Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Kate Emerson continues to impress...

Secrets of the Tudor Court, #3
by Kate Emerson

By Royal DecreeDescription: http://www.assoc-amazon.com/e/ir?t=historiobsess-20&l=btl&camp=213689&creative=392969&o=1&a=1439177813 is the third installment in Kate Emerson’s series, The Secrets of the Tudor Court.  This series is unique is that each novel is narrated by an actual but marginal woman within the Tudor Court.  I truly enjoy Emerson’s use of this innovative and fresh point of view and at the same time enjoy her novels as they follow the history accurately.  Surprisingly, Emerson includes the actual events of the woman’s life and weaves that into the larger historical setting.  Every installment has been a new and interesting journey into the lives of those Tudor enthusiasts recognize, but do not know much about.  I find this technique enables Emerson to expand and explain motivations in such a way that the greater historical framework is not broached.  I find Emerson’s writing both innovative and classic and truly a wonderful example of how historical fiction should be done.

By Royal Decree follows the story of Elizabeth “Bess” Brooke, daughter of Lord George Brooke, 9th Baron Cobham of Kent.  The story opens with Henry entertaining a group of eligible women of noble birth, including Bess, in his search for his sixth wife.  In the first chapter we again encounter Nan Basset, Between Two Queens, and Emerson allows the second and third installment of the Secrets of the Tudor Court to overlap ever so slightly, which worked for this reader.  Bess brought to court by her parents to attend the King’s banquet.  Bess, young and beautiful, attracted the King’s interest that made her wary and she felt the need to escape his notice.  In her attempt to leave Bess accidently catches her aunt Dorothy Bray in an intimate embrace with Lord William Parr. Much to her aunt’s displeasure Parr seems taken with Bess but she leaves Court the following day to return to Kent, wisely laying low until Henry snares another bride.

Lord William Parr’s sister Katherine would become Henry’s sixth wife and Queen thereby rocketing the Parr’s up the sociopolitical latter virtually overnight.  Not that Lord William seemed to personally profit from this rise.  He was divorced from his child bride, with whom he had spent only one night and who shortly after left him with a former priest and had many children through that relationship. Divorce, ironically, even in Henry VII’s England might be granted but the spouse could not be remarried until the death of their former spouse.  The relationship and love affair between William Parr and Bess seems genuine both in the novel and in the research I’ve done into the pair after reading Emerson’s account.  In the end, politics and religion shaped the couple’s relationship.  Under Edward VI the pair were allowed to marry, Mary I quickly reversed that decision and Elizabeth I reunited the pair again.  It is from this proclamation that the novel takes its name.  Bess and William were married or not by royal decree.

Again, Emerson delivers a wonderfully crafted and carefully researched novel that truly opens up the world of the peripheral figures within the Tudor Court.  For this reader it is Emerson’s meticulous adherence to historical fact that truly allows her fictional account of Bess Brooke and William Parr to truly come to life. I recommend By Royal Decree and am eagerly awaiting delivery of the next installment in the series, At The Kings Pleasure, which will feature Lady Anne Stanhope, sister of The Duke of Buckingham.

This review qualifies for the following challenges:
Historical Fiction Book Review #12
Tudor Book Blog Reading Challenge #10

Monday, March 25, 2013

Kate Emerson continues to surprise me...

Secrets of the Tudor Court, #2
by Kate Emerson

Between Two Queens is the second in Kate Emerson's Secrets of the Tudor Court series.  I adored the first, The Pleasure Palace, and high hopes and expectations for this read.  I was surprised that Emerson followed up her immensely popular portrayal of Jane Popyncourt with such a surprising characterization of Anne “Nan” Bassett.   We meet Nan as she competes against her sister for a position in Queen Jane Seymour’s household.  She is young, na├»ve, and without substance so naturally King Henry takes a liking to her and Nan is chosen for the post.  However, Nan is shocked to discover that she will join Queen Jane in her confinement the following day and locked away from court and the wealthy and titled eligible men that she desperately longs to eventually marry.

Nan’s character begins to gather depth after she is sent away from court on the death of Queen Jane.  Nan begins a physical relationship with Ned Corbett, a gentleman in her stepfather’s household.  A pregnancy results and Nan manages to emerge without tarnishing her reputation and sees that her son is taken in by a loving family.  Back at court awaiting the arrival of Anne of Cleves Nan does have a brief sloppy encounter with the King, who is so intoxicated, that she easily convinces him he has deflowered her.  At last, she seems to develop a depth to her character and rather than dreaming of becoming Queen she begins to dream of life as a mother and wonders and misses her son.

Between Two Queens, follows Nan’s life at court while in service to the last four of Henry's six wives.  We meet Nan as a spoiled teenager but her character grows as the novel progresses and ultimately Nan becomes a cautious but successful courtier in an intrigued filled dangerous court with a growingly erratic King. 

