Book Review: The Queen’s Mary by Sarah Gristwood

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Seldom are there books written from the point of view a minor historical character that manage to captivate my attention as this one did. It is engaging, from start to finish, and a great illustration of the period seen through the lens of one of Mary, Queen of Scots’ trusted ladies.

Sarah Gristwood is best known for her non-fiction, primarily her biographies focusing on the lives of European queens from the late medieval to the early modern period. This is no different, except that it is fiction and yet, it feels s if you are reading one of her biographies because she is very detailed when it comes to fashion, the type of garments that nobles, based on their status, bloodline, etc, would have used, and the foods they could afford, and other excess.

There is a part towards the end where it was harrowing to read, which I won’t spoil but those who already read this, probably know what I am talking about, and it is a testament to her talent about being able to put herself in her characters’ shoes, historical ones no doubt! And give them a voice that doesn’t feel out of place with the rest of the events.

Scotland in the sixteenth century was for lack of a better word, a mess. And this novel doesn’t shy away from showing the negative from every religious side, including its most prominent members who only cared about their self-interest.

We see the world through the lens of a little girl who learns from the get go that her life’s purpose is to serve the child-queen and protect her interests above all else. As she gets older, her faith in Her Grace is shaken. She goes from servant, to friend to confidant.
We watch the downfall of a woman whose future seemed bright, and who was determined to reclaim what she viewed was hers because of her blood. Unfortunately, the Scotland she left is not the same one she returned and the people are hungry for leadership, and the nobles will side with whoever keeps their family fortunes intact. Mary Stuart is cunning and ambitious, Mary Seaton sees that, and she is far more resilient than she is given credit to, but she can’t come to terms with the new political climate, one which is entirely hostile towards female kings and her faith.

My only criticism comes for the time jumps. The first one felt necessary but towards the end, many things felt unnecesarily rushed. But I would have liked more flashbacks. However, I can look past it because as I previously mentioned, the plot moved along nicely thanks to brilliant dialogue.
Through her eyes we also get to see her wins and losses, and her personal struggles as she is forced to decide between her family and her queen, her family and her faith, or between her desires and her sworn duty to stand by her queen’s side no matter what.
It is an emotional roller coaster and a book that every history buff will quickly binge on. I greatly enjoy it and if you are new to this period, this is a good novel to start that will get you interested in finding more about the lives of these extraordinary and tragic women.

Book Review of ‘The Most Happy’ by Helen R. Davis

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The Most Happy is an alternative history, in short it asks the important question of ‘what if?’ What would have happened if Anne Boleyn had not been executed and she would have had more than one child. All this and more is explored in this book.

While historical fiction seeks to fill in the gaps in the historical records and to make the story more enticing to its target audience, alternative history delves further by rewriting it. And while it may seem as the two have nothing in common, I beg to differ and I suspect you will too once you read the book.

Novelists take this genre seriously, and it wasn’t surprising to find many things from this era come alive in Davis’ book.  I remember when I read her other book, that is also alternative history, Cleopatra Unconquered and felt like I was transported to Ancient Egypt. That is the feeling I got when I read ‘The Most Happy’. From start to finish, the intrigues that history buffs are used to reading about the Tudor court, don’t stop. This book perfectly captures the dangerous time period that Anne Boleyn lived in, and how high the stakes were, not just for her, but for her enemies as well.

This was a period of great change. The Renaissance was not all that different from the medieval era, but there were many aspects of it that were still the same, one of it being the violence and fanaticism (now emboldened with the religious wars); throw in a dynasty that is not well-established and a queen whose religious affiliation is not with Rome -and is not recognized by the Vatican as such- and you have almost absolutely chaos. And I say almost because the protagonist doesn’t come off as a victim or a villain, but rather as a strong, intelligent woman who is determined to make things work.

Anne grows in her new role as Queen and mother to England’s future king. She is not afraid to take charge, or shy away from enforcing the rule of law when needed. She’s also proud, and can be vindictive but this behavior can be understood given the circumstances of her situation.

Fans of Tudor History and Historical fiction who are worried with how the iconic Tudor queen is portrayed in the media will love this novel. This is the one that has come the closest to capturing Anne Boleyn’s spirit in the past decade without the author shying away from her flaws or sugar-coating the complexities of this period. If this is your first time trying alternative history, you won’t be disappointed.

