Monday, April 29, 2013

Another disappointment from Suzannah Dunn...

by Suzannah Dunn

Yet another deceiving title from Dunn as The Queen’s Sorrow and cover illustration as well as the synopsis on the back cover elude to this being the story of Mary Tudor, on her ascension to the throne.  The story is told through the eyes of a Spanish sundial maker, Rafael, and actually is his story.  Though Queen Mary is a central figure that the reader encounters briefly throughout the novel it is not her sorrow that we encounter but really that of Rafael.  Perhaps the novel would be redeemed if Rafael wasn’t a pathetic, na├»ve man who has known great pain, but in turn, and perhaps because of it, causes great pain to many others.

I, like many other reviewers, waited for the story to turn to Mary and it never did which was so disappointing.  I had hoped for some insight into Mary, a women I long to understand, but Dunn fell far short of exploring the Queen’s sorrow. 

Ultimately I must say that after my last encounter with Dunn’s work in The Sixth Wife, and my research on Dunn herself who claims not to be a writer of historical fiction, I have concluded that she merely uses a historical setting in which to construct her novels of pure fiction and would go so far as to say that the misleading titles and allusions to historical figures are merely a ruse to grab readers of historical fiction for her own gain.  Therefore, I cannot imagine reading anything by Suzannah Dunn again and would recommend that anyone who enjoys true historical fiction not waste his or her time either.

This review qualifies for the following challenges:
Historical Fiction Book Review #17
Tudor Book Blog Reading Challenge #15

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The title is deceiving...

by Suzannah Dunn

When selecting this book please beware… Both the title and the cover illustration are deceiving as both clearly suggest that the focus is Henry VIII’s sixth wife and Queen, Katherine Parr.  However, this novel’s central character and narrator is Catherine Willoughby Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk, one of Queen Katherine’s ladies in waiting as well as her close friend.  Here Dunn presents the perspective of Catherine Brandon on the tumultuous conclusion to the reign of Henry VIII and Queen Katherine’s subsequent hasty marriage to Thomas Seymour following the death of King Henry.  Dunn dubs Lady Catherine “Cathy” who is suspicious of the motives behind the marriage to Seymour and suspects that Seymour desires the marriage as it puts him close to the young Princess Elizabeth with whom Queen Katherine lives.  Cathy tries to protect both Queen Katherine and Princess Elizabeth by living with them at Sudeley Castle, but in the end finds herself entangled in a physical relationship with Seymour that forever severs her friendship with Queen Katherine who is devastated at the betrayal of her husband with one of her closest friends.

I was disappointed in The Sixth Wife for several reasons but primarily because Dunn opted to pit these two influential women against one another.   I have always found Queen Katherine to be the ultimate survivor, a true reformer while remaining nurturing and warm.  The suggestion that an improper relationship existed with Princess Elizabeth is one thing, given her age mixed with Seymour’s lethal charm, but to think that Catherine Brandon would betray her in such a way was very difficult to swallow.  The young bride of the aging Duke of Suffolk has always fascinated me and from what I have encountered she too was an intelligent woman and a devout reformer.  I would rather read more about these women claiming their power and influence rather than succumbing to the charms of a soulless climber.  And while I commend Dunn’s use of Catherine Willoughby as her narrator, I can’t help but think that Dunn wasted an opportunity to give her reader more than a historical love triangle; something just one step above a romance novel.

Again I was disappointed with Dunn’s use of modern nicknames, though not as distracting as they were in the Queen of Subtleties, they are nevertheless so unnecessary and really seem to dumb the whole thing down.  I was surprised to read that Dunn herself has said “I don’t write historical fiction,” and so perhaps I should strike her works from my reading list.  However, I must say that to me Dunn’s statement seems more like an excuse for writing bad historical fiction because clearly she frames her novel within a historical context and choses her narrator to be an actual figure at the Tudor court.  What Dunn does not give her reader is a novel that provokes further research or opens the reader’s eyes to a fresh perspective. 

Unfortunately, I cannot recommend The Sixth Wife without these reservations and while I enjoyed Dunn’s use of Catherine Brandon as narrator the story that she creates is empty.

