Sex and Sexuality in Tudor England by Carol McGrath

Accessible, bristling with vivid details, unflinching, warts-and-all account of how the Tudors practised love, sex and romance: Sex and Sexuality in Tudor England by Carol Mcgrath

Sex and Sexuality in Tudor England is an exploration of morality and the mores in one of the most popular and widely fictionalised period of British history. In this brilliant expose, Carol Mcgrath, historian and an acclaimed historical fiction author, dives under the bedsheets of Tudor lovers, joins in rowdy festivities, visits brothels, peeks into Henry VIII’s marital and extra-marital beds, learns about inventive if not quite effective contraception methods, dances, flirts and recites romantic poetry. She takes us from the highest echelons of Tudor society to the lowest, talking about the love life of Henry VIII and his highborn mistresses, his daughter, the virgin queen Elizabeth I, but also prostitutes, witches and wenches. McGrath presents a full and comprehensive picture of Tudor sexuality, matrimony, childbirth, fashion, beliefs and rituals. She puts it into the context of religion, customs, philosophy and arts. She makes interesting links to the medieval, catholic era that preceded the Tudors, and contrasts it with the Protestantism and puritanism of the sixteenth century. She embeds the Tudors in the wider European context of the flourishing renaissance awakening. She makes reference to what came next. Sex and Sexuality is written in easy flowing, accessible language. It is vivid, full of fascinating details and quotes, thoroughly researched and bristling with tasteful, dry humour. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Fortune’s Hand, the triumph and tragedy of Walter Raleigh by R.N. Morris

Fortune's Hand: The Triumph and Tragedy of Walter Raleigh by [R.N.  Morris]

Fortune’s Hand, the Triumph and Tragedy of Walter Raleigh isn’t a biography in the conventional sense of the word. It is all together something different and much, much more exciting.

It is, of course, about the meteoric rise and an equally spectacular fall of the Elizabethan adventurer, privateer, courtier and solider, Walter Raleigh. But you will find that R.N. Morris isn’t just writing about the man – in the course of the book, he becomes the man. I was astounded, as I tread deeper into his story, by how comprehensively the author managed to get inside Raleigh’s head. Or perhaps it was the other way around – perhaps it was Raleigh who possessed the writer’s mind? However it happened, the personality acquisition was complete, seemingly on a molecular level.

The fact that the book is written in the first person abets this author-to-protagonist metamorphosis. Norris is intimate with Raleigh’s innermost thoughts, his desires, his ambitions and calculations. As a reader, I trusted Norris’s interpretation of Raleigh as a rogue and chancer but also Her Majesty’s most loyal servant, brutal executioner but also a foster carer of his enemy’s disabled son, reckless hell-raiser but also a cunning political strategist.

Other characters are portrayed with similarly keen insight into both their psyche and physicality: the Queen (her manner, her scent, the sounds and vibes surrounding her), the obnoxious Lord Oxford, dr John Dee, the hostile new king, James I – a whole plethora of Elizabethan players brought to life.

Events aren’t described linearly, but in carefully selected sections that are put under a magnifying glass and dissected before the reader’s eye. Some of them are drawn in such intense and lyrical prose that you will feel as if you are swept into it and drown in it, only to be catapulted to the surface. The language is raw in places, and thus authentic without being pretentious.

Fortune’s Hand By R.N Morris has been quite a discovery for me, prompted by a friend’s recommendation for which I cannot be grateful enough. If you enjoy all-encompassing historical tour de force this book is for you.