Cleopatra Unconquered

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When I delve into historical fiction, I tend to be very picky but will push aside certain liberties as long as the authors are honest about it. When it comes with alternative history, I am even pickier so take my word for it when I say that this is a good book that every history buff and lover of ancient Egyptian history will enjoy!

Cleopatra Unconquered is a good book that expands on the question of what if Cleopatra’s forces had won against Octavian’s forces. It is an entertaining, well researched book with very well-rounded characterizations of the historical people involved here that doesn’t make them seem as if they are out of place, but rather people of their times -holding the same prejudices and core-beliefs as you would expect from people born into those societies.

Helen  R. Davis weaves as beautiful tale of love, hate, and deception to give us a convincing tale on how Cleopatra VII would have won against the armies of her rival, Octavian, and the consequences thereafter. This is the first book in a series that will explore more on how much history has changed, not just during the remainder of her reign, but after it.

Cleopatra comes out as a strong-willed queen, who is committed to remain in power and do what is best for her people, and as many pharaohs did back then, believes that she is being divinely guided by the gods, specifically Isis.

Fearless and unapologetic, Cleopatra VII is also ruthless and like other famous female regents and pharaohs before her, will go to great lengths to protect what is hers and show the world that she is not anyone’s puppet.

Book review: Falling Pomegranate Seeds: The Duty of Daughters by Wendy J. Dunn.

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Falling Pomegranate Seeds: the Duty of Daughters is a fantastic novel written by Wendy J. Dunn, it is the first in her series on Katharine of Aragon. As a result, this focuses primarily on her formative years in Spain.  Without vilifying or whitewashing her, Wendy J. Dunn weaves an intricate tale of hope, passion, and self-growth as Katharine prepares for the epic journey that awaits her.

Katharine of Aragon was Henry VIII’s first wife, and before that, his brother’s wife, and the daughter of two of the most prestigious monarchs in Christendom. Born and raised to do her duty, she was also among the most learned women of her times. Wendy J. Dunn doesn’t brush past this fact; it is a key component of her book. The book opens up with Beatriz Galindo, known as “La Latina” for her scholarship, being questioned by the Queen of Castile about her youngest daughter’s education. Beatriz is delighted to be charged with such a task, and dedicates most of her time to Catalina, ensuring that she will grow up to be a learned queen.

It is refreshing to see a historical fiction devote so much time to Katharine’s formative year, and set the stage for the next books in her Katharine of Aragon series.

Her Katharine is how I picture she was in real life. She starts as an assertive and curious child who is determined to become Queen of England because she believes that is her destiny, and as the story progresses, even when we know how it is going to end, we are still rooting for her as she sets sail to her new home. The emotions run high near the end, it plays like a farewell scene but it is not. One chapter of her life has ended and another will begin and we are left eagerly waiting for that.

Wendy J. Dunn brings out the best and worst aspects of her character, something that is much needed in a figure that often gets put on a pedestal or easily disregarded as the ‘boring one.’ Katharine is mischievous, she plays, she is everything you would expect in a child, but she is also curious and intuitive with a mind of her own -which becomes more evident when she is in her teens- and like her mother, she is very proud and grounded in her beliefs that she’s unwilling to compromise when that compromise goes against her moral view of the world.

I recommend this book to all history buffs and those of you who like me, are very passionate about Tudor history.

The Witches: Salem, 1692 Review

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This is one of the best books of 2015. It is so vivid and well researched that you are transported back to 1692 and beyond. The books is more than just about the witches and warlocks that plagued the poor, young victims of Salem, but about the justice system and the beliefs that were involved in the proceedings. Nearly a century later, one of the founding fathers (John Adams) would refer to the incident as one of the most shameful chapters in American history, and others would look back and scoff at it. And yet -as Schiff points out- the belief in witchcraft remained a constant all the way to the twentieth century. Gone were the days of spectral evidence (as used in the Salem trials) but people could still be shamed or judged based on the belief that they had something to do with the devil or they were witches. Nowadays the town of Salem is a safe haven for Wiccans. I have been there. It is one of the best places to visit, there is a lot of history, old houses, museums and everyone is very friendly. But the stigma of what happened there remains, and as one contemporary (Brattle) wrote -when he as so many saw that things were going too far- something of that magnitude isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.