This review qualifies for the following challenges:
Historical Fiction Book Review #16
Tudor Book Blog Reading Challenge #14

A look at the court of Henry VIII through the eyes of Mary Howard

by D. L. Bogdan

Secrets of the Tudor Court is told from the perspective of Mary Howard, a marginal but well-connected woman in Tudor England.  Mary was not only the daughter of Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, married to Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, was in service as a lady in waiting to five of Henry VIII’s queens (Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, Catherine Parr), but was cousin to Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard and daughter-in-law to none other than the King himself.  It is her father, Thomas Howard, cunning and cruel, who has the greatest impact on her life.  Indeed much of the story involves the relationship of father and daughter and the impact this relationship has on Mary’s sense of self.

Overall, I found Bogdan’s account engaging, but I did find it a tedious read until the mid point of the story.  Perhaps this was because I didn't really warm to Bogdan’s Mary initially.  I found her lacking in so many qualities and so desperate to please everyone, but especially her father, who is depicted as nothing short of a tyrant.  I did find the relationship that Mary developed with Anne as well as the esteem in which she held her cousin endearing, but it wasn't until the midpoint of the novel that Mary, as well as her father Norfolk, were developed fully and the reader able to get some insight into the motivations for their actions.  This is my main criticism. 

Mary herself is a treasure.  She is a poet and musician and a supporter of the New Faith.  She is intelligent and a seeker of knowledge.  Despite this the overriding theme for Mary in Secrets of the Tudor Court is the desperate yearning for the love of her father.  Even after she witnesses her father’s duplicity in the rise and fall of two cousins she never wavers in her quest for his love.  Despite the example of her cousin, Anne Boleyn, Mary seems resigned to be a pawn for the use of men.  Truly, she is an empty sad woman for most of the first half of the novel.

It isn’t until the imprisonment of her father and the imprisonment and execution of her brother, Henry Howard, Earl of Suffolk, that Mary begins to be able to fully mature.  After receiving her brother’s children as wards Mary sees a purpose for her life beyond her father’s wishes.  She begins to realize that she has some control over her own destiny, but also wishes to nurture, support and love the children in her care.  Only at this point, for this reader, does Mary become engaging and dynamic as a character and the novel becomes a page-turner from this point until the last

However, I must applaud D.L. Bogdan, as Secrets of the Tudor Court is her debut novel and the small criticism I've made is certainly a honed skill.  I certainly was glad I read the account and must admit I read the last 200 pages in one sitting.  Bogdan also, through the use of Mary Howard as protagonist, gives the reader some insight into the plausible motivations and mindset of the influential but elusive Duke of Norfolk.

 This review qualifies for the following challenges:
Historical Fiction Book Review #15
Tudor Book Blog Reading Challenge #13

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

An interesting account, but not what I expected...

by Philippa Gregory

The Lady of the Rivers is the third installment in Philippa Gregory’s “Cousins War” series.  The protagonist, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, will be familiar to readers of this series as we encounter Jacquetta in The White Queen, the first installment of the series, which follows the life of Jacquetta’s oldest daughter Elizabeth Woodville, who marries Edward VI.  I know as I read The White Queen I found myself interested in this fascinating woman and was thrilled when I heard that Gregory planned to focus the third installment of the series on Jacquetta for the same reason.

The Cousins War, better known today as the Wars of the Roses, has not been an area of historical study for myself and therefore I find the fiction on this period truly engaging, as I don’t have the preconceived ideas about the personalities I encounter as I do when reading fiction focused on the Tudor era.  However, I am ever mindful that Gregory has cast women I know well, i.e. Anne Boleyn, in an unfair light and so I try not to become wholly sold by her descriptions. The Lady of the Rivers did pique my interest in Jacquetta and my attempts to uncover more detail about her have proved unsuccessful. Therefore I have to accept the character as portrayed by Gregory albeit with reservation.

