Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Seventh Son by Reay Tannahill

It seems that of the books I have read so far about Richard III, the author either loves him (and he therefore can do no wrong) or hates him (and every evil in the world is attributable to him). The Seventh Son by Reay Tannahill takes a more middle of the road approach which results in a more balanced view of Richard III’s nature and personality. What emerges is a man who was a fiercely loyal to his family and who worked hard to improve his country. A man who wasn't above some morally questionable behavior when he thought it necessary but who also seemed to want to do the right thing. A man who found it hard to trust others and lacked the charm to be well-liked. Throw in an ousted young king, a couple of murdered nephews, several vindictive in-laws (the Woodvilles) and numerous gossip mongers, and you have the makings of a story full of possibilities.

The story is told in a series of “snapshots”, often starting in the middle of a conversation or event which then provides some information that allows the reader to “catch up” where necessary. The result is often a more intimate look into events and characters that manages to avoid getting bogged down in too many details. The reader is given a glimpse into the private conversations that take place between husbands and wives, close friends, and co-conspirators, providing different scenarios for some of the more well-known events in Richard’s life. I liked the approach of telling the story this way, but if you aren't familiar with the basic history, I can see how it might be a little confusing.

Tannahill’s Richard is neither a saint nor the devil. He makes mistakes – sometimes for what seems to be good reasons and sometimes, with a rashness he later regrets. Those closest to him think his taking of the throne is a mistake. The death of the Princes in the Tower occurs in the traditional way (smothering) but is attributed to someone other than the usual suspects. I don’t know how likely it is, but it was nice to see a different approach. It is the panicked actions of a servant who will set into motion the rumors and innuendo that form the basis for Richard’s enemies to get people on their side to oust the “murderer of babes”.

Richard’s wife, Anne, plays a bigger role here than I’ve seen in other novels and I thought she was well portrayed.. Although she does have somewhat of a “delicate” nature, this doesn’t stop her from having her own opinions or a mind of her own, as well as a great sense of humor. She loves Richard and tries to be supportive. But she struggles with some of the things Richard has done and as things in the country become more unstable, Richard shuts her out emotionally, focusing all of his time and energy on putting down rebellions and quieting gossip. Although there is no question as to why Richard married her (for her land of course), he does come to love her and by the time he realizes the distance that has come between them, it is almost too late.

Although I don't think this is as good as Penman's The Sunne in Splendour, it was one of the more enjoyable fictional accounts that I've read so far.

Favorite lines: "You are in a hurry? You have other men to murder? Then perhaps you had better leave us." King Edward V to Richard and Buckingham after the execution of Hastings where the young king attempts to assert his place.

"Love isn't about feeling warmth and passion for someone who never puts a foot wrong. Love isn't a matter of 'because of'. It's a matter of 'in spite of'. That is the test." Anne to a friend as she tries to deal with the rumors regarding Richard's involvement in the disappearance of the princes.

Rating: Very Good

Monday, September 22, 2008

Monday Mosaic

Since I finished The Heretic Queen a few days ago, today's mosaic is of Nefertari. The image is taken from her burial tomb - described as the largest and most beautiful of the tombs in the Valley of the Queens. In order for the mosaic not to get too messy due to the number of symbols near the image, I cropped most of them out. I have however included the full image below. As a reminder, if you click on the mosaic, it enlarges it so you can see the detail.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Heretic Queen by Michelle Moran

I like to sleep. In fact, if I don’t get 7 ½ to 8 hours of sleep a night, I’m rather grumpy the next day. So, you might be asking, what does this have to do with a book review?

Well, I stayed up until midnight last night to finish Michelle Moran’s second book, The Heretic Queen – I did not want to put it down and I had to know what happened. There are very few books that I have been willing to sacrifice sleep for and this one was definitely worth it! Set a few years after the her first book, Nefertiti, The Heretic Queen is the story of Queen Nefertari’s struggle to marry the man she loves, Ramesess the Great, and to become his Chief Wife and Queen.

