Wars of the Roses – Stormbird by Conn Iggulden

 Wars of the Roses - Stormbird cover

Wars of the Roses – Stormbird by Conn Iggulden was first published in 2013 and it’s the first book in a trilogy. After really enjoying reading the author’s Dunstan I felt the need to go onto this series, luckily my local library had a copy on its shelves. The subject matter was something that I knew absolutely nothing about. It begins in 1437. King Henry VI is young and inexperienced, after years of there being a regency as he was too young he is now supposedly in charge. In reality he’s just about as far from being a warrior king like his father as is possible. He spends his time praying, obviously isn’t looking after his health, hardly sleeps and consequently is often ill both mentally and physically. His doctor seems determined to kill him with bleedings and purgatives. He’s desperate for a long peace with France but the territories in France that have been won in battles over the years are under threat from the French.

In an effort to keep the peace Henry decides to marry Margaret of Anjou, a very young daughter of the Duke of Anjou. Part of the secret deal brokered by his spymaster Derry Brewer and William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk is that Henry gives back some of his French territories including Anjou and Maine so they will be in French hands again. This infuriates the English men who had farmed the land for years and regarded it as their own. They still remember the men who had died in battle to gain the land. They’re thrown off the land by the French and often killed by French soldiers, the surviving refugees make for England to complain about their treatment. As they travel towards London the force grows ever larger and led by Jack Cade they storm the city.

Richard, Duke of York has ambition to usurp Henry, but Queen Margaret is determined to keep herself and her husband in power, despite his shortcomings. Margaret has to take over as Henry is unfit to rule.

I really liked this one. I knew next to nothing about this era of English history and I felt that I learned a lot, there’s a bibliography at the back so hopefully the history is mainly correct. I didn’t even realise that there was land in France called ‘Maine’ which is presumably where the state in America took its name from.

I’ll definitely be reading the next one in this trilogy.

Helen of She Reads Novels didn’t enjoy it as much as I did and you can read her view of the book here.

Dunstan by Conn Iggulden

 Dunstan cover

Dunstan by Conn Iggulden was published in 2017 and I was given my copy by a friend who had managed to buy it twice, it’s good to know that other people do that too!

The setting is 10th century England. The king is Athelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, but the book is Dunstan’s account of his life beginning with his first memories and going on to tell how he and his younger brother were taken to a monastery by their father and left there to get an education. The money paid over by their father is desperately needed by the religious order, but that doesn’t mean that they get special treatment by the brothers. It’s a rough and brutal upbringing, but Dunstan manages to impress the abbot and it’s believed by most in the religious community that Dunstan has been touched by an angel.

He has huge ambition and a love of learning, especially when it comes to architecture and construction and nothing is going to stop him from getting what he wants out of life – but that means he has to become a monk/priest which isn’t something that he’s really cut out for. On the other hand he does have a dislike of women and that ends up impacting on the lives of the other monks who had been allowed to marry in the early Christian Church. It doesn’t make him popular but as Dunstan is happy to sin grievously through his life, being a bit unpopular isn’t going to bother him.

Dunstan ended up being close to kings, seven of them in all and according to this book which appears to be well researched he was very much a flawed character, and that seems very likely to me.

This is a great read, my first by the author but not my last.

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

 Lady Anna cover

I hadn’t even heard of A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel when I spotted it in a second-hand bookshop in Innerleithen. I quite fancied the subject matter though, the setting is the French Revolution and it’s a chunkster at 872 pages. I was disappointed for the first 100 pages or so and I did think that Mantel had definitely improved in her historical fiction with Wolf Hall, but this one eventually got going.

This book has an eight page cast of characters at the beginning, which is just as well as it certainly helps the reader to keep things straight. I think we all have a fair idea of what went on in revolutionary France, but this book begins in the 1760s with the early life of the main participants in the grab for power in the 1780s.

Mantel says in her Author’s Note that where possible she used a lot of the characters’ actual words, whether from their written speeches or preserved writing and has woven it into her dialogue.

She also says: I have tried to write a novel that gives the reader scope to change opinions, change sympathies: a book that one can think and live inside. The reader may ask how to tell fact from fiction. A rough guide:anything that seems particularly unlikely is probably true.

I ‘did’ the French Revolution at school but reading this book made it all much clearer to me. I don’t think that my school books mentioned anything about the involvement of the British government who were working to destabilise France as a way of getting rid of King Louis and helped to finance the revolution – but now that I think about it – of course they would have!

This was a great read.

In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant

 In the Name of the Family cover

In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant was published in 2017 by Virago and it’s a sequel to Blood and Beauty which I blogged about here so it’s a continuation of the Borgia family’s story. It’s a chunky read at 488 pages.

It begins in 1501 and Niccolo Machiavelli is a young poverty stricken diplomat and witness to many of the shenanigans going on within the Vatican where an elderly and ailing Rodrigo Borgia is still Pope Alexander VI. His daughter Lucrezia is now on her third husband, and is Duchess of Ferrara, her life isn’t her own, she’s used as a political pawn by her father and as ever for women of those times she’s under pressure to give birth to a male child. Pope Alexander’s remaining son Cesare realises that when his father dies the power that the Borgias have had is going to disappear. Cesare has never been one to toe the line.