The novel begins with a young Jacquetta at the court of Luxembourg discovering that she has been given the gift of foresight as a direct descendant of Melusina, a water-goddess, who married a mortal man and whose children founded the Luxembourg royal family.  In the White Queen much is made of this gift and Jacquetta seems familiar and comfortable with her abilities.  However, the Jacquetta as portrayed The Lady of the Rivers does not seem comfortable and confident with the gift and doesn’t seem to truly rely on her visions as the Jacquetta we encounter in The White Queen.  This is my main complaint about the novel.  Gregory introduces her reader to this character in the first installment but doesn’t stay true to her own portrayal in the third.  I found this unbelievably distracting and wondered if Gregory considered her audience to be blindly trusting and accepting of her portrayals and who lack the intelligence to recall the development of the character as portrayed by Gregory herself in an earlier novel within the same series!!  This annoyed me so much that I had to put it aside in order to finish the account, but really still it annoys me to no end!

We follow Jacquetta’s life through her first marriage to the Duke of Bedford, uncle to King Henry VI, and her second marriage to the Duke’s squire, Richard Woodville.  Jacquetta is in service at the English court to Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s French Queen, and Margaret is the focus of many of the novels more interesting plot lines.  Indeed, Margaret over powers Jacquetta in much of the novel and almost hijacks the story itself and gives another example of Gregory’s odd choices regarding the character development in this series.  I found myself thinking that perhaps Gregory is writing ahead rather than attending to the subject at hand.  Readers of The White Queen will find that Jacquetta overpowers her daughter Elizabeth, who is the book’s narrator and In Lady of the Rivers Jacquetta seems eclipsed by Margaret of Anjou.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Margaret makes a later appearance in this series, but whom will Gregory choose to eclipse the “she-wolf” of France?

This review qualifies for the following challenges:
Historical Fiction Book Review #14
Tudor Book Blog Reading Challenge #12

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A look at the forces that shaped young Anne Boleyn...

Mademoiselle Boleyn is Robin Maxwell’s follow up to her debut novel, The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn.  Once again, Maxwell gives the reader an innovative, imaginative while plausible account of Anne Boleyn’s youth during her service at the French court.  It was refreshing to delve into this period of Anne’s life that has been mostly overlooked.  Certainly these were Anne’s, like most young girl’s, formative years and I believe that Anne’s personality was greatly shaped by her time in France.  Also refreshingly Maxwell gives us a warmer relationship between Anne and her sister Mary.  It has always perplexed me as to why these two women are cast as bitter rivals.  Quite possibly, despite the enormous differences in their personalities, these two women found common ground as sisters and I think most would concur that Anne learned a valuable lesson from Mary, the importance of maintaining one’s virtue in a world controlled by men; indeed it seemed to be one of the few things that women could try to preserve.  Maxwell also offers a different interpretation of Mary, not the sensual and promiscuous mistress to kings and courtiers, but a girl forced by own her father into seducing and bedding Francois I, to further his interests.  Mary is then further humiliated when Francois offers her to his friend’s for their enjoyment.

While Mary is drawn in by the trappings of being a royal mistress and perhaps feels compensated by the gifts as well as the attention she receives at court.  It is Anne who observes and learns and in time develops her own views on the world.  Anne is deeply impacted by her relationship with Francois’ sister Marguerite.  Marguerite encouraged Anne to step outside the traditional confines of woman and Catholic and to learn but more importantly interpret the world independently.  Indeed, one could assume that Marguerite’s freedom to explore the ideas of the Reformation greatly impacted Anne as did Marguerite’s ability to defy the retrains placed on women and very much led her own life.  In Marguerite, Anne had a wonderful and influential example of independence and freethinking, which certainly she nurtured for herself as she grew into a woman. Maxwell does insert a purely fictional relationship between Anne and Leonardo da Vinci.  Nevertheless, I found the relationship comforting knowing that Anne who most certainly lacked for a loving and nurturing paternal figure and at least had this important influence in fiction at least.

Mademoiselle Boleyn is another wonderful and innovative look at Anne Boleyn from Robin Maxwell.  While it completely stands alone from The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn it is just as wonderfully crafted and imaginative.  I found that Maxwell’s fictional account of the formation of Anne Boleyn’s character to be not only enjoyable to read but historically plausible.  If you are a fan of Anne’s strength, fearlessness, intelligence and allure then Mademoiselle Boleyn will not disappoint.

This review qualifies for the following challenges:
Historical Fiction Book Review #13
Tudor Book Blog Reading Challenge #11

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