The Plantagenets

The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made EnglandThe Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England by Dan Jones

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Very engaging! Covers 200 years of English history from Henry II through Richard II. Very much a book about the kings, their wars, and accomplishments told by a master story teller. Jones manages to deconstruct the myths and legends, while incorporating the latest research and insights into their lives and personalities. We get the good, the bad, and the ugly about these kings and yet Jones still manages to make them human beings. As bad as some of these kings were, they still managed to create a strong and powerful realm, an England that has endured to the present day.

Book description: The first Plantagenet kings inherited a blood-soaked realm from the Normans and transformed it into an empire that stretched at its peak from Scotland to Jerusalem. In this epic narrative history of courage, treachery, ambition, and deception, Dan Jones resurrects the unruly royal dynasty that preceded the Tudors. They produced England’s best and worst kings: Henry II and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, twice a queen and the most famous woman in Christendom; their son Richard the Lionheart, who fought Saladin in the Third Crusade; and his conniving brother King John, who was forced to grant his people new rights under the Magna Carta, the basis for our own bill of rights. Combining the latest academic research with a gift for storytelling, Jones vividly recreates the great battles of Bannockburn, Crécy, and Sluys and reveals how the maligned kings Edward II and Richard II met their downfalls. This is the era of chivalry and the Black Death, the Knights Templar, the founding of parliament, and the Hundred Years’ War, when England’s national identity was forged by the sword.

The Greatest Knight

The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, The Power Behind Five English ThronesThe Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, The Power Behind Five English Thrones by Thomas Asbridge

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An enthusiastic 5 stars, with the caveat that this book is intended for the general reader, and not a scholarly biography. Very “readable” but supported by extensive research and notes, maps, genealogical tables, and color illustrations. There is even a Cast of Characters in the back, but surprisingly no bibliography or suggestions for further reading. I loved the digressions about how to become a knight, the history of tournaments, sword-making, going on Crusade, courtly etiquette and manners, etc. There really are not a lot of details known about William’s life, so this is told through his associations with Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II and his son the “Young King,” Richard the Lion-Hearted, and the evil King John. William dies three years into the reign of Henry III and I was left wanting to know more about this king and how he picked up the pieces after the disastrous reign of his father. I know there is a fairly recent book on Henry III: The Gothic King: A Biography of Henry III (2013) and a new one by Matthew Lewis coming out in March 2017. I may also have to seek out Asbridge’s earlier books on the Crusades. This was a great start to my review of recent books on the Plantagenets and the Wars of the Roses.

Book Description: Renowned historian Thomas Asbridge draws upon the thirteenth-century biography and an array of contemporary evidence to present a compelling account of William Marshal’s life and times. Asbridge charts the unparalleled rise to prominence of a man bound to a code of honor yet driven by unquenchable ambition. Marshal was the true Lancelot of his era — a peerless warrior and paragon of chivalry. As a five-year-old boy, William was sentenced to execution and led to the gallows, yet this landless younger son survived his brush with death and went on to train as a medieval knight. Against all odds, Marshal rose through the ranks — serving at the right hand of five English monarchs — to become a celebrated tournament champion, a baron and politician, and, ultimately, regent of the realm. This knight’s tale lays bare the brutish realities of medieval warfare and the machinations of royal court, and draws us into the heart of a formative period of our history. It is the story of one remarkable man, the birth of the knightly class to which he belonged, and the forging of the English nation.

The Other Boleyn Girl

The Other Boleyn Girl (The Tudor Court, #2)The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Time Period: 1521-1536
Setting: The various courts of Henry VIII, Hever Castle, Rochford
Main Characters: Mary Boleyn, Anne Boleyn, George Boleyn, Henry VIII

Opening lines: “I could hear a roll of muffled drums. But I could see nothing but the lacing on the bodice of the lady standing in front of me, blocking my view of the scaffold. I had been at this court for more than a year and attended hundreds of festivities; but never before one like this.”