And it is a struggle. Her royal birth as the daughter of Nefertiti’s sister, Queen Mutnodjmet, is a liability rather than a free pass. The people remember the heretic reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten and Nefertiti and as a result Nefertari is openly shunned and ridiculed for who her family was and what they did. An orphan in the court of Ramesess’ father, her few friends include the prince himself and Nefertari is nearly heartbroken when Ramesess marries the beautiful daughter of a peasant harem girl.

But there is more to this story than just Nefertari’s love for Ramesess. Unknown to both Pharaoh Seti and Prince Ramesess, political intrigues and plots are swirling through their court and will come at them from the place they least expected – family. Nefertari soon comes to understand that what is at stake is more than just her place at court or in Ramesess’s heart. Smart, politically savvy and well versed in foreign languages, it is Nefertari’s success or failure that will determine Egypt’s future. She is also determined to make sure that her family is not forgotten and are once again, part of Egypt's history.

Although the names Nefertari and Ramesess may be best known from the 1950’s movie The Ten Commandments, their story here is quite different. And if you are looking for Moses and the great exodus out of Egypt, you won’t find it. Moran does not completely ignore the existence of the Hebrews in Egypt nor of a leader who appears demanding their release. But she leaves the drama to the Old Testament and to the movies (all of which is very well explained in an excellent Historical Note).

The story is told in the first person by Nefertari herself and while first person narratives are not really my favorite, this is one of the few books that I’ve read where it seems to work well and is not distracting. I found the choice of narrator to be a large part of the book’s success as compared to the narration of Mutny in Nefertiti. Nefertari is not overly ambitious, greedy or selfish (unlike Nefertiti) and the choices she makes are driven largely by her love of Ramsess and what is best for Egypt, making her a character you can root for and care about.

The details and descriptions of life in Ancient Egypt are exquisite, especially the clothes, hair and makeup. I did have a hard time reconciling the physical description of Ramesess in the book with that of the image of Yule Brenner's portrayal of him. Who would have ever thought that there were red haired Egyptians? A family tree, map and glossary are also included and are very helpful. I am looking forward to Ms. Moran's next book, Cleopatra’s Daughter.

Favorite line: "Men are like (dogs). Give them a good meal and they'll come around wanting it again. But you will make sure he understands that meals don't come free." Ramesses's aunt discussing her strategy with Nefertari on how to make Ramesses want to marry her.

The proof of Ramesses devotion: "My love is unique and none can rival her...Just by passing, she has stolen away my heart." Words from Ramesses inscribed on Nefertari's burial chamber (isn't that beautiful?).

Rating: Excellent

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Ivy Crown by Mary Luke

The Ivy Crown is a “biographical novel” of the life of Henry VIII’s last queen – Katherine Parr. Written in the early 1980’s, I found it to be very readable and enjoyable, full of attention to detail, lush imagery (especially the clothes) and insight into the political and religious intricacies on which fortunes – and lives- often depended.

Time is spent on Katherine’s early life detailing friendships with Mary Tudor and Katherine Willoughby (later Brandon). These are friendships that will endure throughout Katherine’s life and I could often visualize these young girls (and later young women) huddling in the corner and catching up on the latest gossip or helping each other cope with the circumstances life had thrust upon them. They also provide clues as to maybe why she was chosen to be one of Henry’s wives, something that I never really understood. Katherine’s friendship with Anne Askew is also explored as is much of the religious debate of the time.

Katherine is well educated, intelligent, poised and kind. She makes the best of marrying two much older men, caring for their estates and their children. But she often wonders what it would be like to have a real loving relationship – to love and to be loved in return. She finds herself attracted to Thomas Seymour, although given the way he is described you would think someone as smart of Katherine would have seen him for the opportunist he probably really was. But Katherine finds a chemistry with him and when she realizes the feeling is mutual, she hopes for a little bit of happiness for herself. But the king has other plans for her and she is somewhat hurt and confused at Thomas’ willingness to step aside so quickly. It should have been her first clue.