An Accidental Tragedy, the life of Mary, Queen of Scots by Roderick Graham

In this hefty volume, Roderick Graham paints a vivid and engaging portrait of Mary Queen of Scots. He takes the reader through her life and her times, demonstrating great sensitivity and objectivity. The geopolitical and societal realities of her days are thoroughly analysed, with the all main historical players deftly brought into the fold of her story.
Mary herself comes across as a real human being, a lone woman in a man’s world, a monarch amongst rivals and contenders, fallible, naive and gullible, sometimes dangerous (to others, but mainly to herself), a romantic and adventurer at heart, a woman manipulated, betrayed, fighting back, winning a few battles and squirmishes, but losing a war, and ultimately her head.
It is a fascinating read, showing vividly Mary’s fatalistic path towards her final demise in a way that makes the reader understand, become sympathetic towards her and furious about her detractors and duplicitous, side-swapping allies and advisers.
What I particularly appreciated about this book (as opposed to others I read about her) was the lack of spurious judgment dictated by the perspective of the victor (Elizabeth I and England) and the sensibilities of the twentieth century. This story is firmly set in the sixteenth century before posterity had a chance to analyse it, twist and warp it to meet the objectives of our modern context which did not exist in Mary’s day. Roderick Graham gave Mary a chance to tell her story as it was.
A wonderful book that reads like action-packed fiction, but at them same time is based on detailed and in-depth research.

The White Rajah by Tom Williams

The White Rajah: In Borneo with Rajah Brooke (The Williamson Papers) by [Tom Williams]

A sweeping historical adventure set in the exotic jungle of Borneo, The White Rajah tells the true story of James Brooke, an adventurer who became the Rajah of Sawark.
This fictionalised and vivid version of Brooke’s life as ruler of a war-torn region in the Far East is narrated by a humble shipmate Williamson who joins Brook on a trading missing to Borneo as an interpreter, grows close to him and becomes his lover and companion.
There are echoes of Conrad’s “Lord Jim” in this wonderful book – the distant, exotic settings, the seafaring themes, the richly portrayed locals under threat from pirates/unscrupulous enemies, and concepts of honour, courage, redemption and fairness; Brook, the white Rajah brings to mind Tuan (lord Jim) with Williamson taking on the role of an eye-witness, not unlike Marlow.
A thoroughly enjoyable tale that will take you on an adventure back in time and to far-flung locations.

Heresy by S J Parris

Heresy: The breathtaking first book in the the No. 1 Sunday Times bestselling historical crime thriller series (Giordano Bruno, Book 1) by [S. J. Parris]

On the run from the Holy Inquisition, Giordano Bruno arrived in England and travelled to Oxford, seeking professorship with Oxford University. SJ Parris used these historical facts to spin a fast-past and intricate crime thriller set in 1583 – during the turbulent reign of Elizabeth I when assassination plots, religious persecutions and political intrigue ruled the day.

Bruno is recruited by Walsingham to act as his spy and to uncover any catholic conspiracies against the queen. It is suspected that such conspiracies are operated by those of the prestigious Oxford academia who secretly adhere to the old faith and refuse to recognise Elizabeth’s legitimacy. Bruno has his own personal reasons to visit Oxford University library – he is searching for a prohibited occultist manuscript he believes may have found its way to England.

As soon as Bruno sets foot at the College a body of one of the Fellows is found mauled viciously by a diabolical dog, the death disturbingly resonant of the martyrdom of St Sebastian. At the insistence of the College Rector, the death is dismissed as an unfortunate accident. But soon another death follows and its similarity to yet another martyred saint cannot be ignored. Bruno is requested to investigate. He ventures into the secret world of sectarian Oxford and over the next few, action-packed days, risking his own life – and heart – follows the clues to make stunning discoveries and not only find the killer but also learn hard-hitting truths about devotion, love and passion, obsession and the all-destroying power of religious convictions.

The historical setting of the tumultuous Elizabethan era in general and the scholarly Oxford in particular provides a rich and intriguing background for a gripping thriller with a multi-layered and complex plot, vivid characters and a historically accurate theme. Bruno is an interesting protagonist: a man possessed of an open mind in the world rife with bigotry and dogmatism, a humanist and scientist, a survivor and a pragmatic idealist. I will be reading more of this series.

The Damask Rose by Carol McGrath

We meet Eleanor of Castille, wife of Prince Edward – the future king of England, as she is taken hostage by Gilbert de Clare, lord of Gloucester. It is the perilous time of the Second Barons’ War against King Henry III. The leader of the pack, Simon de Montfort, controls most of the country and holds the king and his supporters checkmated. Separated from her beloved husband, Eleanor is forced into penury and swears revenge. This is a dynamic and tense introduction to the heroine of Carol McGrath’s biopic novel, The Damask Rose.