3 stars for me. Not so much because of her treatment of history – it isn’t as bad as the fabrications of the TV series “The Tudors” – and there is admittedly not a lot known about Mary Boleyn, including when she was born and whether either of her first two children were actually Henry’s or not. And who can fault an author for incorporating all of the more sensational claims of witchcraft, homosexuality, incest, etc.? It makes a whopping good tale! BUT, I find her characters too starkly black and white. Mary the good, innocent sister. Anne the scheming and vicious shrew. The Boleyn family ambitious at all costs. She practically beats you over the head with what you are supposed to think and how you are supposed to feel about these characters. Her style becomes too repetitive telling you the same things over and over again. But she portrays a court where all of these things certainly could have happened. You certainly get a feel for how long Anne had to keep Henry interested before they were finally married, and how exhausting it must have been. And I liked the story of the romance between Mary and William Stafford. She did marry against her family’s wishes and there is extant a very passionate letter by her defending her choice. This novel ends with Anne’s execution, but Mary went on to live quite happily and inherited all of the Boleyn holdings after her parents died, so she and William ended up quite wealthy landowners.

Book Description: When Mary Boleyn comes to court as an innocent girl of fourteen, she catches the eye of the handsome and charming Henry VIII. Dazzled by the king, Mary falls in love with both her golden prince and her growing role as unofficial queen. However, she soon realizes just how much she is a pawn in her family’s ambitious plots as the king’s interest begins to wane, and soon she is forced to step aside for her best friend and rival: her sister, Anne. With her own destiny suddenly unknown, Mary realizes that she must defy her family and take fate into her own hands.

Comments on the films:
The 2008 version starring Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman, and Eric Bana:
2 stars. Where do I even start? Fans of the book will be sorely disappointed. The time frame has been shortened considerable. Mary’s first husband just disappears with no mention of his death. There is no romance between Mary and William Stafford. Just a note at the end of the movie that they got married and lived happily. Mary has a son but no daughter, and there is nothing of her and her children which was one of the good parts of the book. It is all about Anne Boleyn, and with the time frame so shortened, it all comes off as ridiculous and unbelievable. Eric Bana is suitably regal as Henry VIII, but dark-haired and much too young here. The sets and costumes are gorgeous.

The 2003 version starring Natascha McElhone, Jodhi May, and Jared Harris:
3 stars despite the low budget sets and costumes. This is a little more intimate in format, and I kind of liked the confessional asides by the two sisters. I thought Jared Harris was too small to be Henry VIII and had none of the authority and hints of the tyrant he would become that Eric Bana portrayed. But all in all, it follows the book a little more closely and does not leave out key events like the death of William Carey. I still would have liked the romance between Mary and William Stafford developed a bit more.

H is for Hawk

H is for HawkH is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A wonderful intimate look at the world of falconry, a memoir of loss and grief, and an examination of the life and world of T.H. White. A fan of White ever since the Disney version of A Sword in the Stone, I quickly realized how little I knew of this apparently tortured man. Any rereading of The Once and Future King will undoubtedly be enriched by this. Helen gives us a moving portrait of her father, as she examines the rawness of her own grief accompanied by the rawness of living close to a wild, untameable creature. Life with a goshawk confronts us with death — but death as a part of the whole cycle of life and being alive. Her lyrical meditations cover the gamut of human experience — history, philosophy, psychology, the natural world, hopes, fears, depression, madness, cruelty, love and healing — told with heart-wrenching honesty.

Book Description: When Helen Macdonald’s father died suddenly on a London street, she was devastated. An experienced falconer—Helen had been captivated by hawks since childhood—she’d never before been tempted to train one of the most vicious predators, the goshawk. But in her grief, she saw that the goshawk’s fierce and feral temperament mirrored her own. Resolving to purchase and raise the deadly creature as a means to cope with her loss, she adopted Mabel, and turned to the guidance of The Once and Future King author T.H. White’s chronicle The Goshawk to begin her challenging endeavor. Projecting herself “in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her” tested the limits of Macdonald’s humanity and changed her life.

Heart-wrenching and humorous, this book is an unflinching account of bereavement and a unique look at the magnetism of an extraordinary beast, with a parallel examination of a legendary writer’s eccentric falconry. Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator.

The Cuckoo’s Calling

The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike #1)The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really liked this book. Mystery, suspense, engaging characters, humor, and a satisfying ending. I didn’t guess the murderer, although he was one of my “suspects.” I had wondered about him, but I was still considering several other possibilities by the time the author revealed it. Comoran is a tough-guy wounded veteran, down-and-out, and somewhat cranky, but he has a good heart. With Robin, his temp secretary, I couldn’t help but think of “Batman and Robin”. Their relationship is wonderful – Robin turns out to be a very adept and enthusiastic partner. J.K. Rowling, writing as Galbraith, is no stranger to the lives of the rich and famous and the papparazi. She brings all of that to life, and the narrator, Robert Glenister, does the same with the various character’s voices.

