Book Review: Six Tudor Queens – Anne Boleyn

Six Tudor Queens: Anne Boleyn – A King’s Obsession, by Alison Weir, is the second in a series of specially commissioned books each of which tells the story of one of Henry VIII’s wives from their point of view (I reviewed Katherine of Aragon, here). Like the first, this instalment is a highly detailed, fictionalised story based on known and researched facts, with literary licence taken to aid storytelling. As the author explains at the end, “The scenes in this novel are imagined, but they are not improbable.”

The story of Anne Boleyn has been told many times and from many directions both in books and on film. Each offers a slightly different take on a woman for whom relatively little personal historical detail remains. There are portraits, poetry, letters from the king, and occasional mentions in writing by her contemporaries. These have been woven into the various accounts with which those who have an interest will be familiar. All of this is to say that I was already aware of much of the story being told over these five hundred pages. I needed some fresh angle to hold my attention.

The story opens at Anne’s childhood home of Hever Castle in Kent when she is twelve years old and learns that she is to be sent away to serve at the court of Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands. Anne is delighted by this news, especially as she is gaining preferment over her older sister, Mary. Her only regret is that she will be separated from her beloved brother, George.

Anne spends the next nine years serving in royal courts around northern Europe where she perfects her French language, manners and dress, and learns to play the game of courtly love. She is influenced by the scholars who visit with her mistresses, many of whom espoused enlightened views for the time on the role of women and the church. These views did not preclude the court gentlemen from attempting to have their way where the ladies were concerned. This is presented in what felt a very modern voice.

When war between France and England is threatened Anne returns home where she is found a place at the court of Queen Katherine. Here she falls in love but is thwarted. She is also noticed by Henry who starts his pursuit of her affections.

It took around seven years for Henry to find a way to marry Anne. This period is covered in around two hundred pages during which I struggled to maintain engagement. Naturally Anne changes over this difficult period in her life. She has chosen to eschew the love of others for the potential power of a match with a king.

There are other events to consider, especially those affecting her family. Anne’s regard for George is tested and her increasingly arrogant behaviour gains her enemies. She appears to do little of note while waiting other than call down vengeance on those who will not actively support her cause.

Once Anne is pregnant the story picks up pace although her inability to bear a living son is well known. As Henry seeks his entertainments elsewhere Anne becomes a solitary figure, widely disliked and with her hard fought for power on the wane. Anne’s enemies may now treat her as she did others.

Facing death, Anne takes on a piety that had not previously been obvious. I suspect this is not unusual. I balked at the portrayal of Anne’s decapitation. The Author’s Note at the end, especially on this, was interesting to read.

The author, a respected historian, offers new angles to consider in a number of areas which I will not spoil by detailing. She is an accomplished writer and the story flows. What it lacked, as far as I was concerned, was enough new material to maintain my interest. Given the book’s length, in places I needed more.

For fans of historical fiction this is a carefully researched and nicely written addition to the story of Anne Boleyn. I put my sometimes less than positive response above down to the number of other accounts of this queen that I have both watched and read. I do still look forward to the remaining instalments in this series. I know less about their protagonists.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: Keep Me Safe

Keep Me Safe, by Daniela Sacerdoti, is a tale of romance with a  touch of the supernatural. Its protagonist is Anna, a newly qualified nurse living in London, whose live-for-the-moment partner, Toby, decides to leave her and their six year old daughter, Ava, to start a new life for himself in Australia. Traumatised by the abruptness of her beloved father’s departure, Ava neither speaks nor eats for three days. When she comes around from this episode she starts to mention memories that make no sense. She recalls a life by the sea and, although acknowledging Anna, asks for her other mother and to be taken home to a place called Seal.

Anna has had a difficult upbringing. She spent much of her childhood in and out of foster care, eventually becoming estranged from her alcoholic mother. She is determined to provide her daughter with the love and stability she herself craved. Anna does not miss Toby but feels that she has failed Ava by not keeping their little family together. She tries to ignore Ava’s desire for this other mother, refusing to explore the reasons behind the impossible recollections. Anna believes that her daughter belongs to her, not appearing to understand that people cannot be owned, that they are individuals with emotions and free will.

When Ava’s school starts to suspect that the child needs help Anna finally investigates what her daughter has been telling her. She discovers that Seal is a small island off the west coast of Scotland. She decides that they will travel there for a holiday in the hope of putting these issues to rest.

