommendations for other 16th century fiction?

10 Books of Summer – 7/10

New Read: The Secret Poisoner

The Secret Poisoner

After loving the non-fiction A Very British Murder by Lucy Worsley, which looked into the British obsession with murder mysteries, I was interested to read more from this area. So when I spotted non-fiction The Secret Poisoner: A Century of Murder by Linda Stratmann I thought it could be what I was looking for.

I found The Secret Poisoner a great read to lead on from A Very British Murder , as Linda Stratmann went deeper into the Victorians’ fascination with gruesome murders and the subsequent trials and executions. Highlighting in particular the enthralling fear the public had about murder by poison; which was viewed as a secretive, cold and calculating way to kill. I was really impressed with the wide range of poisoning cases Stratmann evidenced from England, Scotland, across Europe and the USA. As well as looking at the victims and suspected poisoners, Stratmann also discusses in-depth the investigations, evidence, poisons, the scientific developments in detecting poisons and the legislation changes that they affected.

I was particularly interested in the reasons for the poisonings. There certainly were many poisoners who used it in a cold and calculating way to remove unwanted spouses, lovers, children or siblings; or to claim life insurance or inheritance, but it wasn’t always that clear cut. Stratmann also discussed the situations of abuse and poverty that could also lead to desperate acts. Such as the removal of the rights of unmarried mothers to claim maintenance from the absent fathers, which sadly led to an increase in laudanum poisonings of babies. On the other hand the most chilling cases were when it was the person the victim looked to care for them that was actually poisoning them; as in the case of the infamous Dr Palmer.

I took my time over reading The Secret Poisoner, dipping in and out over several months – I even put it down for another book at one point but then I was in just the right mood and just flew through the second half of the book! Overall, Stratmann has delivered a comprehensive, in-depth and detailed history of the famous poison cases and the repercussions of them during the Victorian period. While sometimes the detail of the scientific investigations and the intricacies of the law system went over my head somewhat – I thought Stratmann managed to keep what could have been a dry topic interesting and balanced out the academic detail with the human story of the cases.

I found The Secret Poisoner to be an interesting and comprehensive study of the murders, poisons and poisoners that shook the Victorian world. I would definitely be interested in reading more by Linda Stratmann. 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? Any recommendations on what I should read next?

The Classics Club: Mr Harrison’s Confessions

Mr Harrisons Confession

Having long wanted to read something by Elizabeth Gaskell, I finally got the push I needed when I picked up The Cranford Chronicles. After loving the eponymous Cranford I decided to continue the chronicles with Mr Harrison’s Confessions.

We join Mr Harrison by the fireside in his comfortable, well-kept home as his bachelor friend, Charles, presses him to tell how he wooed such a fine wife. And so Mr Harrison takes us back to when he first came to the small, rural town of Duncombe as a young, worldly but naïve man. Newly qualified as a doctor, Harrison has been promised a partnership in an easy, country practice by a family friend. It is to be anything but easy in this insular, provincial town, where everybody knows everybody’s business and which is ruled over by gossiping middle-aged women. Before long, the poor, young doctor after several misunderstandings and misplaced comments finds himself accused of being engaged to three women! None of which are the Vicar’s angelic daughter, Sophy, whom he really loves.

I must admit to be rather disappointed this wasn’t set in Cranford! (Especially as the BBC’s 2007 TV adaptation merged the novellas into the one setting) However I can see how this story has been placed in this chronicles because of the small town setting and the predominantly female residents. Here, unlike Cranford though, men are not feared or believed to be nuisances but instead quite the opposite. Poor, young doctor Harrison is coveted, pulled from pillar to post and practically fought over! Mothers try to set him with their daughters and every spinster seems to have their eye on him; all stirred up by the town gossips! So while I didn’t always ‘like’ the characters they were very amusing to read about.

While Cranford was a steady, touching and meticulous tale of women’s’ lives in genteel poverty, this is much more a chaotic and farcical tale of a young man not at all prepared for the furore his presence will cause in a small community of women. There was still Gaskell’s detailed and personable style which made me feel I was really there by the fire hearing the older and (hopefully) wiser Harrison’s confessions of his youthful blunders. I was slightly less endeared with the characters in this novella however it was comforting to travel back in time with Gaskell again and there were still some very poignant moments, in relation to Harrison’s treatment of genuine patients.

Mr Harrison’s Confessions is a charming, comedy of errors set in a small, provincial town. I look forward to completing The Cranford Chronicles with the final tale of My Lady Ludlow. Good read.

Have you read this? Or anything else by Elizabeth Gaskell?

The Classics Club – 46/50
The Women’s Classic Literature Event – #7

New Read: The School Inspector Calls!

The School Inspector Calls!

Last month, I enjoyed reading, the second book in Barton-in-the-Dale series, Trouble at the Little Village by Gervase Phinn. So much so I didn’t wait too long to continue reading this delightful series with the third book, The School Inspector Calls!

Barton-in-the-Dale’s small village school was in trouble, big trouble. In stepped a new head teacher, Mrs Devine, in her red high heel shoes. Who with her hard work and a fresh approach has not only saved the little school from closure but has now been appointed as the new head teacher for the new integrated school; of Barton and the neighbouring Urebank school. Now, in book 3, we get see the hard realities that face Mrs Devine as she tries to amalgamate the two schools and staff. With absolutely no help from her new deputy head Mr Richardson, a self-important and condescending man, who is smarting from not being appointed as head teacher himself.

Mrs Devine, or Elizabeth as we get to know her outside of school, is a well dressed, smart, practical and kind woman; in stark contrast to her rival Mr Richardson. Her presence has not only brought about positive changes in the school but also in the lives of many of the villagers too. For me she was the obvious choice for the job but the demands of her new role do take a toll and really shake her confidence. I was rooting for her all the way through! Again though we are not secluded to just the changes at school – it was lovely to find out about the changes in the lives of some of the villagers, as I think the author has come up with a lovely, colourful collection of characters.

I found this another comforting read with it’s small school and village setting, some touching insights into the lives of the villagers, and some lovely touches of humour. The humour, for me, came mostly from the children – working in a school myself I have heard many of the honest, touching and often hilarious things children can come out with! In this book we have the children’s funny comments to the school inspector and the rehearsals for the school’s performance of The Wizard of Oz. There are also some very touching and sad elements: with the troubled new pupil Robbie but also love is blossoming and wedding bells are ringing for more than one pair!

The School Inspector Calls! is a touching and humorous tale of a small school and village, and a very comforting read. I have heard that there is a fourth book which I will need to keep my eyes peeled for. Good read.

Have you read this? Or any of Gervase Phinn’s other novels?

10 Books of Summer – 6/10