The whole book is liberally scattered (or should I say pock marked) by references to the French pox as it had become almost an epidemic, it’s a historical fact that syphilis first appeared around this time, apparently brought to Italy by French troops.

I didn’t enjoy this one nearly as much as Blood and Beauty. I have a feeling that Dunant wasn’t as interested in this part of the Borgia story and even the arrival of Machiavelli didn’t help with what seemed to me to be quite a flat book. As you would expect not everyone agrees with me.

The Times has it on a list of Best Historical Fiction of 2017 describing it as ‘A stunning tale of power and family.’

History Today said it had been ‘Meticulously researched.’

Daily Mail said ‘Stuffed with violence, danger and passion.’

Mark Lawson of the Guardian said ‘Dunant has made completely her own the story of Italy’s most infamous ruling family … in a way that we can see, hear and smell.’

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

Master and Commander cover

I decided to read Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian because it’s the first book in his Aubrey-Maturin series. I recently discovered that an ancestor of mine was transported to Australia (for campaigning for the vote to be extended to all men) on the Royal Naval ship Surprise, but that is the third in the series. Sadly the series begins in the early 19th century, but William Skirving was transported on 1794, but I’m looking forward to reading O’Brian’s description of the ship.

This is the first book by Patrick O’Brian that I’ve read . I can see why his books are very popular but it took me a while to get into this one as for my liking there wasn’t enough in the way of character and there was just a bit too much action. But by the time I got towards the end it seemed to have evened out a bit.

Jack Aubrey has been unlucky in the past and his career in the Royal Navy hasn’t been as he wished, so when he unexpectedly is given the command of His Majesty’s Sloop Sophie he’s absolutely thrilled. Sophie is undoubtedly not a thing of beauty, she isn’t all that strong either but Aubrey quickly gets down to fitting her out with a crew, guns and powder as well as food and water. He feels especially lucky to sign up a young doctor/surgeon, the crew are always much happier with a doctor on board. Stephen Maturin is just as happy to get on board as he is at rock bottom.

Aubrey wants money. Basically the British government of the time supported piracy and the Royal Navy went about attacking foreign ships, seizing the cargo and imprisoning the crew, and the British crew got a cut of the ‘prize’, with the bulk of it going to the British treasury. So the book lurches from naval action to naval action, with a lot of sailing terms being bandied about. It was all go with the Sophie sailing along the Mediterranean coast attacking every ship they saw, and being very duplicitous about it too.

I could have been doing with a glossary, I did end up looking up words such as snow, settee and tartan – all different types of ships, and there were a lot more of them. In my copy of the book there’s a nice drawing of a square-rigged ship, hung out to dry in a calm. The sails are all numbered – all 21 of them, so when the mizzen topgallant mainsail was mentioned, you could look and see exactly where on the ship it was. Until then I had no idea that the phrase ‘hung out to dry‘ was a naval term.

I must admit that O’Brian writes some lovely descriptive passages, below is a sample.

Stephen could remember an evening when he had sat there in the warm, deepening twilight, watching the sea; it had barely a ruffle on its surface, and yet the Sophie picked up enough moving air with her topgallants to draw a long straight whispering furrow across the water, a line brilliant with unearthly phosphorescence, visible for a quarter of a mile behind her. Days and nights of unbelievable purity.

I’ll definitely keep on with the series as I think the books are historically authentic and there’s a lot to be learned from them, in a painless fashion. The Times has dubbed O’Brian as being ‘The greatest historical novelist of all time.’ Have you read any oh his books and if so would you agree with The Times?

You can read what Helen @She Reads Novels thought of the book here.

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

The Sealwoman's Gift cover

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson begins in 1627 in Iceland where Moslem pirates have invaded the island, murdering many of the inhabitants and dragging 400 of them away to be sold as slaves when they reach Algiers. Asta is heavily pregnant and she has been captured along with her children and her husband who is a Christian pastor.

Life in Iceland had been incredibly hard, the people lived mainly on fish and puffins – and if they wanted eggs they had to risk life and limb climbing down steep cliffs to steal them from the birds. The summer is very short and not that warm so any crops grown would have been very sparse – if they existed at all. Everybody is poor.

So you can imagine the culture shock it must have been for them to disembark into the heat, scents and colour of Algiers. Asta was lucky to be sold into the household of a wealthy man whose number one wife had asked him to find a woman who could sew well and she was able to keep some of her young children with her to begin with. Olafur her husband is eventually allowed to leave for Denmark as he’s given the job of asking the King of Denmark for ransom money.

Nine years go past and in that time Asta can’t help seeing the advantages of Algiers where the food and way of life in general are much more comfortable than in Iceland, she can wear silk trousers as opposed to the rough homespun of Iceland and fresh water is plentiful, so the people are clean!

She isn’t free though and has no say in her life or her children’s lives, but she does have a friendship/relationship with her owner which begins when she tells him tales that she had learned in Iceland.