The reason why is not so much the number of people that were hung (19), pressed to death (1) and the animals that were also killed; but the court procedures. I don’t want to make this review political but I feel I have to because reading this biography, you see a lot of these attitudes going on today. These people really believed in the devil, and they really hated authority.
They didn’t rebel against King and country because they believed in democracy or wanted to establish a Republic, neither did they believe that everyone should learn to read and write so people could think for themselves. On the contrary, these staunch Protestants firmly believed that God had chosen them for salvation. They believed (without a glimmer of doubt) that the Devil was in Salem and the more the Devil attacked them, the more special they were.
Cotton Mather was a Harvard educated young man, son of another educated man, who had the nerve to say that nothing was wrong with the trials (except when it came to spectral evidence which was somewhat hypocritical of him when he agreed with Stoughton view that it should be allowed as ‘evidence’) and continued on to incite others to accuse their neighbors if they believe that they were witches.
This contradicts the statement that knowledge is everything. Knowledge can be everything, when it is used for good and to open minds instead of closing them like so many well-educated men acting as jurors and consultants in the trials did.

As for the girls, many historians have tried to figure out what ailed them. Some have said it could have been a case of infected grain, or a virus. Schiff makes a great case saying it was likely hysteria, pointing out the studies that were done at the end of the nineteenth century and that are still being conducted today. In short, it was nothing more than mass delusion and the fact that the girls were the product of a highly patriarchal system that allowed them little freedom. The puritan maiden could not say or do anything without her guardian’s permission (which consisted of the male head of the household), and most were not raised by their parents but instead were sent elsewhere to learn good manners. This happened to boys as well, however when they grew up and married and made a life of their own, they were free to act as they pleased so long as they didn’t offend the church. Girls couldn’t have that luxury. As wives, their lives were more restricted and filled with hardship. And the Indian attacks left a lot of children without parents, some of these were girls. So for them to see how much freedom their ‘afflictions’ earned them, was like a Godsend. They were no longer required to do house chores, nor to sit still during Mass, or behave properly. This by no means condones them, but it explains most of their actions. And they might have also deluded themselves into believing that the Devil was causing them (so they could have a clean conscience and not feel guilty of the people they send to jail and to their deaths). Puritans’ religious fervor was extreme when it came to women. The way they were educated, they believed that anything they did was their fault, or not good enough for their men.

The last three chapters are tragic. The victims never got closure, some tried to move on but most of them could not get the stigma of being related to witches off them. Two of the victims didn’t get their names cleared until 2001, and only one of the afflicted girls admitted that it was a lie brought about because of the devil. And as for the judges, some paid a high price but the most important and well-educated went on to be elected. Why? Because despite many holding grudges against them, belief triumphed over reason. And that is the ultimate lesson of this book and the Salem Witch Trials: when belief triumphs over reason.

Henry V: The Warrior King of 1415 Review

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This books focuses solely on the year 1415 and gives extensive background on the events that led to the battle of Agincourt. 600 years after the battle, he continues to be revered and hailed as one of the greatest monarchs that ever lived, but behind the legend is a darker person that Mortimer exposes in this book. I would have given it four stars where it not because of the great details and everything that I learned about this book. It is a day by day account that illustrates not just the events in England and France, but in the rest of Europe as well and how these related to Henry’s actions. Henry could be your best friend, but he could also be your worst enemy. On the one hand he was very pious and used the bible to condone his actions against the Lollards, and in France, but on the other hand, he was not above violating his holy laws to achieve his means. In an era where kings believed they were semi-divine, Henry V would have used any means at his disposal, if he believed he enjoyed divine favor. However the author spends too much time giving examples of how different (and more terrible) he was from other monarch who, ironically, did the same thing but for some reason he believes they can be excused because they weren’t as determined to conquer the kingdom of France as Henry V was.
The battles are explained in great detail, as well as the reasons why Henry V scored a big battle against the French that day, and what propelled him to order the killing of many of his French captives afterwards.

Unlike most books which have a short epilogue of five pages of most, and an Appendix, Mortimer includes very long notes where he explains how he came about in his conclusions. Although he says he doesn’t write this book with the intention to convince anyone, he spends a great amount of time stressing how he is right and Henry V is the complete opposite of what Shakespeare portrayed him as in his plays. And I partly agree. He wasn’t the great hero of Shakespeare, but going to the other extreme does no one any favors either. He was a monarch of his times, who could be capable of great things, but also of great cruelty and indeed, some of his acts with the Lollards, the French captive demonstrate that and these actions were criticized by some of his contemporaries.