Interestingly, Emerson begins each chapter with passages from actual letters written by historical figures in this story. I really enjoyed this addition.  Not only did it add some primary historical documentation that enhanced and reinforced Emerson’s portrayal.  So while I didn’t find Between Two Queens as intriguing a read as The Pleasure Palace, I did appreciate the evolution of the portrayal of Nan Bassett and in the end found myself admiring her ability to survive and thrive at the Tudor Court.  Without a doubt, Emerson continues to breath new life into the lesser-known women of the Tudor era while weaving what is known about their lives into the larger historical story while remaining true to fact.  I am eagerly anticipating the third installment in the series: By Royal Decree.

This review qualifies for the following challenges:
Historical Fiction Book Review #11
Tudor Book Blog Reading Challenge #9

The Pleasure Palace was a true pleasure...

Secrets of the Tudor Court
by Kate Emerson

From the beginning to the end I was captivated!  I dare say that Kate Emerson has written a classic historical fiction – a fictional account framed by hard historical fact.  This novel was a refreshing breath of air for me.  In The Pleasure Place, the first in Emerson’s Secrets of the Tudor Court series, the story comes from the point of view of Jane Popyncourt, a name I recognized but knew little about.  For me Emerson’s use of a real person, albeit a marginal person within the Tudor court, made the story even more engaging.  Since little is known about Jane Popyncourt the reader does not have an archetype in mind for the character and can enjoy Emerson’s wonderfully crafted tale of her life. 

Jane arrives in England from France with her mother, who left the French court where she served Queen Anne immediately following the death of King Charles.  The pair are welcomed to the court of Henry VII and while her mother is sent into service with Queen Elizabeth, Jane joins the royal nursery at Eltham Palace in order to converse daily with the Princesses Margaret and Mary in French.  Jane is never quite sure of her position within the court; feeling at times a servant and at others a member of the family.  Jane’s mother passes away shortly following their arrival and Jane is left with many unanswered questions about her family and the reason for the departure from France and subsequent warm welcome at the Tudor court.

As Jane matures she is drawn to Princess Mary and eventually becomes a member of Mary’s household, and serves the princess at the courts of both Henry VII and Henry VIII.  During the early years of Henry VIII’s reign England is at war with France.  During one of the battles the French noble, duc de Longueville, is captured by King Henry and returned to England and await payment of his ransom.  He is a prisoner but due to his rank he is also a guest at court.  Jane is residing at the Tower with the Princess Mary, as Queen Catherine is defending the northern border following a Scottish attack, and finds herself immediately drawn to the duc.  Unexpectedly, a childhood friend, Guy Dunois, is among the men serving the duc and Guy’s presence prompts Jane to begin inquires about her mother and her death.  Jane is unable to resist the charms of the duc and becomes his mistress soon after his arrival.  Eventually, she comes to see the duc for the cad he is but King Henry urges her to continue the relationship and serve as a spy. 

What I found fascinating is that Jane Popyncourt lived and was a member of Princess Mary’s household and was mistress to the Duc.  The fictional twist that Emerson very cleverly spins is Jane’s familial relationship to the Tudors.  Emerson also presents a wonderful character in Jane.  She is not only likeable but also intriguing and the “fictional” Jane is so wonderfully crafted by Emerson that she emerges as a dynamic figure, in her own right, against the backdrop of Kings and Queens and the dynamics of life at the Tudor court.  

This was the first I have encountered Kate Emerson, but I look forward, with anticipation, to the rest of this series.  Kate Emerson is, in my opinion, as meticulous with her research as she is clever and creative with her plot twists and character development.  The use of Jane Popyncourt, the true details of a real person’s life enriched by a fictional but plausible plot-line makes The Pleasure Palace a wonderful engaging read and I recommend it without a moment’s reservation.  

This review qualifies for the following challenges:
Historical Fiction Book Review #10
Tudor Book Blog Reading Challenge #8

The book is "The Queen of Subtleties"; sadly this review isn't....

by Suzannah Dunn

I was truly eager to read another novel from Suzannah Dunn and pulled The Queen of Subtleties: A Novel of Anne Boleyn immediately out of my latest shipment of books.  Thus far in all my years of devouring all Tudor era historical fiction I had not come across a novel that I could not find anything redeeming about.  That was until The Queen of Subtleties crossed my path.  I hate to say that, as I truly admire and have complete respect for all authors for the accomplishment alone. My comments are made with the upmost respect and as I mentioned I have enjoyed Dunn’s work in the past.