Anna and Ava are readily accepted by the small, island community. There they discover love, and heartache, and the source of Ava’s memories.

I rarely read romances as I find them too simplified and predictable. The supernatural elements of this tale, although of interest, could not season it sufficiently for my tastes.

What grated most though were issues in timeline and continuity, plus abilities given to a couple of the young children. For example, Anna, portrayed as a deeply caring mother, seemed comfortable leaving her child alone in their guest room during the night while she went out, without apparently telling anyone. Five and six year olds were able to write multi-syllable words independently and neatly. Caty and Sorren’s ages and when events happened in their histories did not always make sense.

To return to the story arc, there were few surprises, plenty of romance, a touch of jealousy, and all ended up where I had expected.

This may be a story more suited to those who enjoy a little romantic escapism and are less irritated by plot technicalities. It was not for me.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: Gone Without A Trace

Gone Without A Trace, by Mary Torjussen, is a psychological thriller that takes a while to get going but ends up packing an almighty punch. Set in and around the Wirral Peninsula in Northern England, its protagonist is a young and ambitious professional woman, Hannah, who lives with her boyfriend, Matt, and socialises with a group of similarly minded friends. She is closest to Katie who she has known since childhood. They have a competitive relationship, likening themselves to the sisters neither of them have.

When the book opens Hannah is returning from a training course in Oxford where she has been commended by her employers for her recent performance and told to expect the promotion she has been working towards for some time. Happy and excited she is eager to share this news with Matt, picking up champagne on her way home to enable them to celebrate. After a long drive she opens their front door and immediately realises something is wrong. Every trace of Matt’s occupation has been removed. She has been left no explanation.

What follows is shock, distress, despair and then determination. Hannah discovers that Matt’s phone number is no longer available. He has left his job and removed himself from all social media. He has not just left her but also disappeared. She can find no one who knows where he has gone.

Hannah will not give up. She sets out to track Matt down, believing if she can talk to him he will want to return. Her work suffers and her friends worry but she refuses to be deterred. When she starts to receive texts from unknown numbers and realises that someone has been in her house when she is not there, she believes Matt is behind the intrusion and will not be persuaded otherwise.

I couldn’t empathise with this Hannah. For a successful, professional woman she seemed blinkered and irritatingly unable to face reality. She did not seek time off work despite recognising her performance was now well below par. I struggled to push through this section of the book.

The shocking explanation, when it eventually came, made sense of most of what had gone before. The pace picked up, the tension rose and the denouement was impressively constructed with a chilling finish.

Narrated in the first person, this was not a comfortable read but explores interesting topics. Before knowing why, Hannah’s dogged determination to find Matt and the personal cost she seemed willing to pay came close to making me set the book aside. I am glad that I persevered.

I am somewhat reluctant to recommend a book that I struggled with in part, yet the ending made the reading worthwhile. There are complex issues to ponder, not least how much support friends can be expected to offer. Once understood, Hannah is a fascinating creation.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Gig Review: Headline’s 2017 Blogger Night

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(photo credit: Georgina Moore, taken from Twitter)

Yesterday I travelled up to London, always a major undertaking for me, to attend a gathering of authors, publicists, bloggers and other book people, organised and hosted by Headline Publishing. It was held on the top floor of their riverside headquarters, Carmelite House, and was my second visit to the building. On this occasion the bitterly cold weather kept everyone inside enjoying the warmth and ambience rather than braving the views from the rooftop terrace.

I had taken my daughter, Robyn (@LeFailFish), as social events can make me anxious and I valued her support. Having collected our name stickers from Jenny (@jrharlow) in the foyer we made our way up to the sixth floor.

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The always lovely Georgina Moore (@PublicityBooks) ensured throughout the evening that everyone felt welcome and included. She introduced us to several of the authors whose books we were able to take away.

I chatted to Alison Weir (@AlisonWeirBooks) about her fascination with the Tudors and the medieval period and now look forward to reading my proof of her latest installment in the Six Tudor Queens series, Anne Boleyn, due out in May. New insights and secrets are promised although Alison ensured that only teasers, not spoilers, were shared last night.

I had a lovely conversation with Gemma Todd (@GemTodd) before realising that this personable librarian is also the author of Defender, which I had spotted early on the book table and eagerly popped into my bag for future reading. This was a popular choice for many attendees.