The story of her life unfolds in dramatic episodes that defined her and Edward’s rule: the defeat of the barons, his coronation, a crusade and retaking of Acre, an attempted assassination and a whole array of political and diplomatic machinations on the domestic and international front. The main players of the era, such as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, enter the scene. The settings extend beyond the shores of Britain and into France and Italy. European socio-economic dynamics form the backdrop to Eleanor’s story.

McGrath is sympathetic towards Eleanor, but that doesn’t prevent her from being honest about who she was: a smart and tough businesswoman who accumulated an extensive property portfolio and handled it with cunning expertise. She was also a mother who wasn’t motherly, but then again the mortality rate of newborn and young children didn’t allow much room to form emotional attachments, at least not until her children were older. Eleanor of Castile did not bow to the stereotypical female models of the Middle Ages – her strong personality and life skills would stand her in good stead were she to travel in time to the twenty-first century. She could brave our reality with no difficulty, I imagine.

There is another heroine of this story, Olwen. She is a humble herbalist and Eleanor’s companion, confidante and on occasion even her spy. Her loyalty to her mistress is unsurpassed, but she also has her own story which flows in parallel to Eleanor’s but somewhat more idly and with greater intimacy. After all, Olwen doesn’t hold the weight of a whole kingdom on her shoulders.

The Damask Rose is written in beautifully stylised prose. I found myself fully immersed in the language and in Eleanor’s tumultuous life punctuated with many dramatic climaxes. The period detail and descriptions are totally absorbing. McGrath created a sense of immediacy with her heroine and took me on a journey of discovery that will stay with me for a while yet.

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library series Book 1) by [Genevieve Cogman]

The Invisible Library is a mystery of a missing book, an extraordinary edition of The Grimm Brothers’ Fairy Tales. The book, which is a unique collector’s item, has been stolen and its owner murdered. Irene (a librarian-cum-spy) and her assistant, Kai, travel to Victorian London to search for the book.
Until this point, a potential reader would be justified in thinking this was yet another historical mystery. But Victorian London is only one of many versions of itself. Cogman’s world consists of many such alternatives. Each universe features an array of beings other than humans: vampires, fairies, shape-shifting dragons, to name just a few. Zeppelins fly overhead. Robotic caterpillars, remotely operated alligators, silverfish and all manner of bizarre creatures get in the way of the investigation. However, finding the book is a matter of life and death, and the librarian’s nemesis, Alberich will not hesitate to resort to trickery, murder and corruption to get his hands on the book. Ancient Language and magic are used, alongside more conventional methods, by all sides to defeat the competition. Alliances are formed slowly and mistrust has to be overcome in action.
I enjoyed the quest aspect of The Invisible Library and found the concepts of the many alternatives of real places and times very intriguing. The idea of magic being a by-product of destructive chaos is original and curious.
I would have liked Cogman to have perhaps fewer magical creatures, but to develop each of them in greater detail and give them more distinguishable features. As it is the vampires are not that different from the fairies, or indeed the dragons.
Overall, a pleasant fantasy read.

Bitter Sky by Tim Stretton

There is something distinctive and distinguished about Tim Stretton’s books. It isn’t just the elegant and precise prose that instantly takes you out of your present location and throws you into something rich, luxurious and intriguing. It is also the setting in time. You open the book and instantly find yourself in an alternative universe and living through alternative history – alternative but very real and believable.

“Bitter Sky” is a steampunk fantasy, but again the setting feels as if it is a snapshot from history – it feels authentic though you can’t quite pinpoint the exact moment in time where it comes from. Despite that, you have this distinct impression that you read about it or studied that period in school. You find yourself somewhere in Germany, perhaps at the turn of the twentieth century. There are hydrogen-powered airships and steam trains/carriages. They would have been experimental in those days, but in “Bitter Sky” they are fully-functional, tried and tested weapons. There is the strife of a small territory to secede from the powerful and dominant empire, to reject tradition and monarchy, and establish its own identity. The small territory, Lauchenland led by its revolutionary elite called Volksbund, has ambitions beyond mere independence: it declares war on the Beruz Empire. The Empire strikes back. I was fascinated with how the author built that world from fragments of history. I delighted in detecting nuanced references to the unification of German states under imperialistic Prussia’s rule, or the degradation of  the lofty principles of freedom and equality of people in the reign of terror and bureaucracy that followed the French and Russian revolutions. “Bitter Sky” is full of historical analogies cleverly dressed as fantasy and presented in a vibrant, action-packed fashion.