Book Description: After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Strike is down to one client, and creditors are calling. He has also just broken up with his longtime girlfriend and is living in his office. Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: His sister, the legendary supermodel Lula Landry, known to her friends as the Cuckoo, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man.

Before I Go to Sleep

Before I Go To SleepBefore I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Caution: Review may contain spoilers.

I waffled between 2 and 3 stars for this book. It was okay, but mainly because I can tolerate more flaws in audiobooks where I would quickly lose patience reading it. It’s an okay story. The premise is intriguing and it started out very well. The author sets up the story of a woman who doesn’t know who she is, but apparently she has been keeping a journal. She is seeing a doctor who calls her on a cellphone that he gave her and tells her where she keeps the journal hidden from her supposed husband, Ben. The mystery is set up right from the beginning as she begins to read about her life and on the first page of the journal she has written “DON’T TRUST BEN.” So far so good. Then we follow Christine from day to day through the journal to see what brought her to this point. So we have an unreliable narrator, an unreliable husband, and who knows whether or not this doctor is reliable. The plot moves forward ever so slowly as memories do resurface from time to time, and she seems to be able to hold onto them as they are retriggered through the journal each day. But that gets very repetitious. The key to solving the mystery seems to be to find out what happened to her long lost best friend, Claire, who might be able to provide some answers. But the story takes far too long to get there, and we have completely lost the suspense that was set up at the beginning. To be fair, I already knew how it would end. But would I have been surprised at that point? Maybe, but it had no psychological impact for me getting there. The book needed much more in the way of creepy foreshadowing.

The setting, London, was entirely irrelevant, especially since the publishers had completely Americanized the dialog. I had to keep reminding myself this was supposed to be Britain as even the audiobook was narrated by an American, Orlagh Cassidy. Intriguing premise aside, the specifics were just not credulous. The journal reads like a novel, not a journal. Do we seriously believe she has time to write with such mind-numbing detail and keep it hidden from Ben? And Claire – what kind of best friend wouldn’t have tried to find Christine? Not to mention her son… This might have worked a lot better as a dual story perhaps with some back and forth between Christine’s and Claire’s point of view. This could be a decent movie with some of the plot points tightened up and opening it up to more points of view.

Book Description: ‘As I sleep, my mind will erase everything I did today. I will wake up tomorrow as I did this morning. Thinking I’m still a child. Thinking I have a whole lifetime of choice ahead of me …’ Memories define us. So what if you lost yours every time you went to sleep? Your name, your identity, your past, even the people you love—all forgotten overnight. And the one person you trust may only be telling you half the story. Welcome to Christine’s life.

The Sixth Wife

The Sixth Wife (Tudor Saga, #7)The Sixth Wife by Jean Plaidy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t think I have read Jean Plaidy for several decades. I devoured her books in my teens and had forgotten how good she is. Her historical research was top-notch, and she worked all those facts seamlessly into her narrative. While it may lack somewhat in psychological depth, for sheer emotional drama she conveys all the horror of being the wife of a psychopathic tyrant.

Book Description: Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Katherine Howard, was both foolish and unfaithful, and she paid for it with her life. Henry vowed that his sixth wife would be different, and she was. Katherine Parr was twice widowed and thirty-one years old. A thoughtful, well-read lady, she was known at court for her unblemished reputation and her kind heart. She had hoped to marry for love and had set her heart on Thomas Seymour, the dashing brother of Henry’s third queen. But the aging king—more in need of a nurse than a wife—was drawn to her, and Katherine could not refuse his proposal of marriage.

Queen Katherine was able to soothe the King’s notorious temper, and his three children grew fond of her, the only mother they had ever really known. Trapped in a loveless marriage to a volatile tyrant, books were Katherine’s consolation. But among her intellectual pursuits was an interest in Lutheranism—a religion that the king saw as a threat to his supremacy as head of the new Church of England. Courtiers envious of the Queen’s influence over Henry sought to destroy her by linking her with the “radical” religious reformers. Henry raged that Katherine had betrayed him, and had a warrant drawn up for her arrest and imprisonment. At court it was whispered that the king would soon execute yet another wife. Henry’s sixth wife would have to rely on her wits to survive where two other women had perished. . . .