Anne Boleyn, as depicted in The Queen of Subtleties, is much more Sex and The City than anything else.  I found the modern language difficult and the use of unfamiliar nicknames VERY annoying.  Some examples:  Charlie (Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, Tom (Thomas Cromwell), Franky (Sir Francis Weston, Fitz (Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond), Billy (William Brereton) and Harry (Sir Henry Norris).  Really?  I had a hard time figuring out whom Dunn was referring to and that certainly detracted from the flow of the read.  Really, one might enjoy it, if they had little to no knowledge of the period, but that annoyed me as well, it was a waste of time for me and truly I would have tossed it aside had I not felt bound to review the book for my blog.  The language is also thoroughly modern and annoyingly so – again, I found myself completely distracted by it.

I feel compelled to say that I did enjoy bits and pieces of it.  Especially, the last chapter, in which Anne offers some advice to her daughter, Elizabeth, whom she wants to tell to keep her head down to keep her head, but acknowledges that with Tudor and Boleyn blood that task will prove impossible.  Acknowledging this, Anne tells Elizabeth to simply be her mother’s daughter and hold her head high despite the risk.  I wish Dunn could have brought more of mother/daughter connection of the last chapter to the entire novel…  Nevertheless, one chapter cannot make up for the nicknames and the language, which distracted this reader from really understanding what this novel's point was - perhaps it didn't have one. 

I will confess I am always annoyed by attempts to “dumb down” history to make it more accessible.  Honestly, if you can’t distinguish Mary Tudor, Queen of France, Duchess of Suffolk, from Mary Tudor, Queen of England, daughter of Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII, then perhaps you should just find something else to read.  Rather than bringing history to life Dunn confuses those with knowledge and misinforms anyone without it.  As I have said in the past, good historical fiction should foster investigation into history, to my mind, not dumb it down for the masses. Really this shouldn’t be classified as historical fiction but rather complete fiction.  I hate to say this but do not waste your time with this one.

This review qualifies for the following challenges:
Historical Fiction Book Review #9
Tudor Book Blog Reading Challenge #7

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Secret Keeper: A Novel of Kateryn Parr

The Secret Keeper: A Novel of Kateryn Parr by Sandra Byrd

The Secret Keeper: A Novel of Kateryn Parr is Sandra Byrd’s second contribution to the “Ladies in Waiting” series that began with last year’s To Die For: A Novel of Anne Boleyn

The Secret Keeper is set in the late years of Henry VIII’s reign and revolves around his Queen, Kateryn Parr.  The novel is told from the point of view of Juliana St. John, the novel’s fictional protagonist.  Juliana is the daughter of a knight of the realm who comes to King Henry’s court as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Kateryn.   Just prior to her arrival Juliana has a prophecy of peril brought upon a highborn woman.  Juliana is determined not to see her prophetic vision come to fruition.  Mistress St. John holds a secret herself and in time will be burdened with many others.  Juliana sees her place at court to be of service to Queen Kateryn but also to ensure the safety of Lady Elizabeth.  

Byrd gives us a portrait of Queen Kateryn that truly does her justice.  She is not merely the surviving spouse and nurse to the ailing King, but a woman with intelligence and wit who is known for her integrity and generosity.   Kateryn manages to reunite the King and his children and is dearly loved by each.  Given her "handling" of one of the world's most unmanageable men and marriages Kateryn seems to come apart at the seams once King Henry is dead.  Even now, her choices and her recklessness seem entirely out of character and yet we must except them as fact, here the historical truth is as good, or better, than fiction; otherwise her complete change in character after her marriage to Thomas Seymour would almost be too much to believe.  Byrd's attributes the change in Kateryn to her blind unconditional love for Seymour.  I wish I could think of a better reason, but I cannot.  Truly, Sandra Byrd provides her reader with a very human depiction of a remarkable Queen. 

Kateryn tries to influence the King on religion but her devout reformist views nearly cost her life.   She holds open discourses on religion within her chambers that thrust Juliana into a precarious situation.  At the same time Juliana is dealing with personal challenges and even discovers secrets about her own family, but faces all of these trials with a calm strength rooted in her belief in God’s plan and purpose for her life. 

I found myself swept up with the depiction of both Queen Kateryn and Juliana and especially in the interaction between the two women.  Byrd’s novel is rich in detail and rooted in history but her true mastery is in her ability to weave very human character depictions into the larger story.  The Secret Keeper is rich with intrigue and multi-layered plot-lines but also offers the reader a new perspective on a long debated historical question that has become itself a secret to time.  

This reader found the novel to be a true page-turner that at times I could not be pulled away from.   It is not only an engaging work of historical fiction, but Byrd’s exploration of role of women, including their individual beliefs and values, within the larger social context of Tudor society thought provoking and like all truly masterful historical fiction encouraged me to research further.  I would highly recommend The Secret Keeper and is most certainly a must read for all fans of Tudor era historical fiction.  

This review qualifies for the following challenges:
Historical Fiction Book Review #8
Tudor Book Blog Reading Challenge #6
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