I loved this book, Sally Magnusson’s writing is at times beautiful and descriptive, the reader gets a great sense of the atmosphere in both Iceland and Algiers. I hope that she writes some more books.

The author must have been influenced by her father Magnus Magnusson who I remember said that he was steeped in the Icelandic sagas.

A Civil Contract by Georgette Heyer

Penguin, 2011, 671p.

A Civil Contract cover

A Civil Contract by Georgette Heyer was first published in 1961 and it’s quite different from her other books as there’s really not much in the way of humour in it, no witty repartee between couples. There’s a lot of history in it, but it’s never dry. Apparently Georgette Heyer hated this book and she had a very tough time writing it. The problem was that her mother was seriously ill and in fact dying while she was writing it, so it would have been strange if she had been able to write in her normal fashion. I’d like to be able to tell her how much I enjoyed it though, in fact I think it’s my favourite so far, despite the fact that I so enjoy her more usual witty dialogue.

A Civil Contract features Adam, Lord Lynton, a young man who has only just come into his title after the death of his father. His father had been a spendthrift, womaniser and a gambler and has left nothing but debts. The only way out of the mess his father has left him with is to sell the family estate. Adam’s mother is dead against that and he isn’t keen on it himself.

Adam’s lawyer knows a way out of the problem – he suggests to Adam that he can arrange a marriage between him and the daughter of a very wealthy businessman whose ambition is for his only child to marry into the aristocracy.

So – very different from Heyer’s more usual romantic relationships and the upshot is a more realistic progress of the development of a marriage.

Sometimes music accompanies me in my mind as I read a book and with this one it was Mama Cass’s It’s Getting Better. Completely inappropriate for a Gerorgian setting I know but the sentiment is the same. It occurs to me that you have to be of a certain age to remember Mama Cass though!

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor was published in 2016 and it begins during the Great Fire of London. Between 300 and 400,000 people lived in London at the time and as so much of the city burned down people don’t have homes or even any possessions, the refugees are the lucky ones really as they’ve survived, but none of them is unscathed.

There are bodies all over the place, some of them hundreds of years old as the crypts of the many burnt out churches are visible, in fact people are turning up to gawp at bodies of once famous people, well what’s left of them anyway. However when fresh bodies begin to turn up and they’ve had their thumbs tied together behind their backs it’s obvious that there’s a murderer about.

It’s only six years after the restoration of King Charles II to the throne and he’s determined to track down the people who were instrumental in having his father executed, so this book turns into a bit of a political thriller as well as being a murder mystery.

Andrew Taylor is really good at developing what feels like an authentic atmosphere of London, and its characters of those times.

As ever my thoughts on this book are on the scanty side for fear of spoilers but if you want to read a much more detailed review have a look at Margaret’s @ BooksPlease.

The Poison Bed by E.C. Fremantle

The Poison Bed by E.C. Fremantle was published in 2018. I decided to read this one after reading Helen’s much fuller review at She Reads Novels, you can read it here.

Each chapter of this book is titled alternately him and her. He is Robert Carr and she is his wife Frances and they’ve been imprisoned in the Tower of London. It’s a mighty fall from grace for them both as Robert had been a favourite of King James VI – or James I if you’re more used to the English title of that first Stuart king to succeed Elizabeth I of England.

Frances had been married previously, very unhappily, as a Howard she had been used by her family to promote their power but her husband wasn’t interested in her and Frances fell for the king’s favourite. Eventually she gets an annulment and marries Robert, a man whose relationship with the king should mean success for the couple but everything begins to unravel and when Robert’s previous ‘friend’ dies horribly fingers are pointed at the couple.

I really liked this one and it’s the first book I’ve read by the author but I’ll probably read more by E.C. Fremantle.

The Story of Ragged Robyn by Oliver Onions

The Story of Ragged Robyn cover

The Story of Ragged Robyn by Oliver Onions was first published in 1945 and it was a departure from the author’s usual fare, he was known for writing ghost stories before writing this one.

The setting is the late 17th century and a young boy called Robyn Skyrme is set upon by a mob of notorious ruffians who relieve him of the alcoholic ‘medicine’ that he had been sent to collect for his father. Robyn eventually gets back home but he has been quite badly hurt and his enraged father decides to get back at the attackers, and so begins a series of attacks on the Skyrme farm. Robyn decides that he has to leave home, hoping that that will stop the attacks.

In his wandering he falls in with a radical stonemason called Hendryk, he’s good at his job but is determined to keep his independence so won’t have anything to do with the stonemasons’ guild. This makes life difficult for him, jobs aren’t as easy to come by as they should be, given his talent. Robyn has always had a penchant for drawing and designing and Hendryk takes him on as a pupil and for a while the two of them live a peripatetic life wandering and searching for work, sometimes being lucky enough to get interesting restoration projects.

This book reminded me so much of Thomas Hardy’s writing, in the way that the author describes a craft, and the ending has a very Hardyesque quality about it. I’ve read happier endings, but don’t let that put you off, this is a good read.

John Betjeman said of this book: “Such a feeling of remoteness, boding inevitability, horror, such a sense of the past and such narrative power are rarely to be found in one book.”