“Bitter Sky” is a pacey and dramatic war romp, complete with air battles, morally questionable bombings, tragic casualties and grand victories. But there is more to it. There is the human factor. The von Eck siblings, Erich and Saskia are torn between their aristocratic loyalties to the Empire and their citizen duty to fight for their country, Lauchenland. Erich joins the fusiliers on the side of the Empire and Saskia becomes an airship navigator with Lauchenland Air Corp. Again, historical references spring to mind where nations divided by borders found their people fighting – and killing – each other on the opposite sides in the Great War and WWII. Stretton captures that torturous dilemma between duty and loyalty, between following and questioning orders and between glorifying and dehumanising war. He doesn’t idealise or side with anyone. The Empire has its faults as does the belligerent republic of Lauchenland. There is a thin line between good and evil, victory and defeat.

The conclusion of this book was ingenious – tense and ultimately, very satisfying. It tied together all the loose ends, linked to the opening chapters and neatly encased the story. Tragedy and fatalism, black magic and characters caught up in events beyond their control bring to mind the dark fairy tales of yesteryear. If Hans Christian Andersen was to write a tale for adults, he could well have written “Bitter Sky”.

An Officer’s Vow by Penny Hampson

An Officer's Vow (Gentlemen Book 2) by [Penny Hampson]

Tired of all the doom and gloom around me, I decided to reach for something that would cheer me and draw me into a different world. I have certainly found it in An Officer’s Vow. It is a classic Regency romance with a pinch of adventure and good dose of genteel humour. In this book you will find everything you would expect from Regency romance: an endearing and feisty damsel in distress, a handsome but somewhat insecure around the opposite sex veteran of Napoleonic wars, greedy and unscrupulous fortune hunters, cold-blooded spies and an array of unforgettable characters. You will hurtle from one misadventure into another at a gallop, with little time to catch your breath.
Hampson is clearly on a first-name basis with the era. She conveys the setting details and the linguistic style of that century with ease. You feel like the book was written two hundred years ago by the likes of Jane Austin.
All in all, I relished every minute of this delectable story.

A Divided Inheritance by Deborah Swift

A Divided Inheritance : Epic historical fiction by [Deborah Swift]

This is a powerful and emotionally captivating story which crossed the boundaries of genre: historical, adventure, romance, tragedy. It is literature with a heart.

I reached for it on recommendation and my expectations were high. The book surpassed them. I found it intriguing to start with and as I went deeper into it I could not put it down.

The story is set in Spain’s Golden Age under Philip the Pious when the country was firmly in the grip of Holy Inquisition and religious intolerance aimed at its Arab population. Moors, once the conquerors, are now persecuted, divested of their rights and property and deported to Northern Africa. In parallel to that, Protestantism has superseded Catholicism in England, and Catholics are forced underground to practise their faith. The persecutors in one country are the persecuted in another, and that irony is not lost on the author. She shows the plight of Moriscos (Arab converts to Christianity) with great empathy. Their rounding up for transportation on ships to Morocco and their futile resistance resonate and bring to mind other similar tragedies in more recent history. The setting of the story in time and place is masterfully delivered.

As are the characters and their personal stories. Swift demolishes stereotypes as her characters develop and leave the comfort zone of what’s familiar and are thrown into the mill of history, misadventure and hardship. I loved the way Elspet transformed from a little English lady into a true heroine. Zachary too underwent his character-building transformation. Two people from two socially irreconcilable backgrounds were ultimately reduced – or rather elevated – to their common denominator, that of just being human.

A wonderful tale.