Magna Carta: The Birth of Liberty Review

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The Magna Carta is an engrossing book that takes you back to the year 1215. It lays out the events that led to its creation perfectly that you feel like you’ve just hopped into a DeLorean and time traveled to that era. It also makes a distinction between Magna Carta (the legend) and Margna Carta (the truth). The document that nearly ended Plantagenet rule, has inspired some of the best known figures in later century, but at the core of the document is a complex story of rebellious sons, rebellious barons, autocratic and greedy kings –all of which are forgotten in favor of the legend. On the one hand there is John, who was no different from his Plantagenet predecessors (his father and brother) but who didn’t inspire the loyalty that they did and whose only survival of the dynasty was through men William Marshall who were renowned by their valor and loyalty to the crown. On the other hand, a lot of the grievances that were presented against John when he was forced to recognize the Magna Carta (previously the Unknown Charter) were the result of decades of held-back anger at his predecessors whom they thought were stepping out of line when they interfered with Church business, or in Richard’s case, raised taxes to fund his Crusade. John continued a lot of these policies, but he went a step further, angering them (and the Church) even more, and failing to keep a lot of the French territories he had inherited from his parents’ union. To make matters worse, John turned his back on the barons, not long after he had agreed to recognize the Magna Carta, and it was only through his heirs, agreeing to these reforms that England went back to Plantagenet rule.

It is a good book for Plantagenet and history buffs alike. 800 years since its creation, it continues to be one of the most important documents in history. The articles of the Magna Carta are relevant to our society because they have inspired some of the most revered documents in our nation’s history, and inspired many leaders who fought for freedom. But the Magna Carta as a whole never intended to be a charter that gave a voice to poor people or the other disenfranchised communities at the time of its creation, it was merely a way to restrict the King from taxing his people (unless he gave something in exchange, like creating programs that would create more revenue for his barons). Nonetheless, it is still important because of what it ultimately represents: rebellion, restriction on the head of government and negotiation. The King could levy taxes so as long as he gave something in return, or did something for the people (which in Magna Carta’s terms exclusively meant the nobles and other ‘free men’). Most of it, no longer matters because we have moved away from those times, and opted for more progressive laws; but it continues to have a hold on people who see as the hallmark of Western society.

“As time goes by, the Magna Carta’s name will undoubtedly continue to be hitched to causes both noble and absurd.”

It certainly will, and that is what makes it all the more interesting.

Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and her World Review

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I have read a lot of Alison Weir’s books, as with every book, every author there will always be things I disagree, that is a thing of mine but what I loved about reading this book and it had to do with the timing that I was reading it, is that I read it following Higgibontham’s The Woodvilles which was absolutely great. So I remembered a lot of details and could compare and contrast and do many notes on both books.
Of course every author has his or her own style. Weir here takes on only one person, Elizabeth Woodville (or Wydeville -as Weir decides to use the last name in this form as Elizabeth signed it as)’s daughter, Elizabeth of York.

Elizabeth of York has gone to history as the docile, extremely sweet, beautiful, vulnerable, almost no personality, submissive wife, the woman that Henry VIII (her surviving son)admired and was very close to. Weir makes the point as Starkey in his documentary series, that their signatures were very much alike. Also, unlike his older brother, Prince Arthur, he grew closer to his mother, her visits to her younger children were more accessible.

What emerges from this biography are many details, an Elizabeth that could have schemed (Weir assumes she could have brokered based on the famous copy of the letter to John Howard, which there is no certainty there was an original, but the possibility remains) to marry Richard, or as she and Higginbotham both say, she could have meant something else -i.e. -her situation as a young woman worried she might never marry and she wanted to improve her mother and sisters’ situation. The Woodvilles under Richard, were on a precarious situation and the fact the letter has some things in blank, it is open to speculation as to what Elizabeth really meant.
From the great details of late medieval and early modern England’s church and secular traditions regarding childbirth, baptisms, coronations, feasts, accounts, royal households, protocols and much more, this book needs to be read carefully as there are many details that need to be paid attention but it’s worth the read.

Some things I didn’t agree like the Woodvilles being on a tight leash under Henry VII’s reign, this was not so, in fact one thing that was failed to mention was that like his late brother Anthony Woodville, Sir Edward Woodville was a deeply devoted and pious man who even went on to aid Ferdinand and Isabella on their crusade against the Moors and he also had this sense of honor that his late brother previously held. But in spite of this, there is so much in this book that I recommend.