Luke does an excellent job of explaining several events related to the religious/political upheaval that swept across England, especially the Pilgrimage of Grace. By pulling its leader Robert Aske into a relationship with Katherine’s long time maid, the story becomes more personal and the events and people more real. I have read brief references to this event in other books, but I now have a better sense of what it was all about.

Katherine interacts with all of the major personalities from Henry’s reign – but it never feels contrived. Each of the former wives is touched on to some extent as are Henry’s children and Katherine’s relationship with them. There are bits and pieces of the mundane and more ordinary parts of people’s lives – walking through a garden picking flowers, racing across fields, going on a picnic with friends. But it is through those moments that the characters are at their most vulnerable and we learn the most about them as people. I thought the scene where Henry is near death was particularly touching (I felt sorry for the old guy) as is the simple act of a young king Edward which gives the book its name (you’ll have to read it to find out what it is! - several reasonably priced copies are available through Amazon and AbeBooks).

The only other book about Katherine Parr that I have read is The Last Wife of Henry VIII by Carolly Erickson. I think The Ivy Crown is much more detailed and considerably better written.

Rating: Very Good

Monday, September 15, 2008

Monday Mosaic

Today's mosaic is of Katherine Parr. This particular portrait was, for years, thought to be that of Lady Jane Grey. But recently, historians have decided that it is Henry VIII's sixth (and last) wife. It is dated about 1545. It somewhat reminds me of some pictures of Mary Tudor though.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Lionheart by Martha Rofheart

England’s King Richard I is the subject of Lionheart, the first book that I’ve read by Martha Rofheart. Written in the early 1980’s, it tells Richard’s story from the first person viewpoints of himself plus 5 people who knew him: his mistress and mother of his son; his mother; his captain; his chronicler and foster brother; and his wife. The story is told mostly chronologically with one narrator picking up the story where the last one left off.

It is a well told story and one that I thought was much better than Plaidy’s The Heart of the Lion which I found rather dry. Here, Richard’s character is well developed by the events that shape his life. He is not perfect; in fact, there are times when he is cruel, thoughtless and selfish. But he is also charming, considerate and pious. These characteristics sometimes collide as he is forced to make choices in his life that will later define his legacy – and the legend of Richard the Lionheart.

Of the narrators, only his mistress is fictional (but only by her identity). Richard did have an illegitimate son so the mother of his child did exist but I believe her identity is unknown. Rofheart gives her a name and a story as the daughter of the troubadour Blondel and her presence provides a more intimate side of Richard (not necessarily in the physical sense although there is some light sex) as well as a diversion from the battle heavy life that he led.

There were two things about the book that I did not like (enough so that I’m rating the book a little lower than I would have otherwise). The first is a rather violent rape scene that was more graphic than I thought it needed to be. If there is going to be detailed sexual descriptions in a book, I would rather it be during a more positive moment between two people who at least like each other and/or are figuring each other out. The violence of rape can be well enough imagined without resorting to a play-by-play. Second, I did find the part regarding Richard’s time on crusade (especially as told by the Chronicler Alexander) to be too long and sometimes boring. I think this part of the book suffered from the same problem that I had with Penman’s Time and Chance regarding Henry II’s feud with Beckett – it sounded too much like it was taken directly out of the contemporary accounts of the events. I am not suggesting that she should not have used this as sources for the book, but it seems that for a fictional novel, they could have been dressed up a bit more and not sounded so much like a historical account that you would find in a history book.

There were also a couple of words that I thought were way to modern and stuck out enough that I remembered them – Berengaria being “made over” by Eleanor and her daughter Joanna and their encouragement to her to get a “sun tan” to improve the color of her skin.

