Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen–Alison Weir


As a much younger reader, I adored historical fiction.  Particularly historical fiction set in medieval Europe.  As a historian, I have concerns about Alison Weir’s blurring the lines between history and fiction, historiography and creative license.

Nevertheless, I was intrigued by her latest foray into the world of Tudor England, a new series on The Six Tudor Queens.  Weir is a bit late to the HBO-Tudors-fueled party, but her fan base and the perpetual interest in Henry’s wives will fuel sales.

Weir begins with Katherine’s girlhood and goes all the way to her deathbed.  Weir’s Katherine is most interesting in the early years, perhaps because that is when life was going well for her and because this is the period that is least discussed.  Henry’s wooing Katherine, Katherine pining for Henry, Henry and Katherine grieving stillborn or lost infants together are appealing. As the losses continue after Mary’s birth and the relationship begins to sour, the tale becomes all too familiar and, unfortunately, flat and dreary.  Weir imagines Katherine first asking if God is punishing them because she was married to Henry’s brother, then asking it again, and then surprised and upset when Henry takes up the charge.  Weir’s Katherine’s motives are simplistic–dynastic and religious.  Katherine never has a political thought to her own advantage.  Her only concern is for Henry and then the Church.  She holds to those principles even when doing so threatens the life of her daughter.  Weir does not even attempt to explain how Katherine made the shift from fighting for her daughter’s legitimacy to sacrificing her to preserve Henry or how she sacrifices Mary for the Church, but refuses to sanction her nephew, the Emperor, invading England because she would never act against Henry, but invading would potentially force Henry back into the Catholic fold.

The last chapters of this book were as torturous for me as they seemed to be for Katherine.  I longed for her death and yet, when Weir finally let her breathe her last, the writing was so horribly trite that I was embarrassed for Weir and sorry for Katherine’s memory.  Weir claims in her prologue that she wrote Katherine’s story maintaining sixteenth-century priorities, but her Katherine is far behind today’s historiography on queens from this era, which is revealing them to be much more complex than the pink-cheeked maiden, the blushing bride, the proud young mother, and the proud post-menopausal queen of Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen.  

Thanks to NetGalley and Random House for the advance ecopy.

Finished 5/10/16


Secrecy–Rupert Thomson

In my mid-forties, the physical experience of a book is becoming more and more significant to my reading experience.  Secrecy by Other Press was a joy for the eyes from the start.  The title begins with the tracery of a medieval illuminated initial.  The cover stock is thick and a flap folds in for the publisher’s plot teaser.  The stock itself seems aged and water-stained.  Designer Archie Ferguson seems to have designed a cover that catered directly to me.  When I opened the pages, the physical pleasure of the book continued.  The print size is large without seeming like it was meant for my grandmother and the margins are large.  My eyes smiled.

Secrecy is a quick read, perhaps in part due to the larger print size, but also due to a quick story without too many intricate details that require re-reading.  Zummo is a Sicilian wax sculptor who fled home in the wake of rumors of necrophilia.  His brother tormented him throughout their childhood and there is some question about Zummo’s parentage.  He begins the story with a visit to a nun, the wife of the Grand Duke Cosimo III of the infamous Medici Florence.  The novel is the story he tells her and her response.  Cosimo became Zummo’s patron, commissioning grotesquely beautiful works recreating the decay of the plague that haunted seventeenth-century Italy.  He also makes a secret commission–a beautiful woman–that seems to contradict all of Cosimo’s harsh prohibitions against adultery and sodomy and various other sexual sins.  Because it is seventeenth-century Italy the villain is, of course, an evil hypocritical Dominican friar, Stufa.  Zummo demonstrates the depths of his humanity in a foil to Stufa’s inhumanity and we know a showdown is looming.  Add a beautiful apothecary’s niece whose own parentage is also in question and the triangle is complete.

Secrecy‘s plot is not demanding.  For someone who enjoys this time period, reading this beautifully designed novel was like curling up with a bowl of chocolate chip cookie dough–comforting, yummy, and easy to swallow if not all that nutritious.

Finished 6/16/15

The Four Seasons: A Novel of Vivaldi’s Venice–Laurel Corona

After reading Marrying Mozart, I’m kind of into learning about famous composers through historical fiction, so I thought, why not Vivaldi?  I almost stopped reading after the third chapter.  The story just wasn’t grabbing me. There were two sisters, wards of the Pietà, who were taken from their village and brought to Venice, but I just wasn’t caring.  I’m so glad I kept going.  Maddalena and Chiaretta show great promise as a violinist and vocalist respectively and end up working at various times with Vivaldi, with whom Maddalena develops a deep and complicated relationship.  Chiaretta becomes famous for her voice and is eventually married to a member of the Congregazioné, which oversees the Pietà.

Corona probes the sad fate of women at the time and, although she begins painting a harsh picture of life in a religious institution, finally suggests that their fates are kinder than those of the women in the secular world.

Her historical notes at the end of the novel offer more food for thought about the role of women in this period.

Finished 8/31/12

Nicholas Cooke: Actor, Soldier,Physician, Priest-Stephanie Cowell


I have read several of Cowell’s novels and have only now come to her first, Nicholas Cooke.  Cowell enters the Elizabethan world she knows so well from her studies and Renaissance festival experience to create Cooke, son of a hanged man and a prostitute, himself a refugee from the law fled from Canterbury to London and saved by Kit Morley, later apprenticed to John Heminges and friend to William Shagspere.  Nicholas becomes one of the actors with Heminges’ troop, later a star of the Globe, but is always troubled by a calling to the priesthood for which he no longer feels fit.  He runs away to war in Ireland with Essex and marries Heminges’ daughter and fathers several children , buys and tries to restore the chapel to which he fled as a young man, and then, finally, studies medicine and Oxford and receives ordination after befriending an ailing and aging bishop.