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Felicia Yap (@FeliciaMYap) and I discussed our love of Belfast where I was raised and now enjoy returning to as a tourist. Visit Belfast (@VisitBelfast) should totally get Felicia to write a piece for them as her enthusism for the city was infectious. Felicia’s debut, Yesterday, is due out in August and I will be hoping for a proof when available.

Copies of Pendulum were also tempting readers on the book table and I had been advising everyone to pick up this taut thriller, a proof of which I read last summer. I was therefore delighted to meet the author, Adam Hamdy (@adamhamdy) and tell him how much I enjoyed his work. He was chatting to a group of bloggers about setting and how he visits each place featured in his story rather than relying on long distance research.

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Meeting other bloggers is always fascinating as we all write for the love of books but often have different perspectives on what we do and how we are recieved. I was particularly pleased to meet Linda (@Lindahill50Hill), Tina (@TripFiction) and John (@Thelastword1962) all of whose reviews are worth checking out.

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Adam, John, Linda and Tina (photo credit: Georgina Moore, taken from Twitter)

There were many other authors, bloggers, publicists, librarians and book sellers enjoying the company and the freely flowing wine. I could have stayed on to pick up writing tips and share book recommendations but, as ever with my trips to the capital, I had a train to catch if I was to make it home. The roads around our village are very dark at midnight – perhaps I read too many thrillers…

Thank you to the team at Headline for inviting me and for organising such a friendly, welcoming event. Also for my goody bag and the opportunity to add even more titles to my tottering TBR pile. Book people are the best.

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Note: hen is my own. In discussing recognition from Twitter pictures I had told John I would bring it to the evening. Next time he wants a live one.

 

Book Review: Quieter Than Killing

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Quieter Than Killing, by Sarah Hilary, is the fourth in the Marnie Rome series of crime fiction novels. Each new release has gradually upped the author’s game and this offering proved no exception. Its taut prose and dark imagery encapsulates the chill of the action and setting. The personalities of key characters are vividly portrayed whilst never detracting from the plot.

DI Marnie Rome’s crime unit are dealing with a series of vicious assaults which she believes may be connected. Each of the victims has a criminal record and Rome suspects the perpetrator may be some sort of vigilante. Not all of her team buy this theory but it gives them something to work with given that none of those attacked have provided a description of their attacker and no witnesses have yet been found. When one of the victims dies from his injuries the investigation escalates to one of murder.

A separate team dealing with gang related crime reports that Rome’s old family home has been broken into and turned over, the innocent tenants hospitalised. Young kids, probably carrying out orders, are suspected yet no valuables appear to have been taken as would be more typical of such a crime. When a box of trinkets is recovered Rome intuits the involvement of her foster brother despite the fact he is in prison. When confronted he offers his usual smattering of accusatory riddles and hard to believe allegations.

A potential suspect goes missing as does his mother, a kindly neighbour raising the alarm. The team recovers fresh evidence and witness statements but their new boss, Ferguson, instructs them to focus on the murder. With conjecture rather than proof linking the various cases Ferguson will not prioritise Rome’s hunch that all these crimes may somehow be linked to her.

The battle for survival fought by those living in the run down estates of ignored and dirty London are brilliantly evoked. There is a brooding violence lurking within the twists and turns. Each new scene oozes menace. Those investigating get caught up in this dangerous world, not least because some of what is going on touches close to home.

I love the author’s writing. Her use of language is masterful – I hope she takes pride in the sentences she crafts. Put together they create a roller coaster ride of a story, heart stopping in places yet every aspect enjoyed. This is crime fiction to satisfy even the most discerning aficionado.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: This is How it Always Is

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This is How it Always Is, by Laurie Frankel, tells the story of the Walsh-Adams family. Rosie is a doctor. Her husband, Penn, is an aspiring author. They live in an old, sprawling farmhouse in Wisconsin with their five young sons. In the summer months Rosie’s mum rents a small house nearby and helps out with the kids. Life is full and exhausting and chaotic but somehow they get by. Then their youngest, their clever and precocious three year old son Claude decides that he wants to be a girl.

At first it doesn’t seem to matter. It is assumed to be a phase. Claude wears an old dress of Rosie’s around the house. He wants to wear it to preschool but his parents say no, worried about how the other kids would react. Slowly they come to realise that Claude feels stifled by their insistence that he conform to society’s expectations for his gender. They accept the weird in their other sons, and there is plenty of weird in this family as there is hidden in most others, but still they struggle with allowing their littlest boy to grow his hair and wear a dress. This is what he wants. This is all he wants.