Rofheart wrote a few other historical fiction books including one on Cleopatra (The Alexandrain), Henry V (Fortune Made His Sword perhaps also published as Cry God for Harry), and Owen Glendower of Wales (Glendower Country perhaps also published as Cry God for Glendower). Has anyone read them (or can anyone confirm whether or not a couple of them were published under different names - or are those different books; I'm confused)?

Talk about dysfunctional: "The Poitevin side was irresponsible and worldly, often heretic, and the Angevins were hag-ridden with bloodshed and sorcery, feared by all good folks. And then, to top it off, my mother divorced a saint, and my father murdered one." Richard describing the legacy of his family.

Rating: Good

Monday, September 8, 2008

Monday Mosaic

I finished reading Lionheart by Martha Rofheart last night (I'll post a review soon). This week's mosaic is a 12th century rendering of Richard I of England - who was born 851 years ago today. I think these early portraits are interesting, but I have to wonder how closely they actually resembled the person since many of the pictures look a lot alike. I think this particular mosaic turned out pretty good though.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Time and Chance by Sharon Kay Penman

In preparation for the upcoming release of Sharon Kay Penman’s Devil’s Brood, I figured I should read the second book in her Henry II/Eleanor of Aquitaine trilogy first (I read the first book, When Christ and His Saints Slept a couple of years ago). Time and Chance picks up their story shortly after Henry becomes king and follows the next 15 years of their lives as Eleanor has their children and Henry consolidates his power, fights with the Welsh, and has the infamous showdown with Thomas Becket.

Woven throughout Henry and Eleanor’s story is the continuing story of Penman’s fictional character Ranulf, half brother to Henry’s mother the Empress Maude. Ranulf is part Welsh, has a Welsh wife and in many ways, considers himself Welsh. His loyalties to his family and to his nephew often conflict and although Henry considers his uncle one of his closest advisors, eventually the conflict leads to an estrangement that they both feel deeply. I don’t mind the introduction of a fictional character such as Ranulf into an otherwise pretty historically accurate story, and I enjoyed his storyline as it provided the opportunity to learn about the Welsh and their perspective on the growing hostility with England.

Although there were times when I thought the relationship between Henry and Eleanor was a little flat, Time and Chance is the best fictional characterization of their relationship that I have read so far (compared to Plaidy or Lofts). Theirs was definitely a complex and complicated relationship, made even more so by Eleanor’s abilities and personality which were ahead of her time. Their relationship is dynamic and Penman often does a good job of conveying the emotional subtleties that bounce between them. Henry trusts her, confides in her and loves her. But eventually he finds that he needs someone less intense who is not his equal – which he finds in a young Rosamund Clifford. The public favor shown by Henry to Rosamund makes the nature of their relationship clear to everyone, including Eleanor. And it will drive a wedge into their marriage from which they will never recover although Henry will be slow to realize it. One of my favorite scenes is when a very pregnant Eleanor confronts Rosamund and I like it more for what doesn’t happen and the class and dignity Eleanor displays.

My major complaint concerns Penman’s treatment and characterization of Thomas Becket. An integral player in Henry’s reign (and probably that for which he most remembered), the plotline involving Becket starts off interestingly enough but it becomes bogged down in too many details and I found much of it boring. I also never got a sense of what made Becket turn against Henry so quickly. We are given plenty of insight into Henry’s view of things but Becket’s motivations and thoughts remain a mystery. As the events head toward their eventual conclusion, Penman makes liberal use of several contemporary accounts to include minute details about the dispute that frankly, I really didn’t care about and I found myself skipping ahead. I would rather she made an attempt to present some insight into Becket’s mind and what led him to take such an adamant stand against his one time friend.

I don't think this is one of Penman's best works. But, a “not quite up to snuff” work by Penman is still better than a lot of the stuff that is out there. I am looking forward to reading Devil’s Brood (probably later this month) to see how she concludes their story.

Rating: Good