Cowell creates a complex and likeable protagonist and, in the process, made me fall further in love with Heminges, the man who seems to have kept so many geniuses together.

I regret that Nicholas is not a historical figure, but Cowell has made him so realistic that I’m sure somewhere there was a Nicholas Cooke, even if she did not find him exactly in the records.

Finished 6/23/12

The Glass of Time–Michael Cox

I’m blaming it on The Last Dickens, which I picked up while on vacation and stuck without anything to read.  I had steered clear of historical fiction, particularly historical mystery fiction, for a long time, but now I’m back and drawn to the 19th century.  I’m also trying to stay true to my project of going through the library shelves and, since Cox is in the Cs, it was read this now or wait until the project was over.

A note unrelated to the actual text.  It is amazing the different iterations of cover art.  This particular version contains a black and white image of what looks to be a generic sort of Victorian brick building, maybe an estate, but on closer inspection, the building itself is quite intriguing because the steps are flanked by stone greyhounds.   Yes, greyhounds rather than lions.  It’s Brodsworth Hall in Yorkshire and the photograph comes from the Marsden Archives, which features the fantastic and supernatural.  Interesting choice for the cover art here.

In medieval art, dogs signify loyalty, which is a theme in this novel.  Young Esperanza “Alice” Gorst comes to Evenwood in Northhamptonshire on an undefined mission from her guardian, Madame de l’Orme, and tutor, Mr. Thornhaugh, to secure the position of and serve as lady’s maid to Landy Tansor, whose story and two sons intrigue young Alice.  Madame de l’Orme promises Esperanza that she will outline the details of her mission in three letters to be delivered by the end of the year.  All she knows to start is that she is to get as close to Lady Tansor as possible, while watching her own back.

Lady Tansor is widowed, but she mourns not her husband, rather her fiance and youthful love, a dreadful poet, Phoebus Daunt, who had been named heir to the Tansor fortune in light of Lord Tansor’s lack of a son.  Daunt had been murdered, reputedly by his school friend, Edward Glyver, who then disappeared from history.  Emily Carteret, whose own father had recently been murdered in a suspected theft, was subsequently chosen by Lord Tansor as his heir and she left promptly for Europe to mourn and returned with a Polish husband and infant son.  Esperanza’s father was Edwin Gorst, now buried in Paris alongside her mother, who died shortly after her birth.  Madame de l’Orme, a family friend & herself a widow, undertook to raise Esperanza.

I’m sure you can see where this is going.  What is fun is that, even though the major plot line is clear early on, several of the twists are not and Cox manages to leave the trail of bread crumbs in an entertaining and suspenseful way.  Esperanza is so loyal to her mission that she betrays a growing sense of friendship and her own heart in order to accomplish it.  Lady Tansor is so loyal to her dead lover that she commits sin after sin in order to carry out his mission.  Esperanza, who seems the soul of loyalty, in the end is less loyal than the selfish Lady Tansor, maybe because Esperanza’s mission is carried out for her late father, who is revealed to have been less loyal than Esperanza might have hoped.

Cox engages in some of the Da Vinci Code methodology that has become de rigor for historical mystery and includes footnotes regarding Victorian literature and names, which throws an oddly scholarly edge to a novel that is written as a first-person account of this undefined mission.

It’s a good historical mystery read that privileges the love relationship over that of mere friendship and that provides several twists and turns to keep it all interesting, and this in the first person.  Not an easy task.

Finished 6/10/12

The Last Dickens–Matthew Pearl

This book is amazing.  I had read Pearl’s earlier work, The Dante Club, but had not followed his work since.  I happened upon this novel while on vacation and am delighted.  Dickens is dead and his last novel unfinished–or is it?  James Osgood, of Osgood and Field, Dickens’ American publishers, becomes involved in the search for Dickens last pages as he investigates the death of his employee, Daniel Sand.  Daniel happens to be the brother of the young widow, Rebecca Sand, who is one of the women to recently join the firm’s office and who joins Osgood on his quest.  The story moves from Boston to New York to England to India and back and between the time of Dickens’ death and his first American tour, but Pearl brings it all together in a masterful conclusion.  In the meantime, he explores issues of gender, early publishing, and New York politics in the late nineteenth century that make this more than just a historical crime drama.  Now I have to find The Poe Shadow.

Finished 5/21/12

The Players: A Novel of the Young Shakespeare–Stephanie Cowell

I’ve always wondered how Shakespeare could write such beautiful love poetry and leave his wife and children in Stratford.  Cowell’s novel tries to give us that answer.  She begins with Shakespeare as a young man and traces his lusty relationship with Anne and follows him into London as he flees from that suffocating sense of the ordinary life sans passion that stretches out before him.  Cowell’s story argues that Shakespeare’s famous love sonnets were written for the Earl of Southampton, with whom she portrays Shakespeare as having a rapid and wild affair through their shared lover, Emilia.

As with her novel portraying the early life and loves of Mozart, Cowell manages to humanize the legend and rekindle my interest in his work.

Finished 5/22/12