What follows is the family’s attempt to accommodate Claude’s obvious and growing need. It is a constant balancing act between allowing their child to be herself and protecting her from the rancour of those who see this sort of behaviour as a perversion. Amongst the children it is difficult but the greatest challenge is dealing with the sometimes vicious reactions of adults.

As Claude grows, changes are made to help her become the girl she feels she is. As happens during any child’s development, a whole new set of problems emerge as she ages. Should Claude’s history be shared with those who don’t know she was once a boy?  And then, how should they deal with puberty?

By placing Claude in a big family the author is able to explore the effect of gender dysphoria on siblings. When Claude starts a new school she is accepted as a girl because her classmates are told no different. It was never intended to be hidden but that is what happens How is the truth to be revealed now that she has made good friends? Secrets take their toll on all involved.

Rosie and Penn are doing the best they can for Claude and sometimes this seriously disrupts the lives of their other children. All are developing and learning, trying to fit in and get by. So much of a parent’s efforts on behalf of their children are directed towards giving them the best chances for the future. When it comes to Claude this may include drugs and possible surgery. Timing affects the success of outcomes, but can they be sure that this is what their young child will want later in his or her life?

The writing style is gentle despite the difficult issues being presented. Rosie and Penn do not always get things right, but then what parents do? The hypocrisies of society’s attitude to gender are well evoked, as is the intolerance of a supposedly progressive country. In the middle of it all is a child who longs for acceptance for what she is, something that she struggles to find words to explain.

For me the most shocking aspect of this book was not just the blatant but also the passive aggressive treatment of transgender individuals, even by those who consider themselves liberal, and the high rate of suicide amongst the young that this causes. Gender dysphoria is not going to go away just because it discomforts those who would prefer everyone to conform to their narrow definition of normal. What is needed is better education and acceptance, and not just along lines proscribed by tick box legislation which can sometimes create little more than different sets of boxes for people to be squeezed uncomfortably into.

This is a thought provoking read that I am happy to recommend. It does not offer easy answers, but the questions asked are more profound than acceptance of binary gender change.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: Where Dead Men Meet

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Where Dead Men Meet, by Mark Mills, is a tale of adventure, espionage and dark secrets. Set in 1937 Europe it introduces the reader to Luke Hamilton, a foundling who was adopted by a wealthy British couple and now works as a junior air intelligence officer at the British Embassy in Paris. When an attempt is made on his life it is at first assumed to be a case of mistaken identity. It transpires that little is as it seems.

The story opens with the murder of a nun who is clubbed to death in the English orphanage where Luke spent the first seven years of his life. Over in Paris Luke attends the Exposition Internationale where he is approached by Bernard Fautrier, a man he assumes is trying to trade state secrets. The currency of the moment is information but Luke has been warned by his employers not to become involved.

There then follow a series of assassination attempts which leave an alarming body count and Luke is forced to flea. Unsure who to trust, but aware that he is only alive due to the actions of Fautrier, Luke makes his way to Germany where he makes contact with a young women named Pippi Keller. At first she refuses to believe his story. She and her assossiates work below the radar of the authorities smuggling people and artifacts across the border and away from the Nazis. She has good reason to hate Fautrier.

When an operation is compromised Luke’s life is once again threatened. The action moves through Switzerland and on to Italy. Luke is being pursued by a variety of shady characters intent on his demise. When he finally learns why he realises that Fautrier is right and he has a stark choice – kill or be killed.

The time period is well evoked with the threat of war and the undercurrents of distrust. With the benefit of hindsight it is too easy to judge but at the time there were many who saw potential for gain in the rise of the likes of Mussolini. The treatment of the Jews in Germany released ill-gotten wealth that plenty were eager to benefit from. The persecuted scientists and intellectuals were courted by England and America, aware that their knowledge and abilities could be used to gain national advantage.

Luke is a likeable hero with his vulnerability and reluctant bravery. Pippi is granted a strength that makes her an appealing sidekick. Despite the action and ever present danger there is an old-fashioned gentlemanly feel to the tale. The reader is transported to a fairly recent yet bygone era. An unchallenging but nevertheless enjoyable read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.