Elizabeth of York: Forgotten Tudor Queen Review

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“The real Elizabeth remains inaccessible through the lack of surviving records”. Yet Amy Licence brought her back to life digging through contemporary date and relying on archeological evidence and knowledge of the time, instead of falling trap (like some writers often do) of later century (or centuries) “sources” (two George Bucks, Sir Francis Bacon among others). Even contemporary sources are analyzed carefully as she tries to peacdd together this queen’s life and separate fact from fiction and ask the important questions and give plausible answers behind each one. EOY was a woman who was pious and ambitious, who knew her duty and knew that the best way to fulfill the obligations that were expected of her was through marriage.


While Elizabeth’s role in queenship is often forgotten we forget that she emulated the virtues of medieval queenship and her sanctified image -sanctified thanks to the beautiful imagery at her funeral and afterwards when Henry was laid to rest next to her (six years after her death) in 1509- lasts into posterity. When Henry VIII came into the throne, the ideal of the “perfect queen” no doubt was influenced by his mother, her death had shocked him and he said it was one of the most painful events in his life and how he viewed queenship was due in parts to the role his mother played to and excelled at.

Under these Restless Skies by Lissa Bryan

Under the restless skies

Under these Restless Skies takes places in Tudor England, specifically an England ruled by Henry VIII when he’s seeking a divorce from his first spouse, Katherine of Aragon to marry the alluring Anne Boleyn. I’m often very critical of historical fiction (and historical fantasy even more) because the characters tend to be one-dimensional and you have to suspend belief to really get into the story but with this book, not really because the characters were very close to their historical counterparts and the author really did her homework and was very accurate when it came to describing the rituals that men and women had to go through such as confinement, churching, coronation, and she included author’s notes at the end of her tale with a glossary and terminology.

Emma started a bit of a Mary Sue at first but after Anne’s glorious moment, she starts acting more human, exploring the darkest aspects of our species and becoming more human herself. As with every good book, you suffer from book withdrawal at the end or what I like to call book blues. There is a lot of good moments where the author describes the customs and beliefs of the period through dialogue and by doing this she keeps the story moving and interesting.
The only thing I disagreed were some instances regarding Anne Boleyn. I like Anne Boleyn for being an outspoken and intelligent woman, she was also flawed and she was known for her temperament. You could say some contemporary accounts were bias and she wasn’t entirely responsible for what her family did or said to Mary, or said about her mother -Anne’s predecessor and enemy, Katherine of Aragon- but she wasn’t entirely blameless either. Anne did not order her death -Katherine died of natural causes which were accelerated by her living conditions- but she did encourage her female relatives to be mean to Mary so she could accept her father’s new marriage and her condition as the king’s bastard. While I do not like some of Anne’s attitude, a great deal of it was brought about by the situation she was in. She was playing a highly political game and the stakes were *really* high. As she tells the original character (Emma) before her coronation, she must be recognizes as Henry’s true and only wife and one word, one rumor could be the difference between life and death. (Which is exactly what happened when Henry looked to replace her. She was tried for treason and executed. The evidence used against her was ridiculous. Even Chapuys who was one of her biggest critics, wrote he couldn’t believe that they were trying her on scant evidence and that it was amazing how anyone could believe any of it). It was a good portrayal nonetheless where Anne is seen as a strong yet also vulnerable woman through the eyes of the immortal Emma Sommers. It is hard to write about Henry VIII, there are a lot of myths and misconceptions about the man as there are about Anne Boleyn, that often authors lend credibility to them. The author nailed down Henry VIII showing him at his best and his worst.
Finally, there is the fantasy part of the selkies or the sea creatures that the author wrote about. I said it before, but I will say it again. I felt like this was a good twist on Hans Christian Andersen’s the little mermaid. A fish out of water who comes face to face with a terrestrial and she falls in love with him, and is willing to let a piece of her be taken so the two can be together. But instead of a handsome prince, her one true love is Will Sommers, a man with a bad back but a heart of gold, and instead of love being one-sided, Will Sommers shows her that he loves her as well.

The author has a blog where she has written extensively about the Tudors, and dispels many myths about them, primarily Anne Boleyn whose figure continues (and probably will for many years to come) to be at the center of many heated debates.